By: Sarah Price
I am about to finish reading The Poisonwood Bible for the first time. I think I would recommend it, although I really don’t know how much of it I would understand or be able to accept if I were not living here in Cameroon. I think a lot of it would horrify me if I hadn’t already seen much of what the book describes (the poverty and daily life of the Congolese people, or some of their beliefs and traditions that I am slowly but surely trying to understand). Modern day Cameroon is of course not exactly like the Congo in the 60s-80s, and my village, with a large main paved road riding right through it, is not the tiny hidden bush village of Kilanga that the Price (lovely yet terrifying coincidence of names there…) Family found themselves in. However, the observations of the Price girls resonate very much with my experience here, as does the incessant guilt and insecurity of being a white girl in a country that is still struggling with the aftermaths of colonialism and contact with the Western world.
I like to joke with other PCVs that this country is “literally trying to kill us all”, and a lot of the time that is what living here feels like for someone from the “temperate swamp-land” of Birmingham, Alabama. I have lived in places with extreme heat and humidity, and places of extreme cold and snow (Minnesota), but this country fights against the Western invaders in every way that it can. The water is full of parasites and microorganisms ready to find their way into your blood and start eating your brain, the ground is full of chiggers and worms ready to burrow into your toes and start laying eggs under your skin. The vines and vegetation grow faster than we can keep them back, constantly trying to reclaim the land we stole from them. There are infections and diseases here that cannot actually be fought against, but only dealt with once they have already infected you. And let’s not even go into the poisonous snakes, scorpions, spiders bigger than my fist, and spitting venom cockroaches that protect every corner of this country. In my last year, I’ve already had intestinal parasites, staph infections, and three chiggers (not like American chiggers: they burrow under your skin to lay their eggs, which then hatch and spread). But really, I’ve gotten off easy. One of my close friends was sent home a month ago due to a severe mango allergy, a severe bamboo allergy, and malaria (not to mention the stinging venom rash, scabies, and stomach worms that he dealt with) all of which kept him in and out of the hospital for about four months before he got sent home for good.
Don’t get me wrong, I love this country most of the time. It’s hard, but living here gives me a completely different perspective on the world. The people of Cameroon are some of the most ingenious and strong people I will ever meet. They are faced with all of the same problems as those of us coming in for a brief spell, but they handle it all in stride. Death is a common occurrence here, and both children and old age are precious, as neither is easily achieved. Every person in this country walks on a razor’s edge balance between nature and industry. The trees are being cut down right and left for timber and firewood, roads are constructed between major cities, and every family strives for electricity and a television. Yet, the trees and vegetation may disappear for a moment, but as soon as the rains arrive, they are back taller than the houses made from their forefathers, the roads are full of potholes and often become rivers with the heavy rains, and electricity and power are based on the whim of the drought and the storm.
“I am coming to understand the length and breadth of outsiders’ failure to impose themselves on Africa. This is not Brussels or Moscow or Macon, Georgia. This is famine or flood. You can’t teach a thing until you’ve learned that. The tropics will intoxicate you with the sweetness of frangipani flowers and lay you down with the sting of a viper, with hardly room to breathe in between. It’s a great shock to souls gently reared in places of moderate clime, hope, and dread.” – Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
Reading The Poisonwood Bible, I have developed a wish that I could have seen Cameroon before colonialism, before our western ideas of “civilization” and “commerce” were imposed on a society that was so incredibly developed in a different way. Every now and then I find myself thinking that my students will never be able to learn the lessons I’m trying to teach, or that my neighbors will forever be stuck in their “simple” way of life. I hear my more educated Cameroonian coworkers commenting on the stupidity of the students or the people of the village, and the underdeveloped and “stupid” nature of all Cameroonians, but what upsets me the most is that all of this comes from contact with the Western world. The toy cars and water systems that my neighbors develop out of nothing but dried wood, or mud and sand, are incredibly complex and much sturdier than the imported tools and mechanisms. The farming systems around me and the incredible uses of land baffle me. Each one of my neighbors speaks at least 3 languages, although most speak closer to 6 or 7, even the young 3-4 year old children (and none of them can understand why I only speak French and English, and am struggling to learn the local language). They may not be able to read, but their ability to immediately size up a pile of potatoes, giving you a price high enough that by the end of 20 minutes of negotiating they still profit, is more than I can ever hope to achieve. Their acceptance of death, paired with their sense of “unity” and “family” makes me consistently feel like the most selfish and self-involved person in the world. I am learning things from this country and its people that are impossible for me to really understand, even as I adopt the customs. Learning the difference between someone asking me for money because I am white, or having Mama Clementine ask me for 2,000 CFA because we are family, and her husband did not leave her enough today, is an incredible difference.
Teaching and working here, I often feel a sense of futility at what I am trying to teach my students: the English language and an understanding of different cultures and ideas, the importance of reading and education in making your way in the world, etc. But what I keep coming back to is the sense that this is not America. By telling my students that if they have a good enough education and study hard enough they can achieve anything I am lying to them. In this country, it requires so much more: good connections in a system built on bribery and corruption, the ability not only to move to a bigger city, but also to find a job there, and the money it takes to continue education even just through high school. I still, of course, encourage them to work hard and find their passion, but the entire education system and sense of commerce and “success” feel like western ideals that I am continuing to perpetuate in a country that may have been better off without us.
I am considered beautiful in this country because I have white skin. My students and neighbors envy my sleek, black kindle, not because they are impressed with the amount of books I can carry around on it, but because it is an electronic device that looks “western”. Having electricity and a TV within the house are more desirable than running water, because it connects them to the western world. My fellow teachers and neighbors love to tell me things (generally wildly false) about the United States, and Europe, and what they imagine life to be like there. Despite my protests and calm explanations it’s clear that they never fully believe me when I try to dispel their ideas that, for example, it never gets colder than 70 degrees F, that no one is poor or homeless, or that you can buy a Mercedes for what would be $50. These are the ideas they have developed or been taught by the news and their Spanish tele-novellas. The biggest insult I hear Cameroonians using against each other is “villageouis!” (Directly translated as “village-y”), but it is in the villages that the true heart of Cameroon still thrives. It is in the aspects that have not been shifted and modified by the need for better roads to transport goods or for a new Christian church. It is in the village that the souls of the ancestors still live, and the totems (or spirit animals) still stalk their prey.
This sounds very condescending and presumptive of me, and I am still working hard on not judging my surroundings based on my own western understanding of the way things “should be”, but I do wish that I could have experienced this culture and lifestyle before colonialism. I am desperately curious as to what this life would be like: how colonialism and the introduction of Christianity and western ideals has shifted these people, how this country would have developed without our influence, and whether Cameroon would have more of a global presence of its own accord. Of course, my presence would completely negate the point of this “untouched” Cameroon, but I often wonder if my work here is a continuance of colonialism. Such is the trope of the benevolent American swooping in to save the poor lost and misguided souls of Cameroon.
I like to believe that I am helping my students and village for their own purposes, to help them survive in this country and this world, introducing new ways of thinking, and new ideas that may or may not help them, but how much of that is my own sense of self-importance and that what I believe is more “right” than what they believe? I do not think that women should be prevented from going to school or that children should be beaten so that they learn better, but how much of that was not originally Cameroon, but ideas brought in by colonialism and missionaries in the beginning? When talking about a woman’s place in the household I often have the Bible quoted at me as reasoning. When I speak out against corporal punishment I am told that “Africans must be beaten or else they won’t learn”. I have been given articles written by professors at Cameroonian universities, who have travelled and studied in Europe or the United States, that claim that the problem with Cameroonians is their inherent “African-ness”, that they are too lazy and unmotivated, and therefore destined to be forever left behind by the rest of the world. When I argue against these ideas, citing issues of limited resources and opportunities, the corruption within the government, or issues of poverty or imposed ideals, I am told I do not understand because I’m not “African”.
To be fair, I don’t fully understand. I do think that what the Peace Corps does is very important, and in general is a wonderful and idealistic organization. In a perfect world, the Peace Corps would be superfluous and unnecessary, but despite my fears of imposing my ideas upon another culture, I believe that we are generally striving to do good. I like to, perhaps very self-righteously and arrogantly, believe that I am not trying to change a country’s culture, but that I am presenting my students with different options and ways of thinking. I am not trying to force them into anything. Instead I’m giving them an option and allowing them to choose for themselves. I am trying to instill the idea of critical thinking and observation into my students, not so that they will come around to my way of thinking, but so that they can make informed decisions about the paths their lives will take. I do not want to tell my girls that they should not want to get married and have children, but simply give them a chance to take another path in life if they so choose.
I can never fully understand the life my students lead, the daily trials of my closest friends here, the worries of money, food, floods, droughts, pregnancy, death, support, corruption, etc. I am so privileged to be able to glimpse even a brief moment of the hardship in this country and walk away from it saying “wow, that sucks, thank goodness I was born somewhere else”, but I can never experience what it means to truly be Cameroonian. I will never lead that life. I can only come in and try to help where I think I can, and hope that my influence has not negatively impacted what it means to be Cameroonian. If I’m lucky, I will have offered a new opportunity to one or two of my students.