Pictures coming soon.
Batoula-Bafounda, Cameroon, Africa.
I woke up at 3am in the morning to find the light on in the room and Kate H. gone. I looked around the hallways and saw that she was on the couch. I managed to fall back asleep, then woke up to a light breakfast that was similar to Skyline Chili pasta. We had a slow start to the day – slower than even normally.
I’d made this walk so many times now, down the marble steps, across the dusty courtyard, through the compound gate, around the trash thrown passively across the market place, and along the trenches to the site tucked in the trees. My first task involved me climbing the platform to tie ropes to the storage tanks. This is always a struggle since the platform is a bunch of crumbling “concrete” blocks (Africa quality) without any cement. They’re just hold together by friction with a geotextile fabric interface on each tier. So not only do I have to climb a tower with a very small taper that threatens to crumble as I look for those 1/2″ outcrops to place my toes, but I have to yell at children who come by and try to mimic me. Seriously, these children could ruin the whole project if they broke just one block. The whole storage system could go down.
Once on top of the platform (in my bare feet for traction on the climb), I had to shimmy around enormous tanks that left mere inches for me to pass. Even 6 feet is enough to make me scared. Eric helped me toss the ropes around the tanks so I didn’t have to walk it so many times. We anchored them together, tying some fancy knots, then I hopped back down and did a lot of sitting and waiting.
I began thinking about living in this community. I decided I couldn’t do it. Not because I wouldn’t have clean water or a nice house, likely, but because of the lack of reliability and privacy. If I lived alone, that would be one thing; but, culturally, I wouldn’t be able to do that. In just the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve had dozens of men rallying to marry me. Based on the casualty of their proposals and the outrage of my turning them down, asking a random foreigner to marry them is clearly commonplace – and rejection is not ever expected by such a fine offer.
But the village is too tight-knit for me to handle. I can’t walk anywhere and listen to music without encountering someone (which is maybe why they just walk around playing their music out loud and not caring). The pool boys stare at me wherever I go, making me realize you could never fit in here as a foreigner – at least not until your village got used to seeing you and accepted you, but you would still have outsiders baffled by your presence.
Ugh, the pool boys, though. They stare at me, as blatant as day. They stare, watch, and stop talking…then they whisper and laugh when I’m out of earshot. It’s like elementary school in many ways. It feels degrading and insulting, even when Emily assured me once that they were checking me out instead of trying to insult me. I just don’t really see the difference. Both lack respect, and both seem to objectify me, either as a woman or as “that foreigner”, no matter how much I don’t want to stand out and just want to be accepted.
Every day I can’t help but chuckle at one thing, though: I feel like I’m in the Hunger Games. Between all of the calorie expenditure and the possibility that I won’t eat for a long time, I hoard snacks and ration my food in ways I’ve never done before. When I get a hot plate of rice, I devour it faster than I’ve ever eaten anything. I’ve come to realize how much I really love rice since it and spicy sauces are things I have not grown sick of in all of these days here. Yet it’s not just the food rationing; it’s also how I am suspicious of everyone around me. I wait for the locals to eat anything they hand me before I do. I’m not familiar with their kola nuts and these other bizarre dishes. I’ve swallowed those bitter nuts, deceptive olives that taste like sour cream on potatoes (just less appetizing), and bottles worth of palm wine in various stages of fermentation. I’ve lugged home avocados and banana leaves full of foods from men who can’t understand why I won’t stay here and marry them.
I take this food, and I feel in control of my choices…yet as I sat on the platform way above the jungle and looked out into the trees, all I could feel was a sense of utter vulnerability. I’m not so far removed from the ideas of survival that travel doesn’t frighten me. It does. I’m an Appalachia girl. I know my deciduous forests and its evergreen trees, the native flowers, the animals and how they will treat me. Drop me off in the woods somewhere between New York and North Carolina and I’m confident in my ability to discern harmless snakes from the kind that will kill me, Queen Anne’s lace from poisonous water hemlock, needles for tea from a white pine rather than deadly yew, and other such basics. I’d happily gnaw on dandelions, know the berries from the fuzzy sumacs are the harmless staghorn variety, and stay away from the insects I know I should fear. Mosquitos would be an annoyance, not a disease-ridden threat.
But here, in Central Africa, I have no control. Since my arrival, I have been adamantly honing in on which plants produce which foods, which snakes in the HASP will kill me instantly (more than I’d like), and where my nearest sources of Vitamin C are should I find myself abandoned in the jungle. There’s not much in the way of wildlife in the village, so my fear is being in a remote and completely unfamiliar territory. I am so uniquely confident with my survival skills in the Appalachians that I garner a completely new respect for our nomadic ancestors of eras past. Their knowledge must have been so vast, malleable, and well-practiced.
Thinking about my vulnerability reminds me of my lack of status here. My appearances serve as both a blessing and a curse, depending on my company. I feel like I’m in someone’s games because I’m always being laughed at. Even when village men do speak French or English to me, it’s so quick and accented that it sounds hardly any different than their native tongue. Most everything they tell me is meant to be degrading. And it’s always humorous to the others. Humor to Africans takes little to achieve and much to divert. Once someone starts laughing, they reel obnoxiously for minutes on end.
My challenging Bismarck with heated comments in French only brought on a fit of more laughs on account of my insubordination. I have resorted to a new strategy. Today, I sat on the platform while Bismarck shouted to me “Regard! Je tourne le beton comme ca…” (Look! I mix the concrete like this…) And I just went “hmpf” and turned to talk to Amy, blatantly disregarding him. I’m not sure he knew what to do with that. Burly Bismarck was suddenly not so important to the ladies.
Now I’m sitting in the house and a pool boy brought up a live chicken. He clicked at me to make me look then he let it waddle into my room before sweeping it up in a clucking fit. I gave a half laugh, unsure if he was trying to be nice or what. He did it twice more. Now I’m suddenly sick to my stomach. I think he knows I love animals. It was a joke to him, to make me sick. He just sees dinner in its freshest form with no regard to the animal itself. I just want to reach out to the chicken, yank it from his stupid hands, and thrust it off the balcony. Let it do its own thing, not be a part of this boy’s humor putty because I know that chicken is about to die.
If the chicken dies for us, what a shame. No one even liked the chicken very much from yesterday who ate it. The ultimate insult to life, I think, is when you’re dead and even then no one wants you. Yes, chicken, you have grown up from a chick running through the gardens and pecking insects. You got big and healthy. You were threatened when you came too close, pushed around, and then someone said, “What a fat chicken!” and put a string on your foot. Then they tied you to several other chickens and pulled you into the compound. Now you try to peck up food, but it’s hard when three other chickens are trying to escape the string at the same time. All of that has happened to you, but now you’re in this silly boy’s arms like his ragdoll and he’s just going to cut your head off for a dinner no one will want. All you’ll contribute to us is your body, and these Americans will just turn up their noses and leave you on their plates.
But if the chicken is for the others who live here, I cringe at even that. The way the chickens wander – but not far – as if they have a false sense of security from the house that periodically shares corn with them…that makes me sad. They trust this house, then one day, the chicken that casually trots across your foot while making his daily insect run gets swept up and dragged around upside down, just like that. No instant death even. Let’s just play with it for a while. Don’t let it have a heart attack though, or it wouldn’t be fresh enough. Wait until the water boils and hold it over the steam it’s about to posthumously bathe in.
I just can’t justify treating animals the way they do here, or eating as much meat as they do when the forests are abundant with foods from year-round growing seasons and the eggs are never short. If you don’t see an offense in this, then explain to me why the village puppy runs when I call him but cringes when anyone else does? It might have to do with the game children play where you get the puppy to trust you enough to come, then beat its face and kick its back. They learned it from the adults, like they learned the Bon Soir song in Benin and that gossiping about the foreigner is funny. Why the dogs keep coming back after the abuse, though, is something I have yet to understand.