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Rhyme Time

Walk down any Anglophone town’s road, in sight of the local pikin dem, and you will hear it. I should know, I’ve been on the receiving end of it twice in 24 hours:

Whiteman, Whiteman
With the long nose
Never since my mami born me
Have I ever seen a man
With such a long nose

Firstly, you should be aware that it doesn’t much matter what your nose looks like, so long as you are white and in possession of one. I, myself, am not exactly nasally inclined. In fact, should you graph the proportions of the world population’s sniffers, I’m not sure I’d break out of the bell-curve. But it is no matter; my tiny ski-slope of a nose doesn’t deter the chanting of children. Despite my decidedly porcine snub, they continue to sing as though my schnoz reached far ahead of me, greeting others before I had a chance to.

You may have also noticed above that the song in no way, shape, or form rhymes. This is non-issue here, as I’m currently unaware of a song produced in Cameroon that does rhyme. I’m unsure if it’s something they skipped in school, or what. Perhaps the page was torn out in every English book Cameroon possesses, because rhyming is mysterious and unsure territory with every local I’ve tested. During a round of King’s Cup played with a mixed group of Host Country Nationals and Volunteers, the card indicating ‘rhyme time’ was chosen. Normally the person drawing the card picks a word (provided it isn’t orange) and the group continues around the circle, each person offering a word that rhymes in turn. Repeat a word or act too slowly and you drink. No mattered what we presented as a starting word, be it cat, dog, bed, or any other basic, minute word, drinks were hoisted all around as Cameroonian after Cameroonian gave up, unable to think of a word that rhymed. We tired after a while of explaining the concept, and switched games.

But that doesn’t mean their songs aren’t full of life and passion, displaying of the twists and turns life may throw at us. In fact, just take this ditty gifted to Postmate Kate and I from our Community Health Group in last year’s class. It’s a little tune warning against HIV/AIDS:

One day as I was walking,
I met a handsome man,
I did not know who this man was
I just went in for love making
A minute of sexual pleasure
A minute of sexual pleasure
A minute of sexual pleasure
Caused my life to end.

Poignant, no?

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Ghost

Some days I feel people treat my whiteness like they’d treat a mangled leg, politely pretending that such an affliction doesn’t exist, like I blend in nicely with the crowd around me. “You’re a truly Bali woman!” they’ll say. “Don’t call yourself that!” they’ll comfort when I refer to myself as Whiteman.

I’m well aware that, majority of the time, all eyes are on me. Could I blame anyone? Never. Now I, too, catch myself staring, should I happen upon some white people I’ve never met before. We’re outstanding, in the most literal of ways. In a crowd of inky black Northerners and chocolate brown Southerners and, occasionally, the honeyed tan of the mountain Bedouins who have given up the cows and settled in the city, the paleness of a Westerner is the only thing that reflects light. The crowded car I caught back to my apartment last night testified: eight people managed to fit in such a small space, but on the unlit road to Bali the only things you could make out inside were my skin and the broken dials on the dash. I glowed.

A baby cried when it saw me yesterday. It’s not uncommon. Some are brave enough to reach out and grab whatever bit of me they can, hair or arm or shirt. Most, though, simply sit in silence and turn back to their parents, retreating, forehead to their chest like any moment it’ll all pass and everything will be normal again. A dapper man adorned with a bowtie gave me a pep-talk on how I should properly greet babies, employing the age-old Cameroonian strategy of tell a girl she’s an idiot first, then ask to sleep with her second. Though he tried to convince me otherwise in overly-flowery English, we both knew why the baby didn’t want to be near me. I’m the closest thing it has ever seen to a ghost. Wouldn’t you be a little worried, too?

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“Home”

I came home from home a week ago.

I so distinctly remember my first goodbye at the airport in Atlanta. I hugged my then-boyfriend, followed by all of my family and after an about-face I burst into unstoppable tears. Overburdened with the prospect of living in Africa for two years without those I loved most close-by was a heavy load to port, as were the two massive carry-on bags I had managed to heft onto me. I toted a backpack carrying my must-have items (kindle, computer, and journal) and a beach bag that looked more like a beach ball, forced full of clothing. It would later serve as a makeshift pillow on my flights, and I would be grateful. But as I stumbled and sniffled towards the security-check line, I was not grateful for much, especially not the plane ticket I clenched that would take me to Cameroon.

This time the tear tally managed to stay at zero, and my goodbyes felt more like team high-fives than sentimental separations. They were all channeling the mood of “See you soon” rather than “Oh, lord, please make it back alive”. I was still overburdened with crap strapped to my body, but now I stumbled only half as much, and sniffled not one bit.

I am, in effect, homeless. This sounds much more depressing and dire than it should. In fact, I have many homes I could go to, place I could live and prop up my feet and order pizza, or puff puff and beans depending on the continent, and lead a merry life. But currently, as I type, I no longer have a specific place in mind when people say home. It could be the West Coast, where my parents moved this time last year, or it could be my sister’s house, only ten minutes from the door I closed behind me when I left for Peace Corps. But, it could also be Cameroon, and Bali, and this apartment, where all my stuff lives and I am free to be pants-less whenever I feel the call.

Or it could be a place I haven’t been to. Or, a place I haven’t even thought of yet. And while that possibility would have been terrifying only two years ago, now it is liberating. I suppose once you’ve boarded a plane to a place, sight-unseen, once the chance of doing it again somehow goes up. No matter where I go, It could never be as strange as disembarking to a place that sell porcupines on sticks roadside and smell vaguely of soap and car-exhaust, and it could certainly never be as strange as disembarking a second time, taking a big breath in, and thinking “home”.

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…And what’s this button do?

In some ways I know that Cameroon had aged me beyond my years. No
gray hairs yet, but while looking out the window of a friend’s house yesterday I had to sincerely fight the urge to yell at passing hooligan kids “get off my lawn!” It wasn’t even my lawn, but I felt squatter’s right applied.

An injury I sustained by doing a split
far too enthusiastically and without warm-up left my hip on the outs. Sometimes it gets achey if my chair’s too hard. Sometimes I grab it and go “ugh”, like the old people in the commercials on televisions. Waiting in line at the DMV and seeing all those itty bitty people revving up 2000lb killing machines made me thankful of the unrenewed license in my hand (now taken care of, Mom and Dad) and my insistence on letting everyone else drive. When did people born in ’97 possess enough manual dexterity to crank an engine? Wasn’t I just changing their diapers?

Technology leaves me clueless, as my practice with smart phones is limited to the two year old iPod I’m currently typing on, since the wireless in my sister’s house for whatever reason doesn’t work on a computer as old as mine. People keep accidentally calling it ‘my phone’ and then I have to explain my ignorance by pulling out my real phone, a flippy little thing popular during my early high school years.

People are scanning checks into apps and asking their cars for directions and living in a world where you have do-it-yourself hibachi bars, which frankly kind of blows my mind the most of the three. Meanwhile, I bumble around like an octogenarian wondering aloud when things got so gosh darn new fangled.

But like an elderly woman crossing the street, people have been kind. They’ve treated my poor self to lunch and calmly explain what the heck a Snap
Chat is and coaxed my out of my turtle shell with regards to how much half the world has changed since I was last in it. Sure they get to laugh now, but after the apocalypse strikes and we’re all eating puff puff and beans, who will really be laughing?

Sent from my iPod

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The Eagle has Landed

I admit it: I’ve been lax for the past few weeks, blog-o-verse wise.

I’ve been busy anticipating for, and then participating in, the world’s greatest vacation: the great leap forward into the first world after two years in a developing nation.

At first America and the West amazed me. Plugs were everywhere and no matter how quickly I spoke or muttered people understood the worlds coming out of my mouth. Ice was no longer a health hazard and I indulged accordingly. Coffee was everywhere and tasted substantially different coming out of a paper cup than it did after being boiled in a tea kettle and sifted through a plastic strainer. This was of great relief to me on hour 45 of being awake. It turns out I don’t sleep well on planes. That is turbulent patches aside, which lull me into a catatonic half-awake state in much the same way the potholes of the Bamenda-Yaoundé road cause my lids to droop.

Returning Stateside (and now Canada-side, as I write this from my parent’s new home outside of Vancouver) is not unlike stepping onto a moving sidewalk as a toddler. I throw the tot bit in there not because I’m small of stature, though North Americans manage to dwarf Cameroonians and I feel my body image improving daily, but because I have literally no idea what I’m doing most of the time and approach most things by banging on them or putting them in my mouth.

My first trip to the grocery store consisted mostly of private giggling to myself interspersed with awe at the items I had literally forgotten existed (The prepackaged goods aisle was especially moving). I can say with confidence that, while lacking in many aspect, the fruit situation in Cameroon absolutely trumps anything I’ve seen thus far on this continent. Y’all need to have a serious talk with the people growing most of the things you’re putting in your mouth. Your bananas taste like, well, nothing. Your avocados look like they belong in dollhouses, so small that a Roonie would only dare hand them off as a small gift in addition to already-purchased items. Everything here costs more than 20 cents per piece of fruit, automatically making it shamefully pricey. For some reason literally everything comes with absurd amounts of packaging, and I’m coming from a place where plastic bags are practically the national flower.

I’ll give you one thing, though, North America smells literally nothing like pee. To this I give two thumbs up. As a friend was loading me into her car (Wait, seatbelts? Oh yeeaaaah…) I commented that her perfume was smellin’ real nice today. She broke it to me that, in fact, that smell was just ‘outside’ in America. There is a lot to be said for how much better you feel breathing air when it doesn’t have any burning garbage mingled in. It is the air of champions.

I’m keeping good tabs on my reverse culture shock, to be shared during my 40+ days in the Motherland. Things like how much the Belgians seemed to love trampolines or how wide a berth white people give each other. It’ll all be explored in due time, but until then I’m going to have my third candy bar of the day and enjoy a DVR full of Jeopardy.

 

 

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Coming home makes me cry like a wimp.

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An Afternoon in Bamenda

Sometimes it’s easier to show than tell. I figured I’d take my camera out for a spin and catch a little sliver of what life looks like for me here. Disappointingly, the market was maybe 1/4 as annoying as it normally is, so the true essence wasn’t caught as well as I’d have liked. Nobody grabbed at me, bikes didn’t screech to a halt in front of me, market mamis didn’t beg for my business and block my path. No little boy came up and started a ten minute spiel about how I must find out my mass using his ragged scale. Perhaps I was having an off day and wasn’t looking my best. To be fair, in my worry that people would noticed the shiny camera making a movie from the comfort of my bra strap, I booked it through the crowd and didn’t stop for much conversation. If I had lingered over the passion fruit for a few seconds, I’m sure the action would have picked up.

I filmed covertly in the market to prevent theft of my crappy camera and the change in attitude people adopt when they see someone recording. People can also be offended by filming, or demand money for their image being used, however briefly. I didn’t want to start a riot, but I’m also too poor for all that. I apologize for the slightly tilted shots, walking around an African city does not prove conducive to shoving your hand into your bra and making adjustments for the frame.

The conversations in the taxi were filmed with the prior consent of everyone in the car. I began the foray into permission by explaining that my American family didn’t believe me about the traffic situation in West/Central Africa. We don’t drive on the sidewalks, I explained. They expressed that they thought that was a shameful waste of space.
These talks pretty typical of what I converse about every day. Witchcraft and where to use the bathroom are two of my favorite topics here, partially because they are so different in my world and theirs. Talking about public urination laws and white people’s lack of belief is sure to stir up a taxi full of opinions. Cameroon would not be Cameroon if people did not feel inclined to then share those opinions with me.

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The Beastly East

This week I put on my big girl pants and braved the Beastly East.

Often touted as the South West’s beachless, Francophone cousin, the Eastern region is one of the most sparsely populated places in the country. Much of the area is made up of hard wood forests, a fact that has caught the eye of more than one international logging company. The roads, as in the South West, then suffer the consequences as the unpaved soil gives way to deep ruts, a product of tens of thousands of pounds traversing a region known for their months of endless rain and malleable red clay routes. These were the mirror images of the Nguti roads I endured for nine months. I had hesitations about reliving the stress of jungle life.

Imagine my surprise when the first leg of our trip greeted us with a Celine Dion concert DVD crooning from the fore of the bus, a flip down television screen being put to good use as a crowd-calmer and time-buyer before we pulled out. With scarf settled as a make-shift pillow and air conditioning pointed squarely at my face, I was feeling like I could used to what the East had in store.

That night reaffirmed that I, sometimes, have no idea what I’m talking about. Postmate Kate and I swapped sliced of Hawaiian and Four Cheese pizza at the nicest restaurant in the capital of Bertoua and contemplated watching a movie on the volunteer house’s projector before instead opting for an early bedtime back by rainstorms.

Morning came and we moseyed off to the Batouri car park post-breakfast. We comfortably zoomed out to the region’s second largest city on newly graded roads. Not all are as lucky. Just months ago the road was a pockmarked mess, known for its many breakdowns and near-misses. Sometimes the misses are a little too near, as we saw an hour into our drive. The hefty yellow busses that commute to Batouri, affectionately nicknamed ‘prison busses’ due to their barred windows, sometimes underestimated their luggage and take a tumble on a hairpin turn. The one we encountered had toppled in the night, a product of a bad pothole and overambitious driver. Cameroonians were alongside the van, gathering the belongings they had abandoned in the night.

Our days in Batouri were just as lovely as our days in the capital. The nickname of ‘Wild Wild Est’ struck true as we split boxes of wine around a campfire, nestled under a mango tree as the bats of the area took to the skies on their nightly hunts. Our second night we bargained with moto-men and trekked out to Bogogo, a massive granite deposit known as a local Catholic pilgrimage site. We ate a picnic of tacos and cookies as the sun disappeared over the horizon. We went belly-up when the stars came out and took in the expanse of sky afforded by our relative elevation.

Our only hitch was when, at nine at night, we fought our way back to town. Through the thick of the Cameroonian jungle we zoomed, bobbled headed from helmets that also served us well in dodging low-hanging branches. It was smooth sailing until, as we pulled out, we hit a divot in the massive rock’s slope and I, like the prison busses, ended up ass over tea kettle.

No worse for wear I brushed myself off and remounted. Night gave way to day, and somehow we found ourselves at the end of our vacation. Bellies full of kossam, a Fulani yogurt that’s thick and creamy, and omelets, generously made for us by our hostesss, my ex-postmate and I again climbed inside a zippy little car that carried us the way we had come on days before. Only this time, we were rested, we were relaxed, and we were just a little more wild.

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Kate and I on our way back to Bertoua, the Eastern capital.

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Kate and Stephanie, our Batouri hostess, walking to town along the unpaved clay roads. In the dry season, these turn to dust, giving the town a permenant stain even after the rains come.

 

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A typical Cameroonian meat market. This one hosts pangolin, monkey, dik-dik, duiker, cow, fish and more on the typical day. We purchased two kilos of meat that came from the cow’s neck. Asking for it ground upped the priced to fourteen dollars, well deserved since ‘grinding’ means a man hacking at it with a machete for half an hour. The beef was well, well cooked before serving.