Official Celebrations Big and Small

Here in Cameroon there seems to be an endless parade of national and international holidays to celebrate. Some I had at least heard of before. International Women’s Day? Ok, yes, that’s a much bigger deal in a lot of countries that are not the USA. Some I had never actually heard of before coming here and was a little skeptical about. International Bilingualism Day? Is that a thing? I was told that yes, it is an international holiday because Canada is also bilingual. I have no idea if Canadians actually know about this one. Some of them are understandably more important in the Cameroonian context. World AIDS Day? Yeah, I am glad that is at least recognized here, since any opportunity for education on that topic is welcome.

One morning a few weeks ago I woke up to a text about a holiday that I had not even heard about from any Cameroonians until that moment. The delegation for the Ministry of the Woman and the Family was hosting a round table discussion that afternoon in honor of International Family Day. Apparently that is a thing, too.

International Family Day did not actually seem like a huge deal at my post. Nothing was closed and there were no big parties that day, at least not for Family Day. There was just the round table discussion at city hall.

The topic of the discussion was social integration and intergenerational solidarity. The speakers all began after the fashion of many middle school speeches: by defining the individual words that made up the stated topic, starting with the word “social,” an adjective that comes from the word “society,” and so on. They went on to talk about things like reaching across tribal or religious affiliations and being open to the wisdom of older generations.

After an hour or two of this, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. The very first was from an older man sitting right in front of me, who I gathered was a delegate from some ministry or another. His question? Why is it the Ministry for the Woman and the Family? Isn’t the woman already part of the family? What about men? Now I could go on about the place of women in Cameroonian society, but that is not this post. Suffice it to say for now that women in Cameroon, and the Grand North in particular, are marginalized in a way that men are not, and it certainly does not bother me if the Ministry pays them some special attention.

This small recognition of International Family Day was overshadowed, however, by preparations for National Unification Day, commonly referred to simply as May 20th. This is pretty much the biggest holiday in Cameroon. The whole week before the day was marked by things like soccer tournaments and cultural soirées.

The day itself, like all the big official holidays in Cameroon, is kicked off with a parade. Having already been to the Youth Day parade on February 11th, this time I knew better than to show up at 8 a.m. (In my defense, I had been given an invitation to that one that said 8 a.m.) On Youth day they had still been decorating the pavilion and setting up chairs for the invitees when I got there, the first of the invitees. On May 20th I Instead got to the busy stadium around 9:30 and was shown to a seat under the pavilion, because as a Peace Corps Volunteer and white person I am one of the lucky ones who get a shaded chair. Then the lamidos from my town and the surrounding villages started arriving, wearing big robes and surrounded by their notables and accompanied by traditional horn players. A little after 10 a.m. the Prefet got there, and the event could officially start.

The parade went much like the parade for Youth Day, and I imagine Women’s Day, though I did not actually attend that one. The only big difference is what groups march. On Youth Day it was mostly just all the schools and training centers. I believe Women’s Day was mostly Women’s Associations. For May 20th, it is all of the above, but starting off with every military or law enforcement group in the area marching in full uniform, often with rifles strapped across their chests, and saluting the pavilion as they go by. I was a little disappointed that the preschools didn’t march with the rest of the schools like they had for youth day, because even though it is disconcerting that they are taught to march like that at such a young age, they are adorable while doing it.

The rest of the day was hordes of people milling around the stadium, buying from all the food venders, and then more sporting events later in the afternoon. All in all, a big official Cameroonian holiday.

The Lamido/Mayor about to accept a medal before the parade.

By Request

So I have had a couple of requests to write more about my work at post here in this blog. The truth of the matter, however, is that things are just really slow to move along around these parts. The first three months at post are supposed to be for integrating into the community and for needs assessment, rather than starting new projects. Really I was mostly just overwhelmed by the whole moving to an African village all on my own thing. At the beginning there were days when buying beans and beignets for breakfast and then swinging by the daily market felt like a big accomplishment.

I have been here at post for a little over five months, now, though, and things are starting to come together more. Going to the market is not intimidating, I am getting more adventurous in trying new street foods, and even more importantly, I am finding more people to work with. I mean, I am not just here to eat koki and buy pagne, though I have done a lot of both.

The contact I am probably most excited about at this point is the director of the Youth Center here in town. The center currently has about 18 students, for lack of a better word, enrolled in a two year program to train out-of-school youth in things like literacy (French, English, math), technical skills (sewing, business planning), and health education (reproductive health, HIV/AIDS/STIs). I have taken over their English classes, since they had no one else to teach it, and I plan to start teaching life skills classes there as well. The director also actually has plans for other projects, and showed me his schedule of what he wanted to accomplish during the current trimester. He was already a little bit behind, but having plans and a schedule still puts him ahead of the curve around here.

I have also met with the director of the Women’s Center, as well as attended a few meetings of different women’s associations. My impression is that they tend to involve a lot of arguing about money, often followed by food and drink. I have a presentation on goal setting planned for later this month with the widows’ association, so hopefully that is fruitful.

The director of the Government Bilingual Secondary School I actually first met with back before In-Service Training. When I met with him again more recently to discuss what material I wanted to cover with his students, he was very adamant about how I shouldn’t just teach them to abandon their own culture and be like Europeans (I assume he meant Westerners in general). I assured him that the sessions I conducted would be based in local culture. He also wanted me to stress the importance of abstinence and denounce homosexuality as immoral and illegal. I had a cold at the time and was not really in the mood, but I diplomatically told him that if I talked about sex I would include a session on delaying sex and that I had not planned to bring up homosexuality (the reality being that it is illegal). That, however, is a bridge to cross next school year, since classes will basically be over in two weeks’ time.

I did have my first sessions at the bilingual school yesterday, on talking about what the kids wanted their lives to look like in 15 years. It was a struggle to get them to think abstractly, and most students just answered the very specific questions that I asked (What job do you want to have? Do you want to be married? Where do you want to live?), some more seriously than others. The anglophone class was much easier to manage, less because of the language, and more because there were only 8 students and a smaller age range. The francophone class must have been closer to 40 students, aged 11 to 25, all seemingly unable to resist talking to whoever was seated next to them.

In the afternoon, when I was teaching English at the Youth Center, I couldn’t help but be grateful for how orderly the out-of-school youths there were. Again, there were probably only about 10 students present in that first year class, and all closer in age, but there they were, learning about possessive adjectives in appropriate silence and responding when called on. Tomorrow, however, it will be back into the trenches of the Government Bilingual Secondary School, francophone class first.