Going to the Chapel and I’m trading myself for pigs and Going to the chapel and we’re…
So I’ve been offline for several days thanks to the lovely Cameroonian infrastructure. Here I was, thinking that I totally outsmarted the system where I pay for wireless and only get it at the office (so 36 hours a week) by buying the mobile broadband key. And then my key wouldn’t connect, MTN was of course closed any hours I could possibly hope to make it to the store and I was stranded offline. But alas. I’m back. With loads of fun stories. So let’s talk about sex.
Or more broadly sex, marriage and “courtship” in Cameroon. Let me start my saying that men here are INCREDIBLY blunt. As in they will ask if you are a madame or miss, and if you (are stupid enough to) say that you are open and have no husband they will demand some form of contact information. I’ve taken to telling them all that I’m married, if Lars is out he poses as the husband (for me and all of the other whiteman ladies) and I’ve gotten a ring to wear since they often won’t believe you. Also, my phone usually needs a new sim card and doesn’t work so I don’t have contact information. I learned the hard way after a few men who we work with or who are in the wider circle of friends gained my number. And by hard way I mean incessant calling—beginning at 6am most days (you also quickly learn to turn your phone off until you wake up as Cameroonians of either sex love to call at day break to greet you). If you don’t pick up they’ll call approximately 6 more times to make sure you aren’t available.
Anyhow, it doesn’t take long to figure out that you need to be married. Having a boyfriend won’t do because men will tell you “Oh, he’s in America. So far away. It’s OK.” Hah. No. Often times being married won’t do either. My Cameroonian friend Nji sat down for a talk with Lars and I about the fact that most men, and many women, aren’t faithful whatsoever. Especially not if they aren’t yet married. So, I’m married. And I’ve had to argue with men to tell them I’m married and therefore “closed.” It’s fairly unfortunate because there are a lot of (sometimes overly) friendly guys here who have a lot of offer as friends who want to help introduce you to Bamenda, Cameroon and local culture. But there’s a very fuzzy, if not nonexistent, line between engaging in legitimate friendship and inviting unwanted male attention. I’ve found that the best way to socially interact with men here is to hang out with those guys who are also friends with my male friends and generally hang out with the broader social circle.
I have also been asked many, many, many times if it would be easy for a Cameroonian man to get an American wife. Did I say that I’ve been asked that many times? My response is usually that I don’t know and they would have to ask somebody who is not yet married. However, American women–Western women in generally–are very attractive to Cameroonian men for a number of reasons the least of which is that we don’t have a bride price. What?!? Wait, no bride price? Are you being serious? No! You are joking with me!?!? Nope, really…we American ladies have no bride price. Actually, OUR families tend to pay the exorbitant bills for lavish weddings. This actually will make men here laugh. A lot. Let me explain briefly what a bride price is, since a few friends have gotten it confused with a dowry. Bride price and dowry are fairly simple except for what I know of a dowry is that it’s something the brides family prepares and sends with her when she marries. Bride price is something that the man must “pay” the bride’s family for providing for her and paying to raise and take care of her up until the marriage.
Using the word price is a bit deceptive. But just a bit. When I asked a Cameroonian about how much they would actually have to pay as a bride price her reply was that you couldn’t ask for money because that would be like the woman’s family selling her to the man. Because the way that the bride price works out is actually so different (are we catching the sarcasm?). Bride price will essentially consist of many things that the family of the bride needs (read: wants): pots, pans, a few pigs, a cow, maybe some chickens, a fair number of cases of beer (Oo! Which reminds me, we have a case of beer in the house. I think I will have one), maybe some clothes or material, lots of “red oil” aka palm oil, rice, corn…and the like.
So as to not seem like a total amateur on these topics I got a very up close and personal lessons in all things relating to marriage this past Saturday when I went to–you guessed it!–a wedding! Between a Cameroonian woman and a Canadian man. Obviously I took it as an opportunity for some cultural tourism, and to spark conversation with some of my other local friends about things such as bride price. Let me just say first and foremost that this was a wedding unlike any I imagine I’ll be attending anytime in my near or distant future. I actually didn’t attend the civil ceremony–it was at 9am and Friday was a late night thanks to World Cup action (alright, Team USA!). I actually only received the invitation on Friday night because the bride, groom and some friends who were serving as bridesmaids (more on them in a minute) were all at the International Hotel international workers happy hour. The bride saw me with my friend Courtney (one of said bridesmaids) and decided to invite me along. Turns out that pretty much all VSO volunteers in the area were in attendance (VSO read: Peace Corps for Britain, Australia, Kenya, Uganda, Canada, Philippeans, etc…there are a TON of them in the area, and they’re generally much more friendly and welcoming than the Peace Corps volunteers. Shame, but it’s been great to get to know a lot of other really wonderful people from elsewhere. Wait, where was I?).
Ok, so the wedding was attended by all of the VSO females who I’ve gotten to know and befriend in the time here. This includes Mavis–a whipper snapper of a 62 year old who is always involved in any dance party anywhere. It was her birthday on Friday and she celebrated but getting a bit buzzed with all of us at the bar and during the footy match. Wow, I’m fairly ADD today. So the wedding. I didn’t go to the civil ceremony but my friends gave me the run down at the reception–a fairly normal ceremony except for that three couples were all married at the same time and the vows were (from a Western perspective) quite insulting and offensive to woman. This means that they women had to declare that they wouldn’t argue with anything their husbands asked or wanted (which, according to Cameroonian law, includes request sex. Marital rape is still legal, and many women here will even tell you that when you get married you agree to whatever your husband wants including sex when he feels like it. Let’s give three cheers for countries where this isn’t the case real quick. Ok. I feel better). The women also must acknowledge that the man is the head of the household. This is fairly ironic since this is a very matriarchal society in terms of who actually runs the house, takes care of the people, provides for most of the income and supplies most of the labour. However, my friends in attendance said the women were eager to agree to all of the above.
The civil ceremony, and signing of the marriage lisence is also where decisions about polygamy are made. Polygamy is legal here and many men (and essentially all traditional leaders) have multiple wives. When the couple is filling out the lisence there is a box where the couple needs to check yes or no on polygamy. No, I’m not kidding. If the woman checks yes and later changes her mind…welp, too bad for her. And from what I’ve come to understand from my male Cameroonian friends, if she says no and the husband wants yes..welp, too bad for her. There is also quite a bit of contractual work that goes in to the marriage in terms of assets and property. While it’s technically illegal for men to disinherit their wives and/or dictate that should they die their widows are passed on to family members, these practices are still very pervasive–particularly in more remote villages. My office actually is doing a lot of work on widow/orphans rights issues, but that’s for another time.
Basically, the marriage comes down to an exchange of the woman as property, and to a large extent that is how women are viewed here. A lot of times talking about it churns my stomach. Co-workers in the legal field here have explained to me that it’s really important for women to be educated while at the same time explaining that no men will want to marry professional women (because they are too strong willed, etc. etc.). Ahhhh….equal rights. How you continue to allude us.
The wedding reception itself, which I did attend, was a total hoot. Yes, I said hoot. The invitation said that the reception would begin at 12noon PROMPT. I showed up at 1 because I’ve come to understand Cameroonian time. And, wouldn’t you know but of the 20 or so (of the approximately 150 who were there at the height of festivities) people present at 1 pm–let me remind you, an hour late–12 of us were whitemen. So we sat around the lavishly decorated tables in the church hall (I have photos of all of this…blast you MTN connection! Everything is too damn slow to upload.) and started cracking open the beers that were waiting. Finally, around 2:30 the actual celebration began. My two friends serving as bridesmaids, Courtney and Philly, had yet to do anything (and were beyond peeved that they showed up at 8am to sit around and do nothing for 6 hours)…but finally…action! For a whole 3 minutes! They participated in the grand entrance, dancing down the red (yes, literally red) carpet that made an aisle under this huge trellis decorated with white, gold and green flowers to the Nigerian pop hit that I hear on the radio here at least 3 times an hour “I don see my wife” (translate “I’ve seen my wife,” I’m actually burning it along with several other local favorites as I type). And then that was it. They had completed bridesmaids duties–complete with donning matching gowns. OH! How did I forget to mention that African attire was mandatory–people were actually turned away for failing to come in traditional regalia. Thankfully, one of the German girls who’s recently left donated one of her outfits, and I put it to good use on Saturday. So bridesmaid duties complete they sat with us and listened to the rest of the reception.
It was more or less run like your run of the mill Western wedding. Except for the totally eccentric MC, who was SSS (single and still searching) and some speeches that came across as hilarious rather than serious (see, cake maker giving a 15 minutes schpeal on the symbolism of the cake and feeding it to people with love. Uhm, maybe you had to be there. She was sitting basically right in front of me, so when I got a taste of the cake–super super dry, like all other cake here–I got to choke it down with a smile for her). There was the cutting of the cake, the bouquet toss with girls engaging in full-on tackle football to grab the flowers, a first dance, and to go along with recent developments in western weddings at least two changes in outfit. After all of the speeches were complete were dug in to some traditional fare laid out on a buffet and started to toss back (warm) beer. When the dancing really started so did the fun. It was actually a great time. Some friends (Lola O. I hope you are reading, you get all the credit for this) won’t be suprised but the African’s think it’s hilarious that I can dance like I’m an African and that I “don’t move like a whiteman.” The men, and woman, aren’t shy in telling me this…and I, in turn, find that hilarious.
We were all very happy for the happy couple, who are in the process of working out the necessary visa requirements for Brenda (the wife) to move to Canada with her new husband. The Western world is seen as a dream world here, but Brenda is certainly going to have her work cut out for her in adapting to what life is like in parts of the world where you can’t walk out your door and talk at length to any person you see—where you don’t know everybody who lives on your block let alone in your building. The whole event really made us all think about the real challenges that go along with the happiness of marriage across cultures as different as those involved in Saturdays nuptial. But, all in all it was a really joyous and celebratory experience.
It was only a shame that Cameroon couldn’t deliver additional happiness through a victory on Saturday night. We all went to T-junction right in town. MTN had sponsored what amounted to a block party. The street was barricaded and a huge screen was set up right in the center. I’ve never seen a reaction to any sporting event like that I experienced as part of that massive crowd when Cameroon scored first in the match. Even at half time, when the score was tied at 1 people were singing, dancing and waving flags all over the place. But I’ve also never seen so many people deflate so quickly as I did when Denmark scored their second goal to secure the victory. Rather than anger the crowd was generally just filled with sadness and disappointment. The opportunity for the people here to be really really proud of something that their country had accomplished on a global scale was over…and it was really, truly heartbreaking. The whole wedding party along with most of those who had been in attendance were in attendance at the match watch block party…and promptly fled to seek happier places.
Eight of us moved on to the Azam Hotel..a brand new, very Westernized hotel/restaurant/bar/nightclub on the far side of town (and very close to Courtney’s house, where several extra mattresses were waiting). After a few drinks we headed down to the Rocket Club–and out of Africa for a night. Really. This place was like any good nightclub anywhere in a big city in the US or Europe. We were early (11:30) so for the first 30 minutes or so the only music played was techno, Lady Gaga and other Western dance hits. As more locals (the really really wealthy ones mind you, as the cover price is 5,000f) arrived the music shifted to a general mix of African and Western Dance hits. We all pooled resources for bottle service (5,000f got us entry and a bottle of whisky to share! Woo hoo!) and ended up staying and dancing until 2:45 when we finally made it back to Courtney’s. It ended up being a really really wonderful, really really bizarre day.
And then I got back online and wrote this novel. But really…after coming home Sunday morning at 7am I was greeted to our neighbors’ party. That just means that they had their music turned up loud enough that I could hear it all the way from the junction (a 5 minute walk down the road) and when I got home the house was literally bumping from the volume. This continued until about 12:30am Monday morning and picked up again at 6:30am. Have I previously mentioned that there is no such thing as privacy/respect for others in terms of space and sound? So, I’m a bit exhausted. I think I’ll take the opportunity to bow out now and enjoy this evenings quiet by actually getting a decent nights sleep without earplugs. Off I go to curl up under my new awesome blanket (see, your grannies blanket from circa 1970 that I bought for $4 today) and with my horrid new pillow (all pillows here are horrid, so I’m not actually complaining).
Sweet day dreams all…