Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bonne Fête All Month Long

February 17, 2016

Last week was a very big week for Cameroon.  Thursday was Youth Day or La Fête de la Jeunesse. In theory it is always on February 11, but in actuality, it takes up the full week.  Most schools cancel classes and create a schedule of games and celebrations involving not just our school, but the whole village.  Every night of the week, a different school presents students to perform: poem recitations, skits, dances to modern Cameroonian music, etc.  But since the principal of my school is constantly (and reasonably) worried about our students falling behind in their lessons, he stated, as he always does, that we would have school nonetheless.  Fortunately for everyone involved he did not hold to this and allowed classes Monday - Wednesday to let out everyday at 10 am.   Thursday was the national holiday, and no one tried to claim that school would be worthwhile on Friday, as none of the students would have come. 
The story of my first Cameroonian Fête de la Jeunesse really starts the week before, which was Bilingual week (la semaine de bilinguisme… a word I cannot get my mouth around no matter how many times I practice saying it in front of a mirror with my phone as a tape recorder).  That week, all of us teachers modified our classes to incorporate “bilingual” activities… as an English teacher, I didn’t have to modify much, but we did some fun drawings and map exercises to discuss why bilingualism is important, especially in bilingual Cameroon.  I had thought that the school would approach me about organizing a presentation by the students to present to the school, since every other English teacher volunteer I talked to was in charge of something for the big day of celebrations (Friday, February 5th), but, as usual, no one at the school approached me about anything.  So I just went about my business and had fun with my students. 
That Friday, the big day of celebrating, my principal asked me to come in at 10 for the bilingualism assembly.  I woke up that morning unsure as to what to expect, but got a text from my principal as I was heading out the door, giving the schedule for the day.  The “ceremony” would start at 11.  We would then have speeches and presentations from some of the students and teachers, and then we would judge the students on the dances and presentations they were hoping to perform for the village during Youth Week.  When I arrived at the school, only two teachers were present, neither of whom teach or remotely speak English.  The Principal was nowhere to be found, and the students were all being herded into one of the smaller classrooms. 

All the students at my school in the 6th grade classroom for Bilingual Day

At 12, the principal arrived, along with a woman who I’ve never seen before, either at the school or around the village, but who apparently teaches Cameroon culture and language to the students.  She showed myself and the other two teachers there the program she had set up for the day, as she’d be leading the festivities, and low and behold I was listed as giving a speech on the importance of English in the modern world. Surprise!  At 12:30, we finally started.  The woman introduced everyone (fairly pointless, as the school only has about 150 students at most and they all know all 12 members of the faculty, much less the only 4 of us who were present), and the principal gave a small welcome speech.  Then the students took turns singing songs in English, mostly consisting of chanting, “I am bilingual, I am Cameroon” over and over again, while swaying and slightly stepping back and forth in the Cameroonian manner of dancing.  Two of my students stood up and recited poems in English, and then the director gave another speech talking about the importance of our youth, and handed the floor over to me.  I managed to muddle through something along the lines of “English opens doors”, “bilingualism makes Cameroon strong”, and “learning other languages opens your mind and teaches you to think of others”, or something.  It wasn’t too too shabby, considering I had to give it in French and had been informed of it only ten minutes prior.  At the end, the unknown teacher-lady translated the message she thought I was trying to get across (“that you can only learn English through practice and perseverance.  Never be afraid to make mistakes because that’s how we learn”), and that’s how I found out that I was supposed to be telling the students how to learn English rather than why.  But, thankfully, soon after this, we finished the “ceremony”, and headed to another classroom to spend three hours watching the students present their skits and songs for youth week.  It was a long afternoon. 
Theater, I think, is not really a part of Cameroonian culture.  There is certainly a strong aspect of performance and “le spectacle”, but in all of the performances and skits that I have seen, acting is not one of the aspects required.  All the students presenting spoke in either shouted monotones or illegible whispered monotones, whether they were reciting a poem, speaking a monologue, or part of a skit.  Even in the dances, there was only minimal movement and shuffling of the feet as everyone involved starred fixedly at the ground.  But this seemed to be the style looked for, as these were the performances the principal applauded most fervently.  As a former speech and debate coach, and a theater junkie in the states, this style of performance KILLS me.  I was so proud of what my students had accomplished, but so disappointed at the lack of direction and leadership given to them by my fellow teachers.  Next year, I hope to help the students find their true voices, but I suppose that’ll have to wait for a little while. 
After three hours of sitting in a dull classroom, watching painfully shy performances in the local language that I don’t speak, I was finally allowed to go home.  These last three hours were all in preparation for Youth Week, and I have to say that they didn’t give me much hope. 

~~~

So fast-forward to Youth Week. My students were supposed to perform in the center of town on Monday, but instead performed on Tuesday, and there was a big soccer match on Wednesday, and etc. all leading up to the 11th on Thursday.  Thursday morning arrived and I had missed all the previous days’ activities due to miscommunications.  But I woke up early on Thursday, ready to go.  At ten, I walked into town with one of the other teachers at my school.  We arrived in the center of town to see all the streets roped off and hundreds of people and children running around in excitement, all dressed as nicely as can be.  When we arrived to the “salle des fêtes” (a set of stone stadium bleachers with a balcony for the chief and his “notables” that stands in the center of town) I was summoned to the Chief of my village by one of his guards who very brusquely nudged my co-worker along with the rest of the crowd.  I approached the Chief and shook his hands (realizing moments after I had done so that that is NOT the appropriate salutation for a Chief in public.  You are meant to bow slightly and clap three times… My Chief had never insisted on that with me, but I could tell that I startled all the surrounding observers with my forwardness and familiarity with the Chief) and he gestured to a seat of honor directly behind him that he’d apparently been saving for me. 
Being the only white person in a village, I have been given an undeserved place of honor amongst the traditional chief and his followers.  As a lowly teacher who happens to be white, I was placed before all the actually important people: the head of police, the head of the hospital, the country-wide government officials, the head of schools, and other hard-working Cameroonians who certainly deserve the honor more than I do, but that is how things are done here I guess. 
Anyway, I was placed immediately behind the Chief, with only a slight view as to everything that would happen.  Within an hour, the road was cleared with all the onlookers and “fêters” crowding around the edges, or sitting under tents lining the street, waiting for everything to start.  A man with a microphone began speaking, welcoming everyone and thanking the Chief and his notables for the celebration at hand.  He then turned on a very loud and scratchy old radio, and Monsieur le President Paul Biya’s very old and raspy voice spoke to us from the stand.  What President Paul Biya said, I don’t remember, if I ever knew.  His voice is very difficult for me to understand and follow, even on clear days, but I am sure that his long speech centered on how the youth are our future and how together we will fight terrorism and keep Cameroon strong.  After a good 45 minutes of his speech, the radio was turned off and the parade began!
First up were the preschoolers, each school coming up to stand in the street in front of the Chief’s balcony and performing something: a dance to “ça sort comme ça sort” or “coller la petite” (basically watching three year olds dance to “Bitches Ain’t Shit” by Dr. Dre), a recitation on how “les blancs” ruined Cameroon but now Cameroon stands together and strong against terrorism, or a skit on how cleanliness is the most important thing to fighting Boko Haram.  As each school finished their performance, the Chief and his notables would “faroter” the students, meaning they would stand up and present money to the students, usually putting the money in a bucket provided by the school, or, if they really enjoyed the performance, placing the money on the children’s foreheads, as is more traditional.  It was an odd thing to witness to say the least. 

Two preschoolers that I met after the ceremony was over

Once the last group of small children finished their performances, it was time for the middle and high schools to “march” or “defilé” for the village.  Each school lined up with a wooden sign proclaiming their school, forming lines and trying to look their best, marching with straight legged and armed, supposedly swinging in time to each other, the couple of yards down the street for the Chief and everyone assembled.  The bigger schools broke their students into the divisions they were studying (mechanics, fashion, refrigerators, engineering, hotel management, etc.), while my tiny school just marched as best they could. 
After the schools, there was a karate demonstration of some sort by about six old men, the women and men who work at our health center marched waving condoms blown up like balloons, President Biya’s village delegation walked by looking very serious, and then the Chief thanked everyone for coming and that was that.  As I was leaving, the Chief pulled me aside to tell me I was going to a party with him and the Chiefs of Bahouc and Bazou that night.  Bazou and Cristina would pick me up around 7-8.  Woohoo Chief party!
I quickly found the other teachers at my school and we all went to a bar for lunch (bread with boiled eggs and piment, the spicy sauce they put on everything) and beers.  I left as soon as I’d finished my beer and sandwich, but not quickly enough to avoid two of my co workers asking me to buy them beers and refusing to understand that I didn’t have the money to do so, because, of course, I’m white and therefore have lots of money all the time.  On my walk home, my Chief du cartiere (the chief of my neighborhood, as opposed to the whole village, he’s a sub-chief) who is also my village papa and the husband to my favorite Mama in village, called me into a bar to buy me a beer.  I agreed amiable, as I really love this old man, and we sat in the bar drinking together and chatting.  He’d been sitting a couple of rows behind me at the celebration and commended me on my place of honor, etc.  We talked and laughed a lot about everything in village.  It was one of those wonderful moments that made me remember why exactly I decided to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and why I haven’t given up yet, despite how frustrating and hopeless my work here often seems.  We had two beers together before I headed, very unsteadily, for my home.

My Neighborhood Chief and favorite Papa around

When I got home, I found Cristina waiting for me, and the two of us went inside and waited.  About four and a half hours later, her Chief, the Chief of Bahouc, knocked on my door to take us to the party.  For the first time since I’ve known him, Bahouc was driving.  He’s usually too intoxicated to do so, and I can’t say that that evening was too different, but he seemed at least a bit more cognizant than usual.  Regardless, we piled into his car and he drove us into the middle of town.  We stopped by the side of the road and met my Chief and the Chief of Bazou in their cars there.  Then, after an exchange of dialects between the chiefs, we hopped back into the cars and went… to someone’s house, where we sat for about ten minutes before going to a hotel that was closed, and then to a bar in the center of town.  At the bar the chiefs bought two bottles of red wine and poured us all water glass sized portions, chatted for ten minutes, and then commanded that Cristina and I finish our wine before we all piled into the cars for the fifth time that night. 

In order: My Chief (de Bamena), Cheif de Bazou, Chief de Bahouc (Cristina's Chief)
In the Bar just before they told us to chug our wine

This time, we went to the building that is kind of the community-meeting house of our village.  It was decorated with a disco ball and swirling colored lights.  Tables and chairs were set up all over, with two tables set up on a dais.  My Chief commanded all of us to wait outside so he could be sure that everything was set up and ready for us, and we all waited.  I think he also wanted to make sure that there were enough of the other, less important, guests present so that when we entered we would be noticed, but that’s just an assumption based on some of the comments my chief made. 

Waiting outside the hall, for my Chief to say it's okay to go in

Cristina and her Chief (Bahouc) as we wait


Finally, at 10:30 pm, we were allowed to enter.  The hall was still only about half full, but the Chiefs decided they wanted to sit down and keep drinking more than they wanted to make a grand entrance.  We were seated at a table on the dais with only the five of us (the three chiefs, Cristina, and myself).  At the second table on the dais, there was an assortment of people I didn’t recognize and never got introduced to.  Once at the table, we were given more red wine and continued to wait.  We chatted a bit with the Chiefs, but mostly they talked amongst themselves about Cristina and I.  We caught snippets of their conversation sounding along the lines of “it’s too late for Sarah since she’s already married (I tell people I’m married since it’s easier than arguing with them over why I won’t give them my phone number or go out with them or their male relatives), but that Cristina must marry one of us or one of our sons or other relatives to keep her from leaving”.  The best kind of conversation in Cameroon.  Right up there with how all women were put on earth by God solely to serve their father or husband. 

The view from our table on the dais

In the meantime, two men carrying microphones entertained the room with their dancing and lip syncing, occasionally stopping to introduce a new and important guest that had arrived.  Around 11, two long tables were set up, laden with Cameroonian food, and Cristina and I were asked to start the food procession, another one of those awkward honors for being born white.  But, we started the line, trying not too take too much, and very carefully choosing all of our dishes in an effort to avoid cow skin, chicken feet, tripe, and “baton de manioc”.  We sat back down and began eating.  Once our plates were mostly empty, they were cleared away, and the exhaustion set in.  We sat and sat and sat.  We asked the Chiefs if there was any chance we could head home, but they said we HAD to wait for the dancing to start otherwise it’d be rude.  So we sat some more.  At midnight, the last of the food was cleared away, and the announcers started their entertainment again.  They called all of us on the dais individually to the dance floor and put us in pairs.  Lucky for me, I was paired with a Priest from the other table on the dais, and we all opened the dance floor doing a kind of Cameroonian partners dance that was almost like swing dancing, but with no spinning or any other of the moves that makes swing dancing so fun, so I spun myself to the surprise of my partner and all the onlookers.  

Dancing

We danced for a song, then more people were invited to join and we danced for a second song, then the floor was opened for everyone.  Cristina and I escaped back to our table to drink another glass of wine, then after realizing we’d both fall asleep if we sat anymore, we went back to the dance floor and rejoined the dance, forming our own couple for a bit before we were forced apart.  Then we retreated back to our table again.  Thankfully, after an hour or so of this, the Chief of Bahouc told us he would finally take us home if we were ready. So we quickly said our goodbyes to the other two chiefs, and all but sprinted out the door.  Luckily the chief of Bahouc this time realized that he was too intoxicated to drive, so he had one of the other chief’s chauffeurs take us back to my house, where Cristina and I instantly chugged bottles of water and collapsed into bed. 

All in all, la fete de la jeunesse was a very fun and interesting day.  A lot went on that I didn’t fully understand, and I wish that I had not already been so exhausted by the time we got to the Chiefs’ party, as I think I would’ve enjoyed myself a lot more.  When we left, the chiefs all promised they would take us out again on a day we weren’t both so tired.  I don’t know if this was a real invitation, or one of politesse.  Or, if it was a real invitation, if it was given in the hopes of finding a husband for Cristina, or because they liked being seen around out and about with the village white girls, or if they really do enjoy our company.  I’m guessing some combination of the three, which I realize may sound very cynical here, but that’s just the reality of our lives here. Regardless, I am looking forward to the next outing with our Chiefs, and the strange and foreign experiences that will bring.