First off, let me just tell you that the World Cup experience here for Cameroon game 1 (which ended in a loss to Japan) was totally positive–with the exception of the loss and an old, completely trashed man trying to hug me and then trying to give me bananas and then trying to give me his ID card. Slightly creepy, but the staff at the bar kicked him out fairly swiftly. EVERYone around town is talking about the match, how the Lions let them down by not playing well aside from the last 8 minutes or so and talking about the upcoming match with Denmark (Saturday around noon our time). Moving on.
I think there have certainly been undercurrents of some of the “issues” with development and traditions here mentioned in my posts so far, particularly with the “white man” thing. Last night a few of us had a discussion about some of the cultural sensitivity problems here–race, gender, age and it’s a really interesting subject.
To begin, I wanted to just once more touch upon the idea of race. You are either black, white or chinese (or, as the children say “Hee-haw.”) Black doesn’t even necessarily refer to the color of your skin. Regina, who is Haitian-African-America, is white here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lady, gent, Russian or Canadian…if you aren’t African you are white. This brings me to something that I think is particularly interesting–the black African’s here don’t speak about themselves as being Cameroonian or Nigerian or belonging to a certain ethnic group (at least not most of the time, more on this). They refer to themselves just as Africans and consistently cite being “African” as a reason for doing things a certain way. Even the Cameroonian Constitution refers broadly to the African peoples and solidarity amongst the African nations. In our discussion last night we all concluded that if you were in the states and prompted to explain why the courts in Cameroon don’t have computers (which they don’t) and you replied “Oh, that’s just Africa” people would think you were insanely ignorant, dumb or both.
The constant blame people here attribute to “that’s just Africa” or “we’re African, that’s how our traditions are” is also surprising considering how vastly different traditions and cultures are not just across the continent but within Cameroon itself. Traditions and culture here varies from village to village, much more so from region to region. While I have not, and likely will not, have the opportunity to travel to the North of the country friends who have say it really is like a completely different country. Beyond that, much of the conflict within this country, and within the region more broadly is between varying ethnic and national groups. It’s like there’s an acceptance on blaming Africa for being Africa when it comes to its position in the developed/developing world scenario but an unwillingness (rightfully so in most cases, I think) to transfer that kind of unity in to domestic or regional relations.
As an outsider it’s very easy to view the blame placed on Africa as somewhat of a general scape goat for the failure to modernize and adapt in some areas of society. I by NO MEANS mean that there aren’t a lot of very very valid reasons that some things are the way they are (see the aforementioned lack of computers, then consider the lack of resources in the courts, particularly in the NW Region which, according to pretty much all of the locals, receives far less resources because it’s part of the anglophone minority).
However, it’s difficult to see any validity in how the claim that people fall asleep in Court all the time (ie the clerks, some of the barristers) or the fact that women with high levels of education aren’t viewed by most men (with similar levels of education) as suitable for marriage is because this is “just Africa.” It’s not that everyone here blames all of the problems with lower levels of development on the fact that this is Africa but I hear it enough that I thought it warranted mention. While as I said there are a lot of “good” reasons this part of the world lags in development (though none of them are actually good), it seems that there needs to be a change in thinking from the ground up that the people of Cameroon can help lift themselves out of the 3rd world before it can really and effectively happen.
On the flip side, I’ve had a few really encouraging encounters with people here that indicate that the change in mindset certainly is present and active in many people. A lot of the professionals we’ve worked with recognize that the major problem in Cameroon is with transparency and accountability in government as well as active citizenship. I’ll write more about this in an upcoming post as the subject area generally dominates what sort of work we’re doing this summer. Beyond the educated classes however, a visit to the Fon of Mbatu last week presented evidence that there are people working on small scales in their communities to try and modernize tradition* and thinking. I was most impressed in the way the Fon handled a mini-uproar amongst the gathered group of community leaders relating to the treatment of widows. Traditionally, after their husband’s death women were forced to sleep on the floor for a month (as well as be covered with ashes, be forced to stand naked next to the dead man’s body amongst a bit of other things). There are new-ish laws in Cameroon which prohibit discriminatory treatment of widows (and orphans) but in many villages the traditions prevail. The Fon, however, was not having it and was very forceful in communicating that they can’t expect the rest of the world to take them seriously if they can’t modernize some of the traditions. The Fon’s attitude is really promising (although the fact that he has two wives takes away some of those brownie points) as I think a lot of the “it’s just Africa” attitude will only be changed gradually at a grass roots level.
Speaking of which…at the same training at the Fon’s palace last week yours truly was put on the spot to participate and give a speech on grass roots mobilization of women. I think our Director asked me to do this because I’d relayed to him the work of my independent study in undergrad concentrating on women’s agency in Sub-Saharan Africa. I had approximately 5 minutes to come up with something to say. I think the speech was horrible having had so little time to prepare, but the Director and the other staff with us said it was very motivational and educational for the people there (Regina has it on video if you want to decide for yourself, but I think you can take my word for it).
I began by speaking about Cousin Obama and how the people in the U.S. who turned out in the greatest numbers to help elect him were women and youth. They loved that. I then went on the emphasize that mobilizing women and youth isn’t just something that happens in the U.S.A. and talked about the lecheria’s in Peru to give them a developing country example. I finished up by saying that it’s more than possible, it’s a reality, to have women make up an equal share of the lawmakers in an African country and used Rwanda as my example. I couldn’t think of how to wrap things up but then had to steal one from Barry O…after going in to some legal babble about how every woman in Cameroon has the legal right to vote, but in order to effectuate change they have to exercise that right. That even if it seems impossible to help elevate women and young people to positions of leadership you have to believe that you can make that change and think “yes we can.” They all definitely recognized that, and started to chant it themselves (well the pidgin version of it which is “yes we fit!”…or something). Apparently that was so successful that my Director wants to take me with him as part of the training team when they go to lead workshops on participatory democracy. I’ve also decided to turn part of my summer project more towards that angle and increase the legal tint of it by doing an analysis of the mechanisms in place to protect voters in exercising their legal rights. So we’ll see what happens with it all…
In other news: after two rainy season days with no rain it just started to absolutely pour again. I think I’ll write again soon about climate change in Cameroon–it’s actually a pretty hot topic (though you wouldn’t know it by the presence of trash literally EVERYWHERE). But that’s another story for another time.
*This is a GROSS simplification of cultural sensativity and blame it on Africa issues. I hope I haven’t offended anyone, and if I have shoot me an e-mail and let me know. Thoughts on the subject are also welcome.