Terence Spr 09


Wow. Five weeks under my belt, and I still feel live I’ve just gotten here. My how time flies! My classes are going great, though my Religion and Culture professor did manage to insult my faith the other day. I believe the words he used were “proselytizing,” “self-righteous,” “xenophobic,” and “doctrinaire.” It’s very clear to me now; Cameroonians do not mince words, and they most certainly say what they feel. I will admit, I did not feel up to the task of defending the foundation of my life to the entire class and an articulate sage of a professor. True, his comparison of Western, Abrahamic religions to African religions was very telling. African religions, according to our professor, do not seek to convert. They do not claim epistemological superiority. They do not have a set of rules to follow. ANd they do not have an institutionalized place of worship. I do not know our professor’s claim to faith. Or if he has one. But I do know that most attempts of scholarly analysis or delineation of religion do not do them justice. Our professor is Western-educated, so he certainly exhibits some of what I would call an Afro-Occidental paradox, which I explored in my last blog entry. But his ideas on religion were definitely European-secular, if with a touch of pan-Africanist pride (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). Perhaps the church as an identity can appear “xenophobic,” or “epistemologically arrogant,” or whatever. But most people who ascribe to most faiths cannot fairly be described as such. As a Christian, I would argue that faith comes with a noted measure of doubt. Also, the only real rules I follow as a result of my faith are that I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ His Holy Son Our Lord; and that God is Love, so we should seek to love one another as much as He loves us. I don’t think those “rules” are so bad. It just so happens that the Ten Commandments stem from those beliefs. If you break one of the Ten Commandments, it’s most likely because you’re not really making an effort to love others. As far as “conversion” or “proselytization” goes, my only acts to that effect are to try to share God’s love with others. Is that so bad? Oh well, rant complete. I guess it’s good to know that even Africans make generalizations.

On to other things. Two fresh tidbits to say about African culture: people are more than comfortabke with silence, and you will (unfortunately) not survive here unless you master “the fine art of lying.”

I am not particularly ok with silence. I think it may be safe to say that most Americans aren’t. I don’t know why this is exactly; are we just so accustomed to noise? Do we innately believe that silence equates to a lack of interaction or connection? Or do we assume that it means uncomfortability or incompatibility with someone? In any case, Africans do not ascribe to such beliefs. They can sit for hours in silence without a) feeling uncomfortable, b) falling asleep, or c) getting restless. I suppose we Western folk often associate silence with inaction or laziness. We have to keep busy, and say everything, because otherwise we “won’t have time” to get everything done or say everything that needs to be said. One of our professors here once explained to me why this is the African way: “Why do you Americans always think you are running out of time? Time does not run out. It just keeps going. We humans exhaust our bodies, it is us who ‘run out,’ but time goes on.” I think this perspective is indicative of how Africans live their lives, and why they’re fundamentally comfortable with silence. In the same class that my professor unashamedly bashed my faith, he talked about African religion. I am beginning to think he may have idealiwed it a bit in his explanation, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s important are two major foundations of African religion that I derived from his lecture. #1, everything has a soul. That includes inanimate objects, abiotic nature and flora, and non-sentient organisms. In other words, there exists the capacity to communicate or commune with the world around you, even if there’s no one nearby. And #2, the dead do not die in the way that most other religions claim, where the person or soul is removed from the earth. Instead, they remain among us. So now I begin to understand why Cameroonians are completely comfortable with silence. They make use of it, and take the time to interact with those things, those souls, that are unseen. I love it. I wish I could learn to use silence, not as an awkward period of uncomfortability, but as a time to contemplate God and His Spirit that runs through all his creative works. Not a wasted moment.

I suppose the other things I want to talk about is not so inspiring. In Cameroon, it is an unfortunate truth that sometimes you have to lie to keep safe or avoid trouble. Such phrases as “I’m married,” “I’m a student, so I don’t have much money,” “I don’t have a phone here,” or “we’re only here for a few weeks” have to come naturally. Otherwise, you may get mugged, beaten up, followed, or otherwise taken advantage of (for money, time, or other resources). This is one of the realities of the collision of cultures we experience as strangers in a very foreign country. In a country stricken with poverty like Cameroon, white English speakers are presumed to possess a degree of wealth and status as citizens of the industrialized, developed world. I wish there was another way to avoid such problems, but it is extremely difficult, nigh impossible, to change the norms and stereotypes of the “global village” that we live in.

What else can I say? I am settling down into my classes and internships right now. My four classes are: Contemporary Cameroon; Environmental Processes and Rural Development in Cameroon; Négritude, Francophonie, et Mondialisation (roughly translated as The Essence of Being Black, the French-Speaking World, and Globalization); and African Culture, Religion, and Philosophy. My two internships are at the National Commission for Human Rights, and the United Nations Information Center Yaoundé branch. All is well and I am continuing to try to live every day and mae the lost of the wonderful opportunity I have here in Cameroon!

With three weeks of Cameroon under my belt, I am beginning to realize how Cameroon can be so enchanting and yet so shocking at the same time. Here you have a people who are generally relaxed and incredibly cordial, yet at the same time all-but-ignore personal space and expect that, as a white man, you owe them something, be it money, drinks, a passport and plane ticket to the US, or perhaps something less…wholesome. I went to a Cameroonian club a few nights ago, which was jarring firstly because I’d never been to a club before, in the United States or otherwise. Those who read this may or may not know that I am not particularly comfortable with dancing in general. So the second little tid-bit was when two Cameroonian guys started trying to teach me and some of the others “how to dance,” rather insistently and unabashedly I might add. Needless to say, I had some trouble getting into it, so I innocently tried to duck out and sit back at our table for some water. To make a long story short, I was accosted by several Cameroonian women in my solitary, vulnerable state, where I was repeatedly asked to buy them alcohol. When I politely declined and excused myself to the bathroom, the security guards had to restrain one young lady from following me in. Let’s just say that American girls are just not quite that…courageous. Chalk it up to what you want: that I’m shy or that I don’t enjoy drinking, but that had to be the most jarring experience I’ve had so far in Cameroon.
 

But it has led me to reflect a little bit about what it is to “think Cameroonian.” Of course it’s a generalization to say that all Cameroonians think the same way, or Africans at large, but I do think there is a distinction between African systems of belief and thought, and well, Western systems of belief and thought. I have spent the majority of my time here thus far trying to be Cameroonian. It sounds silly, but I thought that the best way to experience the culture was to act as part of it. I can say that, only now do I realize how ridiculous an idea this is. I cannot be Cameroonian; as every person is the sum of his/her experiences, so am I an ordinary born-and-bred Boulderite from the Midwest. Subsequently, as a United States citizen, I am taken with such ambiguous but still ever-prevalent Western values of “reason,” “equality,” “individualism,” “intellectualism,” “liberty,” and the like. And I am quickly finding out that Cameroonians, and, I like to think, Africans, ascribe to a set of different, older, and perhaps more fundamental values.
 

I am beginning to discover that “intellectualism” in the Western sense, does not come easily to the Cameroonian. This is not to say that Cameroonians are stupid; I might even say their system of sagacity and intellectualism is more fundamental and more pivotal than that of the West. But what I have come to notice is, the teachers in my classes are not comfortable with white students; they feel that they have to prove themselves. As a result, they struggle to use large vocabulary and exude their power as a teacher when it clearly does not come naturally to them. Africans, I am coming to believe, are considered to be wise on the basis of their experience, regardless of the number of degrees they own, or the power of their position. Instead, they are wise and powerful as a direct result of their experience. This is why elders are held in such high regard, and why the father figure in the family is given such respect. It is known that they bring to bear a wealth of knowledge because they have been through so much, and succeeded, if only by surviving among a multitude of diseases, a scarcity of food, a pervasion of poverty, and a government of excess and corruption. Is not that so much more impressive than passing a certain number of classes and writing a 30-page paper on something you might not even care about, just to have a piece of paper you can hang on a wall. I think so.
 

On another level, I was speaking a few days ago with another Dickinson student about what she called “taker and leaver cultures.” This was based on a book that she read (and promised to lend me back in the States), which, through fable, discusses how some cultures seek to leave the world the same, or better, than it was when they entered it, while some cultures consider the world to be created for the use and betterment of humanity. Western culture, it argued, is generally of the latter category, or the taker culture. But African culture, it would seem, at least until the outset of the colonial era and the “Scramble for Africa,” was a leaver culture, similar to the Native Americans before their near-extermination by what would one day be called the United States. In different words, this has been an argument against globalism, because these taker cultures tend to take, even at the sometimes deadly expense of other cultures. They also tend to convert those that they subdue to their “taker” propensity. As a result, many Africans have developed a warped amalgamation of pride, reverence, respect, materialism, and all things that are both Western and African. This is saddening, but I still feel there is a way to recapture Africa’s pre-colonial, untarnished past. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I expect Africa to be the object of my life’s work.

I am here! Well, technically, I’ve been here for nine days, but for the purposes of blogging, I shall say it as though it is my first day.

Ah, Cameroon! How to begin…Oh yes, my “washing machine” consists of a big copper-ish cube of soap, a substance called “Blu” which is essentially a powder that you put in water to make it soapy, and three buckets, filled with water. I had the misfortune to start my hand-washing experience with two weeks of clothing instead of one, since I came directly to Cameroon from a week in France. It was ok, though, a bonding experience for me and one of my new brothers, the eldest, named Serge.

Good gravy, there’s so much to say. I’ll be succinct. We arrived at evening time, and immediately began “orientation,” which lasted for two days (though I must say, no simple “orientation” can prepare a Westerner for Cameroon). Directly following that, we took a trip to Kribi, a beach paradise which, I think, definitely should have been saved for a later date when we would be exhausted and in need of a vacation. During this trip, we played water frisbee with some Cameroonian young-uns, tried some Cameroonian dishes like ndole and crevettes, walked along the beach to get to know the others in the program, and took a French placement test (my mind was definitely NOT present for that). We returned home, and that afternoon, we met our host families (talk about hitting the ground running). My host family’s name is Temfack, and as soon as the mother arrived I got so excited! After a great deal of awkwardness and not knowing what to say to the people that would be my family, the father arrived. As we sat and ate (j’adore les plantaines!) and mingled with the host families, I got to know the professor and firebrand that would be my host parents. All too soon, however, the host parents had to leave, and we had to prepare for our first day of French classes.

A small sidetrack is required on the subject of French. I got placed into the Advanced class, which I thought was kind of a crock seeing as I had not practiced any French for close to six months. In addition, I have never been confident in my ability to speak the language, which I realized would be very important in the coming months seeing as I would have to be able to hail a taxi, haggle for food and souvenir prices, and discuss all daily house topics with my host family, all in French! When French class began, I realized how easy a time I was having discussing topics, including the subject of press freedom in French. But as class has progressed, I’ve realized how little French I know. After close to six years of the language off-and-on, I see that I have barely any vocabulary, and I speak so slowly because I have to take in the French given to me, process it into English, decide on a response, and process my response back into French word-by-word. It’s very frustrating, but I’m beginning to see a transformation. I’m finally beginning to think in French! It means I’m basically destabilizing this whole French input-English input-English output-French output system and slowly but surely replacing it with more than an improved understanding of French, a French mindset! It’s an agonizingly slow process, but it feels good!

Anyway, back to the sum-up. We began French classes, and just like that, two days later, it was time to move in with the families. It was when I actually arrived at the home of my host family that I feel my Cameroon experience really started. Until then, I had an American bubble in a Cameroonian tub. I could see Cameroon from the bubble, but the food was only quasi-Cameroonian, the house had internet, constant running water, and a housekeeper, and we hung out only with Anglophone Cameroonians and each other. But now, I finally was seeing Cameroon without a protective covering. The Temfack household is big by Cameroonian standards, a flat with a kitchen, a bathroom, a sitting room, a bedroom for each individual, including myself, and a garage that is “in progress.” But here are the fun parts. Because the Mendong neighborhood sits on a hill, we do not get running water between 6:30 and 11AM. The cupboard in the kitchen is really just the stove below the stove top. You can’t use the running water (when it runs) with anything you put in your mouth because it contains bacteria and parasites. Chores begin (according to my two host brothers) between 3 and 5AM. You’ll be lucky to have a computer, and much luckier to have internet. And oh yeah, there’s no washing machine, so you have to hand-wash and iron all your clothes because bugs and parasites like to get in them when you dry them on this outdoor device known as a “clothesline”.

I just realized how rough this makes Cameroon sound. I must make it clear that it is not. I am having an eye-opening, but also wonderful experience here. I don’t feel compelled to check the computer or phone everyday, because my schedule is not plagued with appointments and deadlines. I don’t have to worry about appearances or facades, because everyone is sweaty and dirty and no one judges me for being the same. And I have more than enough time to read and just talk with people.

Last thing for now: my family is awesome! The father, Richard, is a professor who speaks great English, but greatly respects my wish to practice my French. The mother, Denise, is easygoing but incredibly devoted to her family. Not to mention a great cook, I’ve had omelets every morning, and a Cameroonian dish that’s basically a casserole of pistachios, dough, and some sort of fish, which is to die for. The younger boy, Steve (pronounced in French like Stehv), is quiet but friendly, a student of science and math but also a connoisseur of American videogames, music, and DVDs. And the elder son, Serge, is my African twin. He is devoted to his studies in international affairs and loves running and playing soccer. We have stayed up late our first two nights together discussing topics ranging from Cameroonian president Paul Biya to the war in Iraq to international economics (believe it or not, all in French).

My aspirations for Cameroon are already beginning to be fulfilled in the span of nine days. God has given me a wonderful opportunity to expand and grow as I consider what it is that He has planned for my life. I just hope that I will make the most of it, while managing to keep a healthy amount of contact with my American life, family, and friends.

Cheers, Terence