This place is weird. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m the weirdo. Who knows? Regardless, the following are some scenes from my life here. In the context of America they are ridiculous. Here, it’s called Tuesday.
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The other morning I went to an omelet shack with Kate, another volunteer who lives just outside of Ebolowa, our provincial capital. She’s from Wisconsin, by the way. This becomes obvious immediately after talking to her, even when she’s not wearing her giant cheese-head hat. Anyway, omelet shacks. Kate and I went to Jackson’s (full name: Chez Jackson’s International Club—ha! Jealous?) because he makes the best spaghetti omelets in town. We each placed our order—une oeuf spaghetti, si vous plait—but Jackson’s new omelet intern told us he was out of spaghetti. Now in America, this would have been crushing news. Or actually, in America this probably wouldn’t have happened, because in America they worry about pesky little things like ‘customer service’ and generally order enough supplies to see themselves through the day. But whatever. I am not bitter, because I may not be in America, but Cameroon is not without its culinary advantages. Certainly in America you are not allowed to say ‘Mais la femme là-bas a le spaghetti. Il faut lui demander’. And certainly in America the omelet intern would not then go over to the lady next door and, USING HIS HANDS, take some of her spaghetti for us. Mmm, spaghetti omelets. You people don’t even know the value. (Grandmaster Flash, that was for you. Hi!)
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After a pleasant brunch, Kate and I headed out to Mefoup, one of the villages outside of Ebolowa. (I like to think of them as suburbs because it’s hilarious but probably only to me because I live here but trust me—comic GOLD) We were supposed to give a presentation to a group of farmers on the magical properties of soy. Kate talks about the advantages for the soil and I talk about the nutritional benefits. For example, did you know that one kilo of soy has the same amount of protein as three kilo’s of beef? C’est incroyable, n’est pas? And let me tell you, harvesting soy is a lot less messy than butchering a cow. Although I’m sorry, I personally can’t get behind soymilk. Drinking beans freaks me out. I try not to judge others though. Where I come from that will get you kicked right out of the coffee house. Oh dear, it’s seems I have digressed. I’ll be honest—I can be a bit of a digresser as a rule. I apologize. Soy! Farmers! So we went, at 14:00, because that’s when Kate had set up the meeting for. Only when we got there, there was just one old woman on the porch. Because for some reason all the farmers thought we were going to be there in the morning, not in the afternoon. So they had all left hours ago. A disappointment, but truthfully—not an entirely unexpected one here in the Dirty South. Meetings rarely go as planned. But that is not the point of this rambling, practically incoherent story. The point of the story is this—we left that house with a live chicken in a bag! The woman had planned on preparing the chicken for the meeting, but since we so rudely showed up four hours late, she just kept it and gave it to us. Fan-fricking-tastic. I never received live poultry after meetings at my old job. One time I got this cute little notebook and pen set, but that was a total fluke.
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Getting Rides. (Side note to all parents, and other people who are generally inclined towards worry—none of what follows is considered weird here, or dangerous. It is not hitchhiking, which I would never do because I’ve seen those movies and I know what happens to girls to hitchhike, the hussies. It is simply a system of transportation that involves flagging down random vehicles in order to convey oneself from one location to another. OK?)
We took a cab out to Mefoup (and by cab I mean one of the seemingly endless supply of Toyotas held together with wire and hope) so we needed to flag down another cab to get us back. Only there didn’t seem to be a lot of cabs going by, so we started walking in the direction of Ebolowa. Only it was the middle of the afternoon so it was REALLY FREAKING HOT. No worries. We’ll just walk up to a complete strangers house and ask to sit on their (mercifully shaded) porch for a bit. AND THIS WILL BE CONSIDERED PERFECTLY NORMAL. It will also be considered perfectly normal for two old women to come out of the house and stare at us. And I mean STARE. Hello! We are just a couple of zany American girls trying to stay out of the sun! Thank you for letting us sit on your porch, and no, we don’t mind at all if you stare at us in a what might be considered a maniacal manner without blinking for five minutes straight! Would you like to look at the live chicken we’ve got in this bag? At first, whenever we would hear a car approaching Hans (Kate’s co-worker—he often comes with us to translate our presentations into Bulu) would run out to the road and try to flag it down. Four cars passed him without stopping. So I tried. Four more cars passed! Of all the nerve! I mean honestly, sometimes when I’m just walking down the road cars will pull up alongside me randomly and try to convince me to get in. (Because in addition to being white, I also apparently appear both easy and stupid.) But now, in our moment of need, I can’t get a car to save my life. Clearly, this was a job for a blond. Sure enough, Kate was able to get a car to stop—although I was gratified that two passed her before one finally pulled over. The chicken in the bag went into the trunk (and by ‘trunk’ I mean the space under the hatchback door that didn’t latch) and we climbed into the car. Which at this point already held four other people. We drove about 50 feet, and then pulled over to pick up an old man and his 3 large bags of plantains. So now there were eight people, three bags of plantains, and one bag of (live) chicken in the car. Perhaps I’ve misled you into thinking we were in a station wagon with my mention of the hatchback. No, we were in something that resembled a Geo. Four people in the back, four people in the front. In Cameroon, not even the driver gets his own seat. And all the cars at stick-shifts. Ha-zing! I probably don’t need to mention that perceptions of personal space are a little different here. Mostly because the concept of personal space doesn’t exist. Bon voyage!
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I lie to people constantly, and for a variety of reasons. Sometimes its because a strange man is hitting on me and I think it prudent to mention that I already have two husbands, and that my father requires at least 15 goats for my dowry. Sometimes its because I don’t know how to say whatever it is that I actually want to say, so I just say something else. Something completely different and also maybe completely untrue but also more easily expressed in French. For instance, I might say that in America men do all the laundry and cooking. Technically, perhaps, this is not true. But it’s easier than explaining that in the States gender roles are quite blurred due to the dramatic social changes that took place in the 70s and 80s and as a result domestic chores are distributed based on a complex and continuous process of discussion and experimentation throughout the lifetime of any relationship. Also it blows their minds when I say it, and that is kind of fun. And finally, sometimes I end up lying completely by accident, because of my habit of just saying ‘oui’ whenever I don’t understand what is being said to me. I’m pretty sure I’ve told a number of people that they could come to my house for dinner, and not once did I actually mean it. It’s possible I’ve also accepted a number of marriage proposals, but even with the abundance of rock-hard abs in this country, I don’t actually plan on walking down the aisle with anyone. At least not at this point in time.