Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Happy Month Anniversary, Cameroon

A month ago I was in the backseat of the SIT car, driving too fast through Yaoundé on my way from the airport to Benedictine monetary/hostel at the top of Mont Febé which was home for a week of orientation. I’m slightly addicted to driving too fast, and Cameroonians have this down to an art form. There was wind in my hair and a bit of dust in my lungs and the smell of heat and city, and just so much joy because I was finally, after four years, back in Africa.

Despite the relaxed Cameroonian attitude towards life/time, I still feel like I’ve been flying since then. I can’t believe it’s been a month already. There are so many thoughts and experiences I have wanted to capture, but I have been too busy living them to bother writing them down. My head’s constantly a blur of new information and impressions, but here is a snapshot of some of them over the last month:

          The sound of Annie, my host mom in Yaoundé, singing nonstop around the house. After just two weeks in Yaoundé, Annie’s lilting, not quite off key singing sounds like home. 
My shoe, vaulting over heads in the fancy nightclub when my 30 year old Cameroonian dance partner dipped me and whiskey and soda and his impressive dance skills made me mistakenly think that I, too, could dance. I proceeded to try a leg/kick/flip thing that I kind of learned swing dancing years ago, with unfortunate results.
·         Tonight, dancing around the living room with my little host sister.

·         Madeline, Justine and I bent over laughing, collapsed on the dusty intersection on the road to the SIT office in Yaoundé. When Madeline fell with her giant backpack when we were packing up for Dschang, and none of us could get up we were laughing too hard.

·         Omelets inside a baguette, baguettes with Tarentina, baguettes with dinner, a whole baguette eaten on the way home from class without even realizing it, marching through Dschang happily munching.

·         Luic, my 15 year old sort-of neighbor in Yaoundé, and the laughing head shake of incomprehension he has when my French is particularly horrible.

·         Swamp ass, all day everyday.

·         This feeling of complete awe at everything I have to learn. I know nothing and I want to know everything—the language, what books about women and Africa Professor Noupa thinks are best, how to wash my sandals correctly, at exactly what time in the afternoon you switch from bonjour to bonsoir (different people seem to do it differently) where the line between universal human rights and cultural imposition is drawn, what Annie wants to do here PhD research on (I asked once and then forgot and need to ask again), why the dirt is red, everything.

·         Skirt hiked up, squatting in the kitchen with my Dschang host sister, washing dishes and talking.

·         Wearing my pagne (wrap skirt) from Mali for the first time, and my Dschang host mom telling me I am a real African woman and wanting to explode with joy.

·         Simply walking through the streets being happy. It’s hard for me to stress here because it’s simply too beautiful. I’m too busy trying to soak in the noise of taxis and French and constant friendliness, and the aching vibrancy of colors and life.

·         Chopping onions for dinner, all of us dancing in the kitchen of the Yaoundé SIT office on student’s night. These incredible people who share their brilliance and stories of bowl movements with me, the fact that my host mom asked me who my best friend in the program was and I started listing people until I realized I'd listed everyone. 

Cameroonian traditional dance class and our dance instructor literally grabbing my leg and moving it for me because I fail at rhythm, the feeling of being ok with not being perfect, a miracle  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Oh hey here's a massive journal entry

Saturday, February 1st  
Today I helped my host mom make koki, a ground up bean paste that you mix with red oil, salt and a bit of pepper. You wrap it in banana leaves and boil it in a pre-heated pot. I sat and tore long strips of banana bark to tie the leaf-bean-pudding pouches and asked constant questions about the French word for kitchen items.
Today I also got to know the neighbor kids who live in the apartment next to ours, we share a balcony. Loic, the fifteen year old, is the oldest child I’ve met so far, but there’s a little girl and three little boys. The littlest boy is just a baby, probably 4 months. I held him and chatted with Loic for most of the afternoon. Our conversation was made possible by the translation services of the little girl, an 8 year old with incredible English. They each got to decide what language to study and Loic chose French, the little girl English. I think they said she’s studied English for 6 years, how that is possible when she’s 8 I don’t know. Possibly I misunderstood the French I was hearing, which is likely with my comprehension skills. Or the Cameroonian education system is just way better than America’s. Also possible.
Whenever my French was particularly unintelligible while talking with Loic, he’d call his little sister over and make her translate. We were able to find out each other’s favorite months, why they’re our favorite seasons, favorite colours, and lots and lots more. I love kids, and I’m not surprised that I love talking to Cameroonian kids. I don’t feel as self-conscious about my French, and I just have more fun with it. They’re all adorable and super nice.
Sunday I woke up at 7 am to scrub my fingers raw washing my clothes by hand. I was wearing my last clean shirt, the desperation explains the early wake-up call. I’d hoped to go to church, but my host mom Annie wasn’t feeling well so we plan on going next week. Annie and her sister Gella are “Evangelique”  Christians, and when we couldn’t go to church Annie put on praise music instead. She danced around the house and sang, and I joined in singing since I knew a lot of the English songs. I cooked omelets for breakfast after Annie instructed me in the use of the gas stove (the whole matches/fire thing still freaks me out). After lunch I walked around my “cartier” neighborhood with Luic as my tour guide. He’s fast becoming my adopted little brother/best friend/tour guide/French tutor, and I am pretty sad because he is gone to school until next weekend. Annie gave him specific instructions about where to take me and  when to return, so that she would know where I was at all times, which I am pretty sure he completely ignored. He was supposed to show me the Catholic church, since I’d told Annie I also like Catholic services, but there was no Catholic church in sight. Instead we ambled along red roads and avoided the insane traffic and laughed at my French.  We did see a mosque, and the call to prayer was haunting and melodic.
That afternoon Nathalie, the host family coordinator/unofficial “mom”/counselor of the program had organized a soccer match for the SIT students and families. I’ve missed African soccer on red gravel fields so much. It was wonderful. I am as aggressive a player as ever, but my footwork is entirely gone from my old middle school soccer glory days. I just ran around energetically and got in peoples’ way and had a fabulous time. Luic was my stand in family, and played goalie for the opposite team. I scraped up my knee stupidly when the gravel slipped out from under my feet, but the blood made me feel a bit bad-ass.  As usual Serge, the program assistant, literally took care of everything, grabbing my knee and demonstrating how to wash it properly without wasting my drinking water too much.
Luic and I walked to the top of the “palais de congress” which has public fields and then a tall building at the top of a long row of stone steps. The view of Yaoundé was gorgeous, of course.

Then we walked back home and sat on the deck in the cool of the evening and talked French some more, while I held the baby of the family. Cameroon is a culture of sharing, and neighbors and friends share work and responsibility and parenting. Annie and Gella freely chastise and love the neighbor kids, no problem. I was changing the neighbor baby Onzo on the first day, and Annie has promised the other neighbor friend downstairs occasional free babysitting for her little one courtesy of me. Which I am genuinely totally cool with, more than that. I love babies and I love Africa babies (they tend to be pretty chill. Also beautiful) and I love integrating into the culture. Tonight, Annie and Gella borrowed my internet key (looks like a USB drive but it is plug in internet access you can pay for) because theirs’ ran out, and also my converter for the fridge after their converter broke.
 I love it because Cameroonians NEVER ask favors of temporary “guests,” but once you’re in the friend/family circle, sharing is just the way of life. I’m pretty thrilled to be becoming part of that circle. 


February 1, 2014

My host “mom” is early thirties, a journalist, with impeccable English and impeccable fashion sense.  Quite frankly she is intimidatingly fabulous. My first day with my host family was basically a continued subversion of so many stereotypes about Africa and America.

My host mom is determined to help me taste Cameroonian culture, today she made me koki, a traditional dish, and she also plans on bringing me to her favorite nightclub. It’s not the first thing that came to mind when I thought “African culture.” I’ve been a college student near Albany, an ok sized city, for three years, but never in my life have I been to a nightclub.

There was this dude last semester who kept telling me that I needed to let my hair down and have some fun, and that we should go dancing, and I was like “Nightclubs are not my scene.” “What is your scene then,” he demanded, and I said Africa.

And now, because I am obsessed and focused on understanding and integrating into African culture as best I can (and also because I DO like to have fun, and occasionally my definition of fun and other people’s definition overlap) I am going to go clubbing, African style. It’s pretty ironic and I think it’s fabulous.

I’m loving the fact that my own expectations about Africa are being contradicted by Cameroon; the vibrancy and red dirt and warm smiles of Cameroon are very familiar from Mali, but the main difference I’ve noticed so far is how metropolitan Cameroon, (or Yaoundé at least) is. I first noticed it in the slightly superior tone of a Cameroonian ex-pat (we were best friends for ten minutes in the customs line at the airport) when we discussed the differences between Cameroon and Mali. The “big city” impression has grown since then, largely because, well, Yaoundé is a big city. With a population around 1.5 million, Yaoundé dwarfs anywhere I have ever lived (primarily Hoosick Falls and Siena, each at a solid 3 thousand population).

I am a small town girl in the big city and the unique flavor of this African city just makes that even cooler/stranger/more contradictory and interesting.  I frequently feel like a country bumpkin, particularly because we were instructed to bring very conservative clothes, and the incredible fashion sense of Cameroonians puts me to shame. Whether it’s traditional, elaborate embroidered dresses or Western jeans and heels, Cameroonian women rock the fashion world. I’ve never been super self-conscious about being fashionable, but walking around in a frumpy skirt and men’s t-shirt, I have clothing envy all the time.

And the education level of most of the Cameroonians I have interacted with so far puts me to shame. My host mom rattles on in the perfect English that is necessary for her job, and I feel like an idiot with my stumbling French.

But as out of place as I sometimes feel, at the back of my mind I love it for the ironic contradiction of so many American stereotypes of Africa. As far as normal Americans go, I am a little bit less clueless about Africa after going to Mali when I was 16 and being obsessed with Africa since 12.
But even so, I know nothing, and have everything to learn.

*Note: I did actually go to a nightclub. Maybe it's just Africa, but it could occasionally be my scene. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

la feminism and dinner table french

January 28th.
Today is technically the first day of orientation, and I had an in depth conversation about feminism EN FRANCAIS. I’m pretty ecstatic about it. My French is terrible, the three A’s I’ve gotten in all my French classes lied because my listening comprehension and oral skills are shit. Throughout the last three days, I’ve already gotten used to the blank panicked feeling as people rattle on in French and I understand about 15%. But I think a big part of the problem is the blank panicked feeling. Tonight over dinner all seven of us SIT kids made a pact that we are going to only speak in French during meal-times, we can use English while hanging out but if we want to improve we need to practice together. I was like “oh dear” but agreed, and as we sat and laughed and each stumbled through French occasionally, I started to relax a little and have fun instead of viewing each French sentence as a test. At one point, Jeff (who is the only guy in the program) said something jokingly that had a tinge of sexism, and I laughed and said “Careful, I’m a feminist” (but in French as per the new dinner table rules). 

Suddenly that turned into an in depth discussion of “La Feminism” which mostly involved Serge (our program assistant, who incidentally studied minority and women’s studies at university), and Brittany and Jeff, who both have adequate (ie really good) French for the subject. I was really frustrated, because it was such a fascinating topic and I wanted desperately to hear Serge’s voluble Cameroonian perspective, and felt I was missing it all. But when they recapped in English for me, I found I’d already gathered many of the key points: that in Cameroon the role of mother is highly valued, that he thinks feminism means that for American women there are more roles that are considered valuable (ie are open to women), that there are some types of feminism that are radical:  "la femme la femme la femme!” and that feminism in the U.S., France and Cameroon are very different because culture influences what feminism is, and what types of feminist there are. I responded in broken French, and with some help, that I agreed, but that there are different types of feminist in the U.S. as well, and that  “A mon avis, la feminism ne signifie pas la femme est mieux l’homme, mais la feminism est égalité” (or something like that. My written French is worse than my spoken, and that’s saying a lot). “D’accord.” 

And then I couldn’t stop smiling from then until now because I was having a philosophical discussion (one of my favorite things) about feminism (one of my favorite things) with new friends in Africa (clearly one of my favorite things) all EN FRANCAIS.

Maybe I am actually smarter than I seem, and stronger than I think. 

embarrassment: get used to it

Within five minutes of starting my grand solo Africa adventure, I managed to completely humiliate myself, before I'd even gotten past customs at the Albany airport. Honestly, it was the perfect start to the trip though.
So I was of course really nervous about keeping my passport and tickets safe, and decided to lace the strap of my little passport bag under my shirt, “because,” I thought “no one will be able to get to it there.” I should have thought of the fact that “no one” included me. But of course I didn’t until 3 minutes into my adventure when the lady in customs said “I’ll need to see that, dear” and I realized that “that” was my passport bag, securely tucked away from all access under my shirt. I tried at first to switch the strap over my head and out through my shirt sleeve, trying desperately to be both quick and inconspicuous while my arms flailed around under my shirt. But that of course just made everything worse while the bag-strap got hopelessly tangled with my bra strap. Finally I sighed, and, right in the middle of the security line, took my shirt off.
Thank God I’d listened to the advice to layer while flying, and had a tank top on underneath (yeah, that mental image was getting too vivid). Tank top or no, I was still sufficiently flustered as I handed her my passport and they did the magic electronic scan of my body. After a few moments, she handed back my passport and reminded me gently “you can put your shirt back on.”
Oh, yeah.
I was pretty embarrassed, but honestly mostly just completely amused. I mean, can you see me? I can see me. It was like I was a spectator to my own…well, spectacle, and despite embarrassment I could recognize that it was freaking hilarious. In fact, I was rather glad that my parents, who’d stayed to wave to me one last time when I was through the customs barrier, had witnessed the whole thing.
Somehow it made me so much less nervous about the upcoming international flights, the next four months of living in a culture and speaking a language I am unfamiliar with. All of these unknowns that I have no experience with…of course I am going to royally and spectacularly fudge things up, frequently. It will be embarrassing. It will be hysterical. But making mistakes means you are doing something deeply and truly right, because you are doing something new, something challenging, something that will grow you.
The key is the ability to watch your own mistakes and laugh and love it.

 It's a skill I will be needing often.