Friday, October 7, 2011

Bushwhacked in a bush taxi

I’ve been meaning for awhile to write a post (or few) about travel in Cameroon. Had I been on the ball earlier, this entry would have a different tone. It would have been filled with tales of adventure told from a wryly humorous point of view. But this is today. Today, I have traveled enough miles through enough days over enough dirt and been stuck in enough mud to sum up my feelings about travel in Cameroon in one simple sentence: Please, if it’s not absolutely necessary, please, don’t make me do it.

There are several ways to get around this country. You can hop on a moto (you know, as in “motorcycle”) in most towns to go short distances, and usually you won’t pay more than 200 francs (about 40 cents). These things aren’t hogs a la Hell’s Angels, but neither are they putt-puttering Vespas. They’re in the middling range, size-wise, and they’re the most common mode of transport in Bertoua the regional capital of the East, where I live.

I should have mentioned that, of course, you can also walk. That’s not practical in Bertoua, but the town where I live is small enough that mostly I avoid “moto taxis,” unless I’m out after 9:00 or so at night (which almost never happens). If you’re by yourself, your moto driver will carry you alone to your destination. But never fear if you also have a large wheeled suitcase, a full backpack, and a market bag the size of, well, me. Your taxi man will kindly strap your suitcase in back, put your market bag in his lap, and let you climb on behind him with your backpack balanced on your knee. And never mind if you’re with friends. I’ve seen a moto heaving along with four adults lined up on back, no problem. The most I’ve seen, I think, is six: a couple adults and four kids. But that’s nothing. You could add a baby or two to that load, easy. (Peace Corps disclaimer: I myself have never ridden a moto with more than two passengers (three people, total). I will say nothing of cargo.)

In big cities such as Yaounde (the national capital) or Douala (the main Atlantic port), you’d probably take a regular taxi. These are five-seater hatchbacks that (legally) carry five passengers. That’s right, that’s six people in five seats: three in back, one in the driver’s seat, one sort of hovering over the gear shift, and one by the window. (So, how many Peace Corps volunteers can fit in a Cameroonian taxi? I leave the punch line to that joke to your imagination.) Mind you, six is just the usual number for short jaunts about town.

There are also bush taxis. These are the same little cars, but they are for long treks between villages – trips through the bush, as it were. Somehow, “bush taxis” have infinitely greater capacity than “taxis” (and their drivers have mad skills any city-slicker taxi man could never hope to possess). In a bush taxi, the acceptable number of people is seven: four in back, three in front. But the usual number is eight, the last person riding “petit chauffeur,” sharing the driver’s seat. (For the record, babies and small children don’t count as passengers. They ride for free on laps or between knees. They are not included in this figure of eight.)

The difference between the “acceptable number” and the “usual number” is that the petit chauffeur has to get out before a gendarme checkpoint and walk well past it before getting back in the bush taxi. The driver and six passengers will not be stopped and questioned by the checkpoint guards (at least not about the issue of carrying capacity), but the driver and seven passengers most certainly would be. Nobody’s fooling anybody in these situations. The eighth person (who, actually, is often the driver’s helper) sometimes hops out of the car just 10 or 20 yards away from, and in plain sight of, the gendarme stop. The point seems to be just that he isn’t in the car when it pulls up to the gate. (Gendarmes (literally “armed people”), I believe, make up an arm (ha!) of the military who help with law enforcement – specifically with regard to travel and border crossings. In the US, we might call them border police?)

With eight people in a five-seater vehicle, you’d think we’ve maxed out our capacity by now. Au contraire. Don’t forget the hatchback or trunk (which you get depends on the car). This space is handy for many things. Sometimes, an extra couple of passengers can cozy up back there, their feet dangling out from under the partially closed trunk lid. Generally, however, the way back is needed for cargo. Most of the time the duffel and market bags, the goats and chickens, the regimes of plantains, and 50-pound sacks of corn or hot peppers are stuffed in and strapped down under a half-open hatch. Finally, that’s it, right? Nope. There’s still plenty of room on top of that half-open lid, between it and the back window, behind which sit the back four passengers. Six or eight more sacks or a sheep or two can be secured there. And all of it, excluding the animals, is courteously protected from the elements by a plastic tarp. Sometimes the driver even finds room for a string of freshly caught fish he buys along the way. Ashia to my friends whose bags then reeked of said fish at the end of that journey. (“Ashia” or “assia” is a Cameroonian term expressing sympathy. It’s kind of like “Sorry, man” or “Aw, gee, that sucks,” only it carries a much more heartfelt “I feel ya” vibe than any English equivalent.)

Bush taxis aren’t meant for pavement or even level dirt roads. They go only where most other public transportation cannot or would not dare set out. Depending on the season, you’re in for hours of inhaling either dust or the fumes of exhaust and a burning clutch. Also depending on the season, you will either sweat, stink, and get stuck to thighs or in the armpits of your neighbor passengers or trek an unknown number of kilometers, barefoot, through calf-deep mud, while your driver, the petit chauffeur, and kindly village boys try to heave the car out of the latest impassable pit. No matter the season, you will always be uncomfortable, dirty, sore, utterly exhausted, and perhaps at least mildly irritable when what was supposed to be your four-hour journey drags into a 12-hour haul.

Some words of advice for white people (in Cameroon, just about everyone who’s not African is “white” or at least “mixed” (even black Westerners): If you have to ride in a bush taxi, don’t share the front seat unless you’re with a Cameroonian (or other host-country) stranger or a very good friend. With a stranger, you both know you have to get cozy with another stranger, and neither of you minds adjusting yourself however you need to, as often as you need to during the course of the trip. You both know what traveling is like in-country, and if you annoy each other, no biggie; you’ll hopefully never see each other again. With a very good friend, you can lean on each other, switch whose shoulder is on top of whose, frequently (and without ire) switch who must sit against the gear shift, sweat, sleep, drool, or cough on each other.

Avoid sharing the front seat with another Westerner you don’t know very well. This can result in each party vainly trying not to invade the space of the other, which makes both that much more uncomfortable, physically and psychologically. It can mean you won’t ask to switch places, even though you’ve been sitting on the gear shift for more than six hours now, and you’re starting to resent that your fellow Westerner hasn’t even offered to trade. And at road’s end, it can leave both people more bruised and battered than was really necessary for either.

If you’re little and you’re made to ride petit chauffeur, don’t fight it. And don’t feel bad for falling asleep on the driver’s shoulder. You should be grateful that the bumps and impassable pits were few enough that you could get any sleep at all. But also, never volunteer to be petit chauffeur. Why cause yourself undue pain? If the driver’s helper (thankfully) is riding on the roof of the car, don’t be mad when he has to come in, soaking, when it starts to rain or that he’s too big to ride next to the driver and must straddle the gear shift, getting you wet and sludge-y, too. Be happy that he tests out the depth of those mud pits before the driver tries to negotiate them himself and that he, not you, is one of the ones pushing the car out of that silt-filled pool.

And when you stop before that giant truckload of army guys because it’s only prudent to show your deference and pay your respects to them before moving on; and when you wonder why those soldiers are there and what they’re doing and who is that non-uniformed woman with them, anyway?; and when they catcall you and ask you to come out of the car to shake their hands, try to remember you’re acquiring a story to tell back home and that you’re privileged to be inching along in the heart of a dense, lush, gorgeous rainforest, bursting with the gurgling, rushing sounds of water and the hum of abundant life – a childhood dream come true.

And finally, when you see another Westerner in another vehicle on the road, always try to stop and talk with him. It’s always nice to see a “familiar” face and find out why he’s trekking through this far corner of the globe – maybe it’s because his wife is from one of these jungle villages, and they’re coming back to visit her kith and kin. And maybe one day, that will be you doing the same.

A bush taxi is probably the mode of transport I dread most in Cameroon. But as I write this, I also realize that it’s what you take when you want to get somewhere remote, somewhere in the lesser developed wilds of a developing country. It’s what will take you on the greatest adventures – through oil palm plantations to the edge of the rainforest where you plan to hike the next day; through the rainforest to the construction marvel of an actual city with paved streets; through emerald-studded mountains to the birth village of your husband-to-be.

I will never jump in a bush taxi just for kicks. But if, at the end of that road less-traveled, adventure awaits, then I will suffer those grueling, dirty hours in the name of discovery. And I’ll try to remember that the journey is as much of an adventure all by itself.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I love the garish day-glo

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

O.m.g, I love pagne! This is what I wrote to remind myself what I wanted this post to be about. Pagne is a six-yard length of cloth sporting designs ranging from vitamin bottles or high heels to flora and fauna to geometric shapes. And it displays just about every color combination one can imagine, from brown and cream to olive with pastel-metallic pink and green accents. Traveling around recently, I saw a Muslim woman in her 4-piece outfit, her orange, blue, and mottled green pagne printed with onions cut in half. I want that! Men and women all over Africa buy pagne and have it made into Sunday-best dresses and pants suits, kabbahs (a.k.a muumuus), or boubous (the pants-and-long-tunic get-ups that Muslim men here wear). I have it made into dresses I find in my friend’s old Cosmo magazines or outfits I design myself and draw on paper to show my tailor Odette (who, awesomely, lives not 100 paces from the end of my porch).

I never wore dresses in the States, partly because I just never saw myself as that ladylike, but mostly because I’m four sizes smaller on top than I am on bottom. Thus, if I get, say, a size 6 dress, it would fit just fine around my waist and over my derriere, but I could put a newborn child – like a joey in its mother’s pouch – in the excess space around my back and shoulders. Here, I can have clothes that are made just for me and my quirky form, so dresses and skirts have become my new norm. It’s more appropriate for women to wear dress-like garments, anyway, so I am in Cameroon, doing as the Cameroonians do. I even wore a skirt on a 12k hike through the rainforest. In fact, yesterday was the first day I’ve ever worn pants in public at post. (It was International Women’s Day, and I had my 2011 Women’s Day pagne made into a ruffly top and Capri’s.)

I love pagne because it’s brightly colored and kooky. Sometimes it makes me laugh out loud, and I just can’t stop staring at people on the street whose pagne I admire. My bank is located in the capital city of my region, 3 hours away, so I have to travel there almost every month to access my funds. I love these trips because I know I’ll always have the chance to patronize the pagne shops at Diagon Alley. Yes. Reading Harry Potter, I’d always wanted to visit Diagon Alley and its crowded, curious shops with their eccentric array of merchandise and importunate vendors. I hadn’t a clue that all I needed to do was move to eastern Cameroon. We don’t know what locals call the narrow, stony alleyway where I buy sequined scarves and pagne printed with chickens and eggs. To my region-mates and I, it will always be Diagon Alley. It twists and turns, and there are shadowy, hidden pockets of sellers I only recently discovered when I stumbled through a secret portal to find at least a dozen young men hawking a rainbow of stilettos, sneakers and soccer socks from their shrouded stalls. This place is my costume shop. And I’ve always had a thing for costumes.

When I was young, my mother managed much of the business end of a well-respected outdoor amphitheater and the productions it would put on each summer. Thus, my brother and I were always well outfitted for Halloween, and I, usually happily enough, played the part of my mother’s dress-up doll when she would borrow girly dresses from the latest production of “Annie” or “The King and I.” To her, dressing well and appropriately was always a matter of pulling together all the right elements to create a proper costume. When I was in high school, Ma worked, instead, as executive director of a small community theater in a different town. Here, my brother and I were made into actors, now costuming ourselves for legitimate purpose as we appeared in plays, musicals, and cabarets.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve adopted my mother’s attitude toward clothes as a type of costuming. So one of the things I love best about living in Cameroon is being able to dress up as ostentatiously as my imagination will allow me. There are no wrong color combinations or styles. Whereas in the States I tried to dress conservatively, always mindful of what might be out of fashion or overly odd, here anything passes, literally, with flying colors. Here, where women wear wizard sleeves and men sport shiny suits, pink satin shirts, and lacy, embroidered pants; where boys carry Barbie backpacks and girls wear flats with mini-Koosh balls attached to the toes; where members of community associations have matching outfits and almost everyone proudly owns a T-shirt featuring Barack Obama’s smiling face – no dress design I dream up will ever seem out of place. I array myself as garishly, bizarrely, or archaically as I please.

When I first moved East, as my fellow PCVs and I strolled the streets of our regional capital, my post mate asked us something like: “How long do you think it’ll be before you start wanting one of those sequined scarves like the Muslim women wear?” I already wanted one! Now, I own two: black chiffon with iridescent gold sequins and colorful, striped chiffon with rainbow sequins. Yes, all the world’s a stage, and this player’s costumes finally fit the part she’s always wanted to play.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Got the message

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

There are other aspects of Cameroonian life that make me think I’m really getting the message of the Message – sometimes in ways I’d rather not. Marriage is one. My post mates and I go out for bifteck every Thursday night, and one evening, Yahyah, the restaurant owner, invited us to his family compound for dinner. He’s Fulbe (the Muslim ethnic group here) and isn’t married yet himself, so his sisters and cousins were the ones who prepared our meal.

We visited their compound again yesterday so my post mates could get henna designs on their hands and feet. That’s when we discovered Maimouna, who has a 2-year-old son, is only 17. She’s preparing for her second marriage. We didn’t ask why the first one hadn’t worked out, but we learned that she had been 13 and a half when she had married before. I read once that Rebekah was probably only about 12 when her family agreed Isaac could have her to wife. Neither men nor women went to high school or university in biblical days, and the situation hasn’t changed all that much in Cameroon since that time – at least for women, and especially Muslim women.

Yes, many Cameroonian women today, including Fulbe ones, begin high school, and many probably finish, too. But even if their families can afford school fees and uniforms, many girls opt out of high school before graduating because they get pregnant or they or their families find someone for them to marry. In talking with adults and students, I’ve gathered that it’s the God-ordained purpose of every Cameroonian woman to bear and rear offspring. One girl even told me that God created her (and all women) for the single purpose of producing progeny. If she failed to fulfill this role, then, she would be sinning against God.

So what is a girl with a diploma going to do with her degree? She’s going to marry (or not) and have children. So why bother finishing said degree? This is one reason many girls don’t. Poverty and a poor economy is another. Why finish high school if you probably won’t be able to get a job afterward? Boys are more employable, and parents are more willing to invest in boys, anyway, so if Dad and Mom have the money to send only a few kids to school, they will send the boys. Often the best investment parents can make in and for a girl is to find her a husband who can feed her.

I should note here that men and boys also believe it their God-given mission to sire children. But they can do this without quitting school or compromising career opportunities. In fact, it is not necessarily believed to be part of men’s purpose to support their offspring; their mission is accomplished just in passing along that X or Y (preferably Y) chromosome.

This is not to say that all fathers here are deadbeats. Far from it. Family is of primary importance in Cameroon, and many, perhaps most fathers would never dream of leaving their children without support, if they could help it. Still, if a man dies with no children, he will be buried with a stem of plantains so he won’t go to the grave alone. Nothing, I suspect, would be said or done if he died with a dozen malnourished offspring who lived with their pauper mother(s) three regions away. He would be a man who had lived well because he was rich in family. This belief reminds me of some of the less progressive parts of biblical life. So does polygamy. It is a cultural construct here, not a religious one. Any man – Muslim, Christian, or animist – can have more than one wife. I’ve met a few “progressive” male thinkers who believe polygamy to be a social ill. But usually, they feel this way only because they believe women are difficult, demanding creatures who will fight with each other and be always pulling at their husband in a polygamous household. Thus, they want only one wife because she will be enough trouble all by herself.

The culture surrounding marriage here may not be as enlightened as what we’re used to in the US, but I can also see a softer side to the way things are done here. In the Bible, it was a great blessing for a woman to find a good husband, as Ruth did when she happened upon Boaz’s field. A kindly, prosperous man was the best way for a woman to care for herself, since she was mostly forbidden to earn her own living. It was her (or her family’s) objective to seek the best man for the job. And she had to “prepare him room,” to be ready for that man when he came along. When she found him, there was cause for much rejoicing. Cameroonian weddings are huge celebrations, and I think this is one reason why. A woman’s future is more secure when she finds a husband, and he can help her fulfill what most believe to be her destiny of becoming a mother. I can appreciate that.

When our friend Maimouna gets married again, my post mates and I are invited to the ceremony. We can’t wait. Muslim weddings are some of the most fun celebrations of all. When the time comes, we and the women in Maimouna’s family will draw henna designs on our hands, feet, and chest. We may also be invited to buy matching wedding cloth to make a full Muslim get-up: a top, wrap skirt, salabi (head wrap), and shoulder covering. Women may not have as many professional options here, but I like how they make up for that in some way by creating community. Women are always working – cooking, washing, planting, sewing – but they are always working together. They commune with one another. They support each other. They deliver – and care for – one another’s children.

When I was part of the “hosting group” for the teachers’ social club at school, the male teachers sat inside the house, while the female ones and I inhabited a whole other (and I like to think nicer) world out back in the kitchen outside. When Maimouna’s big day arrives, we will be among the female family members preparing her for her bridal rites. I’m definitely looking forward to that.

The parable of the brides with their oil lamps makes more sense to me now, too. Of, I think, 10 of them, five had their lamps trimmed and burning, while the rest were unprepared for the bridegroom’s arrival and begged to borrow oil from their wiser sisters. No, said the women at the ready; the others would have to go to market and buy oil for themselves. In the meantime, the bridegroom came, and only the first five where taken in to the marriage ceremony. I am fortunate to have electricity at my post, but it cuts out almost every day and, often, for several days at a time. If I’ve run out of petrol or haven’t bothered to pour any into my lamps, I’m in a pitiful way come nightfall. I’ve now experienced the peace of mind of knowing my wicks are trimmed and my lamps are full, as well as the anxiety of realizing my reservoirs are running low. The latter times have taught me to be ever ready for the darkest of moonless nights.

Electricity cuts have also taught me never to let my water reserves dwindle. I also have running water in my house, but when the power goes out, the water goes with it, and there is no well or pump nearby. Water will always be a precious commodity, but it was especially so in the regions where Joseph and David and Jesus lived. The characters of the Bible fought over wells and the right to dig them, and lives were on the line if they ever went brackish or became polluted. I would fight, too. I’ve been harried the few times a water outage caught me off guard. And I’ve been amazed when my buckets are full at how long I can make the water in them last. I’m extra conservative in rinsing soapy dishes after a meal; I cut back on bathing, too, when the water goes out. Cameroonians, I think, are always extra conservative when it comes to bath water. So I get it on a whole new level how important perfumed oils and resins were during biblical days. Some folks here could definitely profit from a little frankincense and myrrh.

Subsistence farming is something else that reminds me of the manners and customs of the Bible. I think the opening scene in the movie “Nativity Story,” with Keisha Castle-Hughes, shows a teenaged Mary in long, loose robes seeding a small plot with other neighborhood kids. This is a familiar scene in Cameroon, too. People don’t grow all the food they need on personal plots here, but almost all of them have small fields that produce a few staples. Most in my class of 60 boys don’t show up to our Tuesday afternoon sessions. I learned yesterday from the 20 who did come that one reason is because they have to go home to work their families’ farms. Of those present, all had a “champ.” Many Francophone Cameroonians, I’ve learned, don’t actually know the French word for “farm.” They say, instead, “field,” which is much more apt, since there aren’t many operations around that comprise much more than a single field.

Mary’s robes make more sense to me now, too. I used to ask my Muslim students in Kentucky weren’t they hot in their long-sleeved, ankle-length garments? No! They’d have me feel the lightness of the fabric and show me how roomy the dress was inside. Here, I’ve found that the more fitted the clothing, the hotter I feel – even if said clothing is a tank top. I rarely go out anymore without a scarf over my head and shoulders. Even with the extra layer of fabric, my neck and arms stay so much less sweaty (and less crispy) than they do when subjected to direct sun. My new favorite garment is a kabba, known better in the US as a muumuu. They are ubiquitous in West Africa, and I now know why: because the looser the clothes, the cooler the body. Thank goodness that walking out in public wearing a housedress is perfectly acceptable where I live now. These days, when it comes to style, well, I just don’t sweat it.

Bleating footsteps

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live during biblical times. How much more profoundly would the allusions and allegories of the Bible resonate with me then? How much more would I feel the weight of the Word? Sojourning in Cameroon gives me some idea.

The Bible abounds with references to husbandry, most significantly in relation to shepherds and sheep. The famed 23rd Psalm talks about how the Lord treats His children with the same protectiveness, discipline, and tender affection that a shepherd shows in caring for his flock. In Cameroon, there is plenty of livestock, including hairy (not wooly) sheep. I’m not sure how sentimental shepherd boys and men here feel toward their sheep, but they certainly know the worth of every individual. To let one animal languish or wander away would be to keep food from a family member’s hungry mouth. I pondered this walking home from school one day, stuck behind a boy and his flock. I loved watching his watchful eye as he herded the sheep, using stern words and a switch to prod the bleating strays back into line. I thought of the verse, “thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” That switch wasn’t meant to hurt the boy’s charges; it just served as a measure of discipline so that none would be left behind and all would remain safe. So I’ve been taught that if we are met with merited rebuke, it is not to punish but to guide and protect. Here I saw that principle in action, and it was, indeed, a comfort.

Once, I passed a lone sheep tied up in a median in the road. When I came back that way, its apparent owner loosed it and led it away just in front of me and my post mate. I couldn’t get enough of its throaty “maaaaas” or the idea that this teenager was leading it safely home, as a well loved hymn says our tender, loving Shepherd does with us, His children. And when I see newborn lambs whose coats are still snowy and bright, I’m reminded of a line from another hymn, “white as wool ere they depart, Shepherd wash them clean” (Christian Science Hymnal No. 304).

When I’m traveling, and I spot cattle on the road in front of our bus, I don’t mind stopping for them to pass. They’re beautiful animals with long horns and a hump at the nape of their necks that stores water for dry days. Sitting in the bus keeps me grounded in the 21st century, but pausing on a dirt path for grazing herds takes me back to antediluvian days. So does seeing goats skipping over our school grounds. (The notes of their “ma-aa-aas” are a little higher and more staccato than those of their ovine cousins.)

Eyeing the porkers and their piglets perusing the neighborhood trash pile, I understand why the children of Israel avoided bacon and ham, delicious as they may be. Their diet of detritus notwithstanding, pigs – especially brand-new babies – are my favorite sight in town. One morning on the way to class, I watched six tiny, black piglets rush their waddling mother, nosing her teats until she rolled over in resignation and let them suckle with abandon.

Another celebrated psalm – the 91st – comes to mind when I see hens and ducks guarding their broods. It says, “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” One of my grandmother’s favorite memories from childhood was watching a mother hen spread her wings over her chicks, folding them up in her feathers to protect them from an approaching storm. I think the scene was so stirring because it reminded her, too, of the 91st psalm, which says also that the Lord is our refuge and fortress, just as that hen was a refuge for her little ones.

Walking roads of packed earth takes me back a few ages, too. Foot and moto traffic always kicks up fine dust, which settles in your hair and edges under the doors of houses along the route. But during dry season, the dust grains multiply, collecting in the creases of your skin, in your ears and nostrils, and turning your feet a shade of orange usually seen only when spray-tanning sessions go bad. I get it now why foot washing was such a gesture of hospitality and respect during biblical times. Here, where heels crack and feet feel perpetually chalky, I might bow before anyone who offered even to hose mine down from a distance.

But Jesus didn’t keep his distance. He got right down on the floor with his disciples. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty to cleanse the soles of those he loved best. And none but the most profound affection could have motivated such an act. I wouldn’t go out of my way to touch the feet of someone fresh out of the shower. But to gently wash a pair of feet whereon grime and sweat have left a muddy paste – well, maybe I would do it for my child or the love of my life. I guess all the children of this world were the loves of Jesus’ life. There he was, he who was hailed the King of kings, stooping before some of society’s lowliest misfits to wipe the grit from their lowliest of limbs. Peter protested at first. In the end, though, he gratefully accepted his master’s tender gesture of devotion.

When Jesus laid aside his now soiled towel, he asked the twelve, “Know ye what I have done to you?” “Ye call me Master and Lord,” he added, “and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

I now understand much better the significance of this example. I know what a big deal it would be for someone to wash my feet for me. And I get it how much I would have to love someone to do the same for him. But we are to so love the whole world that we would humble ourselves to the utmost to wash away the figurative – and perhaps literal – grunge from the very feet of humanity. To reach the largeness and largess of such love is the journey set before us. My little feet have many paces to go before I get there.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Uncanny confidence

Sunday, 5 December 2010

I begin this post with a confession: I spent much of the past several years being almost paralyzed by the enormity of the world and its and knowledge base and my insignificance by comparison. My mother always counseled, “Keep your eyes on your own page” and don’t compare your talents or weaknesses with others’. She gave good advice – that I’ve rarely been able to follow.

As I waded through the graduate-school application process nearly seven years ago, I went from seeing myself as a self-assured, prize-carrying college graduate to realizing, crestfallen, that I was just one more wet-the-behind-ears neophyte being swept along in the current of grown-up life. Even more discouraging was the feeling that in my newly adopted town of Washington, DC, it sometimes seemed that just about anyone would pull you under, if he could. Of all the experience and accomplishment sloshing around the graduate applicant pool, only maybe a duo-decillionth of it was my own.

From this dejected state, I strove, with little success, to bounce back. I began to worry that, even with a degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, I would never find a job in my field because I just didn’t have the necessary experience. After completing the first year of my program, however, a job offer all but dropped in my lap. It wasn’t in my field, but in the back of my consciousness, I had, for years, entertained the idea that one day, I’d love to work for a certain New England newspaper.

I’d never really thought of myself as the journalist type, but when the opportunity to work at my favorite daily presented itself, I had to seize it. Besides, I thought, this will give me the experience I feel I’ve been lacking and will make my degree (which I’d hoped to finish in the future) that much more significant.

When I moved to Boston, I set myself the arbitrary goal of staying with the paper at least three years – more if journalism turned out to be my calling. My calling it was not, but I did make my three-year mark in the frosty north. I sat two years at the op-ed and editorial desks and one year in the home and garden section of the paper.

I thought spending time learning a trade – the craft of editing, writing, and reporting – would make me feel like I had a useful skill set to offer future employers or grad schools, like I’d finally accrued enough experience and understanding to be called a successful adult. Instead, I felt that what I had to give (and I wasn’t sure what that was) was dwarfed again by the cumulative perspicacity and veteran know-how of the writers and editors around me. I was awed by their deftness, frustrated that most had neither the time nor the inclination to hold the hand of a novice editor, and terrified that any question I asked would reveal the enormous deficit in my expertise and ability.

Momentary mental paralysis may have been normal in the face of such a large learning curve. I, however, barely inched past this block during all my 10-, 12-, and occasionally 16-hour days in the newsroom. And yet, I wouldn’t trade one second at the paper. Friends and colleagues, I think, saw potential in me and were frustrated, right along with me, that I wasn’t reaching it. But all the time I felt at a standstill, I’ve since realized was actually a period of great growth. I’ve seen in small ways how my writing, editing, observation, and analytical skills have vastly improved. If this is evident in no other way, I see it in how I handle the task of wordsmithing. When I have to write or edit these days, the job is not so slow and arduous. The “birthing process,” as my friend and former boss calls it, is not so painful, and thus, I don’t fear it.

Besides this improvement, I think my dilettante days in journalism actually did add up to some worthy experience. This makes me feel mentally a lot more like a real adult – finally. Still, even this sense was tardy to arrive. After I quit the paper, I went back “home” – to my mother and step-father’s house, where I had never actually lived, and to the town of my birth, where I hadn’t resided in 16 years.

To be 28 and living, in part, off your family’s resources is no confidence booster. In hindsight, though, I see that this time, too, amounted to wisdom gained and capability honed. By the end of my year teaching English to refugees, I’d worn several hats and built some beautiful relationships, which, as they should be, are much more dear to me than any skill set.

Confidence came in force, it seemed, the moment I stepped off the plane as a Peace Corps trainee in Cameroon. Or rather, “freedom” is, perhaps, a better word. Outside my own culture, where no one knew how a “normal” or “accomplished” American was supposed to look, I felt I could be myself. I stepped out from under the shadow of other people’s accomplishments and felt free to enjoy every new experience – not for what it would bring to my flat, faceless resume, but for how it could enrich me and my life – and no one else’s.

Yes, we had assignments and deadlines during those three months of training. But I did what I had to each day, not worrying so much about that project that was coming due in X number of days. What I find interesting having come out of that protective training bubble is that my new sense of freedom and self-assurance has ebbed (but not evaporated).

Training was a this magical time when, although I was with other Americans who know how Americans “ought” to be, I rested assured that they, too, must also have some atypical air about them to have signed up for Peace Corps in the first place. So I didn’t worry about revealing my quirks or weaknesses or questions or sense of humor or even sense of fashion. I figured those who would love me would love those traits. Or they wouldn’t love me at all, but they probably wouldn’t hate me or judge me by my resume, either.

I danced for the first time in years (if you can call how I move “dancing”). I had no shame about sporting the atrocious sack-shaped dresses (known as a “kabba”) and hairstyles my home-stay family loved to give me. I loved not feeling self-conscious about my usually sweat-soaked attire or the salt marks left behind when the perspiration dried. We were in Africa, and even the most professional people were sweating as visibly as I.

When I first was able to Skype with my family, my step-sister commented that she hadn’t seen me smile so much in years. Yes, she said “years.” I had to cry a little, knowing she was right – but not for long. Before I came to Cameroon, I could count on one hand the number of times in the past seven years that I had laughed so hard I teared up. Here, it happens routinely.

When I think of these past several years now, I remember a favorite church hymn, to the tune of the Irish ditty, “O, Danny Boy.” Part of one verse portrays perfectly my sentiment: “He [meaning the Christ] comes to give thee joy for desolation / beauty for ashes of the vanished years / for every tear to bring full compensation / to give thee confidence for all thy fears.”

Looking back on those vanished years now, I see the beauty in them. I wouldn’t change anything about them, even if I had the opportunity. And I’ve certainly been blessed, in full measure, with joy, compensation, and confidence these past several months.

Not everything since joining Peace Corps has been easy. Gone are the heady days of self-assurance I felt during training. Sometimes, among the other volunteers in my region, I still feel a bit like an outsider. I don’t always feel sure of what my next steps will be after my two years of service. And since starting a real teaching job at a real school, I’ve often felt overwhelmed, exasperated, inadequate, and way too busy. Nevertheless, I love my students, and I like my work. I don’t worry about being perfect or keeping up with the Joneses’ careers or that the mistakes I make are beyond correction.

I feel sure enough of good, of myself, of Life itself to commit to a plan: I’m thinking of moving to the same town where my immediate family is moving and of going to law school, which I think would suit me and my special gifts. This plan could change, but the thought of seeing such an intention through to fruition doesn’t frighten me the way it did when I ran away from grad school the first time, fled a potential career in journalism, broke out of the family labor camp (aka my grandmother’s mental-health business), and took flight to Cameroon.

There’s a Bible verse I love that says, “Forever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven.” I’ve clung to it often since graduating college. I still don’t know what my future holds. But, at last, I think I may be settled enough in my adult life to feel at peace about whatever lies behind the dim unknown.

I wanna hold his hand

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Today was the first of two “journees pedagogiques,” which resemble teacher in-service days in the US. My friend and fellow PCV from the next town over came to my ’ville for the seminars. Since a lot of presentations like this are, in large part, pomp, I spent most of the opening ceremony reading articles I had torn out of sundry issues of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper and brought with me to Cameroon.

My friend’s “prison bus” didn’t arrive until mid-morning, so she showed up late to the gathering at school. I had spent the half hour before she came trying to get through an article that wasn’t more than 800 or 900 words. I couldn’t finish. I had made it about one-quarter the way through, but each time I tried to read on, I started crying.

In each of its print issues, the Monitor includes a spot on “People making a difference.” That edition’s “PMAD” story was about a woman, Sara Terry, who had created The Aftermath Project, a nonprofit that funds the work of photographers who wish to document how life goes on after war and conflict have ended. The project was born out of Ms. Terry’s experience as a photojournalist after the mass graves at Srebrenica were uncovered following the spate of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Although she didn’t want to, Terry eventually captured up-close shots of the grave where lay the bodies of Muslims killed in the massacre.

When I came to this line, my vision blurred: “Then [Terry] turned her camera on the anthropologist as she gently cradled a teenage boy’s partially preserved hand in the muck.”

I was in middle school as this latest tragedy in the Balkans exploded on the global scene. By this time, my family had moved away from my hometown, but I still kept in touch with my best friend from childhood there. In high school, she had two close friends whom, she said, were Bosnian. I’d heard many good things about them, but as the years wore on, those stories slipped from memory.

Then, seven months into my teaching job at the refugee center, I met a young man, also a teacher there, who’d come looking for my colleague to collect some English workbooks from her. He and I exchanged a few pleasantries, including clearing up that I was not, in fact, 14 or the daughter of my co-worker. My co-worker was driving me the few blocks home that afternoon, and as we pulled away from the curb, she mentioned that the man I’d just met was Bosnian. Instantly, those forgotten tidbits about my friend’s high school classmates flooded my mind. Although my hometown has a sizable Bosnian population, I just knew this man had been the boy I’d heard so much about all those years ago.

At the corner, my colleague stopped at a red light, and I seized that opportunity to roll down the window and holler across the street, “How long have you been in the US?”
“Since ’95,” came the response.
“Did you go to [my friend’s high school]?”
“Do you know [my friend]?”

Let me interject that my new acquaintance had been with someone else when he came looking for my co-worker. I didn’t know who his companion was but thought maybe he was my friend’s other Bosnian classmate. When I asked whether Bosnian No. 1 knew my friend, both boys’ eyes lit up, and they smiled as they exchanged looks of surprise and shouted, “Yes!” By then, the light was green, so off we drove.

As soon as I’d eaten lunch, I facebooked my friend to say I thought I’d just met her Bosnian BFFs and was very excited. She confirmed the identity of Bosnian No. 1 but said his friend couldn’t have been Bosnian No. 2 because he now lived in another state and was currently doing doctoral research in Bosnia. Not so, I learned a few days later. Bosnian No. 2 had just returned to the States and was visiting his best friend in my hometown. The night before Thanksgiving, No. 1 invited me out with No. 2 and another friend of my childhood friend. After just a couple of hours, it was as if the three of us had been pals for years. I loved these boys and my friend’s best girlfriend.

Over many cups of coffee and tea, from biting winter evenings to balmy spring afternoons, Bosnian No. 1 allowed me to plumb his memories of his Balkan childhood. He let me see inside some of his heart.

His family had been refugees from the genocide. He and his brother were “mixed marriage” children, the sons of a Muslim father and Catholic mother. In their small town, Muslims and Christians had coexisted peacefully. But, as I understand it, when Serbs started killing Muslim Bosniaks, and, eventually, Christian Croats turned on the same group, there was no safe place for families of mixed cultural backgrounds like my friend’s. It didn’t matter that they were not themselves practitioners of either faith.

My friend’s town was not at the epicenter of the carnage. As the battles edged ever nearer, however, mother and father sent away their 12-year-old son to live with his grandparents in their summer home on the fabled Adriatic coast in Croatia. Parents and big brother stayed behind, hoping to wait out the conflict. When the war didn’t abate, they got out, got refugee status, and were resettled in the US.

By then, my new friend was 15. He didn’t have to witness the bloodshed his people suffered. But he was a boy, knowing that his people knew brutality. He was a half-Muslim boy who had been about the same age as the Muslim boy to whom that partially preserved hand belonged.

When I read about this young Bosnian boy whose life had not been spared, I wanted so much to hold my friend’s hand – not that man’s hand of his, but that child-hand he used to have. I wanted to kiss its palm and breathe thanks for its escape from evil. I wanted to whisper how grateful I am that it survived to touch my life and heart.

Eventually, I made it through the rest of the article. But the way the writer (and, I’m sure, Ms. Terry) drew such a gentle image from a scene of such horror still makes me misty-eyed. And the thought of my friend’s slender, now grown-up hands reaching out and up from a nation’s tragedy makes me smile through the tears.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Where the boys are

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

In spite of my bewilderment and exasperation and just plain fatigue at all the (negative and positive) attention I receive in this country, I am grateful for the friends in my town who have adopted me.

The head of one of the travel agencies in my village has taken care of bus tickets and package shuttling for Peace Corps volunteers at my post for at least the past 12 years. He’s proud to have the phone numbers of so many Americans in his contact list. He found painters and negotiated a good price for them to paint the interior and exterior of my and my post mate’s houses. He brought us lunches and snacks while we were homebound making sure the painters weren’t tempted to steal anything. He was ready to send a driver to pick us up last weekend when the road back home was blocked by a log truck that had stalled and slipped cockeyed down a hill. He regularly stops by to ask about our health and readily teaches us any Fulfulde phrases we ask about.

The head of security for an American-owned company in my region used to work for Peace Corps and has befriended countless volunteers over the years. When we arrived in town our first day at post, he brought a borrowed pickup truck to haul our trunks and bikes and suitcases to our houses. He rushed to my aid my second morning when I discovered my faucets and showerhead didn’t work. He was at my post mate’s front door not 10 minutes after she called to say her lock had broken and she couldn’t get into her house. He’s always ready with a smile and a hearty laugh and is never shy about poking gentle fun at our American ways. (Recently, my and my post-mate’s neighborhood were without electricity for close to eight days. One friend’s water runs by electric pump to a water tower in her yard, so without current, her tower ran dry. She asked our friend if he could take her to a public pump so she could fill one of her emergency water containers. But he had already thought her. He said he was planning to bring a generator to her house the next day so she could have electricity long enough to fill her entire water tower. Amazing!)

My post mate’s “community host” at the small business where she works invited us a few times for the bouille (a drink made of rice or corn and sometimes peanuts), dates, fried rice, and sweet rice beignets with which he broke his Ramadan fast in the evenings. He’s always ready to answer cultural questions or to teach a bit of French or Fulfulde. My two female post mates and I may not see eye-to-eye with him concerning the place of women in society, but he, too, has an easy smile and jolly laugh. It’s been fun to have him and the other guys join us for meals, movies, and nights out.

My own community host turned out to be a young man with thoroughly modern ideas: He wanted to help me learn my way around school and the local culture, but he wanted to learn from me, as well, notwithstanding my sex. We were to collaborate. “I don’t want to overshadow my shadow,” he said in English. (He’s an Anglophone from the Northwest, part of the 20 percent of the country that was colonized by Britain after World War I).

I was sad at first that all the volunteers in the East are women. But it wasn’t long before I saw how perfect it is. When we’re all together, for business or pleasure, we don’t have to think about censoring girl talk, which mostly consists of unloading the special frustrations we face as female volunteers in a patriarchal society. And in my town, in particular, I certainly don’t want for male companionship, despite the lack of American boys here. I have all these wonderful Cameroonian men who have offered all kinds of manly help and friendship to me and my American sisters since we arrived at post. I owe them a great debt of gratitude for making sure I’ve been taken care of – and have had fun – since I started my service as an official PC volunteer. Inshallah, we will be friends for a long time.