Thursday, March 6, 2014


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. 

thoughts on walking home

I spent last weekend in Bamenda, one of Cameroon’s two English speaking regions. Speaking English on the street was a nice break for my brain, but it also made me more aware of street harassment.

            I’ve gotten used to the constant “ma
chère, ma chère/La blanche, la blanche” in Yaoundé and Dschang, but being able to fully comprehend everything enthusiastically shouted at me and my friends this weekend made the experience more intense. As we threaded our way through the dripping rain and busy streets of Bamenda’s main market (a colorful and hectic experience) we understood every word when asked “Can I find a wife amongst you?” and the repeated “I love you, you are beautiful, I love you!” shouted at us as we scurried away.

Usually, I miss a fair bit of it because of my French comprehension. But the language barrier is a good defense mechanism too, when I want to ignore a comment in Yaoundé or Dschang I often fall back on “je ne comprends pas” which usually works. Until, of course, that one guy who simply repeated distinctly in English “I think you are very pretty.” “Oh, uh merci.” But that still doesn’t mean you get to walk me home, and thanks, but give me back my hand I wanted to finish.
            Overall though, I have been shocked by how little it’s bothered me. Before arriving in Cameroon, homesickness, French competency, and verbal street harassment were my main worries. The times I’ve encountered street harassment in the U.S., I’ve felt a slimy sense of violation and a choking rage at my own vulnerability. Quite frankly, it makes me want to turn around and shout rather obscene suggestions for what they should do to themselves (because I certainly won’t). But while whirling around and shouting “fuck you” is my enraged urge, out of shock and fear I’ve never done that.

            But the harassing language I’ve either overheard or experienced in the U.S. is very different from what I hear walking down the street here. “I want your pussy, shaved or not” is a far cry from “ma chère, ma chère, tu es belle.” Men still don’t have the right to comment on my body, it is not here for their viewing pleasure or awaiting their judgment and affirmation. So while the comments here are much more innocent, I still initially objected to them.

            But my fifteen year old neighbor gave me a very good piece of advice while showing me around the quartier my first weekend here. I walked along soaking in the crowded, colorful streets, aware in my peripherals that as usual I was being stared at. Luic commented “everyone is looking at you” and I responded that it made me uncomfortable and so I just ignored it. He told me “They just want to know you. Just say bonjour.”

It’s good advice, and following it has made me realize several things: The street commenting really is cultural, and is usually not meant in a degrading way. “La blanche” is an overture for friendship. These days I actually “bonjour” people first.

I figure, well, this is quite literally a two way street. If Cameroonian guys stare at me because they think I am pretty, honestly it’s mutual. I think they’re pretty too, and I’m not sure how much that contributes to me not minding their appreciative reactions to me. But more importantly, there’s a fine line between appreciation and objectification, but the smile and quick head nod I often get is somehow very different from a slimy ogle which undresses you with its eyes. This feels like genuine appreciation, curiosity and friendliness.

But the real reason I “bonjour” people first these days is it puts me in charge of the interaction. I am no longer being commented on, like a prize pony in a horse show, I am initiating the interaction and firmly anchoring it in the realm of friendliness, negotiating any objectifying undertones by creating space for friendliness sans the “unwanted commentary” aspect. For me, it’s been a small way to embrace and respect Cameroon’s welcoming, people oriented culture without surrendering my agency.