It’s official: I’ve been living in Cameroon for seven weeks. With all of the ups and downs experienced so far, I feel on occasion like a bipolar disorder. Sure, we Fellows knew to expect a fair share of trials/tribulations in our host countries. In fact, the amazingly awesome staff of the Kiva Fellows Program (affectionately known as “KFP”) even shared with us this handy graph:
And it couldn’t be more spot on. Every time I think I’ve “got it figured out” here in Yaoundé, life turns around and smacks me in the face. Like… literally. I got slapped on the face. By a complete stranger.
This little event got me to thinking about gender roles in Cameroon. It goes without saying that I haven’t been here nearly long enough, nor have I done any kind of formal research, to make definitive claims on the issue. I will, however, give some anecdotal evidence of trends I’ve seen. First- all of the loan officers (and management team, for that matter) at my host microfinance institution are male. There are female staff members as well, but most serve in administrative roles. At the same time, almost all of the clients that I’ve met are women, and small business owners at that. The loan officers have also been beyond respectful to me, and in fact have contributed to one of my most humbling and happy days here so far. It was right before International Women’s Day and my first time heading out into the field…. I was excited. And nervous.
We piled into a company SUV (freshly washed, like they all are, every day). Before we even got to the first client, the driver pulled over to a roadside stand, as requested by one of the loan officers, to buy a c.d. in English for us to listen (and sing along). We chatted and laughed about the differences between American and Cameroonian music, and they poked fun at me (rightfully so) when I mentioned I’d been taking indigenous dance classes. While visiting our third client of the day- a seamstress working in one of the more impoverished areas of town- all four of the loan officers insisted on buying me a dress that she’d made from the country’s unique International Women’s Day panya (fabric). “I’m not sure it fits, but it really is beautiful”, I said. “Try it on!” they replied. So there, in the middle of the dirt road, I swooped the dress over my head and Kiva polo shirt (donated graciously by the KFP team).
They oohed and ahed, and with a quick exchange of their cash the dress was mine. I insisted, “let me pay you for it, please!” They told me not to be ridiculous, and when I proudly wore the dress the next day I was stopped at least 10 times on the street by strangers, all who gave sincere smiles and compliments, before arriving to the office.
Ah yes, but back to the face slapping. One thing that I came prepared to potentially deal with in Cameroon was being objectified by the opposite sex. It happens in many cultures and communities across the globe (the US not to be excluded), and while I certainly didn’t want to be that jerk who presumes the worst, I felt that setting certain expectations was a smart idea. Unfortunately, in Yaoundé this objectification happens every day, without fail. Sometimes it’s really just all in good fun. Sometimes it’s because I stick out like the proverbial sore thumb (“La blanche! La blanche! Je vous aime!”). But on occasion, when there’s physical contact involved, it’s just plain upsetting. Late last week I walked down to the bakery (so maybe I have an addiction to pain-au-chocolat, what?), and as I was standing on the sidewalk, looking in one direction for cars to pass so I could safely cross the road, a man jumped in front of me just as turned my face and put his hand, not so gently, on my cheek. “You’re so beautiful! Let me walk with you.” He looked me in the eye, laughed, and then casually walked away.
What’s the best protocol in a situation like this? Is it my duty to say something like, “hey, that’s inappropriate!” or maybe to give a look of disgust? Or, perhaps it’s more effective to ignore the perpetrator. Will either method have an effect? I’m not yet sure how I’ll handle this next time, but I do know that I want to speak with other ladies in the community to see how they feel. There are so very many stereotypes and preconceived notions by Westerners of how life must be in an African country, and I want to do my part to dispel them. But I also want to be honest about my experience. So far these peaks and troughs have only made the lines between what “defines” Cameroonian culture all the more grey and blurry. Really though, who wants to live a life where every experience fits perfectly in its own preconfigured box? I most definitely did not come here to Yaoundé to lead the exact same life I had in California, so I guess I better grab the reigns and keep forging along!