Thursday, April 17, 2014

Misconceptions

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).