24 March 2009

marshmallow peeps, nassaras, sacred poop, and the man with 50 wives

“Marshmallow peeps? Are you serious?” I was in my parents’ house in Danvers for a brief stopover en route to Africa, and I had to sort through and repack several boxes of stuff that I was ferrying to Kate and a Peace Corps friend who works in the same town as her. (I know, Danvers isn’t exactly on the way, but the insane rules of my frequent flier program required me to tag the US before my free flight to Africa.) Apparently living in the Sahel can make you crave weird things, because Kate’s friend’s parents had sent along several boxes of marshmallow Peeps. Knowing that the fragile sweets would be demolished in my checked luggage, I saw no better option than putting them in my carry-on bag, even though that would require me to handle my backpack with kid gloves for all of my 13 hours of flying and my 10-hour layover in Paris. Kate got an embarrassing goodie too, but I feel too much loyalty to her to divulge what it was here. Mysteriously, the peeps arrived in Africa completely intact, but the British chocolate bars that I brought along for Kate got warped during the journey.

About 60 hours after I left Cambridge for Heathrow, I landed in N’Djamena. The capital and largest city in Chad has a single runway, which is used for both civilian and military flights. As the plane descended, I was struck by how little artificial light I could see. It reminded me of the description for one of my development courses at Williams, which reflected on the image of those world-at-night maps and the contrast between the brightly lit and dark regions of the world. All of the thirty-odd passengers from my flight crowded onto a small bus on the runway, which failed to start, so a second bus showed up to bring us to the terminal. “Salut, chef” (hi, chief) said the man who checked my yellow fever vaccination certificate. The lights in the terminal flickered as I waited in line at passport control. Welcome to Africa. As promised, Kate wore her loud green pagne from International Women’s Day for my arrival. It was quite possibly the best airport reunion ever.

The following day we had a brief tour of N’Djamena with the car and driver Kate had hired, and around noon we headed for the nearby border with Cameroon. The exit process from Chad was needlessly elaborate—we were shuffled through three separate rooms and subjected to three rounds of friendly but repetitious questioning—while the lone Cameroonian official we dealt with seemed peevish. I was worried for a moment that he thought something was wrong with my visa, and then it slowly dawned on us that he just couldn’t make sense of our passports. We ended up pointing out our names, passport numbers, expiration dates, and everything else he needed to know. He recorded the information by hand in the wrinkled pages of an enormous notebook—there was nary a computer to be seen on either side of the border—and we were on our way.

Our first stop in Cameroon was Parc National de Waza, the star of Cameroon’s relatively decent national park system. With the car, driver and a local guide, we got off to an early start and looked for animals in the dusty landscape. We got a great up-close view of giraffes, damalisks, enormous pelicans and all manner of birds, and a very distant view of some elephants—not in camera range, unfortunately. During the drive back to Kate’s town, we stopped in to visit a rather unusual tourist attraction: the compound of a local chief who has 50 wives and 113 children. For a modest fee of 5,000 CFA francs (a little less than $10), one of the chief’s sons gave us a tour, and at the end we got a picture with the chief himself. Having never seen polygamy firsthand, I felt very strange shaking the hand of a man with 50 wives. In Cameroon’s mostly Muslim and animist North, polygamy is fairly commonly practiced. As the chief’s son explained, each of the fifty wives gets four “rooms”—which are really more like small, freestanding huts—including a kitchen, a bedroom, and two rooms for storing millet. In a ritual that I didn’t completely understand, even with Kate’s help filling the gaps in my French, they keep a sacred cow on the grounds whose blood and feces are smeared on 14 jars representing each of the current chief’s predecessors. Our tour guide also explained that the rules of succession dictate that the second son of the first wife take over upon the chief’s death, since custom regards the firstborn son as insufficiently intelligent for the job. (Naturally, Kate enjoys reminding me of that one.) Our driver later told us that the tour guide, being a modest and discreet man, never told us that he himself the heir apparent. The guide was clearly accustomed to foreign visitors, acknowledging the conflict between le modernisme and his way of life and also hinting that things are gradually beginning to change.

The warmth and friendliness of Africans is a well-worn stereotype and a staple of travel literature, but I have indeed found Cameroonians to be incredibly welcoming. The term for white people/foreigners here is “nassara,” and when we walk around Kate’s town we reliably hear little children shouting “Nassara! Nassara! Bonsoir!” (good evening). I sometimes refer to myself as the super-nassara to distinguish myself—unfavorably, of course—from Kate, who actually lives here, speaks the language and wears the clothes. Kate brought me around and introduced me to some of her favorite locals, including Bouba, the energetic and incredibly motivated secretary-treasurer of the microfinance institution she works with; and her tailor, who vociferously praised Kate’s virtues and promised to make the outfits for our wedding.

It was neither the first nor the last time the questions and assumptions about me and Kate were flying. I watched with fascination as Kate explained to one of her female neighbors, who is part of a polygamous household, how marriage and household affairs are different in the United States. Among other things, she described how she would choose her own husband, how there would be no dowry and both families would contribute to the wedding, and how the husband would help with shopping and chores around the house. Kate also had a bunch of Cameroonian friends over for dinner, and I appreciated the chance to be part of a small and unobtrusive object lesson in how things can be different by helping her with the cooking and cleaning.

No illnesses or serious problems with the heat to report yet—so far, so good. I find the main difficulty is that my stomach doesn’t enjoy absorbing the volume of water my body requires to stay hydrated. We have a few more days in the North before the long trip to Yaoundé, so hopefully I will have a chance to post again before then.


Anonymous said...

Dear Shawn,

Wishing you a wonderful 27th Birthday on Thursday! You have such a young mother to be such an old lad. Love, Mom

Dad said...

Happy birthday from afar. The blogs are great! Thanks for an opportunity to share the experience. Love, Dad

lucinda said...

through which electronic communication should i wish shawn happy birthday? facebook, email, skype message, hmm.....how about your fantabulous blog!

Happy Birthday Shawn! Thanks for sharing your adventures and gave Kate a big hug for me!