Tue 24 Feb 2009
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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!