Bamenda, Cameroon – “English-speaking,” I have learned, is a relative term. When we first arrived in Bamenda six days ago, I was excited to be in a region of Cameroon where language would be less of a barrier to interacting with the locals. Then we went out to Bamenda’s most posh restaurant—we’re still talking fluorescent lighting and 3,000 CFA ($6) entrees here—and I got a reality check. After spilling some Top Pamplemousse (Cameroon’s delicious homegrown brand of grapefruit soda) on the table and floor, I went back to the bar to ask the bartender for some napkins. My initial request was met with a look of incomprehension. I gradually simplified my question to just “napkins?”, but that didn’t work either. I finally got the message through by miming a spilling beverage and wiping motion.
The majority of people in Anglophone Cameroon don’t speak the Queen’s English in their daily lives. The true lingua franca is Pidgin, a blend of English and local languages that is incomprehensible to a speaker of standard English. To give you a small taste of how different it is, prior to our mountain bike trip along the Ring Road I asked one of the local Peace Corps volunteers for a short primer on asking for directions in Pidgin. I was told that “which way to Ndu?” would be translated as “wu side Ndu de?” The word “side” does come from the English, but as you can tell, the meaning of the word is a little bit different than the sense we are used to.
That said, most of the Cameroonians I have met in this region can speak and understand English fairly well, as long as you adopt what the Peace Corps folks call “Special English.” Special English entails speaking very slowly, enunciating clearly, eliminating contractions, and introducing a bit of a lilt to one’s voice. It’s funny, but this seems to be the one place in the world where the stereotypical “ugly American” way of speaking to the locals—i.e. speaking more slowly and loudly, as if the listener were stupid—actually works. I’m told there is one volunteer in this region who has got Special English down so well that now he can’t turn it off, even when talking with other Americans. I’m pretty bad at Special English, which means that even here, Kate does most of the talking with the locals.
Some of the importations from English are downright hilarious to American ears. Whereas in the north of Cameroon I would be addressed as “nassara,” here I am “white man.” “White man” is a unisex and even a plural term; thus Kate is also “white man,” as are the two of us together. In almost every village we biked or hiked through, children would shout to us from the roadside; at one point we got shouts of “WHITE MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN” in stereo from both sides of the road, the kids apparently competing to see whose lungs could hold out the longest. Another of my favorites is “I will beat you” (that’s “beat” in the sense of “smack around,” not “defeat”), which seems to be the preferred idle threat among children and Peace Corps volunteers. Cats are referred to as “pussy,” and a kitten is “small pickin’ pussy” (“pickin” somehow means “children”). But my favorite local phrase of all is “you are welcome”—Cameroonian hospitality in action.