18 April 2009

on arguing, protocol, and nose-picking

I would be slacking in my bloggy duties if I didn’t provide some kind of commentary on what I experienced of Cameroonian culture. Certain professors of mine at Cambridge would never forgive me if I didn’t preface these observations with the caveats that these are broad generalizations, that there is lots of cultural diversity within Cameroon, and wocka wocka wocka. On we go.

Confrontation. In at least one sense, Cameroon’s culture is the opposite of an Asian culture—namely its high tolerance for interpersonal conflict. I would frequently observe Cameroonians engaged in what appeared to be shouting matches, but Kate and others assured me that that’s just how they roll. A Peace Corps volunteer I met on our long train ride has taken the idea of being integrĂ© to the extreme on this score. In dealing with railroad employees, fellow passengers, and the assorted vendors and hustlers associated with the rail system, I watched him adopt the same kind of brash, confrontational, in-your-face attitude that he and other PCVs attribute to Cameroonians.

But the strangest thing about the Cameroonian approach to conflict is how quickly it can all be turned off. A Cameroonian can seem to be chewing you out one moment and acting like your best friend the next; it’s as quick as flipping a light switch. Here again, the culture seems to be the opposite of what I’ve experience of Asian cultures, in which personal slights can linger in the atmosphere for a very long time. When Kate and I arrived in Limbe, we tried to explain the location of our hotel to our cabbie—who, you should be unsurprised to hear, had never heard of said hotel. He repeatedly claimed that we would have to pay him extra because the hotel was located inside a botanic garden that charged an entrance fee; we knew that it wasn’t. We went through several rounds of him arguing with us, his face lit up with rage, interspersed with bizarrely friendly questions and commentary about the town, Kate’s post in the Northern Cameroon, and other topics.

Protocol. Cameroonians are big on protocol. This is the kind of principle that one typically discovers in the breach, and we had a couple of educational but mildly unpleasant encounters with Cameroonian protocol.

Prior to our arrival in Maroua, a northern transport hub where we spent the night of my birthday, Kate received an invitation from a fellow PCV who happens also to be a Williams grad. We were invited to share a (non-alcoholic) hot beverage, the name and significance of which I forget but which has something to do with a Muslim holiday, with the sister of the lamido from Kate’s town. A lamido is the traditional local chief in Northern Cameroon, and you can read about Kate’s fascinating run-in with the local lamido here. (I’m not really addressing gender issues in Cameroon here, primarily because Kate does a really nice job of it in her blog.) We arrived to an elaborate welcome from members of the princess’ household and then the princess herself. As we sat waiting on a mat and darkness fell, a creeping sense of unease set in. Hot-beverage-whose-name-and-significance-I-forget (HBWNASIF) doesn’t take that long to hear up; it was becoming clear that, contrary to her invitation, the princess had something fancier in mind for us. With birthday celebrating plans in the hopper, other errands to do, and an early wakeup the next morning, we were not prepared for a multi-hour commitment. Perhaps no self-respecting princess would have guests over only for HBWNASIF, and perhaps the real import of the invitation would have been something a real Cameroonian could have deciphered. We were caught completely off guard. Austin, the Williams alum PCV, extracted us from the situation with all of the diplomatic skill he could muster. The parting was friendly and Kate and Austin promised a return visit, but I worried that the incident may have set Kate father back with the lamido and his family.

A big part of Cameroonian protocol is letting people know when you’re entering their territory. Roadside ID checks are a standard part of most any bus trip, and Lonely Planet advises travelers who are going off the beaten tourist track to announce themselves to the local lamido or fon (as they are called in the South). During our biking/hiking trip on the Ring Road, Kate and I spent two nights in the village of Missaje (mee-SAH-jay), which does see a trickle of foreign tourists but is still the kind of place where two people can eat out for less than $1. By our second night, it became clear that we had been noticed. At the local watering hole, an intoxicated but well-dressed man who said he was a journalist struck up a conversation with us. He offered to present us to the local authorities. He was just looking out for us, he said, because an introduction would make things easier later on in the event that we were “subpoenaed.” He was sloshed and obviously full of shit, but the whole encounter still felt ominous. Kate calmly and politely explained that she lived in Cameroon and understood the custom, but that we were leaving first thing the next morning and it was too late at night for anything to be done in any case. He backed off—but not before obliquely slighting Kate’s character—and we finished our drinks and got out of there. To smooth things over, Kate suggested we give our journalist friend a final “greeting” before we left. He responded with extreme friendliness, as if nothing had happened. There’s that on/off switch again.

Just for Fun. On a lighter note, my picks for:

  • Grossest Cameroonian habit. Flagrant, public nose picking. And sometimes eating.
  • Strangest appropriation of Western food. Spaghetti omelets, which are on offer at omelet shacks in most sizeable towns.
  • Best way to get tipsy while meeting your Recommended Daily Allowance for Vitamin C. Top Pamplemousse (grapefruit soda) with whisky (sold in 50 mL plastic sachets).
  • Funniest placenames. Bum and Dumbo, both in Anglophone Cameroon.
  • Best Cameroonian Slogan. “On est ensemble”—roughly translated as, “we’re in this together,” and the best way to signal solidarity with your travel mate in the event of drunk journalists, biting ants, muggings, derailed invitations to drink HBWNASIF, and other mishaps.

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