Wednesday, 14 July 2010
Don’t believe me? Read the following four accounts and tell me there’s a better country in the world to get robbed in.
Last weekend I rather stupidly left my kitchen door unlocked and went out. I arrived home to find I’d been the victim of a burglary. Items missing: one packet of spaghetti and the last of my bread. Everything else was as I left it. What’s more I noticed that whoever stole my bread had put the plastic bag it came in into the bin. While I don’t approve of stealing, I think if you’re going to take someone’s stuff, then tidying up after yourself is quite a nice touch. To be honest if they’d done my washing up and given my fridge a wipe round they could have had my cooking oil too.
Another quite pleasant young criminal pickpocketed me at the market some months ago. I knew what he was up to, but rather than try to catch him in the act I let it happen. I did this because I’ve been warned that if passers by step in, robbers can receive quite a severe beating, and I didn’t want this on my conscience. Besides, I didn’t have any money in my pocket, just a scrap of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. So I walked on, seemingly oblivious. 30 seconds later, I heard the word “Madame” and felt a tap on my shoulder. Much to my surprise it was the pickpocket himself, giving me back my piece of paper. He was so polite I couldn’t help but say thank you.
If you have your wallet stolen in Maroua, it’s worth leaving it a couple of days before going to the police. Thieves tend to take the money out of it, then post it back through the police station window overnight with bank cards, ID cards, family photos etc. all present and correct. Indeed the police have a stock of passports that thieves have stolen by accident then put through the window. If you do visit the police station, they may well ask you to look through their passport collection and see if there’s anyone you recognise.
But the best proof that Cameroonian thieves are the nicest thieves of all is the story of a volunteer who actually managed to negotiate his own mugging. He had a perfectly nice chat with his assailants and persuaded them that they had no use for his credit card. Also it would have been a real hassle for him to get his ID card replaced, so they let him keep that too. Ironically they even agreed to let him keep a bit of change for taxi fare since it was late and they agreed that walking home alone would not be wise – you never know who you might run into.
Tuesday, 13 July 2010
- I’m friends with lots of white people – I’m good friends with (name of white person), do you know him/her?
- My brother married a French/Canadian/American etc woman. He lives there now. (NB “brother” can mean anything from “has the same mum and dad as I do” to “met a friend of mine once in a bar”)
- I earn 10 million CFA a month (around 10K sterling)
- What’s your number? I just want to keep in touch that’s all.
On Friday evening, at about 5:30, I got chatted up under the most unusual circumstances of my life so far. First, the guy in question used asking for condoms as a pretext for talking to me, which is an interesting angle. Second, he was under 4ft tall, so that was also a first. Third, he asked me a lot of awkwardly graphic questions about femidoms. Fourth, he was very drunk (ok not so unusual, but at 5pm in my office?). And fifth, he was quite possibly the most persistent man I’ve ever encountered. He spent over 30 minutes doing his spiel – I’ve been to France, my brother married a French girl, give me your number, I earn 60k a year (as above)… He was very pushy and in the end I insisted he leave. However, he refused point blank to go anywhere unless I promised to have a drink with him, and I ended up so exasperated that I left the office myself and started to lock him in. At this point he panicked slightly and relented and so I opened the door and let him go. (This was lucky since I was bluffing and had no clue what I was going to do next). His parting words to me were a very cheerful “Ok so I’ll see you here next week then”.
Perhaps I should have been a lot less polite from the beginning, I don’t know. I’ve been told many times by now that white women are extremely snooty and rude. They don’t say hello, they don’t answer your questions if you talk to them, etc. I invariably apologise on behalf of white women everywhere and promise to put it on the agenda at our next big meeting. However I’m becoming ever more the snooty white woman myself, because about nine out of ten conversations I engage in with men escalate within minutes from “what’s your name and where are you from?” to “I want to live in England and what’s your number?” (via “I’ve been to France, I’m friends with Americans, I have lots of money”). In order to avoid both the “give me your number” conversation and accusations of snootiness, I have begun to employ what I call “dialogue avoidance tactics”. Techniques include: talking to an imaginary person on the telephone; pretending I’ve suddenly remembered I’m late for something; pretending I can’t speak French; and (my favourite) pretending to be asleep. My record for pretending to be asleep was four hours, on a bus from Yagoua, which I think is quite impressive.
(Although to digress slightly, a friend of a friend pretended to be asleep on a train in the UK in order to avoid paying his fare. Unfortunately for him, the train guard wasn’t the least bit shy and started prodding him. He carried on pretending, the train guard prodded him ever harder, the whole thing went too far and the train guard ended up calling an ambulance. I think the “pretending to be asleep” prize has to go to him.)
I left at dusk - when the adolescent males would be busy praying. When it’s not prayer time, they tend to shout “darling” a lot, make kissing noises, and ask me if I want them to “accompany” me. I wonder whether that approach has ever worked for them. (“Oy white woman, sweetheart, do you want me to come with you?” “Oooh yes please that would be splendid.”) Going home during prayer was quieter, although while the men are away, the small boys will play. (Cat-calls from a 20-yr-old are one thing. Cat-calls from an 8-yr old are quite another.) They were just little, innocent boys parroting their older role models of course. But that in itself is quite sad really.
All of which serves to illustrate that there’s quite a lot of sexism here in the Far North.
I do love it here, but it doesn’t hurt to highlight a few problems now and then.
I should add for balance that the UK is not a paradise of equality and mutual respect either. But there comes a moment when you have to admit the problem is a bit more endemic over here. For me that moment came when I locked a tiny over-zealous man in my office and then a group of little boys made kissy noises at me and told me I was pretty.
Frankly I don’t know what the answer is. Other than teaching all the women to kick-box, I’m out of ideas.
I suppose one last thing to say is that sexism used to be a much bigger problem in the UK too, and a lot of women not so long ago had to battle extremely hard so that their daughters and granddaughters (me included) wouldn’t have to put up with it. And the more I understand what it feels like to be a woman in an oppressively sexist environment, the more I appreciate what those women did, and the more grateful I am to them.
Right, that's quite enough of that. I’m off to wax my legs and put my corset on.
Here are the brand names. But what’s the product?
I’m becoming increasingly nocturnal. This is partly because the call to prayer it is very loud between 3 and 5, and partly because my roof leaks and it’s rained so much a ceiling panel has come loose - so now bats can get in. And while bats are very cute on nature programmes, they’re a bit scary in your living room.
Anyway, this blog is nothing to do with bats or irregular sleeping patterns. I just thought I’d share.
This one’s about condoms actually. And yes the list above is a list of condom brands. It’s enough to make a person cringe.
The only brand of condom you see in Cameroon is called “Prudence”. This is a good, honest name for a condom if you ask me. Back in the west, we have marketing people who earn way too much money making up names to flatter (“Trojan”? Please…) or to entice (“Pleasure Plus”? I ask you…). Sometimes I think we’ve all gone marketing mad. Deciding which condom to use is not a “lifestyle choice”. Your selected brand does not “say anything about you as a person”. (Is there any product in the UK not subject to this tosh? Do people go to the chemist for haemorrhoid cream and have to choose the one that best reflects their personality?)
I much prefer the Cameroonian approach, and I would like to see the UK take a leaf out of Cameroon’s book, get rid of these pretentious brand names and introduce a new condom called quite simply “Sensible”.
Anyway, I work for an association called RESAEC and we have free Prudences available at our office for anyone who is too skint or embarrassed to buy them from the shop. The problem is, people are also embarrassed to get them from anyone but my boss Boubakari (though sometimes they’ll approach me, because everyone knows us westerners love condoms, so I won’t judge or gossip.) Therefore, they tend to come in the evening after the other staff have left. Boubakari stays every night until around eight to accommodate these visits. I’ve taken to staying on in the evenings too, because it means I don’t have to turn up for work until 10am, and because if I’m not there Boubakari has to mess about locking and unlocking the doors when he goes out for evening prayers. Last week he was away however, so I was on my own for Prudence duty. Sometimes people would come in, ask for the boss, and when they found out he was away they’d look a bit sheepish and slink off.
It’s sad there’s so much shame surrounding condoms, but encouraging to see how many takers there are when people feel at ease asking for them.
We also give out femidoms, which are a bit of a new idea and tend to be popular with women whose husbands/boyfriends refuse to use protection. I did feel quite ambivalent about this initially. In my opinion a man so irresponsible deserves to be alone – and alone with a broken nose, ideally. Using a femidom feels too much like capitulation.
But then that’s easy for me to say isn’t it? I can choose to be with or not be with a man. Nobody can force me. I’m not constrained in the same way as women here by money or society.
The more I think about it the more the introduction of the femidom seems like a huge step in the right direction. Apart from anything else it gives women a choice. And choice is something women in Cameroon so very rarely have.
- Tell her what she’s done wrong
- Give her another chance - explain to her how she should behave
- If she does it again, hit her – but only with a leather strap, no sticks
- If she does it a third time, then you can divorce her
I heard this at the Women’s Empowerment conference on Friday. It was an argument put forward in support of women (yes “support”), condemning men who divorce their wives over nothing and explaining the proper procedure.
I’m taking it out of context for effect, which is a bit unfair. But even in context I was somewhat taken aback. While the man in question was giving this explanation, I felt all eyes turn on me (the only non-Cameroonian in the room) as if all the participants were thinking as one : “What must she be making of all this?”
Domestic violence is not legal but it’s still common. Most men won’t talk to me honestly about it because they know that white people tend to find domestic abuse shocking. Of the men I know well enough to speak frankly with, some condemn violence towards women, but others see it as necessary in order to keep them in line.
The legal age for marriage here is 18 for men and 15 for women, although often girls are married off younger than this, and to men quite a lot older. There is a high incidence of medical complications that arise when girls have babies before their body has fully developed. And often women (and girls) have no medical assistance before, during, or after giving birth. This might be down to lack of money, but often it is because the woman is ashamed to see a male doctor, or indeed because her husband forbids her from doing so. And there aren’t an awful lot of women doctors to go around, since so many girls don’t even make it to the end of primary school, let alone university. (What’s the point in spending money educating your daughter? She’s only ever going to get married, have kids and keep house.) Even those girls that are in school are expected to do chores at home while boys do their homework and play out.
These were just a few of the issues that came up at Saturday’s seminar. Others included female circumcision, disproportionately high HIV rates among women (about twice as many women as men are infected), men who refuse to wear condoms, women who are prisoners in their homes, the inequality between the first wife and the other wives in polygamous marriages, inequality between husband and wife/wives in all marriages, inequality between boys and girls in the classroom, the misinterpretation of religion to justify sexual inequality, men-only mosques, rape (and whether raping your wife is really rape)… Frankly the list goes on.
I think it’s fair to say that Cameroonian women have it pretty tough.
So, were any solutions found to this vast array of problems? Well: awareness-raising, engaging local chiefs, persuading them to set an example in their own marriages, asking the imams to preach about fair treatment of women in the mosques. All good ideas. But my favourite suggestion came from a man who felt that women should “just stop victimising themselves”. Get out there, grow a pair (figuratively of course) and stop whining. Simple, eh? I wonder why they didn’t think of that before?
I’ve always been shy of the word “feminist”. It’s a loaded term. But on Friday I heard comments like “I’m not feminist or anything, but…” and “Well the problem comes when women get ideas and start behaving like feminists”. It’s the element of conflict and antagonism that people don’t like, and understandably so. But I wonder whether conflict isn’t sometimes necessary. I wonder whether progress is even possible without a bit of a fight. And I wonder whether the fact that we’re all so afraid of the f-word might be a problem in itself. So I think I’ll be a feminist when I get home. And it’s not really my place to say, but secretly, between you and me, I hope all the women here do start “getting ideas” and “behaving like feminists”.
And I hope it happens in my lifetime. Wherever I am I’ll have a drink in their honour. (I’ll pay for it myself, obviously…)
- Paix. Travail. Patrie(Peace. Work. Fatherland. National motto of Cameroon. On a flipchart. Although it appears everywhere from letterheads to school buildings.)
- Sagesse. Science. Excellence.(Wisdom. Science. Excellence. On my Women’s Day outfit.)
- Abstinence. Fidélité. Préservatif.(Abstinence. Fidelity. Condom. On an AIDS awareness campaign poster)
- Soumission. Foi. Perfection.(Submission. Faith. Perfection. On a sign next to my office.)
Actually that last one is a cheat. The sign is for an Islamic school and the three words are a rendering of Islam, Iman, Ihsan, which are the three levels of faith a person can attain according to the Qu’ran. So “slogan” is hardly the appropriate word. It’s a bit like saying that “Blessed are the meek” was one of Jesus’ “catchphrases”. Still, I saw it so I put it on my list.
I’ve been noticing a lot of slogans around lately - mostly on posters. We have a lot of them at my office. A favourite of mine is a plain blue poster displaying nothing but the phrase “Let’s put on a condom” - apparently à propos of nothing. I think this poster could have been thought through a bit better. It strikes me as the sort of spontaneous “Let’s do something” phrase you might come out with on a Sunday afternoon if you were a bit bored - as in “Let’s go to town” or “Let’s play Monopoly”. The message is important of course, but personally I think the suggestion “Let’s put on a condom” ought to be put into some sort of context. It’s not always the appropriate course of action.
The three-part slogan is a bit of a must-have for any self-respecting Cameroonian organisation or government department. Three-parters seem somehow weightier than your average slogan, and make me feel as if I’m living in “1984”. (The book not the year. Think “Big Brother is watching you” and not “Who would you give your last Rolo to?”). Similarly reminiscent of “1984” (the book) are the names of the ministries. Orwell gave us Minipax, Minitrue, Muniluv and Miniplenty. Cameroon gives us Minedub, Minefop, Minesec and Minesup, to name but a few.
And I think that’s all I have to say about Orwell and Cameroon.
On Friday I went to a seminar organised by the Ministry for the Empowerment of Women (Minproff). It was held at a “Technology Centre” with a marked lack of anything technological, other than a fan and a plug socket. The inevitable 3-part slogan for the day was “Equal rights. Equal Opportunities. Progress for all.” and the audience were all local residents and/or representatives from local organisations. They were mostly, but not exclusively women, and were invited to debate issues surrounding women’s empowerment (or indeed lack of it). It was a fascinating and complex discussion. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, (steps up onto soapbox) the general population in Cameroon is far more politically aware than that of the UK. Your average Joe (Or indeed Mohamadou) is better informed and more passionate. And yet back home we have more money, freedom, access to information, and the very real possibility of holding the government to account if even a quarter of the nation were genuinely interested. (steps back down again)
(Actually, think I must have been feeling quite inspired by the women's conference last weekend: the next set of entries are all a bit soap-box-y. Brace yourselves...)
Saturday, 15 May 2010
- You find a live goat in your toilet
- Your neighbour can't help smirking as she gives you back the hat she borrowed
- You lose a limb
- You never wear clothes
Not entirely sure how I’ll use that one down the market.
Anyway, the theme of this post is magic. And I don’t mean that in a rubbish 80’s Paul Daniels “That’s Magic” sort of a way. I mean it in a weird, intriguing “oooohhh, magic is all around us” sort of a way.
Magic and witchcraft are incredibly common in Cameroon. As foreigners, we don’t necessarily hear much about witchcraft – particularly not at first. But it is a common practice, and people are very aware of it even if not directly involved. Slowly but surely, without quite realising, you gain people’s trust. They start to speak to you about magic, and it can be really quite fascinating.
So here are 5 anecdotes about magic and witchcraft I have heard recently.
There is a crazy naked man in Maroua. He hasn’t worn clothes for at least a decade. He hangs out (quite literally) on the doorstep of a huge derelict building near my new office. Every afternoon he walks to the market and people let him take whatever he needs to eat, because if they refuse he urinates all over their stall.
Here is his story…
Once, the “Naked Man” was a fully-clothed, fully functioning member of Cameroonian society. Let’s call him Kevin. Now, Kevin had a steady job and a house and everything. But then one day he had an affair with his boss’s wife, we’ll call her Daisy. One day, Kevin’s boss (Nigel) walked in on Daisy and Kevin together, and was of course pretty pissed off about it. As Nigel watched Kevin hastily putting on his clothes, it occurred to him that Kevin’s suit allowed him to masquerade as an honourable member of society when in fact he was a scoundrel. Now, normally everyone involved might have settled this situation with a good old-fashioned punch-up (or alternatively, in the case of celebrities, sold their story to the Sun). But in Cameroon, there are other ways of settling disputes…
That night, Nigel went to see a Marabou (witch doctor), and the Marabou put a spell on Kevin, “so that he would never again be able to hide his shame” or so the story goes. And since that day, the Naked Man’s “shame” (yes, that’s what we call it nowadays) has been very much on display.
There is a tribe in Southern Cameroon where women can go through many hours, even days of labour, give birth, and feel nothing. Meanwhile, the expectant fathers sit at a remote distance, in complete agony, bearing the woman’s pain. Independent observers have apparently testified to this.
A good friend of mine forbade his wife to lend a headscarf to a friend. His reason: He and his wife were very happy together and trying for a baby. The friend may have been jealous. If so, she could easily have taken the headscarf to a Marabou and paid him to curse it – in which case, after taking it back, he and his wife would have had trouble conceiving. He therefore instructed his wife either to keep the headscarf or to give it away.
I asked a friend why so many people in Cameroon have withered limbs. Expecting to hear about polio or accidents, I was surprised to hear that the majority of the limb-less descend from a cursed Nigerian bloodline.
A Cameroonian volunteer in a rural village found an owl in her latrine (outdoor hole-in-the-ground style toilet). For the rest of the day she was unable to concentrate on her work, constantly having to nip out and take or make calls in order to establish who should kill the owl and how. (Apparently putting an animal in someone’s latrine is a way of cursing them. You have to kill it in a certain way in order to break the curse.)
There are loads of stories like this, but I won’t tell any more – partly because they’re completely crazy stories with no scientific, rational basis. And also partly because I don’t want to be too indiscrete – it might anger the spirits.