Sunday, April 26, 2009

Women's Day and Fete de Toro

March 8th marked the 98th Global Women's Day. In Cameroon, the day is celebrated with parades, debates and cultural celebrations in many villages. The women who parade nearly all sport outfits made from the same fabric designed specially for the occasion and sold country-wide. The parade itself is very brief, with women in various groupings marching in front of a bandstand with a number of local officials and spectators. The event was much smaller than that held for International Youth Day, and in some ways struck me as “Much ado about nothing”. For the most part, the women who are able to participate in this and most of the other events of the day are those whose husbands will allow them to buy the fabric and have their outfits made, as well as leave the household to take part in the festivities. It kind of strikes me as a Hallmark holiday taken to the extreme. My village didn't have a debate this year, though they had in previous years, the most recent of which turned into a session advocating the right of men to use violence to control wives who are not fulfilling their domestic obligations. Subjugation of women is a serious issue in my community and nearly all others throughout the region. One colleague told me he was not going to do anything for his wife for women's day because she did not respect and honor her obligations to the household and went out with her friends whenever she wanted to. This is a commonly accepted rationale, and the Women's Day celebration here did little to combat or even address this mindset. Joanna and I also attended the gala in the evening which turned out to be another pretty exclusive event, attended almost solely by the members of my community with power and means, which was disappointing but educational. The awkward highlight of the day was the invitation to participate in the opening dance, which I tried to refuse before being told that it would be insulting to do so. They then explained that what I would have to do was dance with a mystery “cavalier” (literally, knight), who would be announced just before the dance. As all this happened before dinner, I spent most of the meal agonizing over who I was going to be assigned to dance with and creating countless scenarios where I phenomenally screwed it up....luckily I was actually one of about 6 “couples” thrown together and the ceremony of opening the dance only lasted for about 8 seconds, largely uneventful thankfully!

Another interesting celebration which I got to witness the same week was the Fete de Toro, a traditional Mafa celebration which happens once every 3 years. My counterpart and I biked out to one of the villages served by our health center for the occasion. All week different villages had been taking turns celebrating with music, dancing, drinking and the ceremony involving the release of the bull from a compound and then the chasing down of that bull by any individual wishing to be involved. Jacques and I arrived in the village and after leaving our bikes at the house of one of the health center workers were shown up the side of a nearby hill to where a huge crowd was forming. At the top of the hill were set about 5 small huts which made up the compound of the family who had chosen to sacrifice one of their bulls. There were easily 250 people scattered throughout the houses and also across the rocky sides of the hill, a set-up which seemed the perfect storm for disaster if the bull got too wild during the chase. At the time of our arrival, the organizing committee, which is appointed by the traditional chief of the village and is identifiable by the wooden sticks they carry, were in the process of deciding whether to release this bull or not. After studying the situation carefully, they walked away from the hut where the bull was confined and moved off down the hill, followed by many of the villagers. One explained to us that the committee had chosen not to use this bull because they sensed that something bad would happen if they did. Given the layout and location of the crowd and the compound, I told Jacques I was inclined to agree, but he just laughed at me and explained that it wasn't that the environment was hazardous, just that after careful study the organizers had sensed something in the nature of the whole situation, the nature of the bull and the atmosphere of the day, which had foreboded disaster to them, so they decided to move on.
Luckily for us, there was one other bull in the village which had been offered for the fete, so after descending the first hill and climbing part way up another we were fortunate enough to find a bull that the organizers deemed acceptable and the fete was on. The head of the organizing committee coaxed the bull out of the enclosure within the compound and out into the field in front of the house, and what followed was a crazy scene of men jumping around grabbing at the bull in order to catch and subdue it as it bucked and stumbled around the yard, sending whole sections of the crowd scurrying out of the way. Fortunately Jacques and I got to observe the action undisturbed from a rock ledge partway up the hill. After a few laps around the field, the bull was at last mastered and guided back into the compound by the committee head, and the young man who conquered it was patted on the head with a handful of flour to mark that he had succeeded. The conquered bull would now be kept in the house for another 2-3 days before being slaughtered and eaten by the village in yet another celebration.
I asked around a bit (with Jacques translating the Mafa for me) to find out more about the origins of the Fete de Toro, but the closest thing to an explanation that I was able to get was that it helps them mark the passage of time in the Mafa culture: for example if someone wanted to approximate the age of a child, they would figure out how many Fete de Toros the child had lived through. Whatever the original reason, it was certainly an interesting cultural tradition for me to witness, and provided plenty of conversation with Jacques as I tried to explain the Western tradition of bull fighting, which definitely stretched my French vocabulary as well.
I think that's about all for now. Nearly every day continues to hold some new adventure, and I'll try to write more frequently and share these with you all when I can. Thanks for all the thoughts and comments.

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