31 March 2009

the crab sorceror and the human zoo

Bamenda, Cameroon - Greetings from Bamenda, the heart of Anglophone Cameroon. This town is referred to as "America" by Cameroon's Peace Corps volunteers, much to the chagrin of Courtney, the PCV who is posted here. Bamenda won this moniker thanks to its relatively high level of development and the abundance of businesses named after American cities and places. There was one spot named after Boston just a few steps away from a hair "saloon" (as they call them here- no whiskey or shootouts as far as I know) called "Yankee New Look." I think the significance of that combination is probably lost on most Cameroonians. It has been quite a transition in just a few days from the desert north to the busy francophone capital city to the red-earthed, grassy, English-speaking northwest.

But for now I'm going to rewind the clock back to our time in the North, since I have quite the backlog of things to write about. During our time in Kate's town, we took an overnight side trip to Rhumsiki, a town near the Nigerian border with some gorgeous mountains. Our guide brought us in to see the Crab Sorceror, a local spiritual leader believed to have power to foretell the future. In addition to predicting the quality of the harvest for the community, he offers his services to visitors for 1,000 CFA per question. His method is as follows: he speaks to a crab in the local language, asking it to do a good job for his guests, and then poses the first question (as translated by our guide) to the crab. He places the crab in a clay pot filled with water, sand, and pieces of wood that represent the different locations of the visitors' life. The crab gets a few moments to do its thing beneath a lid, and then the crab sorceror reads off the answer from whatever the crab is up to in the pot when the lid is lifted. We didn't ask, but the crab sorceror provided enough information for us to conclude that Kate and I are going to be married, that the matter will be settled in a year and a half to two years, and that we will have a daughter, a son, and a daughter. (P.S. - Kate is not particularly eager to have kids. P.P.S. - The crab sorceror only gives out good news.)

I found our encounter with the crab sorceror noteworthy not so much for what he predicted, but for how the whole experience felt... or how it didn't feel. In my Philippines blog I complained about the tourism in some of the poorer regions of the country being a kind of "human zoo." I often encountered situations that felt undignified and degrading to the local people and cultures, driven by sheer economic desperation and the need for tourist cash. But the crab sorceror experience did not have that "human zoo" feeling to it, nor did our visit to the chief with 50 wives, even though my blog about it may have been a bit sensationalistic.

I thought about why that might be and discussed it with Kate, and she made a really good point: the local people are more in charge of their destiny here. We really are their guests, and we play by their rules. The morning after our meeting with the crab sorceror, Kate and I went on a hike around Rhumsiki, and as we were descending a woman was climbing the trail with a bundle of wood on her head. Our guide promptly ordered us to get off the trail and let her pass. We would have done it anyway, of course, but I was impressed because I would have expected/feared that we, the rich white people, would have been allowed/expected just to steamroll right over the daily life of our hosts. That's the kind of mentality that human zoos are made of, and it has been refreshingly absent during my time in Cameroon.

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