Thursday, May 13, 2010

Back in America...

After an incredible 3.5 months, I'm back in the USA...and missing Cameroon a lot. Nebraska is fairly boring at the moment, since my two friends from Lincoln are still at school and my brother is mostly interested in his computer. Playing with the dogs is fun, but doesn't quite provide full-day entertainment.

Some things I miss right now:

-plantain chips and egg sandwiches
-coki (bean cake)
-crazy taxi drivers
-my host families
-makossa music blasting in the streets
-Cameroonian men dancing
-drinking "33"s and Mutzig beers
-my American friends

Things I DON'T miss:

-men constantly hassling me in the streets

I'm already looking on the Fulbright and Watson websites, trying to find a way to get back to Cameroon after graduation.

Friday, April 30, 2010

C'est lui, le seul coq

Well, I suppose I haven't blogged in about a million years. I apologize! I've been quite busy researching and writing my final project, which I'm going to print and bind today! In lieu of an update on the last several weeks, here is the introduction to my paper:

C'est lui, le seul coq (He is the only rooster): A Study of Women's Rights in Polygamous Marriages in Bafou, Cameroon

In 1994, Cameroon ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Taking as its basic premise that women should be equal to men on all terms, the Convention posits:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.

After spending two months in Cameroon, seeing clearly how “social and cultural patterns” denied women equality throughout the country, I spent a month researching the question: have these so-called inalienable rights of women, largely conceived of by the Western powers that dominate the United Nations, reached the rural villages of Cameroon, where traditional marriage patterns carve out a specific role for women? I looked specifically at polygynous marriages, which make up about 80% of the marriages in my research setting (Bafou, a village in Western Cameroon). These marriages by definition establish roles for men and women, as the man is allowed (and encouraged) to take on multiple wives, but the woman cannot legally have more than one husband. How do women in polygamous marriages see their roles? Have they heard of women's rights and, according to them, of what do they consist?

As I looked for the presence of the Western conception of women's rights, I also sought to define rights as Cameroonian women themselves defined them. I kept in mind Miriam Goheen's assertion regarding Cameroon Grassfields culture that, “For as long as can be remembered or documented, women's protests have been concerned with asserting a gender complementarity, a gendered balance of power, rather than with appropriating or negating male power so as to create a non-gendered category of power.” The distinction between gender complementarity and gender equality forms the basis of the differences in opinion between rural Cameroonian “women's rights” and Western-conceived “women's rights.” I found that within traditional rural marriages, women maintain that men are superior and must be the heads of household; the man is seen, in fact, as the “coq” - the rooster who leads his subservient hens. However, women assert their rights to live securely, cultivate their fields, and benefit from the traditional duties of the husband. Most of these women have not, in fact, heard the term women's rights, though when it is explained to them, they describe the complementary duties of the husband and wife. According to many women, gender equality is an idea that white people have brought to the country and which young women are now accepting – this causes problems in the marriage, though, and leads to more divorce. Without polygamy and traditional gender roles, many said, women will be left on the street to fend for themselves.

As young people move away from polygamy and towards monogamy, at the same time moving away from villages into cities, they leave many of these traditional ideas behind and begin to assert the equality that the older generation scorns. Traditional polygamy is seen by many as no longer possible within the new context of gender equality. Many believe that polygamy is in the process of disappearing, largely as a result of the influx of Western ideas about marriage (in addition to new economic realities). Older women, though, largely believe that polygamy and the role assigned to them as women were positive forces in their lives. As many said, “Je ne connais pas l'idée d'égalité. C'est vous, les jeunes filles, qui connaissez cette idée.” This study highlights the opinions of three main groups: older polygamous women, younger polygamous women, and young unmarried women, looking particularly at ideas of equality, reproductive decision-making, and economic independence. The distinctions between the opinions of these groups show how ideas of “women's rights” in Cameroon have changed over time.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Very Ngaoundere Passover

I've had some strange Passover experiences in my life. First there was the seder in Paris, a confusing mix of French and Hebrew with a family of strangers. Then there was the seder with my cousin's husband's parents on a secular kibbutz in northern Israel, a mishmosh of traditions in which I'm fairly certain we accidentally repeated several sections of the seder twice. But last night was the strangest seder yet.

I knew coming into Cameroon that I would have to be creative in my observance of Passover; explaining the concept of vegetarianism to Cameroonians is near impossible, let alone explaining why I'm not eating any grains for the week. It doesn't help that I'm the first Jew most people have met here. I was particularly nervous when I realized that the first few nights of Passover would take place during our time in Ngaoundere, a largely Muslim city in the north of Cameroon. Even so, I joined with a couple of other Jewish (and Jewish-curious) students on the program to plan a DIY, Cameroonian-style Passover Seder.

As it turns out, being in Ngaoundere was a blessing. My Muslim, polygamous host family is very welcoming and curious about Jewish traditions (and being polygamous, we live in a small compound made up of several buildings, including one large room covered in woven mats where we eat meals on the floor - the perfect setting for a large seder). My family was more than happy to host about 20 SIT students and staff, assisting in all of the preparations. Given that I have no cooking talent, I enlisted the help of another student who loves to cook and we prepared a menu together. After class yesterday, we hopped on motorcycle taxis and rushed around the city, from market to market, searching for ingredients. Unfortunately, some Passover staples cannot be found in this country - particularly horseradish, almonds, and cinnamon. Our bitter herb became piment, essentially powdered chili pepper that is very popular here. Our haroset was also interesting - we replaced almonds with peanuts and peanut butter and used extra sugar in place of cinnamon. In addition, though I asked a few meat vendors if they could give me a shankbone, no one seemed willing or able to - we used a representative piece of plastic instead. And, unfortunately, Muslims don't drink alcohol (and it would be disrespectful to bring it in the house), so we had to make do with grape juice.

Rushing back to my family compound, Sarah and I sat on wooden stools in the dirt courtyard and set to work peeling potatoes and cutting vegetables in our hands, the Cameroonian way (they don't have cutting boards here). With the help of my enthusiastic host brother, we were able to hard boil 20 eggs in a large iron pot over an open flame in the 'kitchen', prepare a huge pot of apple/peanut butter/grape juice/lemon/sugar charoset (we do Sephardic style here - kitniyot allowed), and cook a vast amount of potatoes and vegetables. To add to this, our program director arrived with a full chicken, already prepared.

With all the students gathered on the mats, I led the seder with the help of a printed-out Haggadah. We sang the songs, ate the foods, and explained the story of Passover to both the non-Jewish Americans and confused Cameroonians. During the meal I snuck out to hide the afikomen under a bamboo stool in the courtyard. My friends searched and eventually my friend's host sister, a 12-year-old Cameroonian, found it and received a bar of chocolate as a prize. Twice during the seder, the Muslim call to prayer boomed from the Grand Mosque next door and my host brother excused himself to go pray. How multicultural!

Being in Ngaoundere and seeing my host family go to the Mosque to pray 5 times a day has really revitalized my interest in being a more observant Jew. It was truly wonderful to share my Jewish traditions with my host family and the others on my program; I couldn't have asked for a better situation (except maybe if the Israeli guy who gave me the matzah had given me an extra box). I might even bring that haroset recipe back to the US! Now the challenge is to keep Passover for the next eight days...lots of plantains and eggs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Nasara! Nasara!

Hello! After a lovely few weeks back with my host family in Yaounde, I'm now in the northern (and mostly Muslim) city of Ngaoundere. Besides the desert heat and the men shouting 'Nasara' (white person) at me, things are going well. I'm staying with a polygamous family, but unfortunately two of the three wives are apparently traveling. It's also my first experience with a latrine, which has been interesting - the hole in the ground, which also serves as my shower drain, is pretty tiny and requires some serious aim.

Our house is really several rooms surrounding an outdoor courtyard, where everything from laundry to cooking to dishes is done. The kitchen is small room off the courtyard with a firepit; it's always smokey, which makes it difficult for me to assist in the cooking as I keep coughing. Most of the family speaks Fulfulde, a language brought by the Fulani Muslim conquerors of Northern Cameroon a few centuries ago - only the 14-year-old daughter and 17-year-old brother (who doesn't live at home) speak fluent French. I've been spending a lot of time with those two!

To get to Ngaoundere, we took an overnight train ride that was quite an adventure. Fortunately, we all had sleeping compartments, which was nice particularly when the railway broke ahead and we had to stop for 3 hours. Apparently, derailments are quite common. We spent some time in the snack car playing some strange card game with the (slightly frightening) security guards, who each held M21 rifles. We also talked about the Bible with a Cameroonian man named Ema, who didn't believe that Lot had sex with his daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (he was drunk; but he totally did). Cameroonians seem to pick and choose the parts of the Bible they read.

Now I'm in an Internet cafe, trying to get some sort of Haggadah printed out for a makeshift seder we're going to do next week for Pesach. I met up with a guy from the Israeli embassy in Yaounde last week to get a huge box of matzah. The other Jews on the program and I are looking for things to represent the other Passover staples...

Next week, Waza!! I'll be seeing elephants, lions, baboons and such at this national park in the extreme North. I'm pumped!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


We just got back to Yaounde after a glorious weekend in Kribi, aka the Cancun of Cameroon. Ostensibly, the purpose of the visit was to learn about the Bakola-Bagyeli, known more pejoratively as the "Pygmies" of Southern Cameroon. These groups live in small encampments in the forest and are traditional hunter-gatherers. As it turned out, we did spend a fair amount of time learning about and meeting with the Bakola-Bagyeli, but we also spent a good portion of the weekend playing on the beach and swimming in the delicious warmth of the tropical Atlantic Ocean. It was, in essence, SIT Cameroon's three-day Spring Break.

As for the Pygmies, meeting with them was fascinating. We hiked out into the forest to meet with an encampment made up of 8 Bakola-Bagyeli, led by a chief who picked one of the SIT students to be his future wife. They showed us how they use their spears to hunt bushmeat, most often rats, porcupines, and, if the (scrawny and emaciated) hunting dogs are doing a good job that day, antelope. We learned how they know if there's a snake nearby based on the behavior of birds. We spoke with the leader of RAPID, an NGO that works to integrate Bakola-Bagyeli into society through schooling and building of houses. It was difficult for us, at first, to understand why RAPID was necessary: if the Pygmies are living sustainably on the land, why force them to join modernity and give up their traditional lives? The man explained that modernization has already approached the encampments: the forest is being cut down, preventing them from finding bushmeat as easily; the traditional medicines no longer work against mutating diseases; and the Bakola-Bagyeli want the shoes, clothing, and modern food that they once lived without. During our visit, after what seemed like a pleasant exchange of cultural information, an SIT student asked the chief if he had any questions about American culture. He spoke and the RAPID guy translated that he didn't have any questions but wanted to know why if America was so rich, we couldn't help them buy shoes and clothes. As usual, our meeting was ending with a (totally justified) guilt trip. One student suggested they bring out a plate and perform the Cameroonian tradition of receiving money for dancing and singing. We each gave money (and one student gave cigarettes, always a treat) in exchange for their traditional dancing. There was something sad about seeing a traditional chief, so much more in tune with the land than we can ever hope to be, dancing for us like a circus act, begging for money.

It was a very SIT weekend: having fun with fellow Americans on the beach, all the while discussing the complex issues of tradition and modernity, development and sustainability. Now I'm back in Yaounde, stressing out about my ISP, which looks like it's probably going to be about the role of women in rural polygamy. Always a lot to think about here!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hey, I'm Still Alive!

Hey guys! Long time, no post. I've been hanging out in Yaounde, same old same old. As I've heard said before, it's harder to write about a place after you've been there for a while, since things aren't new and exciting anymore. Life in Cameroon is still going well, though!

A few moments of interest:

-We walked into the SIT compound last week to find a small German Shepherd chained to the tree. Apparently, our Office Manager Bobo (a goofy man-child) bought him to protect SIT. Our live-in guard/janitor (a common job here), Jeremy, takes care of the dog, who has been named Hercules. The dog spends his days chained up and his nights, after the students leave, running around the compound (protecting us?). All of the Cameroonians involved in SIT, except for Jeremy, instructed me to steer clear of the dog and didn't seem to have any interest in ever getting to know him. Dogs are certainly not "man's best friend" in Cameroon. Even so, I decided that Hercules and I would become buddies. After a few days of him growling and barking at me, he warmed up to me and now he sits and gives his paw at my command. He looks a lot like my old dog, Julius, which means I'm obsessed with him.

-A few of us went to Douala, the economic capital and largest city of Cameroon. It's extremely hot there - I was dripping in sweat most of the time - but I got to see the ocean and some cool buildings. Perhaps the most interesting moment was when a completely nude old man wandered by us in the street.

-I met an intense Israeli man named Ofir who runs an NGO called the Last Great Ape Association, as well as several other NGOs that aim to fight corruption (particularly within the NGO community). He talked my ear off for about an hour and a half, giving me some ideas for my independent study project (ISP) - which starts in about three weeks! Overwhelming!

-A guy from the Israeli embassy is going to give me some matzah for Passover, which we're going to observe while in the mostly Muslim city of Ngaoundere. Should be interesting!

Now I'm off to finish the mounds of work I have to do for tomorrow. Wish my luck!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Let's Hear it for Indoor Plumbing! Or, Back in Yaounde

After a lovely two-week stay in Dschang, followed by a weekend in Bamenda (in the Anglophone region of Cameroon), we're back in Yaounde. I was happy to be back with my Yaounde family, and take a real shower (I haven't felt this clean in weeks!), but I do miss the tranquility of Dschang. So much honking in this city!

A quick update on my time in Bamenda: first we met with Ni John Fru Ndi, the leader of the Social Democratic Front (SDF) political party. He was the one who first introduced multi-party politics to Cameroon; before he created the SDF in the early 90s, no party but the ruling one (of President Paul Biya) was allowed to exist. In 1992, he ran against Biya, and nearly the entire country and international community agreed that Fru Ndi won the election. However, Biya held onto the presidency and continues his reign of power today, 18 years later. It was pretty cool to speak with someone so important; we sat on his porch and heard him talk about his ideas for democracy in Cameroon. Unfortunately, 18 years after winning the election, Fru Ndi refuses to step down as chairman of the SDF, giving many the impression that if he cannot institute democracy within the party, there's no way he would do so as leader of the country. Elections are planned for next year, 2011, so it remains to be seen whether this will have any effect on Biya's stronghold.

Following the meeting, Fru Ndi's son Benjamin (a 20something, British-educated man) invited us to go out to a club with him the following night. So on Saturday night, a bunch of us went to a "cabaret" (like a less crowded nightclub with a live band) with the son of the opposition leader. The place reminded me of a wedding party; the band wasn't the best I've ever heard. Even so, it was a lot of fun, though Benjamin didn't seem too into dancing. We mostly sat around the table and chitchatted. At one point, the electricity to the club went out, so we sat in the dark while the drummer continued to play. Ah, only in Cameroon!

We also met with a representative of the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC), a controversial and radical group that fights for the secession of the Anglophone regions from Francophone Cameroon. In the SCNC's opinion, 70% of Cameroon's GDP comes from the Anglophone regions (2 of the 10 regions in the country), but the people there have lower incomes and standards of living that Francophone Cameroonians. The government has cracked down on this group many times, raiding their offices and not allowing them to freely assemble. While I understand their case, I'm not totally convinced that secession is the best option.

At some point, I'll add some of the 60 photos I took in Dschang (my siblings had a good time with my camera).