Life in Cameroon

What’s daily life like in Cameroon? Friends who run an aid agency there send me snippets from time to time that are usually entertaining and always interesting (my friends prefer to remain anonymous). Here are some recent ones.

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There is a reserve for the protection of chimpanzees and gorillas just outside Yaounde. We have been suggesting for years that the Cameroonian staff should make a field trip out there to take a look and become educated regarding the exploitation of what are soon to be extinct animals. No one ever took us up on it. They’d say, “Why should we go see monkeys? This place used to be full of them.” Finally, as an incentive, we gave the staff the day off if they’d agree to go. They went. After their trip we asked one of our colleagues, “So, are you still going to eat monkey and gorilla now?”

She said, “It depends.”

“It depends on what?”

She said, “It depends on the sauce.”

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One of our associate directors is a woman with very long hair. Monique (who speaks excellent French and is married to a Cameroonian) asked the woman working in the hair salon for a trim to cut off only the ends. Before Monique could even raise her objection the woman had cut off at least six (!) inches of her beautiful, thick hair. Thus ensued a major “discussion” about what constituted a trim with the woman insisting she had only cut a very small amount off and her hair would be “healthier” for it! But the damage was done. Afterwards, Monique realized the woman was so intent on cutting her hair because good, healthy, thick hair, is a big commodity here for making wigs and she could sell it at a high price.

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I was talking today with a Cameroonian about food tastes. We both liked snake but it led to a discussion regarding who, here, can eat it and who can’t. It depends on what village, tribe, or part of Cameroon you’re from. But there are a number of health taboos for pregnant women regardless of location: there is a taboo about eating snake otherwise the child will not grow up to walk well but will only be able to “slither.” He went on to say that when women are pregnant there is also a taboo about eating pig’s feet otherwise the child will come out with a big nose (snout). And eating rat is considered not a good idea when pregnant because people believe that the child will be born with teeth like a rodent’s.

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How quickly we forget! We were at a dinner party the other night. It was going on and on with plenty of food and lots to drink. (Forget that the host was a devout Muslim, a member of the National Assembly and a representative of an international Islamic organization who kept the booze flowing.) It was getting really late and everyone was still there. Sort of unusual that no one had left yet. Why? Because protocol prevents anyone from leaving before the chief. We got up to leave and so did everyone else.
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Here gumbo (okra) is a staple. “Gumbo” can be used as a synonym for food or anything to eat. When the police or gendarmes stop people in their cars or on the street for bribes they say, “Ou est mon gumbo?” An NGO came out with fake money with a picture of gumbo on it to give to these guys, in lieu of a bribe, if you are brave enough.

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To my knowledge this form of body modification only happens in Cameroon (thank goodness): There is something called “repassage des seins” or breast ironing. Pubescent girls’ breasts are flattened in an attempt to make them less sexually attractive to men, usually by their mother. This practice is believed to help prevent rape and early marriage. Various tools are used to perform this: grinding stones, pestles, belts, and heated objects are used to press down the forming breasts. (There is a new campaign to stop this practice.)

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But, truly, is any of this much different from the man we saw in the Castro Safeway in San Francisco a few months ago? Tattooed on the back of his bald head was: “Fuck what you think!”

Posted by Larry Habegger

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