Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Le Monde du Cameroun

It has been a long while since my last post. Since then I have traveled to Mombasa in Kenya, The Netherlands, Tanzania and back to Uganda which I will provide highlights in another post. There has been a whirlwind of activity in my life from finding myself unemployed to finding myself self-employed. We shall see what the horizon holds for me but I am confident that it will be as blessed and enriching as what has thus occurred.

While visiting my aunt in Philadelphia, we discussed the present state of affairs and a few of desired aims of mine. As many of you may know, my path has had quite an international bias, but sadly I am unilingual only dappling in a little Portuguese and having forgotten the collegial classes in French and Spanish. Given this unfortunate fact and on the advice of my sage aunt, I decided to embark on a self-arranged immersion program for one month to jump-start me into becoming a bilinguist. My latest work and venture is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa which is primarily Anglophone and Francophone. Given that I would be hosted by a family, the trip would be more cost-effective in Africa, and I would be significantly immersed in French, I decided to that my program would be in Cameroun. Just a note, Cameroun is one of the only bilingual countries. It is the policy in the country that everyone learns both English and French; although there are definite and distinct French-speaking parts and English-speaking parts within the country. Where I would stay would be French-speaking.

My month long journey has come to an end but was worth the detour. I will try and present the highlights so this won’t become a small book and you will find a sprinkling of French so I can show off a little of my skills (although I have a long way to go).

French in Action

Before I arrived in Cameroun, I wanted to refresh my understanding of French and build some vocabulary, so I went through the BBC French Language lessons, bought some second hand French books, and downloaded free French software and podcasts. At this point after a month of butchering the language, I can read with understanding about 70%, can throw enough nouns, verbs and adjectives to be understood, and can really only understand about 30-40% of what I hear. I must admit that the hardest aspect grasp in this entire affair is hearing the language and conjugating those darn verbs. Other than this, I would be an expert French linguist.

My fellow French speakers have been quite understanding and also amused at my undertaking. What I have found is quite an appreciation for my attempts—I get about a 5 % boost just for trying. It is a shame that the majority of Americans only know one language which is increasingly becoming a handicap in the age of global commerce and collaboration. Once I feel more comfortable with French, I would like to see what I can do with Spanish and possibly Chinese (which seems the language of the business in the near future). Being able to communicate in a common language produces such comfort and opens the door for fruitful interaction and exchange. It is one of the most frustrating things in this world—that is to be misunderstood or not understood. I imagine it is the same frustration that causes a infant to cry to say that there is a need or a desire that they wish to communicate. There is great freedom with effective communication.

The People

Over the course of my stay, I travelled between Douala (the largest city) and Yaoundé (capital city) with my main host family residing in Douala which was the hottest place I’ve encountered. The family had 3 to 4 generations in one house which was a more of a small compound with the main house, a smaller house, and a grand house that was being built to accommodate multiple families. Just a note—women that are elder to you in the family are called Ta-Ta so-and-so except if they are your mother (un mere) or grand-mother (un grand-mère), and elder men in the family are called Ton-Ton so-and-so unless un père or un grand-père. Residing in the main house was Grand-mère, Ta-Ta Ida, the son of Ta-Ta Ida, and two young girls who were staying at the house to go to school and to help around the house. Initially, there was a young man Rodrigue who helped me with getting to places in the beginning and speaking the language. He was at the house briefly during his vacation from the university. There was another younger aunt Coulette who I didn’t have to call her Ta-Ta since she was about my age who had a young son and baby girl. There were several amazing aspects of my time here, but one aspect I found especially lovely—Coulette had a salon on the premises. She was really good and her prices were dirt cheap (given the exchange rate) so I was able to take full advantage of her services. Some very interesting things about family life:

  • It is nothing and actually common to take in other people’s children to help raise them and allow them to go to school.
  • Raising a child is really a family affair, and I saw this in action with the baby girl of Coulette. With the salon being quite busy and every growing (they made several modifications and upgrades while I was there), Coulette was able to leave her daughter comfortably in the hands of any family member. There was always someone around to watch one’s children (les enfants).
  • You can become very spoiled in Africa because you can find someone to do whatever you need for very inexpensive. Because work can be hard to come by, people are will to do just about anything to be able to sustain themselves and their family. You can get someone to go run and get airtime credit, change a light bulb, perform minor handy work around the house, etc., for just a couple of dollars. Also, having a housekeeper who works daily is quite inexpensive (less than $100 a month) and you will find them in most middle income families to higher income families.

The Food

Meals were quite regular with breakfast (le petit dejeuner), lunch (le dejeuner), and dinner (le dîner) all served like clockwork. Petit dejeuner consists of bread (pain), cheese (frommage), possibly some type of sausage (saucisson), tea (thé) or coffee (café), and sometimes eggs (les oeufs) or sardines. Fish (le poisson) and meat (la viande—le boeuf ou le porc) are often a part of the main entrée in a type of sauce or grilled. There is also a type of starch whether potatoes (une pomme de terre), rice, yams (not what Americans know as yams). Vegetables generally consist of either bitter leaves (Ndolé) with palm oil or other oil based ingredient or a mix of carrots and green beans. Another characteristic food is a type of dough made from cassava which is fermented and wrapped in banana leaves to make a long roll—the small diameter is termed “miondo” is mainly a favorite in Douala. The larger diameter termed “bobolo” is a favorite in Yaoundé. It is a type of substitute for bread and has no real taste although a slight tangy flavor. I have come to eat it regularly as part of the main meals.

City Life

The two cities that I have experienced are quite different although there are common elements.

  • The taxi system is quite similar in both. There are several of these yellow cars that have a specific route. They are generally cars that are just happy to be running at all. The interior is not of greatest importance. In a regular five-seater 4-door sedan, one can fit two passengers (no matter the size) in the front (one has to sit sideways without blocking the driver’s ability to shift gears) and three in the back (four if small child or small adult). I had the privilege of being a part of a car with 6 passengers and the driver in a small sedan. It was one of the first times I traveled alone and the driver picked up a group of women that were obviously coming from an event. Taxi’s generally are very cheap costing about 50 cents per ride. You can get a taxi with you alone to a specific place for about $2 and is called “depot”. If you want a taxi by the hour, it is about $5 dollars per hour and you yell out “course”. There is also a even cheaper way and may even be required on some roads; the moto or motorcycle is an option that I try not to take although it is was required of me one time. It is quite dangerous given you have no helmet and I have a feeling they get in more accidents than the taxis.
  • Shopping is a very different experience than most places in the states. The majority of purchases made by the general public are in open markets which are bustling and lively. You can barter any price and you must because they try and sell you items that you know does not cost what they are trying to sell and often made of low material. The best way to acquire clothing is to have items made. This is much more cost-effective than purchasing clothing and you can really create unique styles all your own. Even the indoor stores (magasins) are not really indoors and feel open still. Boulangeries and supermarchés are mainly used for packaged goods such as milk, bottled water, cookies, frommage, etc.

As previously indicated, Douala is the hottest of the two cities. I would say this is the most urban and a little more rough and grungy although there nice areas. Yaoundé is the seat of power and reminds me of Kampala in Uganda. Hills surround the city and it is pretty structured and there is significant character to it. All the ministries including the congress and prime minister are housed in Yaoundé. It is a very professional city. Both cities have thousands of students and host several universities. The two cities are separated by about 230 kilometers and travel between the two is easy using a bus service. One can ride VIP (meaning with air condition) for about $12-$13 one-way.

One of the fun and interesting events that I participated in was International Women’s Day (la journée international de la femme). The holiday has been taken to a greater level than in many parts of the world. A special cloth is made especially for the event with symbols and words exemplifying women in different facets. A different one is made each year. The material is made into so many styles. It is a day for women to rest from their work, participate in positive events, and drink and eat into the night. The husbands are supposed to help around the house and to treat their wives and women in their lives extra special. I was treated to lunch along with the other women with me. There was a lot of controversy though with men being interviewed saying that women were behaving badly and that there was some type of sect behind the whole affair. This is quite sad indeed to think that so many men fight the advancement of women and do not like to see women succeed beyond what they would like. Even with continued accomplishments and destroyed barriers, we must fight still for our equal place in this world to pursue whatever we desire and not be typecast or treated as objects and property.

Fun in the Sun

I make these sections shorter, since I am running a little long. Part of the border of Cameroun is coastal and I received the opportunity to visit two coastal towns. The first was Kribi which is thought by some to be Cameroun’s Riviera. It may not be exactly that but it was beautiful with white sand and uncrowded beaches. One of the must-does in Kribi is to eat fresh fish on the beach. It goes straight from the water to the grill. An interesting story, there is a myth that the women of Kribi have mermaids as guardians so do not mess with these women in particular or there will be trouble.

Limbe was the second coastal town which is near Buea where Mont Cameroun is located. This is a volcanic mountain and maybe the source of the black sand on Limbe’s beaches. It is an active volcano which I believe they said erupted recently in this millennium. It was exquisite playing in the ocean and beachgoers were friendly allowing us to participate in a game of water ball.

Rhythm and Dance

Music and Dance are integral to Cameroonian culture. There is music everywhere and it lends a soundtrack to the entire experience. The dance of this country is hip focused for both men and women. The isolation involved is outstanding. The way the derrière moves, you would be amazed. I am still practicing to say the least. My hosts have taken me to various venues to listen to music and dance. One venue had various acts including a Michael Jackson performance with back up dancers, an albino as Michael Jackson, and intricate scary costumes for the Thriller scene. Beyond this, the singers are highly skilled and talented—one performer tackled Andrea Bochelli!

There is much more that my senses did not get a chance to experience but I hope to return if given the opportunity to I see the north and more of Cameroun’s natural resources. What I did see—C’est manifique! À la prochaine, mes amis.

No comments: