Friday, February 27, 2009

I have a friend, Monique, who takes orders for home baked, whole wheat bread and tortillas. The last two times that I ordered from her, an elderly man delivered the bread to me. Today I asked him if he is a member of the family. “Yes,” he said, beaming proudly. “I am Monique’s father.” I shook his hand and said how happy I was to meet him, and he went on, “Yes, I am her father: the younger brother of her mother. I was the one who brought her here to Yaoundé. I signed her marriage certificate, giving her to Olivier.” I smiled to myself, thinking of how confusing that would be to someone who didn’t understand that in Cameroonian culture, the mother’s brother plays a central role in a child’s life, taking on many of the responsibilities that a father would in American culture. But just as I was commending myself for understanding, he said in parting, “Yes, I am Monique’s grandfather.”
One time we were watching television with a roomful of Cameroonian friends. We were watching as Paul Biya, the President, and his French wife arrived for a diplomatic visit in Congo. They deplaned, made their way to the platform where there were to be speeches and sat down. Then Madame Biya crossed her legs, and the room where we were erupted. “What! Look at that!” “Who does she think she is?” “What will people think of Cameroon when our First Lady behaves like that?” It was a chilling reminder of the importance of respecting the culture where you are. (I hope that Michelle Obama has better protocol officers than Mme Biya must have.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The other day I spent some time with a French acquaintance. I noticed that as soon as we sat down, we both crossed our legs, and I wondered if she had had to think about it for a minute like I had. In Cameroon, it is rude to cross your legs (knee on knee or especially ankle on knee) in most situations. As I understand it, only the most important person in the room has the right to do so. This would only be a woman if there were no men present. (Yes, it galls me, but it would do me no good to give offense.) As a White male, Paul is usually pretty safe and doesn’t have to think about it much. (Yes, that’s upsetting, too, but we have somewhat adapted to the automatic status that our skin color gives us here.) I could do it when only women were in the room, but as a courtesy I try to do so only with good friends. The real problem for both of us is in Church. No one is greater than God, goes the thinking, so it is very rude – sacrilegious, even – to cross your legs in church. If that doesn’t sound so bad, remember that we are often sitting for hours on low, backless benches. Knowing that we can’t cross our legs makes the urge to do so almost unbearable.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Today I stopped in to see Rebeccah’s tailoring shop. She wasn’t there, but her nephew greeted me warmly and showed me around. (It didn’t take long: the shop is about 100 sq ft.) I asked if I could take some photos. He very happily agreed, then bustled around, arranging things and staging the shots. “Can you see me if I stand like this?” “Should she be over here or over there?” I suggested that they just continue their work and let me take some photos that way. A customer arrived to pick up his clothes, and the nephew excitedly told him, “She’s shooting a film!” Seems like I'm always disappointing someone.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Yesterday we went to visit our friends Constantine and Rebecca. Constantine attended the Bible study that we held in our home years ago, and when we left, they began hosting it. Sadly, it fell apart after we left. They told us that when they ran into former participants and asked them why they had stopped coming, many of them said that they had enjoyed going to the White man’s house. We learned a lot from that experience. Rebecca is a tailor, and she has opened a new shop. She told me that she has seen me walk past it on the other side of the street several times. I asked her why she hadn’t called out to me, and she said that if she had, people nearby would have known my name and would have been able to use it. Constantine is a payment collector for a government micro-lending division. It was set up to meet the requirements of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank when some of Cameroon’s debts were forgiven. We asked him what percentage of the loans get repaid, and he said about half of them. His job is very difficult, because when he goes to collect the payments, he often finds that people have moved away.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I had lunch with Coneilia today and told her about the erotic dancer on crutches. She knows him. She said, “He came to my house and asked me if he could dance for me in exchange for some food. I told him that any time he needed food, he just had to ask, but I wasn’t about to watch him dance like that.” I also told her about a meal that we had recently with some colleagues. I told her that the woman had talked almost non-stop from the time they arrived, and it was only after more than two hours that she asked anything about us. (She had asked what I was knitting.) Coneilia was aghast. “Do you mean she didn’t ask about your children when she arrived?” I said no. “And she never asked about your family?” I shook my head. She paused, then narrowed her eyes and said, “And was this woman Cameroonian?” I said no. She was only slightly comforted. She shook her head and said, “Well that was very rude, even for an American.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some cultural differences are easy to learn. For example, once you hear that it isn’t appropriate to show your shoulders in church, it’s pretty easy to remember not to put on a sleeveless dress on Sunday morning. (Recently our pastor’s wife was looking at Karen’s wedding pictures. When she saw that I had worn a sleeveless dress and Lexi a strapless one, she sighed and said, “If a woman wore something like that to a wedding or church here, they would probably stone her.” She was exaggerating, but you get the idea.) But other things are ingrained and difficult to change. One of the hardest has to do with eye contact. It isn’t appropriate here for a woman to sustain eye contact with a man. After having spent my early twenties in the US, learning that a firm handshake while looking someone directly in the eyes inspires trust, it took me years to learn the Cameroonian art of eye contact. When talking to a man, I catch his eye very briefly, then I look away: over his shoulder, at the ground, off to the side – anywhere but at his eyes. But it’s important to sort of “check in” every once in awhile, looking at his eyes so that he knows I’m still engaged in the conversation. (I must say that knitting is a huge help in this situation, as it gives me somewhere obvious to look.) When I returned to the US after 23 years of this, it took me another few years to look a man in the eyes again, and I find it awkward to this day. It’s easier for me here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Today we were invited for a meal at the home of some of our former neighbors. It was a very typical setting, and I wished that I had a video camera to record the sounds as well as the sights. Here are some of the things that made it different from eating with friends in the US: We ate in the living room; our hostess and the children didn’t eat with us; the television and a radio were blaring in the background; people kept coming in and going out (at one point I counted twenty people in the house, mostly children, but many others had come and gone).

We were still eating when a young relative with a handicap entered the house on crutches. He said that he liked to entertain guests by dancing along with the television. They cranked the volume to ear-splitting levels, and he danced for a long time. The dance was mildly pornographic, and we didn’t know where to look. Our hostess (who had sat down with us by then) asked me if I dance. I said, “Not like that!” She laughed and said, “No, not like that.” She then asked me to give her a prayer book. (They are Catholic.) I told her that I don’t have a prayer book, but that she can talk to God without a book. She thought about that then said that she likes to read. I promised to bring her a French Bible. As we left, the young man was waiting for us by the door with his hand out, and Paul gave him some money. The most bizarre part of the afternoon was the show that was playing on the TV: My Sweet Sixteen (dubbed in French). The contrast between the spoiled families depicted on the show and my surroundings was too much to absorb and, by no means for the first time, I had the strange sense of having fallen through the looking glass.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

After our car died the other night, our friend Ray came across town to help. He towed us to the maintenance shop, then drove us home. On his way home from that, a woman stepped out in front of his car without looking. She hit the car, damaging the hood and cracking the windshield, then fell to the ground, unconscious. Ray thought that she was dead. He took her to the hospital, and it turned out that she was fine. However, he spent the entire night between the hospital and the police station. We feel terrible.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Last night we were invited to eat with Thomas and Virginie. A few years ago Paul spent 18 months training 11 men in the Air Force in aircraft maintenance, and Thomas was his star pupil. Their house is difficult to find, so we drove most of the way there to meet Thomas and go with him by taxi the rest of the way. We were just turning into the meeting place when our borrowed car died. This was of great interest to the many people who were passing by, and we had no lack of help either in diagnosing the problem or in pushing it to the side of the road. Everyone’s favorite part seemed to be when the White woman (that would be me) undertook to stop the traffic so that they could get it pushed safely to a nearby parking lot. I can still hear the laughter.

Here is the dinner that Virginie had prepared for the four of us: eggplant greens, two large grilled fish, a braised chicken and two sauces, rice, Egussi pudding, “batons de manioc”, two kinds of yams and fried plantains. Oh, and slices of papaya for dessert.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paul had a day off today, so we spent it downtown, wandering in and out of little shops, seeing what’s new. I found the yarn shop that a friend had mentioned to me. The good news is that it’s all local yarn, made just a few miles from the shop. There were many colors and three different weights: fine, very fine and extra fine. The shop keeper told us that he doesn’t know any women (or men) who hand knit, but that there are people with machines, and they are the ones who buy the yarn. It all comes in one size skein – about 100 gms. The bad news is that it is ALL 100% acrylic. As we were walking down the street, we had just commented on how few foreigners there are here. When we first arrived, there were a lot of French people, but most have left. And about that time, someone called out to me, “Hey – a White! The last one left in Cameroon!”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Recently we ran into our good friend Tangko when he was with his wife, two of his daughters and three of his grandchildren. I was holding the baby, chatting with them, and decided to tease Tangko. I started to walk away, saying over my shoulder, “Since you have so many fine grandchildren, I think that I’ll keep this one.” Paul joined in the teasing, saying, “Let’s get a boy this time. I like this little one.” If only we had known…Tangko and his wife went home with very heavy hearts. Which child would we choose? How long would it be before they would see him or her again? They spent the next few days in long talks with their daughters, trying to decide which child to give us. Never once did they think of refusing. As Tango told me today, when we got it all straightened out, we have helped them a lot in the past, so they would never refuse us anything that we might ask. Even his two daughters were each prepared to give us a child. Sigh. Just when I think that I’m truly at home here, I do something that points out to me how much I have yet to learn.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Today we visited a small church that is pastored by Roger, the first Cameroonian we ever met. We met him in France when we were studying French and he was studying math at the University of Strasbourg. He was happy to see us sitting in the congregation and immediately asked Paul if he wanted to preach. Paul declined. Roger insisted; Paul declined again. Finally Roger offered a compromise, asking him to come forward and “give a testimony.” We have scarcely used our French for the past six years, but I thought that under the circumstances, Paul did a fine job of telling how we hadn’t had the money for our tickets here, but the Lord had provided it just in time. He sat down, then Roger said that I needed to come say something, too. Surely I had some news of the girls that I could give them? So although 95% of the people in the room didn’t even know us (let alone Alexis and Karen) I dutifully went forward and talked about them, then sat down. I was still reviewing my own French in my head when I realized that I was being called upon again, but this time to provide translation for another American who happened to be attending. I was horrified. Oral translation into a language that isn’t your mother tongue is very difficult, and my French is more than just a little rusty. People were nodding and patting me on the back while I protested. Finally Paul whispered, “I think they just want you to whisper a translation of the sermon to her." Oh! That I could do. Whew.

Friday, February 6, 2009

If there is ever an award for “The World’s Best Person”, I will nominate Coneilia. Here is the kind of person she is: Last Saturday, she got home from work around 1:00. She was tired and wanted to rest, but it is the only day that she has free for housework, so she started doing her laundry (by hand, of course. She has no machine, and couldn’t afford to run it if she did.) Almost immediately she got a phone call from one of her neighbors. The neighbor and her daughter had been in a car accident and were bleeding by the side of the road. They called Coneilia (as every one does when they’re in trouble.) She dropped what she was doing, took a taxi to meet them, took them to a clinic and waited. And waited. Eventually she went in to see what was going on. She found her friends still bleeding, albeit through some bandages. She asked if they were going to get stitches, and she was assured that it wasn’t necessary. So she tried to raise some cain. “You can’t just leave them like this! They’re still bleeding! If you don’t stitch them up, I’ll take them somewhere where they will.” The clinic staff told her that she couldn’t move them: they needed to stay for at least three days, for observation. Coneilia got them out of there, into another taxi and to another clinic, this one a very good one operated by our church. Her friend had a total of nearly thirty stitches in her stomach and head. I said, “So they might have bled to death in that first clinic without you.” Coneilia said, “Yes, those lazy people would have let them bleed to death.” I told her I hope that if she is ever in trouble, all of the people that she has helped will help her. She seemed surprised and assured me that they would. That’s the kind of person she is.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Today I go for my walk early, in the cool (maybe 85?) of the day. Although Yaoundé is a big, noisy city, when you get a few hundred feet off of nearly any secondary road, you find yourself in what resembles a village. The pavement ends and the road diminishes to a web of paths that wind among small, mud brick houses. I walk through such a neighborhood, happy to be out of the traffic, the noise and the pollution. White people don’t often walk here. People stare, and sometimes a man will call out, “Hi, White lady!” I smile, wave and call out, “Hi Black man!” This gets me a laugh and sometimes a handshake from anyone who happens to be nearby. (Note: Do not try this in Detroit.) Eventually my “village” ends near the large Catholic University, and I find myself in a neighborhood that has come of age with television and the Internet. In a country where women my age are just beginning to be seen wearing pants in public, it is startling to find myself among trendy university students. One young woman is wearing white pants that have large horizontal slits cut all the way down the legs, forming stripes of white cloth and black skin. She reminds me of the time we traveled to the States when Lexi was about three. We were changing planes in Germany, when suddenly she clutched my hand and said, “Mommy! Look at that woman! What’s wrong with her?” I saw an attractive woman wearing a skirt and black tights. Lexi went on, “She’s half Black and half White!”
Several of us are eating lunch at CABTAL when David, a CABTAL employee, joins us. Marie congratulates him, then announces, “He has taken a third wife!” The conversation stops. Polygamy is legal and common, but not among Christians and certainly not at CABTAL. David smiles shyly and says, “Yes, we have a new person at our house.” Someone remembers that his wife was pregnant and says, “Oh, yes, you have a baby girl!” We breathe a collective sigh of relief and join in the congratulations.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The little thermometer on my backpack says that it’s near 100 degrees outside, and the humidity is probably around 70%. Nevertheless, as I walk to CABTAL in my cotton sleeveless dress and sandals, here are some of the things that I see other people wearing:

Suits, most of them black
A nylon windbreaker
A corduroy jacket
A black velvet suit
A school jacket (the kind you would put a school letter on)
A wool stocking cap, pulled down over the ears

I read one time that black skin has more sweat pores, making it more efficient in the heat. Surely it’s true.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Churches in Cameroon often receive used supplies – hymnals, choir robes, communion sets – from churches in the West. Etoug Ebe Baptist here in Yaoundé is no different. I suppose that the choir robes that they have now came from a church with a high school, and that the gowns were sent after graduation. We had been used to seeing the mortar boards and tassels, but seeing them again yesterday made us both smile.
After church we visited our former neighborhood, where we were greeted with great excitement and many questions about Alexis and Karen. We are glad that Cameroonians don’t use names in the same way that we do. It is quite acceptable to spend an entire evening with someone without using his or her name. The down side of that is that we don’t hear names very often, so it is hard to learn them. We spent about an hour and a half with the wife of the neighborhood’s chief, whose name I have long ago forgotten. She asked us if we have AIDS in the US. I said that we do, but not as much as here. I said that I don’t know of any friends or family members in the US with AIDS, but that I have known of many here. She told us that AIDS is different here. In other places, you know how you get it and you can take pills that help you. That kind exists here, but there is also the kind that people can “throw at you” [through sorcery]. This kind can only be treated through traditional means [sorcery again]. She said that it’s obvious that there are two kinds, because some people take pills and get better, and others don’t. She is a Catholic, so we talked for awhile about sorcery and faith in Christ. Like many people here, she believes that Christ and Satan are locked in a struggle. When good things happen, Christ has won. When bad things happen, he has lost. It is a difficult worldview to contradict, because everything that she sees around her feeds it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

When we first arrived in Cameroon we were in our mid-twenties and had been married for several years. It was difficult for our Cameroonian friends to understand why we didn’t have children. They would sometimes tease Paul and say, “Is she your wife or your sister?” At first we would try to explain about family planning, but it was too much of a stretch. Cameroonians value children over anything else: education, money, life experience. No matter what reasons we gave for choosing to wait to have children we sounded cold and selfish. Finally I learned to say, “Someday I am sure that God will give us children” and let them think that we had been unable to conceive, rather than that we had chosen to wait.