Friday, June 19, 2015

The Dark Forest

17 Juin 2015
Day 20 in Country
Two and a half weeks in.  
Monday, we celebrated 21 days since the first meeting in Philadelphia, but it feels like we've been here for months.  Our instructors told us "if you can do anything for 21 days then you can do it for the rest of your life".  Although this may be true, I felt like their claim that our two nights in Philadelphia, day and a half of travel to Cameroon, and two nights in Yaoundé can't really count as days of training here... and if I had to stay in training for the rest of my life I think that'd be pretty bleak.  But the promise of post (our assigned sites)! and further adventures here in Cameroon are keeping all of us going I think.    

We've stepped out of a time and into a place. 

This country is full of color and sound! The clothing, the skin, the jungle.  We are pelted every day with new colors and constant song.  

Every morning I wake up to Cameroonian religious pop songs by Sublime Gael and La Belle blasting in my host mama's living room.  Music, beignets, and instant coffee make up most of my mornings.  Unless I decide to go for a run.  Then it's the smell of the mist rising through the mountains and the sound of the millions of birds taking off as I go by.  And an hour later, sweaty and more relaxed, I pass into the beignets and nescafé.  

My host mom, Mama Gisèle, sends me off to training each morning with my oversized backpack as though I were back in first grade starting all over again.  Really all of us here have regressed back to a younger age.  Most trainees (as we're not officially volunteers until August 6)are having to relearn how to speak in 2-3 different languages, and simple household chores such as bathing and flushing the toilet/latrine are new to us.  
As part of the culture here, we have been fully adopted into our host families.  

Cameroonians value family above all else, but their families comprise of everyone they connect with.  In the first day, Mama Gisèle must have introduced me to at least 18 of her "brothers", only for me to realize days later that she's not related to anyone in Ebolowa, and her "brothers" are all her village brothers, or men who also came from the Western region of Cameroon and, like her, found themselves living in Ebolowa.  Cameroonians build their family wherever they are, and we americans have each become a part of at least one if not three or four. My host family here in Ebolowa consists of just my host mama: Mama Tchinda, Gisèle. 

Mama Gisèle is a small, large woman from the Western region of Cameroon.  She moved here to Ebolowa in the Southern region when she got married to a math and science teacher from this area.  She has three children, the eldest (28) lives and works in Germany, the second (24) is finishing her doctorate of biology in Yaoundé, and the third (19) just finished his first year in engineering school in Douala.  Crazy intelligent children! She's very very proud of them, and even more so because she did not finish high school.  Mama Gisèle likes:
anything shiny or flashy

Despite her unknown level of education, Mama Gisèle is one of the smartest women I know (but really I'd have to say that of most of the Cameroonians I've met).  She speaks 6 languages, can make any item of clothing out of any fabric in half an hour, and has the unparalleled  ability to open bottles with her teeth ( a skill she has thus far refused to teach me).  She is almost always either laughing or singing, and makes everyone she meets a member of her family.  She's missing four teeth and has scars all over her arms and upper body from some sickness or battle that I can't even fathom, but when I glimpse her in the quiet moments, there's something innately beautiful about her.  She is part of the country here: proud, forceful, and simultaneously wiser and more childlike than anyone I've ever met.  She can be talking to you about the ancestry of the political parties of Cameroon and then upon seeing a shiny object, burst into fits of giggles and clapping dancing. 

Last night, as she and I were walking down the main road to get bread for dinner, a car pulled over to talk to us.  Turns out it was one of Mama Gisèle's many brothers, this one a teacher at the primary school that Mama Gisèle is on the board of. Cyril (her brother) invited us for a drink and, as an invitation in Cameroon means the inviter always pays, and as it is always rude to refuse a beer, Mama Gisèle accepted. We hopped into his car and drove in a circle for a minute, trying to find a place that I wouldn't get  too harassed. We ended up at one of the many "boutique" huts just off the main road with plastic tables and chairs splayed around, allowing Mama Gisèle and I to simultaneously have a beer AND buy the bread we needed.  This one was not empty but had fewer raucous men due to its lack of electricity and lights outside. 

Every time I'm outside after dark, I get the sense that I'm luminescent.  Mama Gisèle and Cyril were easily seen as the darker than night figures sipping their beers, while I'm stuck glowing in the dark. 

The conversation with Cyril started as most of my conversations with men here start: him asking me how long I've been here, how long I'm going to stay, what i'll be doing, and then immediately jumping into marriage and the face that I need to find myself a Cameroonian husband to take care of me, and that HE would be happy to oblige.  At first Mama Gisèle attacked everyone who brought this up to me, often kicking them out of our house or sending them away, but after the first 3-4 times, I started to handle it myself, with helpful interjections from from Mama Gisèle to reinforce the truthfulness of my reasons for declining.  
After Cyril and I somewhat settled that matter, Cyril and Mama Gisèle  began amiably arguing about the goat that Cyril owed her (goats are a very expensive commodity!).  As always, Mama Gisèle won the argument.  At the end, Cyril finished his beer and left us.

The half hour that Mama Gisèle and I sat at the bar, with a wonderful and somewhat rare breeze drifted in through the impeding jungle, and the sounds of Cameroonians really enjoying their gallons of Makabo (palm wine), Mama Gisèle and I had a rare but silent moment between us.  All the languages, sounds of the trees, smells of wet earth and overriding green.  In the dark next to Mama Gisèle.  This is one of my most striking moments of "Cameroon".  A sense that time has left us and we are co-inhabiting this space with the dark forest around us.