Dance class, I’m twisted on my back while pounding the floor with my fist, jumping and singing and stretching.
Coming home from class, the door is locked and my family in Dschang don’t have a second key. So instead of attacking the pile of homework I’m trying not to be anxious about, I curl up in the chair my neighbor provides (each of the three times it happened) and instead listen to his playlist of Cameroonian and American music, and tell him how excited I am about the women’s day outfit I am having made.
Showering by the light of a non-electric flashlight because the electricity is cut, I’m just grateful that the water is back on. I was starting to smell after the water was cut yesterday.
Walking by the group of Cameroonian guys building a wall, when one guy holds out a hammer and asks if I want to try, I say yes for once and impress them all with my long-unused drama crew skills. Not to brag, but I’ve used a circular saw before, hammering a nail into thresh wall isn’t that hard. Being confident and comfortable enough to interact solo with a group of six Cameroonian guys is harder, but they are all friendly and we laugh a lot.
Saying bonjour first while walking down the street, trying hard to be culturally competent and aware. The “ma chères” I can handle, but it’s hard not to be freaked out by the half kissing/half hissing sound which is a perfectly normal and appropriate way to get someone’s attention in Cameroon. Especially coming from guys on the street, it’s hard not to feel degraded but I try because I know it’s just a cultural difference.
Dance class, power cuts, ambling walks, pausing to talk to everyone; they’re all teaching me flexibility. I think it’s one of the best things I will take away from this beautiful country. I knew flexibility would be required; it always is with new things. I was prepared to be flexible with different cultural approaches to time, with food and language and even myself. What has surprised me most was that I’ve also needed to be flexible with my own internal values.
The very first weekend here, thinking about my reaction to constant comments on the street from Cameroonian guys made me realize I need a deeper type of flexibility. I would have to choose between two things I value deeply: Feminism and reform against objectification, and being culturally competent and respectful. Do I go all activist and campaign against what I see as harassment, or stretch myself to see another perspective (even if I disagree with it?) I want desperately to always defend bodily autonomy and integrity, that is one of my core values as a feminist, but I am also someone who wants deeply to respect and embrace other cultures. It’s a strange thing when some of your core values are in conflict with each other; it’s requiring a lot of thought and internal negotiation. It’s a dance that requires a flexibility of worldview, and I am sure I will mess it up as frequently as I mess up in dance class, but I am going to keep stretching myself and trying.