When I first came to Cameroon in January 2012, I descended onto the tarmac in the hot, smoky night of Yaounde and understood that I was in a very different world than that of Paris or Boston.
One month shy of a year, I have returned to the same city, knowing that the familiarity and comfort of home await me far more than they do in Paris or Boston.
And yet, Yaounde is not a place that many Americans would call comforting or home-like. Before I even left for Yaounde, I knew that the ten weeks I would spend as a U.S. Embassy employee would be lived from a different perspective than that of a study-abroad student.
I couldn’t help but replay my very first night in the city as I arrived for the second time: As 20-year old Nina arrived in light summer wear and chatted up the French backpackers in the visa line, 19-year old Nina stood silently in a gaggle of chattering American girls. 19-year-old Nina was still sorting out baggage as 20-year old Nina grabbed her suitcase and hopped into the air-conditioned sedan the Embassy had sent. Phantom Nina was sweating along in a madly swerving safari bus as real Nina arrived in front of a paradisical white apartment, balconies glowing behind palm trees and a substantial amount of coiled razor wire. Real Nina sat on the tiles of her first apartment and imagined the city around her: Bastos, so near, with its airy villas and hard-partying friends, then further away, the call to prayer of Briqueterie, Centre Ville’s nightmare of vehicles and Biyem-Assi: home.
But it was not home any more. This time, I was free: no host family to break down my door at six in the morning, no motos clanking along outside, no neighboring eating houses. I was free to invite friends over, go on walks, wear and eat and say and think what I wanted. That’s the beauty of being an adult. I’ll take the responsibility of work and the pain of living unprotected for the right to be who I am.
But back to real Nina. I sat on the floor and envisioned all the pineapples I would buy. They would fill up my counter, my kitchen floor, my nice wooden cabinets, like a veritable Cameroonian pineapple forest. I would call all my friends and family in Yaounde and they would arrive by the hundreds. I would feed them pineapple. The next day, I called my driver and had him bring me over to Rond-point Express in Biyem-Assi. I bought pineapples.
But back to my job.
Working at the U.S. Embassy Yaounde is like working in a little American fortress. And that’s what it is, more or less. Once you get past the gates, guards and metal detectors, you’re in a green-lawned, well-built, air-conditioned, American flag-flying oasis of U.S.A-ness. People speak English, wear suits, and are on time. Even the neighborhood, which is home to many other embassies as well as my apartment, is far more calm and green than the rest of Yaounde.
Working at the Embassy in Yaounde means living between two worlds. Instead of a cold bucket of water to wash myself with, I have a hot shower every morning. Instead of cockroaches and red dirt, I have glass patio doors and hibiscus hedges. Instead of an underfed cousin sitting at the gate, there’s a guard in a uniform. Phones and internet at the Embassy always work. No one smells bad. You can even get hamburgers or grilled cheese at the cafeteria.
As a representative of the U.S. Mission to Cameroon, I’m required to take a lot more precautions than I did as a student. Suddenly taxis and motor bike taxis, which I took habitually to get around, become highly discouraged means of transportation. Instead, I’m supposed to call my car and driver any time I want to go somewhere. My apartment has around-the-clock guards, walls, and an electronic security system. Everything locks. Walking alone during the day is discouraged too, and walking alone at night, while never a brilliant idea, is now a definite no-no.
Then, I go out into what I consider to be the “real” Cameroon. There’s a moment of shock during every foray where I jump out of my Embassy ride and find myself swept along by the P-Square blasting from the roadside bars and have to dodge swerving taxis. This is the Cameroon I know and love, but it’s an uncomfortable transition. Here’s the thing: when you haven’t showered for three days, it doesn’t bother you so much that no Cameroonian has, either.The heat and mugginess of the streets is positively reliving after the sweating you were doing with five strangers in a beat-up taxi. But plunge into all that from serene, air-conditioned, well-sealed Embassy land, and you’re liable to feel a bit out of place.
But only for a moment. After all, there are pineapples to be bargained for.