Same Love

The simple opening melody begins; soft plinks on a lone piano. I instantly recognize the song playing on the wide-screen LCD behind me. Some friends and I have dug in at one of the classiest restaurants in the country, and as a symbol of its luxury it continually showcases Trace, the Cameroonian equivalent of early ‘90s MTV. On the TV hits of Nigeria and the U.S. take turns sharing the spotlight.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ ‘Same Love’ wafts through the eatery, the same tune I’ve been catching snippets of all over the country, from small villages to big cities. I wonder to myself if the other patrons realize what they’re hearing. The video follows the trials of a closeted homosexual as he finds himself and happiness, despite a rough beginning. The song itself made headlines in America as the first openly pro-gay marriage song to be distributed widely. If the restaurateurs and diners weren’t picking up on it at the beginning, surely they marriage ceremony at the end would give them a hint.

Though America just marked the 14th state to approve marriage equality for all, and my adoptive home of Canada installed truly equal marriage rights for all back in the mid-aughts, Cameroon proves to be a much more hostile environment. Peace Corps advises that any volunteer that might be homosexual or bisexual do their best to keep it a secret, or risk evacuation from their village on grounds of security. Even amongst each other volunteers use the terminology ‘non-trad’ (short for ‘non-traditional) when talking about other volunteers or people they know to fit into any category but straight. To talk openly about others or ourselves using the term ‘gay’ is too dangerous for everyone involved.

Not too long ago Cameroon made headlines due to the death of a prominent gay activist, such an “extreme” stance being verifiable rarity here. The details of his death were grisly, his demise marked with extreme violence. Volunteers were horrified. Shortly after, a movement was held by local college students in the capital, who visited from bar to bar calling for more absolute measures be taken, the only solution they could see for the plague of gayness that had fallen upon the world. They wanted to guarantee that gays knew they were not welcome in West Africa.

Before that, a man was arrested for sending a text to another male saying ‘I love you’. Before that, two men were jailed on suspicions of homosexuality for ordering Bailey’s Irish Cream at a bar. Around that same time three women sat in a prison in Douala, tried with being suspected lesbians.

And all this comes from a place where typically “homosexual” things are the norm. Hand holding among men, even in public, is an
unremarkable fact of life. Hugging is common among the same sex. One of the greatest compliments a man can pay another man is to claim he’s slept in his marital bed, a testimony to how trustworthy he is. Group, nude bathing is traditional.

And yet, the greatest fear of many is the idea of an insipid gay infiltrating their lives on a mission to convert their children, an absurd view with no base in sanity or reality. During the announcement of France’s legalization of nation-wide gay marriage I was parked in a bus station with 50 Cameroonians, waiting to board. A collective gasp sounded as they bore holes with their eyes into the images on television. Two men, right there, kissing. In one swift motion they all swiveled to face me, the apparent local expert on all things gay and white.

And instead of shrugging and claiming I knew nothing, me and a whole gaggle of Cameroonians sat until the bus came, arguing what we knew or thought to be true about gays. With great courage, one woman piped up and announced herself as a seasoned nurse. She’d delivered hundreds of babies, she said, and sometimes…sometimes they’re just born gay. She was straight herself, she clarified, but just as those in the room didn’t choose to be attracted to men or women, neither did these homosexuals choose their attractions. And with that she sat back down, turning her face back to the television, the celebrating men and women long gone. And while perhaps not support in the truest sense, it was progress for me, for other straight allies, and for the LGBTQ community at large. One singular step forward on what seems to be a very long journey for Cameroon.

But, as they say, small small catch monkey.

1

A Killer Week

I had a killer week.

Hugging my trainees goodbye, I slid into the backseat of a beat-up Toyota, heart set on visiting friends near the Nigerian border. Unfortunately, my stomach was set on other things, like keeping down breakfast. As luxurious as it is having three people in a backseat the normally fits four, the extra room does nothing but taunt your equilibrium, sending you careening from one side of the car to another while you navigate the tell-tale curves of the Wum road.

Recovered, the following day we straddled motorcycles on the way to Lake Nyos, the world’s deadliest lake. In the mid-80s a massive low-laying cloud of CO2, prompted by God only knows, crept through the valley, choking everything in its path. Before, it calmly lay at the lake’s bottom, a product of natural means due to Cameroon’s
once-volcanic activity. In one fell swoop made its way to the surface and ended the lives over 1500 people.

The lip of this lethal lake is failing, a fact I only discovered through later research. In an effort to take pressure off the northern end of the behemoth body of water, a natural dam has been broken, allowing thousands of gallons a day to cascade into the valley below. This, perhaps, was why people had been verboten from entering the site or nearing the water’s edge. Money talks louder than legislative mandates, however, and for a dollar each we were granted an exception. We got so close we were able to wash our hands with the lake’s orange water, a baffling chemical holdover from the lethal belch of ’86.

Days later I endured a painful ride to the West region, fighting between the need for fresh air and the desire to keep my nose as far away as possible from the soiled baby between me and the car’s only open window. As my reward for what had to been a championship-worthy relay of breath-holds Kate and I had prepared a day trip to Foumban, a veritable crossroads of culture, known to be the only sultanate in the country.

A towering mansion greeted us, the only building I’ve been to in country that rightly deserves the title of ‘palace’. A happy and humble tour guide led us around the museum, explaining unbelievable artifacts dating back the first sultan’s rule in the 1390s. Here a robe used for crowning, restored but consistently worn for 600 years of ceremony. There, the massive walking stick of Foumban’s largest leader, a man towering over others at a height well above two meters. And in this room, the skull of the Sultan’s enemy, used as a drinking vessel.

Though the first skulls was jarring, the seemingly dozens that followed each dulled the sensation of seeing remains lovingly arranged in a glass case. Through several more complete skulls, a shirt made from only the hair of scalped enemies, guns manufactured by both Europeans and local means, and a calabash lavishly decorated so that the jawbones of the Sultan’s war prizes knocked rhythmically with each movement, my respect and understanding of the enormity of Foumban’s power rose. These people were in the business of kicking ass and taking names, at least until the 1890s when Germans kindly took the business of running Cameroon off their hands.

And now after killer lakes and killer kings, I battle a killer cold. My nose is suffering as I sniff halfheartedly, a useless effort but a habit that won’t die. I’m finally back in my own bed, alone for the first time in over a week except for this sickness sidekick. And sure, it isn’t breath-taking in the most sinister of ways, nor is it a ruthless conqueror hell-bent on take-over, but it it slays me none-the-less.

 

IMG_0368
Lake Nyos

 

IMG_0395
Some Foumban musicians

 

IMG_0367

Look at this cool monkey named Dou-Dou we found in Wum!

1

Preparin’ to be Packin’

“Don’t leave. Just…Just don’t ever leave.”

These were the words of the wise man that I happened to be sharing a seat with on a ride back to Bali-Nyonga. He had just called my bluff when I claimed to like Cameroonian music. In response I laid down the phat lines of Jovi, my most beloved Cameroonian rap artists.

She wan chop bony fish? Put’em fa ma bill.
She wan chop buffalo? Put’em fa ma bill.
She want shock beer? Na, put’em fa ma bill.

Complete with hand gestures and a facial expression that could only be made more gangster with the addition of a grill, I felt I had done my part in proving that I, indeed, owned and listened to Roonies who rapped. The old mami in the back seat agreed, and proclaimed a round of ‘Won-dah-ful!’s in concordance.

But, alas, despite the requests that seem to be flowing in at a rate higher than normal these days, I will indeed leave and go back for ‘ma own side’, thousands of miles from this mami, or this man, who request my permanent residence. The end is not only in sight, it’s practically tangible. It’s beginning to seep into the way I think on a daily basis. With only one week left (and some change) in Bali, my calendar is beginning to get claustrophobically tight, and time alone with my thoughts is becoming a luxury I can no longer afford.

It seems the universe knows, too, that my time is a limited thing and has set out to make the interactions I have parodies of themselves. The market mamis are so market mami-y. I catch the morning calls prayer by the sheer luck of rolling over at 5:15am and hear the clip-clop of Fulani horses galloping their way to the mosque. My seamstress is the sassiest she’s ever been and insists that my father is the world’s tallest man, due to his extra-long ties she’s currently making. My landlord and his wife are determined to teach me Mungaka before I go (a feat that I doubt with come to fruition). The sunsets are more dazzling, the thunder is so loud is shakes me awake from my naps, and the shawarma is so tasty that I’m mournfully sure there will never be another like it all the way across that big, blue pond.

But, it is not yet the end. There is more delicious shawarma in sight, trips to go on, people to see, and things to do. Never one without an appetite, these last weeks are going to be inhaled like a favorite meal. I will indulge and devour. And as I settle into that plane seat in early November I’ll be satisfied and full and probably in desperate need of a nap.