3/10/12 – La Vie En Cameroun (Life in Cameroon)
Ngaoundéré is a city of somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 people, depending on who you ask. It’s a hot, dry, dusty town, with a small-town feel (especially in comparison with Yaounde). There are no tall buildings, it’s dark at night (there aren’t really streetlights as we know them), and the people seem less rushed on the whole. Here in the north, there are more Muslims, which among other things means more conservative views towards how women dress and behave.
Here, wearing a skirt that covers the knees, and a top that covers the shoulders, helps prevent cat-calling and general harassment. Of course, these still exist, but not nearly as much as they do if you’re not properly covered. I hear everything from ‘ma mère’ and ‘ma jolie’, to ‘blanche’ and Nasara (‘white person’ in Fulfulde, the language spoken at home).
This is the first time I’ve ever been called white. It’s trippy.
Actually what happens is I get ‘called out’ for being white. The interesting thing about it, though, is I also get treated like a very important person. For example, every time I enter a house, I’m offered a chair or a seat on the couch (if there is a couch). Everyone else of a lower status, i.e. kids and younger adults, are expected to sit on the floor.
Speaking of which, I’m staying at a home located off the street and in a network of alleys. My host family is comprised of Mairamou, 32, her husband Ismaila, 42, and their five kids aged 13 months to 13 years. Mairamou (which, she tells me, is the Fulfulde version of ‘Mary’) is sort of the go-to person for Americans who come through here. She’s hosted a number of Americans through peace-corps-like semester-abroad programs, and has known various Ngaoundéré-based Peace Corps Volunteers.
The house I’m staying in is made of concrete, and there are four inner rooms where the father has a small private bedroom and private living room, and the mother and kids have a bedroom where they sleep, and then there is the main living room where a lot of the days’ action takes place (this is also where the refrigerator, china-cabinet-TV-unit-in-one, and couch are). There is a partially covered yard where food is prepped, and off to the side of that, a small kitchen area with a large brick hearth, and a shelf for pots and dishes.
My room is off to the side of the house. It’s cozy, with a bed, a rug, and a couple of chairs. Next to my room is my bathroom, which is a tiled stall with a wooden door, an overhead light, and a 4×4 inch hole cut into the center of the floor for waste and bathing runoff. Bathing entails getting a bucket of water and a cup from the yard and self-cleaning. I request warm water (which requires heating up; the tap yields only cold) every 2 or 3 days, so I can wash my absurdly long hair. Otherwise, I keep it in a bun and out of the way.
One thing about my bathroom stall; rather large roaches live in it. Specifically, they live wherever the hole in the tile leads to. The first night I was here, I didn’t realize they lived there and chased two of them out of the bathroom. The second night, I killed one while another scampered into the hole. It’s been another 4 nights and I’ve killed some 8 roaches. And I have to say, I’m sick of killing giant roaches. At first I thought it was either me or them; that we couldn’t share the bathroom together. But now it turns out we have to, because they live there. Also, it occurs to me that even if I tried killing the bathroom roaches for a straight year, I would probably not get them all.
I don’t know which fate is worse; a quick death by smashing, or life in that hole.
That said, my host family is comparatively well-off; they have a television hooked up to a satellite dish (it usually works, though sometimes the connection drops), a small frig, an old couch. They have rugs on the floors. They have a person they hire to help do housework (though Mairamou and her daughters do the bulk of the cooking and cleaning). The family also has an old hatch-back Toyota Corolla. Ismaila (the titular head of the household) runs a small but well-frequented convenience-type store.
The family happens to be a lot less conservative than most of the Muslim households around here. Generally women are not allowed to leave their houses unless accompanied by a male, or a Nasara of any gender. Mairamou sometimes sneaks out of the house to do grocery shopping or something, and if she’s caught by her husband, he’ll complain that she leaves the house too much and that it makes him look bad. This is sort of amusing, because he’s too nice of a man to truly force her stay at home. But because there are cultural pressures at work, Mairamou tries to at least create the illusion that she plays by the rules. Her kids help cover for her, as does the Peace Corps volunteer who lives down the alley.
My first day in town I go out and buy bottled water and I head to the cyber-café—which is not really a café at all, but a warm, dim space with a collection of 80’s-era PC’s plugged into the information superhighway.
Later, I meet up with the Peace Corps Volunteer who lives nearby; her name’s Krystina. She’s 25, plucky, and from Southern California. She’s here to help women’s groups with micro-finance projects, but as frequently happens, she has started several other projects that have nothing to do with what she initially came for. She’s been in Ngaoundéré for almost two years and is starting to think about what re-entry into the U.S. will be like.
We grab a ride on a motorcycle taxi (or ‘moto’), as we’re headed to the hospital to visit a couple of her friends. They were actually in a moto accident and each of them has a fractured leg. (Incidentally, the youngest boy of my host family also got hit by a moto recently and his leg is in a cast). It turns out that motos are the only way to get around town, besides walking. I can’t remember the last time I was on a motorycle. As we’re zooming toward the hospital, I pray we don’t crash into anyone, and that no one crashes into us.