Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tu va t'habituer....

It literally means, you are going to habituate yourself. This is one of the most frequent statements I hear on a daily basis from Cameroonians and while it is almost always a response to me explaining that I am not cold in the mornings or evenings here, and that the thought of 140 degree weather in March and April makes me want to cry, it's a helpful philosophy to have. You'll get used to it. Right now I think I'm at the second stage of culture shock as defined by our medical manual where it seems like everything is different and the habituating is a bit of a never-ending process. Yesterday I saw a child in a full-on snow suit complete with a fur-trimmed hood at 7 was probably 60 degrees. And he was probably the envy of the neighborhood. Everyone gets seriously bundled up here in the mornings and looks at me like I am crazy in my short sleeves and skirt. Don't I know it's winter here? It hasn't rained since mid-October and won't until May or maybe June. Moving from Seattle, the idea of eight months without rain seems impossible, but the reality of the situation, and the gravity of it, is strikingly apparent every time I pass another huge river bed that has been reduced to miles of sand dotted with people washing clothes in the puddles of water they've dug down two or three feet to reach. And this is the cold season, where temperatures dip to 55 or so overnight and hit 95 in the shade at midday. Some days the sunlight is tempered by what look like clouds that could hold rain, but most of the time that's actually all the dust the Harmattan winds blowing down from the Sahara are bringing in.
Climate is just the first, albeit the most ever-present, difference I'm encountering here. Time is a whole different ballgame too, with most meetings I've been present at running on for 3 or 4 hours, partly because few people even begin to show up until at least an hour after the scheduled starting time. Another place time scheduling seems to be very flexible is the schools, which are supposed to run from 7:30 to 2:00 but inevitably end around noon or so, often because there are not enough teachers to teach all the subjects. At the high school (lycee) here there are nearly 1600 students but only about 22 teachers, 11 of whom just left for additional training in the provincial capital. This includes the only English teacher they had, and the principal has been trying to recruit me to step in. I'm going to start working with their English club, but don't feel ready to commit to a teaching job just yet. It's going to be an uphill battle for the students in exam classes to get fully prepared with so few instructors though, and from reports from other volunteers it sounds like unfortunately this is the norm rather than an exception throughout at least this province, if not all of Cameroon. I hope I'll get a better sense of the situation as my work with the Club Anglais continues.
The other day I was walking back to my house with a friend wearing a baseball cap to keep some of the sun off my face. An old man called out to me, “Bonsoir, pere!” an interesting variation on the usual calls of “Nassara”, “La blanche” or “Ma soeur” which had my friend in stitches laughing as he explained that the man thought I was a priest. Guess he missed the skirt! The initial perception any given Cameroonian decides to have of me is shaped by a complex and varied mix of experiences they've had with non-Africans. While I am neither explicitly a missionary trying to save souls (though I certainly have been entrusted with a mission in my service here) nor another traveler passing through town I am also obviously not one of this village, not yet. Children who don't live in my quartier still hopefully demand 'cadeaus', 'bonbons' or 'argent' from me routinely and only today did I finally get charged the same price as the rest of the villagers for an item of street food, a small step in a struggle that I imagine will continue for quite a while. Throughout all of this though I am continually reminded of how lucky I am to get the chance to work through these growing pains, to uncover more and more of the puzzle that is daily life in Cameroon. As a wonderful line from the poet Ben Okri reminds me, I have been given such “a gift of freedom to think and remember and understand,” to get used to a wholly different way of life so that I can better find ways to give something back somewhere along the way.


gael lynch said...

Well, Katie, you certainly are giving back, that's for sure. But I can only imagine what this is going to be for you as your life unfolds. What a treasure these times will be for you years from now! Life in Cameroon through your eyes is certainly a treasure for me!

I sit here today, with snow falling...a snow day, remember those...and I am very grateful for all that I have and even for all that I don't have right now. It's all good. Your dad was here at this very table, lunching and talking with us just three days ago. He's so very committed to BOPH, which is a tribute to him. The winds of change are upon us here, in the US, with the economy suffering and many, many losing their jobs. I hope our country will regain the citizenship, the comradery and the hope that the people in Cameroon seem to have! It's something that was always a part of our existence even just 25 years ago. We need to live within ourselves, within our means and within our small circles to re-establish that small village feeling. Thanks for reminding me of that...and thanks for your blog. There's a writer in you, Katie. Be sure to journal like your hair's on fire! Some day when you're much older, it will bring you a feeling of incredible satisfaction! xoxoxox :) Gael

Aubs said...

katie my love. the internet is yaounde is so nice compared to the north! i got pistachios in the mail and the steelers won the superbowl 27-23. lovely. alright well i miss you and love you and hope alls super in koza!!

Kristen said...


I LOVE reading your blog and your thoughts about life in Africa. I just returned from 2 weeks in Tanzania myself... I hope you experienced the excitement surrounding the inauguration that I experienced! I also wanted to tell you that I saw a Tanzanian "Barack Obama" hair salon as well... although I was unable to get a picture of it. :-)

Also, if you have a chance, you should read "An Imperfect Offering"... it's a book written by the past president of Dr.s without Borders and it was incredible... I think you would really like it.


Maggie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maggie said...

Katie I love reading your blogs it makes me so proud of you and all that you are doing. You write beautifully and had me laughing about the priest comment as well as the little boy in the snow suit. I miss you very much and brag about you and the goodness you are doing to anyone who will listen. Love you!