Its’ been over a month since I landed in Yaoundé along with 9 other Dickinsonians. After going through a honeymoon period during the first week, we ran into a period of difficulty and sickness during the second week. Some might call this reality. During this third week, we all seem to have accepted and swallowed a lot of these challenges. Please note: these challenges have NOT kept us from discovering a beautiful culture and way of life that is present in Cameroon. Every difficulty has exposed us to a different aspect of Cameroonian culture and left us with endless stories. I hope to share certain aspects of culture on this blog periodically throughout the semester. In this way, I can give you a peek into the challenging yet fulfilling experience we face every day down here. **I got a little carried away, so if you don’t have time to read this enormously long post, I’ve italicized the important parts**
Taxis- What is public transportation? In Yaoundé the only way to get around the city is by taxis that dominate the streets. I am not kidding when I say that for every 1 regular car there are 3 taxis. The taxis are private enterprises that just need to be registered with the government to operate. So basically if you have a car that runs and you pay a registration fee, anybody with a license can drive. A typical taxi is an early 1990s Toyota or Honda that is painted yellow and is in rough shape. I truly doubt that the majority of them would pass inspection in the states.
The way that taxis operate is very unique, as they will pick up multiple people going to different destinations around Yaoundé. A taxi driver will pick his (have not seen one female driver) route based on where his passengers are going. Therefore he finds customers who are going to the same neighborhoods or places that are on the route. The typical fare is 200 francs (0.40 cents) however if you’re going further (such as across the city) it is customary to propose a higher fare. Proposing a smaller fare is appropriate if you’re going a shorter distance (such as from one adjacent neighborhood to another). A driver will slowly drive by unmarked, yet established, taxi stands (how everyone knows where they are is beyond me) and will listen as people tell him where they are going. If he is going that direction he will give them a nod and a beep, which means that he accepts their offer. If he is not going that direction he will keep driving. The result is that you end up in a taxi with people you don’t know and going to potentially different neighborhoods. It’s cool because you get to discover new areas of the city, but sometimes frustrating when you are late to where you are going. Basically what we have here is an organized hitchhiking network.
Going out in public- Jaws all on the floor, acting like they never seen a white person before!! (Eminem song lyrics) Every time we go out in public, it’s a show. Whether it’s walking home or down the street to the store or at a bar, everyone is always staring at us. Many times people will call out “la blanche/le blanc” (white woman/white man) and point and laugh or stare. The girls on our trip will often get marriage proposals or offered a ride on their moto (very enticing I know). Every once and a while there will be someone who tries to touch one of the girls or follows them around for a while. I truly feel bad for the girls here because it takes so much more courage to go out in public and get cat called and objectified on a daily basis. We go everywhere in groups and do a good job of walking home together once it gets dark out. Fortunately everyone lives near enough to each other that you don’t ever have to walk home alone. We never stay out late either. Our families like us home by 9 p.m. at the latest because there are lots of thieves that operate in the later hours of the night. So far we have gone out to a couple bars and had some fun but in the early hours of the evening so we get home before 9. Starting next week, we will be able to stay at the Dickinson Center when we want to go out and stay out late. It is much safer because we will be in a big group going to and from clubs/bars and there is no threat.
Social life– Social life is a BIG part of the culture here. High unemployment and cheap beer (700 francs = $1.20 for 0.65 L) keeps many bars full of people enjoying a cold one to escape the daily 90-degree heat. Similar to everywhere that isn’t the US, binging is not the style of the Cameroonian beer drinker. Students that have host fathers have said that it is part of their fathers’ routine to go get a beer after work every day and come home to a prepared dinner. Most of the bars are male dominated as a result.
Families– Our host families come in all shapes and sizes. All part of the upper middle class, the sizes of houses to the number of people living in them varies greatly. I live in a calmer house with a 21 year-old brother (Jude) and 14 year-old sister (Cynthia). My mother, Mama Jacky (seriously what she goes by, its hilarious), is a department in some sort government ministry. A lot of our host parents work in some kind of government position, as does a lot of the upper class in Yaoundé. Although our neighborhood (Montée Jouvance) is nothing special, much of the 1% live in gated communities in specific parts of the city. Say what you will about wealth disparity in the United States, but I think we often take for granted the existence of our middle class to bridge the gap. Whereas here you find a large part of the population living on $1,100 US dollars a year and a super small percent living with servants and driving Range Rovers.
Daily routines consist of an early wake up (7-7:30) to get to class, class during the day then come back to my house in the evening. Usually they are preparing dinner, so I sit in the kitchen and read while they prepare the meal. Meals at my house include beans, rice, fish, chicken, vegetable stew, plantains, and/or fruit. Interestingly we don’t always eat together. People just kind of eat when they are hungry and at the house. On weekends we have had more sit down meals together, but during the week there is little effort made to coordinate and eat together. The same goes in other host families’ apparently big family meals are not a daily practice.
After dinner we will watch some kind of television, whether it’s the news or a Brazilian soap opera that they love, Mama Jacky decides what gets put on. Because we don’t have a father figure in the house and Mama Jacky is the breadwinner, my brother and sister treat her with enormous respect. Once she gets home from work, she does not lift a finger: her dinner is cooked and served to her on a platter then is cleared and the dishes are washed when she is finished. Apparently fathers in other host families are treated with the same respect by their children and go even further: kids wake up 5 am to clean the house, their father’s car, do dishes, prepare breakfast, etc. The respect that children here have for their parents is extremely impressive, however establishes a very hierarchical tone in the house. It is true that many American households do not have nearly respect for their parents, however they are also not afraid to challenge them. American parents are often challenged and not considered absolutists in the eyes of their children. I think I prefer this horizontal and more balanced relationship, however the level of respect established here is truly commendable.
Cold showers, power outages and limited wifi– I apologize for any delays that occur when it comes to responding to emails, facebook messages or texts. Although there is wifi at the Dickinson Center it is VERY slow and when a lot of people are using it, it is virtually unusable. There is also no wifi at our host families. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing, which has been really refreshing and great because there is SO much that happens every day that I want to remember.
Power outages are also not uncommon here. Apparently there is not enough electricity to power the entire city, so it is set up on a grid and once or twice a week your neighborhood will have a “coupure” (outage) for 2-3 hours, usually when its most inconvenient. The first time it happened after I moved in with my family, they were cooking dinner and the power cut out. As if nothing had happened, Cynthia went into the cupboard and took out an oil lamp, which she lit and went on with cooking. All the stoves here are gas powered which allows them to keep cooking during a “coupure.” You most definitely get used to using a flashlight to read and brush your teeth.
Hot water is few and far between here. Although I haven’t taken a hot shower since arriving, I really don’t mind. The stifling heat of the day (and even the night), keeps me looking forward to a freezing rinse at the end of the day. I think I take longer showers here than at home just because I miss feeling cold and I know that as soon as I get out, I will start sweating again.
I think it’s interesting to note that even the upper middle class families we live with do not spend money on water heaters or wifi or air conditioning, even though I’m sure they could afford it. I don’t think it’s a matter of being able to afford it, but instead they have never had it as part of their lifestyle and have become accustomed to living without it. They simply don’t have the same priorities that Americans have when it comes to things like technology, social media and luxury. Despite the sweat and the intermittent urge to send an email, the change of pace is really refreshing.
I hope that this first post gives you a little bit of insight into the last month of my life. Unfortunately I couldn’t cover everything, but I tried to hit on the most important parts for this post. Next time I’ll go into more detail about the markets, bargaining prices, and our excursions. So far we’ve been to Kribbi (which is a beautiful beach town on the coast) where we spent the weekend with our heads in the sand. Next week we are heading to Limbe, which is a city in the southwest region of the country. Until next time! –Sam