It occurred to me a few days ago when my family asked via Skype to tell them something wild I had seen recently that I hardly know what’s noteworthy anymore. A year in, what once made me scramble for my camera I now hardly notice. And what I was once offended by often just makes me sigh roll my eyes.
When I first arrived in Bafia, I remember being awed by so many things: the pagne, the things people carry on their heads, the chicken/goat/cattle traffic jams, the mud huts, the motos on every corner, motos in pirogues, motos on top of other motos, the bushmeat, Baka pygmies, the massive trees… And I was alarmed by things too: people drinking sachets (tiny bags of booze) in any setting and at any time of day, infants hanging by one arm on speeding motos, nine other people crammed into my four-seat row for a ten-hour voyage, people pooping in the middle of the street, people screaming my skin color at me everywhere I go, people asking for handouts almost every day, corrupt cops, corrupt NGOs, corrupt government officials…
It’s so different than life in the States that it sometimes offends our sensibilities. The in-your-face nature of things can be overwhelming. The boundaries and standards that we are used to are different (ie customer service), and sometimes just plain non-existent (ie personal space and privacy).
About a month ago I hit a low point in dealing with this part of life in Cameroon. For the previous few months I had been growing more outwardly hostile. I was becoming more and more impatient, irritable, argumentative, suspicious, and judgmental. The lowest point was probably this day: I was first jolted awake by a woman screaming outside my door at 5:30am, then had my landlord ask me for the second time to front him six months of rent, then had a man I had never met or even seen before insist that I give him money because he knew someone that I knew, and then had the young woman who does my laundry tell me that her brothers had stolen my clothes – all before 8am. Deciding I needed some time alone, I tried to cut the outside world off by closing all my doors and windows but had four more persistent visitors over the course of the day – three neighborhood boys who wanted to borrow my bike, make them some food, or give them one of my USB keys, and one man I had met only once before who asked me to give him a pair of pants.
Cameroon just does not stop being Cameroon. It is relentless.
Which is why that day also helped me realize what I was most frustrated about: my lack of control over these external things. I was never going to get greedy people to stop stealing from their sisters or their community members. I was never going to make every Cameroonian realize that I resent being asked for material donations. I was never going to get everybody who schedules a meeting for noon to show up at noon. Never. If I didn’t shift my attitude about these things they were going to drive me crazy. And so I decided to give up on the idea of changing them. And I just let go.
Remarkably, this has allowed me to appreciate some things I hadn’t before, and the negative things even seem to have dwindled – partly because I’m just not so alarmed by them anymore, but partly because I have consciously tried to turn their volume down. The not-so-perfect parts of Cameroon are easy to spot and often easier to pay more attention to, but attempting to look past them has freed up some energy to appreciate things I took for granted. The girl who does my laundry has bad brothers but she also had the impressively disciplined idea to ask me to guard the money I owe her so she can save and pay for her daughter’s school fees. Kids still come by my house every day, but they do so because they like hanging out and playing sports with me. The people who reach through the window and shove peanuts in my face do so because they are trying to make a living in a hard environment – and more often than not if I just smile at them they will return it with a much bigger smile.
So much of the attention we see as harassment is just an attempt to interact with us. Some of it is definitely harassment, but some of it is simply a crude way of engaging with people they never get the chance to directly. Sometimes its too much: the groping of female volunteers is never fun, and the SONEL employees who cut power a few hours every other day to steal and sell the fuel elsewhere will never stop making me mad. But there’s no reason I should make the kid yelling ‘Le Blanc!’ pay for my anger at the SONEL employee. There’s no reason to assume that the price I’m quoted is always 5x higher than the real price. It may be, but it can also be a good entry point for cajoling and joking with the vendeur and making him your friend. Most of the time that’s all people want anyway.
Make no mistake, the ‘letting go’ is still a work in progress. But the goal is to have more energy to give to the people who will make Cameroon a better place.