3/14/12 – Getting Used To Cameroon
Visitors are always dropping by my host family’s house. This is what people do here; they stop in on their neighbors and say hello. Most of the time, it’s women, but once in a while, male relatives or family friends pop by during meal breaks from work. The typical meal consists of a thick paste made of ground corn (this is the staple starch, aka ‘cous cous’, which you tear into little pieces and pick up the rest of your food with), served with a soupy, gooey side of mashed okra and pumpkin leaves (aka ‘legumes’).
Mairamou makes a ton of cous cous and legumes for lunch and dinner, and there’s always enough to feed her five kids, as well as the three or four neighborhood kids who happen to be around, plus the various adults that might drop by and want a bite to eat. Also, she often makes an extra dish with a Western bent to it, like pasta or frites.
I’ve become more or less an accepted member of the family, albeit one that they speak French instead of Fulfulde to. The kids always want to know where I’m going and when I’m coming back. Sometimes they hijack me to walk them to the boutique for orange drink powder. In turn, I hijack them to take me to the neighbor who sells the little bags of frozen hibiscus juice for 25 cents a pop (the frozen-juice-bag, here called an ‘Alaska,’ is one of the few ways housewives have of making money). The kids’ all-time favorite thing is having their picture taken and shown to them; the expression on their faces the first time I play back a video of them is priceless.
I’m picking up a few phrases in Fulfulde, such as ‘How are you?’ (Jam na?), ‘Fine thanks’ (Jam ko dume), ‘Good night’ (Cefa jira), and ‘You’re here/I’m here’ (Awarti na/Mi warti). These are great currency for making friends with the locals. Failing these, a friendly ‘bonjour’ seems to do the trick.
Northern Cameroonian French is decidedly funky. It has drawn-out vowels and a sort of lilt that sounds to me like Cajun. For example, they say ‘parse-kay’ and ahn-sahm-blay’ rather than ‘pars-kuh’ and ‘on-som-bluh’. They also play fast-and-loose with French grammar, which is fine by me because I’d forgotten half of it anyway from lack of use. Not surprisingly, it’s easiest to communicate with the kids of my host family. I help them with their English (and teach them a little Spanish), and they help me practice French. A couple of my favorite overheard French phrases: ‘On est ensemble’ (rough translation: We’re in this together) and ‘On dit la vérité’ (rough translation: True, that).
I go out with Mairamou at all hours; we go to the open-air market, to the cloth shop, to the lady down the alley who sells tomatoes at way cheaper prices than the market, and of course to visit neighbors.
The thirteen-year-old, Abdoul, and a bunch of his buddies take me to hike to the top of nearby Mt. Cameroun. It’s a tall-ish pile of boulders from which one can see a panoramic view of Ngaoundéré. The oldest girl, Yasmin, who is nine, is allowed to come with us. I ask her how many times she’s been; she thinks, then answers ‘Five’. I ask Abdoul how many times he’s been; he answers ‘Too many to count.’ Along the way, we meet a man who is putting rocks in a wheelbarrow. It turns out he’s building a house, he’s also a teacher in town, and he wants my phone number. The kids are amused. I pretend I don’t speak French.
I’ve now met twice with the man who runs the women’s soccer league; his name is Etienne. He’s also the head of Ngaoundéré’s Delegation of Sports. He’s an imposing fellow in his early 50’s, from the Southern Cameroonian town of Dschang (to give you a sense of the country’s size, it’s about as big as the state of California.) Etienne volunteers a lot of his time and is heavily involved in community event planning, especially if it’s a sporting event of any kind. He’s the first Christian I’ve met in this largely Muslim town, and when I tell him who I’m staying with, his eyes sort of glaze over and he says he doesn’t really know the family (even though he’s worked extensively with the Americans who have stayed with this family). It occurs to me that perhaps the Christians and the Muslims don’t really mix (except of course when they’re playing on the same soccer team).
We set up a meeting at the large public plaza (La Place de l’Independence) where the there’s a practice for the girls being held by the infamous Abou Bakar. Abou Bakar is one of the girls’ coaches. He’s in his early 40’s, short, skinny, and fierce. He’s been coaching soccer for ten years and loves it, though he’s found that he’s had to have more patience with girls. During practice, he barks: ‘There’s no difference between girls who play and boys who play!!!’ ‘Why are you afraid of the ball???’ ‘What was that???’ ‘Voilà! That’s it!!!’
Once practice is over, I go to a bar with Etienne, who has been observing quietly the entire time. After two beers, Etienne is answering my questions about gender inequality with passionate monologues. I ask him about his personal views on foreign aid in Cameroon, since he’s worked with both the Peace Corps and a U.S. based non-profit. He tells me change in Cameroon is characterized by slow evolution, because the people’s mentality isn’t primed for it. He also cites poverty as a major obstacle to social progress. It’s my first frank conversation with someone about ‘the way things are’ in Cameroon.