Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Photo Blog: Herding Cows

I spent a day out in the bush with cow herders. 

Me with my cow wacking stick.
Bush veternarian

This is my buddy who took me drinking/eating... yogurt type stuff

I preferred the fresh, fresh milk... which might give me TB
Here's a cowpen.  Those cows are off to market.  Where they will become dinner.

That was the biggest cow there.  They told me it weighed 500 kilos.  I have no idea what that means.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Funeral

Someone died.  I'm told that he was my neighbor and we talked a lot.  His name was Soule, a young guy who worked at a little boutique near my house selling music.  I don't know that name.  And I can't place him or even imagine his face.  I'm not sure who he was.

In a small village, people just know things.  They grew up together.  I had to ask directions to go wherever I was supposed to go.  There were a ton of people sitting outside a compound so I went up and greeted people.  I don't know what you say in English when you lose someone and certainly am at a loss in French or Fulfulde.  It was his father's house.  I was told to enter the compound.  Inside there were more people.  A ton of women in one courtyard and older men in a second.  One man I greeted was in tears, but I was being directed too quickly to even think that perhaps that was the grieving father.  Unlike everyone else, I don't generally know the intricacies of family connections, but I think that is the first time I've seen a Cameroonian man cry.  I was directed to where the old men were sitting cutting up a sheet.  They told me to go inside a room.

I don't know if they do viewings here and thought I might be walking into that.  It was a dark bedroom and they left me alone inside.  I thought perhaps it was the guy's room and I was to pay my respects.  I found some pictures on the walls and looked through them.  There was a common guy in most of them.  As happy as any Cameroonian in a photo can look (they generally refuse to smile).  Perhaps that was him.  I sat down waiting for either the next person  to come or someone to get me.  After awhile I figured out that no one was coming.  They likely put me in there because there was a comfy chair and it is out of the sun.  And I'm white.  No long sure if that room was important or related or just had a chair.

I went back outside and sat down with the older men.  The Imam was there and my friend the tailor.  The sheet was to be the shroud.  No one was talking much and I wasn't sure how long I was to sit there.  I was mostly waiting for someone else to leave.  I usually time events by the call to prayer; if I don't know how long it will take, I go thirty minutes or an hour before one of the calls knowing I'll be able to leave then.

Eventually everyone just suddenly started to go outside, so I followed.  We all stood around waiting for a bit and I found some younger guys I knew to stand with.  They brought out the body covered in the sheet and wrapped in these nylon mats that they bring everywhere to sit on instead of the ground.  They put him in a wooden trough with poles to carry him to the burial.  Then the Muslims lined up to say a prayer and I stood with the Christens bowing my head.  Everyone started to disburse afterwards and I thought we were to go home, but I realized they were all going the same direction.  I followed and we all walked outside of town to a cemetery nearby.  I've passed it many times and never realized what it was; just mounds of dirt covered in grass with no markers.

There were a ton more people gathered at the cemetery waiting.  Some of my really close friends who I'd wondered where they had been were digging the grave.  They dug as we watched waiting silently.  It was a big hole with a smaller body-sized hole at the bottom.  They placed the shrouded body at the bottom and put some crossbeams over him.  Then they placed a wooden plank that covered the smaller hole and covered that with green leaves.  Finally they filled the grave with dirt.  We all kneeled down and were lead in a Muslim prayer.  Then we walked back to town.

It was a somber day.  People say it is destiny and God's will.  They will say that it is sad.  But that's all.  He went to wash his clothes in the river and swam a bit after.  He died.  And I can't remember his face.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


There I am in the middle of ten or fifteen guys; it started as just a couple, but very quickly grew.  They are all yelling at each other in Fulfulde or various other local languages.  Right now they are just arguing and it isn't unusually physical: just some grabbing of the shoulders and like.  The disconcerting thing is all the pointing and glances my way.  Clearly whatever is going on is about me.

Part of being a foreigner in a strange land is knowing when to sneak toward the door.  A couple of months ago I was sitting on the porch of the chief's house talking to him when someone came up, started yelling, threw his shoes at the chief, and started trying to fight the old man.  Quickly a group of people were surrounding the situation and I'm standing in the middle.  My cue to quietly leave.  I didn't know what the fight was about, but being in the middle of it was not going to help me any.

Now I found this argument, that was about me, funny.  It started in French and was basically about whether or not a Cameroonian could do what I did, namely leave their country and family to go live with complete strangers who are so different from you.  It seemed ironic that they are discussing this and creating the exact sort of scenario that would make someone like me quite uncomfortable.  I tried to point out this observation, but they didn't really seem to get that I wasn't actually concerned and just tried to reassure me that no one was mad at me.

One guy was pointing out that plenty of Africans had done just that and left everything behind.  There were people who worked for the Cameroonian government who moved abroad, he said.  Another was countering that people couldn't even stand to move from the big city to Mbakaou.  They do something called affectations here where anyone working for public office can be forced and sent anywhere in the country.  This includes nurses, teachers, gendarmes (police), and really anyone working for any government agency.  A lot of them do whatever they can, including paying big bribes, to get out of small villages like mine.  It seems clear that the middle road is the right one.  Some people can leave it all behind and others can't, but what sticks out to me is how they view foreigners: it isn't that I can do this thing, all foreigners can.

I have met plenty of Cameroonians who have never seen a white man or foreigner of any kind.  I've met many more that have seen us around, but I'm the only one they've ever had a conversation with.  And even the Cameroonians who have met quite a few foreigners have only met one kind: the sort that is willing to/able to come to Cameroon.  Take poverty: the only foreigners that come to this country either are tourists with cash to blow or people with jobs where they blow cash.  The only other view into life comes from television and as we all know, Rachel and Monica could have never afforded that sweet apartment in New York with those jobs (we don't export or even make many shows about poor people).  I bet half of all Americans have never even thought about visiting Africa.  What do you think the percentage of people is who would come if they could afford it?  And what percentage of Americans have ever set foot here?  They have a very skewed view of us.

And we have a skewed view of them.  I live in a village of 4000 people that is about eight hours by car from the regional capital of a region of Cameroon no one has heard of.  Peace Corps Volunteers say I'm out in the bush.  But there are people with refrigerators, a couple cars (including a Landcruiser owned by the Ministry of Parks), a few computers, a bunch of motorcycles, plenty of TVs and satellite dishes, and even more cell phones.  At the same time most people wear hand-me-downs sold at the market.   But anyone with a salaried job owns a custom tailored suit (teachers, gov officials, etc.).  The dam company has a camp of houses that have running water and A/C.  And we've had twenty or so kids come this month for malnutrition.  Some people have thatch roofs, dirt floors, and get water from the river.  But ten bucks says they have a cell phone and an opinion on the Ukraine.

You missed all that last time they told you ten cents a day would save a kid (it won't; an egg costs twenty cents).

Monday, April 7, 2014

Old Man's Hands

His hands were rough.  Calloused and worn with time.  Dry and white, I foolishly believed I should be gentle or risk tearing them apart.  But they have become that way with years of toil.  He carried a hammer in one hand and a crowbar in the other; passing it to free right and shake mine in warm greeting.  My own hands are embarrassingly soft.  A desk jockey's hands, skin untouched by labor.  He's never sat at a desk.  I'm embarrassed in front of this man who earned his keep.  But only for a moment as his warm smile reassures me.  Like we are old friends though we've only ever crossed paths and spoken in the street.  It is people like him that make me want to make Africa a more hospitable place.  Ease his burden. Allow him to rest.  Of course he is old and happy.  Proud of his life.  Or so I imagine.  At least content that this is his lot.  Still, don't we all deserve some rest in this world?  If it is to be in proportion to works done, his is past due.

There is a noticeable difference in the way the truly old treat me compared with the young.  Maybe after enough time surviving, you just become content.  I think it might be that their dreams and desires from youth no longer weigh them down.  They accept their lot.  I spend most of my time with the old men of my village.  I like them more; it's easier.  Everyone else sees me as a means to something.  From the extreme ticket to America, to a job, or to just an extra buck.  You hear the phrase "It doesn't hurt to ask" all the time.  We've the same saying.  But it isn't true.  It hurts me to deny everyone else the country I love so much.  The opportunity, the peace, the chance at prosperity.  Do we have our unhappy poor?  Of course.  But compared with the poverty here ours seems so minuscule.