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The routine of this life bores me. Heat water, filter water, cook, clean, keep fingernails short and clean, wash morning and night, go to market, cook, eat, reheat the food before sleeping, shower, reheat leftovers in the morning, sweep out the dust, mop the water off the bathroom floor. I’m tiered of washing the dust off my feet, shoes and sweaty face, tiered of protecting my heart and explaining myself, of being gawked at and giggled about, hearing whispers in the shadows of everywhere I walk. I hid today in my neighborhood and then I sent the prizefighter home mad.
Akonolinga history/ gossip. This town has seen it’s day. It used to be a rich, bustling, developed town but during the elections in 1992 a group in town burned and destroyed all the BEMILIKE businesses, stole their money. Now when someone has money to invest they invest elsewhere.
A women at the CECA takes out loans for 3% interest then gives out loans with 25% interest. Her husband divorced her because her lover died of aides and she refused to be tested.
I’ve neighbors who can’t afford putting the marmit on the fire, so their girls turn to prostitution.
I’m alone in the office this week. I spent a few hours typing my quarterly report and collecting messages. I closed up in time to deliver some messages before the football match. I watched in Jules’ father’s old villa with some of his siblings. It wasn’t an exciting game but Cameroon will advance to the next round. I picked up some clothes from the tailor and came home and made pizza on French bread. Solange braided my hair yesterday. Everyone loves to see me in braids. I just walked Jules home. I want to read but the power is out.
I spent most of the afternoon and evening formatting photos. Malgoire has a friend in Yaoundé who can print them and he wanted a disk with a bunch of pictures of him and town that I didn’t print when I was in the States. I didn’t want to waste a disc on only a few photos, so I formatted and classified close to 300 of them. I’ll meet up with Malgoire in Yaoundé tomorrow.
Jules came to find me in the middle of the day to tell me I could hitch a ride with him to Yaoundé early tomorrow morning.
This morning Jules’ new business partner picked us up in a Mercedes and we drove to Yaoundé. I accompanied them to some meetings at MTN. Interesting project but my role there was confused. I didn’t want to be introduced as Jules’ woman…
At the Peace Corps Case de passage another volunteer was in tears over her uncle’s reaction to her needing a cosponsor to bring her new Cameroonian husband back to the states.
Malgoire came to pick up the disk of photos. Over a few beers he updated me on the seminar and continued lack of money. Outrageous, I’m enraged.
The bunk I slept on ended up being a box-spring. My body stiff and head aching it took awhile to wake. The VAC meeting at Robert’s house was amiable and productive. Historically it’s been an aggressive bitch session. We went out for a nice lunch, which ended up costing less than catered lunch at Robert’s. I wrapped up things at PC office before heading out. There were hundreds of people waiting at Inter-voyage and no cars. I found Nico in a bar next door. After he left, I hung out with Kanaga’s wife while 3 more cars came and went.
Living in Akonolinga is like Harry Potter’s first year at Hogworts, suddenly everyone knows who I am; everyone is watching, whispering. I come from a mystic place and now I must learn to negotiate a new society where I have extraordinary powers that I haven’t yet come to understand. This new world, the small town of Akonolinga, surrounded by ancient forest, is overflowing with creatures I’d never imagined; green mambas, electric blue butterflies, wormy parasites, bumblebee striped insect legs. A place where a four person car with shattered windshields held together by Grateful Dead decals magically holds a dozen beings.
The speech rambles through my head but it doesn’t sounds right, it’d be lost in translation, drown in the oceans between us. My mind is on destruction, fortifying my shield, stunning my attacker. I realize that I’ve the power in me to blow everything to pieces, I’ve the strength to stand on my own two feet, alone into eternity… But is there a constructive monologue in there? Can I establish my space without total destruction? He’s trying to grab onto my future, to contain my life with his large insignificant hands. If he squeezes too tightly, it’ll burn us both.
More black wild rice covered with a beef “stir fry” (I let it simmer) with green pepper, carrots, celery and onions accompanied with tomato (tiny, sweet, plum tomatoes) basil, red onion salad accompanied by boiled nyam (a root) and patat (yellow sweet potatoes). Washed it down with water (home brew: boiled and filtered well water). I’m full and I have leftovers for lunch tomorrow. But I’ll eat them late in the day because I’m going with Aloys to work in his champs (field/ large garden) 40k away. He wants to dig up makabo. I want to find some wild honey.
Aloys picked me up at 8am. We road out to his champs near Embolokounou. We surveyed his overgrown field, collected ripe plantains that had fallen and examined traps set to catch bush meat (porcupines, snakes, rats). I helped him pull Macabo out of the ground. After, people were happy to see my hands dirty.
A women drunk on palm wine wanted money from Aloys. She found it impossible to believe that he doesn’t have any to give. He works controlling banks, banks have money. If he really hasn’t collected his salary for 9 months, then he’d be ashen and scrawny.
Allergic sleepy head this morning, now the knot in my shoulder is really bothering me. Most of the day I had no appetite, suddenly I was starving. I could use a rest in the USA where there’s tons of fast food and I could soak in a hot bath or go get a professional massage. I was just there but it was snowing and I had to deal with a funeral… Today was International Youth Day. Students and youth clubs paraded through the center square. Hot sun and tons of dust. The evening was consumed watching the semi-final football matches.
The dust accumulates on the road like sawdust on the floor of a lumber yard, roadside foliage appears spray painted in rust, the dry wind spreads the trash piles along roads and into bushes, firefly alley is now dustbin alley carpeted in plastic bags, cardboard, and wrappers, while anything you’d put down the disposal in the states is throw in the trash pile too but the hens, roosters, goats spend the day picking the potato peals, rotten rice, papaya skins, squished tomatoes out from among the plastic shrubs.
When Akonolinga dries up, the town turns into a littered dust bowl.
The water stopped running and now the electricity is out. I’ve stopped noting when the electricity goes out at night, it doesn’t disrupt me as much as it used to. I have a photography project in mind but it’s vague. Many vague projects in mind but it’s time to start working on them. I miss my manual 35mm camera but it’s time to explore the advanced features of my digital camera. I make small progress on many writing projects but it feels very small and unremarkable. In the heat of the day I come home to write, read or sleep.
Jules informed me that many people get engaged on Valentine’s Day. He told me with an air of disappointment knowing that I refuse to talk about marriage. Kanaga’s wife proposed that I buy all the ATM wives new women’s day fabric. At the ATM meeting I was informed that people aren’t saving money at the bank because they think we’ll make new motorcycles magically appear. Others proposed serious problems only a loan could solve. If the office electricity bill isn’t paid today it’ll be turned off. I can’t find my stash of cash, hopefully it’s in my locker in Yaoundé.
Stories are collecting in my head, images flash before me. That’s at the heart of my work here, of my raison d’etre but nobody around me knows that. It’s become remarkable only because I’ve come to understand that a good life for people here is simply one where you can find or earn enough money to eat well and you can live in a manner that gives you peace of mind to sleep soundly. I can’t deny that food and sleep are important and not always easily achieved. But my privileged American spirit also needs challenge, reward and frivolous joy.
There’s no frozen chicken in town, with the fowl flew in Assia. I bought some frozen fish and had Solange help me clean it. I came home to fry it and made a mess. Juliet came to town with baby Christal. She washed the dust and grim from her little room. I turned in some winning bottle caps and we had a beer together. She came over to eat. Someone I’d seen at Jules’ office stopped by and stayed long enough to lecture me about god and his cult. When Jules arrived he was not happy to see him here.
I’m going to crawl into bed very soon. I got up before dawn today for a ride into Yaoundé with Jules. I finished my quarterly report, read e-mail and checked my mailbox. Then I went out to eat with some other volunteers before taking the bus home. By the time I got home I was feeling queasy. Vomit. Diarrhea. Vomit. Yuck. On top of that I have cramps and a head cold. I slept a few hours and then sat with Juliet and Delphine next door. Drank a coke. I’m still exhausted. I’m going to crawl into bed very soon. (Didn’t find my address book & stashed money in Yaoundé)
I should have woken hungry. I ate a few corn benigets and sat in the office. Dad called. He wants to come visit for a week sometime before the end of March. What would I need to show my Dad? What do I need to make him comfortable? I spent most of the day laying around apathetic. Jules came round and made me some eggs. At 23:00 in the dark of night when the neighborhood isn’t watching, he brought over his small refrigerator. It’s his mom who warned that he should bring it over discreetly. Now things’ll keep fresher longer.
I’m back en forme, the mussel in my back repaired, head cold subsided, stomach calmed, appetite returned, water running, full propane tank in the kitchen. Late afternoon I headed to town on foot. One of my taximen picked me up and took me to the far side of town. I picked up a dress, wandered back greeting various acquaintances. I had a beer with Peter, checked out the painting at Jules’ store, chatted with Cecil, walked down to the river, Ebo picked me up, road me out to his village to greet his wife and pick up some fresh peanuts.
The Harmattan winds are here, stirring up clouds of dust 4 stories high and sending plastic bags soaring above where the hawks glide. Perjero’s older brother gave Stefan a lecture. “Ah, the youth of today. C’est comment? In my day there was dignity. And the girls wear things up to here!” He cuts across his middle and sucks air through his teeth while shaking his peppered head. “Democracy they say. But can a son slap his father across the face? No No there are limits even to democracy. How can there be democracy between father and son? There’s no dignity.”
Beinvenu prepped me for the ATM general assembly to determine who is ready to request credit for new motorcycles before he left for his brother’s funeral. The 10 faithful members showed up, half are almost ready. Jules left for a wake in the West. I made flat bread. I walked down to the river and found 100 people swimming in the shallow water. Pascal gave me a ride to town. I drank with Perjero. At home eating guacamole and flat bread, the electricity went out. I checked up on Beinvenu’s kids and visited Magloire’s girlfriend and Jules’ mother and children.
Days like this are familiar, necessary cogs in the cycle of my life. A Sunday spent in the interior shadows of home, pulling everything out of the closet and off shelves, creating new piles from the shuffle of papers, lingering with the last pages of a novel, moments spend inhaling the scents lingering in the cotton of my pillow, grazing bites of food in the kitchen, contemplating the stuff that needs to be put away. In NYC or LA these days had an isolated, lonely core but here, with the wild world just outside my door, it has peaceful rhythm.
Different Cameroonian men love their women in different ways. A local village Chief can’t love his women during daylight hours. A Beti woman expects her man to be on top of her for 30 to 45 minutes. When a man loves his woman several times in a night he is understandably tiered, how can he work during the day? But the Bemilike are known to work and their women work too, so their women are satisfied after 15 minutes. But the Beti woman finds the Bemilike weak when he finishes so quickly. The Northern men are Muslim, they aren’t circumcised…
Night. There’s no current so we’re working in shadows. It ends up that I can bathe and put on my pj’s and write my words faster than Jules can fry up some eggs. I got a letter and postcard from Sarah and a letter from mom. I have conversations with both of them whispering in my head, letters written to them both unposted in my bag. I helped celebrate the birthdays of Aloys, Bienvenu and Sonny. (Lunch at Aloys’ place later balloons with the kids) The funds are “days away”;, work will soon be busy catching up for lost time.
I’m tiered even though I spent most of the day reading and took a 2 hour nap. It must be the heat, the idleness, the purposelessness. I had a long walk and did a lot of errands in the morning as the heat crept up on me. Then hours getting into a spy novel. My exhaustion confuses me, so I get stuck. I don’t have the energy or imagination to fill this in with any other news. I need to wash the dust off my skin, scrub it out of my sweaty pores and I just don’t feel like bathing.
It’s raining! It started grumbling last night. I crawled into bed late and then it started pouring. Lightening flashed the window bright like morse code from above. The rain pounded and roared so loud I doubted that I could even hear my voice.
Lillian arrived needing money and the morning off. Her younger cousin who she lives with and who looks after lillian’s son is 4 months pregnant. Last night she drank a lot of medicine to kill the baby and almost killed herself. Jules says he knows of about 20 girls who’ve died by drinking drugs to abort pregnancies.
I went to bed with a book this afternoon and slept through the heat, which has become my habit recently. Late in the day I set out on a long walk circling past the MTN tower, through town, back up the paved road. Jules had been worried when he didn’t find me home. He went home to shower and I went to visit Solange. He came looking for me there. I didn’t cook anything, ate yesterday’s leftovers late in the day. Too hot for the kitchen. Jules nibbled some pineapple before going home. I’ve filled pages today with empty ideas.
Bienvenu was MIA but he’s back. It’s unclear to me if he’s gotten the money yet or not. But tonight was reminiscent of the early days when I end up drinking with the boys for hours. I went to town to give some students computer lessons and then found Bien & Aloys in town. The crowd grew and the rounds kept coming. I knew Jules was looking for me but I stayed and drank with my friends. As I left Ernest approached me. He wants to talk, leaving town in the morning, but he ignored me for hours so …
Take 2: locked in my head, lonely in my internal world I paced hungry not wanting to eat. Finally I walked into town discovering a soothing breeze lifting the glaring heat. Quiet mute day, sullen turned mellow. I was relieved to see Jules’ smile. At dusk we walked along the burnt riverbanks. We’ve just had a conversation about 911. We were both glued to the television that day. It was a year ago that I left LA, feels fathoms away. I’ve been in Cameroon 9 months already. I’m shocked to realize that a third of my time here has passed.
The Tip Jar