Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Off to the field

Heading off to ‘the field’ is always an adventure- this time it’s off to Batouri, a small town in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, deep in the rainforest. The East is the poorest, least-developed part of the country- perhaps the equivalent of the Deep South in the US.

Getting out of town for a trip is difficult anywhere, and Yaoundé is no exception. Rush hour is in full force, and in addition to all the private cars, buses, and trucks, taxis and motorcycles are everywhere, swerving in and out of traffic, running the few traffic lights that exist, and generally causing roadway chaos, the flies and mosquitoes of the road. We catch the brunt of the ongoing downpour as we leave, just after 7:00 AM, stopping first at Mathieu, our driver’s, house to pick up a suitcase, followed by a stop to collect Aurèlie, the Program Manager responsible for our work in the East, and finally Serges, a Cameroonian intern who has been working with Aurèlie for awhile on this project. By the time we actually get on the road it’s close to 10:00, and we have a seven-hour trip ahead of us. Fortunately the road opens up, and it’s (mostly) well-paved, making the trip a smooth one, for the moment.

One thing I notice as Mathieu and Aurèlie chat and we fly down the road- Cameroonians (or at least these two Cameroonians) TALK REALLY LOUDLY. I attempt to listen to last night’s Rachel Maddow Show podcast on my MP3 player, and even though it’s at the highest volume and the headphones are jammed into my ears, I seem to be hearing more of their practically-shouted conversation than anything else. I try not to get annoyed, and chalk it up to a cultural difference, but it’s challenging not to feel at least a bit frustrated. I can manage though- if I can’t handle something like that, I probably shouldn’t be here to begin with.

About two hours into the drive, we make a stop at Ayos, a larger town on the way to the East. Mathieu needs to take a break, and we all take the opportunity to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. It’s orange season, and women are lined up along the edge of the rest area, with piles of green-peeled oranges sitting in pyramids at their feet as they sit under umbrellas blocking the otherwise fierce sun. I’m loitering by the passenger door of the pickup (our ride), when someone suddenly slams their hands on the hood. I spin around to see what’s happening, and I see a little boy, who looks to be about 12 years old. I stare at him for a second, puzzled, and look at his face. His features are locked into a permanent sort of half-smile/half-grimace, an expression that reminds more of Gollum from the Lord of the Rings than anything else. His ears protrude, and he wears a faded black t-shirt printed with a lipstick kiss colored like an American flag. He scrambles around the side of the car with a shuffling-type motion, grabs a rag out of his back pocket, and begins scrubbing away the mud and dust that are caked onto our fender.

After looking for another second, I realize that he's clearly mentally challenged and rather than try to create a problem, I stand back as he goes about his business, frantically scrubbing the dust off the truck. From what I can tell, having a disability is challenging enough in places like the US or in Europe- I can’t imagine how much harder it is in a place very much still in the developing world, like Cameroon.

Mathieu comes back to the truck, and sees the boy.

“Tu as vu le fou?” he asks, laughing. Did you see the crazy kid?

“Yes,” I answer.

I don’t say anything, but the fact that he’s laughing disturbs me. I know I’m not going to change it though. I know I come from a place where political correctness is enforced far more strictly, but this just seems wrong to me. Over the years I’ve heard that in many places in Africa, laughter can be used to cover an uncomfortable situation. I don’t think that’s what this is though- it simply seems mean-spirited, like the taunting of a bear in an old-time circus.

I understand that Mathieu is a driver, not a professional, and that he probably hasn’t had the experience and the perspective that others might. Still, I’ve seen this sort of thing in other Cameroonians I wouldn’t expect it from, people with PhDs, who have lived and worked in places like France, Belgium, and the US. With someone like Mathieu, I can almost understand it, but for some of the others, it’s shocking to me- they’ve seen enough of the world to know that that really isn’t OK.

Maybe it just comes down to the fact that no matter how educated or well-traveled you might be, at the end of the day you’re still a product of your culture and your society, and if that society has raised you with the idea that mental disabilities are something to be mocked and laughed at, advanced degrees and thousands of frequent flyer miles aren’t likely to change anything.

I understand that some might say this is simply a case of me attempting to impose my ‘Western values’ on a situation I don’t really understand. I’ve been living in Cameroon less than three months, and it feels like I’m learning something new constantly. Still, I don’t feel like that this case in this situation- maybe I am projecting my own values, but laughing at the unfortunate circumstances of a mentally disabled kid in a small town feels messed up, no matter who you are or where you come from. The truth is that saying something to Mathieu or to any of my other colleagues with whom I’ve witnessed this would do nothing, aside from making things awkward. Maybe that’s the lesson to be learned from this, one more in the continuing tales of acceptance that come from living in a foreign place. The world can be a complicated place, and sometimes it takes the least fortunate among us to bring that to light…

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