Monday, October 31, 2011

How we came to have a rooster

On Saturday we received a visit from D., a young man with whom we have a long history. He was our neighbor in our previous home, so we've known him since he was a toddler. As a child, he loved to open and close our gate for us when we would drive in or out. Eventually Paul taught him to do odd jobs like pull weeds or wash the car. As he grew up, that became helping in the hangar, running errands in town and eventually, after Paul taught him to drive and helped him get a license, driving the kids to school. We don't know when he started stealing from us, but it was probably long before we caught him using the car as a sort of unofficial taxi on his way back from the school. We worked through that and Paul gave him a second chance, working in the hangar, until it became clear that for years he had been siphoning off fuel and selling it on the street. Even then, Paul continued to talk to him and try to help him out. The final blow came shortly before we left the country, when D. asked to borrow Paul's bike (which Paul was selling) in order to run a short errand. We never saw him or the bike again, at least, not until we came back. So here he was on Saturday, bringing his woman (J.) and three children to meet us. They had hired a vehicle to bring them into town from the village where they live, but they got out and called us when they got nearby, as they didn't know exactly where the house was. (That gave us time to lock away everything of value before they arrived. We may be naïve, but we do learn eventually.) Paul walked to meet them, only to find that they had come laden with bananas and plantains for us, so he had to hire a car to get everything and everyone to the house.

We offered them the requisite soft drinks and roasted peanuts, and we all sat down to talk. D. immediately started in on stories from the old days. Apparently he had given J. the impression that we were still great buddies – that we were like family to him. He even said at one point that it's rare to have relationships that last so long without ever having a problem. I wondered if his memory is that bad or if maybe he is – like 4% of the population - a sociopath: someone who has no conscience. He kept making the point that we were family to him. Part way into the chitchat, J. turned to D. and said, "Did you tell them about the rooster?" Apparently they had also brought us a rooster. It was cowering in a plastic shopping bag, so Paul hadn't noticed. We trooped out to the porch to look and, sure enough, there was a rooster, fighting his way out of the bag. Both dogs were in their cages, so we left the rooster and went back inside to resume what turned out to be a long and, to me, rather trying visit. I assumed that there was more than a social reason for the bananas, and the rooster had clinched it. Finally, after two hours of small talk, J. (who had spent at least one of the those hours changing her baby's diaper, intervening in the children's fights and, when the children were off playing in the yard, semi-dozing on the couch, got tired of waiting for D. to summon up his courage and got down to business herself. "Did you know that D. and I are trying to get married?" Sure enough, in a few minutes they were pulling out the list of items that J's family has demanded of D. for the bride price: four pigs, bags of potatoes and onions, sacks of rice, jugs of wine, bottles of whiskey – everything that the village needs in order to put on the wedding feast. I was a little surprised that it didn't list lengths of cloth, and I asked them about it. J. answered that her family had forgotten. That seemed odd: how could they forget something so traditional? Then she added, "Even the goat. Everyone knows that every wedding feast has a goat, but they forgot that, too." D. showed us some check marks next to certain items and said that that was where his family members had all agreed to help. The implication (and his earlier insistence that we are family) was clear, and Paul – who is far more charitable than I – said that we would talk about it and decide how we would help, but that we don't have a lot to spare right now, because of my school tuition. I added that they shouldn't expect much from us, because when we return to Cameroon, we get many people who come to us for help, including people who have stored up their requests for two years, just waiting for us to come and help them sort out things they should have taken care of long ago. They laughed and didn't seem to take the hint. I did not say, "Let's just consider all of the things that you stole from us to be our contribution," although I confess that I might well have, had J. and the children not been there.

After they left, Paul and I considered whether or not the whole thing might be a scam. It is pretty inconceivable that her family would forget cloth and the goat. Paul still thought that we were obliged to help them at least to the value of the "gifts" they brought us; I object to being manipulated and to participating in his pretence that we are just one happy family. Forgiveness is one thing; participating in a lie is another. Finally we agreed that we will talk it over with various Cameroonian friends and see what they suggest.

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