Thursday, March 26, 2009

Today a group of us were having coffee and discussing the problem of deciding when to give money to someone who asks. I turned to the only Cameroonian in the group and asked him his opinion. He said, “People know that white people had enough money to come here on an airplane and that you have jobs, so in comparison to them you are very rich, and that is why they ask you. For us Africans, it is normal to ask and normal to help. When those of us who have jobs are asked for help, we want to help. When you are asked for help, you find it annoying.” He didn’t say it at all judgmentally; he was merely stating the facts.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Although I didn't get a good picture of the Pope, one of my friends shot this one as he was passing by the road to CABTAL.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

My friend Henny saved my life today. We were walking on the shoulder of the Dangerous Road when the drivers of two cars somewhere behind us got into a fight. As far as we can figure out, one of them rammed into the other. The latter decided to flee by accelerating and passing the cars ahead of him on the right, which put us in his direct path. Henny turned to look, saw the car bearing down on us and tried to pull me out of the way. I had heard a car coming toward us, but, not having looked, tried to pull Henny closer to the side of the road. Fortunately she won. The car side-swiped me as it sped off, but I’ll have only a bruise. Maybe I saved her, too, because the other car sped by on the other side of us, just missing her. We stood there for several minutes, shaking and crying, before we could continue on our way. As we passed by the people who had heard the crash and come out to look, some called out encouraging comments to us like, “Courage” or “Thank God who protected you.”

Friday, March 20, 2009

To add to my list of unusual objects carried on someone's head: a door. It may not have made the list had it not been on the head of someone who was riding on the back of a motorcycle.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In the Bible it says that “all of Jerusalem” turned out to see Jesus. Until I came to Cameroon, I thought that was a figure of speech. Yesterday all of Yaoundé turned out to welcome the Pope. Along with everyone else, I stood by the side of the road for an hour, just to get a glimpse of him in his Popemobile. (I tried to get a photo, but the police were scolding those with cameras, and my surreptitious effort failed.)
Here are some of the things that I saw as I walked along the main road from the airport to the center of town a few hours before the Pope arrived: lots of people still washing, whitewashing or painting their houses; flocks of women (church groups or cultural clubs) in matching dresses, meeting up in advance of the motorcade; several convoys of armed soldiers heading for the airport; banners over the street reading, “Cameroon will be eternally grateful to Pope Benedict XVI”; posters of President Biya standing next to the previous Pope; dozens of Cameroonian and Vatican City flags alternating every 100 feet (for miles); bands of soldiers standing over those who were still clearing away piles of debris; excited school children walking home from school, having been let out early.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tonight an acquaintance who works for Cameroon Television stopped by to greet us. He told us that he intends to send his daughter to the US for university next year, because “Now that Obama is president, he will open things up for black people.” We told him not to count on any big changes in that regard and added that Lexi recently told us that Obama has expelled tens of thousands of Haitians. Our friend said, “But they aren’t Black.” We said that they are. I don’t think that he was convinced, but he was undaunted either way. Paul pointed out that even if Obama wanted to make major changes in immigration policy, he is only one arm of the government. Our friend said, “Yes, but I’ve heard that the majority of the legislature supports him, so if he wants something, he will get it.” Finally we said, “We’ll just have to wait and see.” Our friend said, “Yes. We’ll see.” All of this took place in French, but as we walked away he shouted after us in English, “Yes we can!”

Friday, March 13, 2009

I just walked down a road that appeared to have been hit by a hurricane. As I passed through the area that was cleaned out yesterday by the police (see yesterday’s post), I saw piles of rubble where houses and shops used to stand. Sometimes people were standing in the rubble, weeping or just staring vacantly. One man was drunk, and he waved his arms and railed at whomever was passing by. I stopped to offer consolation and help to a woman who was digging through a huge pile of boards and tin. She said that she was a widow with children to support, and that the rubble represented both her home and her business. She kept staring at it blankly and saying, “What can I do now? What can I do now?” Not all of the shops along the road had been bulldozed, though. One of my friends said that her shop was spared when her landlord bribed the police. As with many traumas in the developing world, the initial blow is only the first. The landowners with rubble on their property are now charged with cleaning it up before the Pope arrives on Tuesday.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Pope is coming to Yaoundé next week. As always when we get important visitors, the city is getting a face lift. Everyone who lives or has a business along the route between the main cathedral and the airport is forced to clean up their grounds and put on a fresh coat of paint. In places where there are unsightly views (such as garbage dumps or slum areas), large fences are erected by the side of the road to hide them. Yesterday the police went through the city [Read more here], chasing away vendors and tearing down their stalls. We have been advised to stock up on provisions this week and lie low during the papal visit.
Sometimes I feel foolhardy when I walk along the road that leads to most of the places where I need to go. It is a dangerous road. People drive fast, and taxis (which comprise about half of the vehicles) stop, start up, and veer on and off the road with seemingly little regard for the rest of us. A few years ago Paul sent an employee to driver’s school. The first class was taken up with registering and paying the $50.00 fee. At the second class, the “teacher” passed out driver’s licenses and told everyone goodbye. Our employee tried to protest, saying that he hadn’t learned to drive yet. The teacher said, “You’ve got a license: why should you complain?” That explains a lot.
Recently the son of one of our friends approached us about helping him pay a “dot”, or bride-price. Here is what his father-in-law-to-be is asking of him: one pig, one goat, transportation costs for everyone who travels to the village for the wedding, and all of the food and drinks. He also sent a list of thirty relatives, noting the amount of money ($5.00 -$40.00) that must be given in person to each one. (They live in nine different towns, scattered throughout the south of the country.) This is all quite reasonable. The bride is from a very important and wealthy family, so her father could have asked for a lot more. The “dot” serves an important social purpose. It links the two families. If the young couple has problems, it is in everyone’s interest to help them work it out. The groom’s family wants to protect its investment; the bride’s family doesn’t want to have to pay back the “dot”. When a marriage does break up, it often creates wide problems. If a “dot” has been paid, the wife and any children belong more to the husband’s family than she does her own.

Friday, March 6, 2009


I used to buy African trade beads in the market and make jewelry to sell at an annual art sale, so the oldtimers at the artisan’s market know me well. I visited them a few weeks ago and received a warm welcome and many questions about Alexis and Karen. However, there are also many younger sellers in the market who don’t know me. Yesterday I was negotiating with a young man while helping a friend buy souvenirs. One of the older sellers approached and told the young man, “You can’t give her that price. That’s the price for tourists. She has been here for so long: she is Cameroonian! Give her a good price.” The younger man looked at me skeptically and sneered, “Cameroonian?” Then he got a sly smile and greeted me in the local language, which is spoken by very few foreigners. “Mbembe kiri,” he said. I responded, “Kiri mbeng. O ne mvoi?” (Good morning, how are you?) While the young man and his friends stared open-mouthed and the older men hooted and slapped each other on the back, my friend and I left. I didn’t want them to know that I had just spoken nearly all of the Ewondo that I can remember.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I’ve seen something else that I wouldn’t want to eat. As I was out walking I stepped around a parked car and nearly ran into a man who was selling the usual candy, matches and tissues…and two large dead rats.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Our friend Joseph hunts bats. The British American Tobacco Company has a compound (known of course as the BAT compound),where bats apparently like to congregate. Joseph has received permission from the company to hunt them on the weekends. We have eaten many things here that I didn’t relish: snake, porcupine, crocodile, grasshoppers, grubs. (The last were very well cooked. When we are offered the live, wiggling ones, I decline as sweetly as I can manage while trying not to gag.) The only time that I can recall when I couldn’t manage a polite response was when we tried Joseph’s bats. Coneilia loves them and is one of Joseph’s best customers. So one day she prepared them for us. The smell of them tipped me off that this was not going to be pleasant. I took a bite and almost immediately spit it out. I exclaimed, “Coneilia! Don’t you love your family anymore? How can you give us this terrible thing to eat?!” She and Joseph howled with laughter, but she never fed us bats again. Yesterday another friend showed me that the Cameroon Tribune had done a feature on bat hunters, and there was Joseph! He is a gardener and custodian, and I’m sure that he never imagined that he would see his own photo in the national paper. When I see him next, I will ask him when he is going to "arroser" [lit: to water]. (It is the custom, when one encounters good fortune or acquires something new, to "spread the wealth around" by buying drinks or food for one's friends.)
This morning I walked to meet Coneilia and give her some things for her trip. I didn’t see her when I got to the intersection where we were to meet, but I heard her call, “Mommy!” from a distance. She seemed oblivious to the astonished looks on people’s faces as she hurried to hug me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Coneilia got a little bit more news. Her brother had been working (construction) overtime in the city for the past two weeks, wanting to earn some extra money for his family and to help Coneilia with Dieudonne’s expenses. On Saturday he received his pay and was heading for the village. Apparently someone – maybe some fellow constructions workers - knew that he had the money, because they killed him for it. For Coneilia, his death is a quadruple burden. She has lost her brother; she has lost the financial help he sometimes gave her; she must cover enormous funeral expenses (In her culture, the family of the deceased is obliged to provide food and drink to anyone who drops in over a three day period, and the entire village will do so) and because her own parents are gone, she must now take on the support of his widow and children. (The widow’s own family has no such obligation to her.) My words of comfort seem feeble.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Coneilia phoned me frantically this morning to tell me that her brother had been murdered. Last night he was found at the bottom of a well, with his head bashed in and signs of having been beaten. This brother is the father of Dieudonne, the adolescent boy Coneilia has been raising for the past twelve years. Although she has been sick for the past week with a large boil in her throat, tomorrow she must travel to Douala to purchase a casket, make arrangements to transport his body back to their village and prepare for the funeral. (She has other siblings, but apart from a sister who works as a nurse in the Netherlands, Coneilia is the only one with a steady income, and her extended family relies heavily on her in times of crises.) I was tempted to offer to travel with her, but everyone that she has to deal with would charge her higher prices if a white woman were accompanying her.