As I packed up my home in Mali and prepared to catch a flight to Yaounde, Cameroon, I wasn’t nervous about culture shock. I imagined that having spent much of the past four years in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Cameroon, it would be easy to fit back into Cameroonian life.
But I’d become used to the particularities of life in Mali during my year-and-a-half in Bamako, so while nothing about living in Cameroon surprises me in comparison to the US, plenty of things trip me up when I expect Cameroon to be just like Mali!
Some similarities between these two francophone African countries are immediately apparent: bags of water sold on the street corner, the prevalence of Nescaf&eaigu;, and beat-up cars re-purposed as taxis—but I was at first shocked to see Yaound&eaigu; women dressed in knee-baring skirts, after living so long in Bamako.
Many distinctions are indicative of the level of development. The prevalence of grocery stores in Yaound&eaigu; reflects Cameroon’s higher standard of living and greater wealth. In rural regions, the country’s natural resources are evident: stands of palm oil trees, groves of cocoa bushes, and fields of coffee. Likewise, the quality of education is clearly higher in Cameroon. Even though French is the language of education and government in both countries, if I’d wanted to buy food at a Bamako market, take a cab, or even sometimes speak with high school graduates, I’d needed some knowledge of Bambara, the local language. Not so in Yaound&eaigu;.
It’s true that I am privy to a different economic class in Cameroon by virtue of my work and where I live. In Mali, I worked for the Mali Health Organizing Project (malihealth.org), a nonprofit, doing public health projects in conjunction with community mobilizing. I worked and lived in a poor community on the outskirts of Bamako (supported in part by Wesleyan’s Brodigan Award). My one-room house had no running water—though jerry cans of drinking water could be easily bought—and a single fluorescent light overhead. I loved creating a community in a part of the city where few foreigners chose to come, and I loved my neighbors and my work with MHOP.
My apartment in Yaound&eaigu;, however, is at least 10 times larger than my little home in Bamako, and with all of the luxuries I lacked in Mali: tiled floors, a refrigerator, and a hot water heater! My Fulbright research, exploring political debates in Northern Cameroon prior to independence, has put me in contact with Cameroonians studying and teaching at universities across the country. Working in an academic setting has allowed me to interact with a whole different segment of the population than the one I knew in Bamako.
Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable to live in such a comparatively privileged way when I have experienced some of the challenges faced by poorer communities in both Mali and Cameroon. But I also feel lucky to see a different aspect of each country. It’s too easy to imagine that one’s immediate community is representative of an entire country and to ignore the distinctions between neighborhoods, cities, and regions. So it is gratifying to be able to notice the different ways in which Malian and Cameroonian women tie their head-scarves—and all those other details that make each place unique. In their similarities and differences, I have come to know both countries and to build a community for myself in each.
In December I traveled to Ngaound&eaigu;r&eaigu;, a university town in northern Cameroon where I’d lived for several months while a student at Wesleyan, first on a study abroad program and then while conducting research for my senior thesis. Walking through the town for the first time in three years, I noticed familiar landmarks on every street. The most familiar road was that leading to the home of my former host family, Bello, Fadi and their four children (the youngest born since my last visit). As I entered their courtyard, I was greeted by a crowd of 10-year-old girls, who remembered that I had happily participated in their after-school games years before. Creating a home for myself in Cameroon will take patience and an ability to take chances (and make a fool of myself)—but in that way, it is much like participating in the games of elementary school girls, and I’m not so bad at that!