Lately I have taken an interest in learning the local language. Although my French is still nothing to write home about I feel as though there is a huge part of the culture I will never understand if I don’t learn the local language. As I have described before, the village where I am living is a mix of several different tribes and therefore languages. The most prominent is Bafang (in Bafang: Féefé). I learned simple greetings during my first month at post, but now I am determined to leave here with the ability to carry on a simple conversation in Bafang.
Already the local language has opened my eyes to new cultural insights. For example the other week I was teaching an English class and we were learning family vocabulary. After class I started talking to one of my students who explained to me that in Bafang there is no word for cousin, aunt, uncle or even sister! There is a word for mother, father and everyone else is your “brother” and the word for brother is the same for sister. People do not make the distinction between a brother and a cousin in the local language! It made me realize that the solidarity reached a level that I had never understood. It is clear to me now why everyone is referring to everyone else as “my brother” or “my sister” in French. I was visiting a volunteer in another village, where a different language is spoken, and started to talk to a friend about family vocabulary. He explained to me that it was the same in their local language. That a long time ago people from the same tribe all lived in the same area and “brother” in the local language refers to anyone who has a blood tie with you regardless of their parentage or actual relationship to you.
I understand a little better now why everyone is my class thought it was so weird that we “white men” have words like “half brother, step brother, first cousin vs. second cousin, sister-in-law great aunt, etc.” because in the local language those distinctions are not made, they are just all your “brother” or your blood relations. It made me realize how much we, and I use “we” to refer generally to all occidental cultures, have categorized every relationship, perhaps in a way to distinguish varying levels of relational importance. When I tell people that I have cousins whose names I don’t even know, they are shocked. But if I thought of my cousins as my brothers, then would it be different? Also in American culture we travel so much and a large percentage of people end up “settling down” somewhere far from where they grew up. Perhaps to think of all extended family as your close relations is unfeasible. I have seven siblings and it takes a lot of energy to keep in touch with all of them, so to think of trying to sustain that kind of relationship with all my extended family is exhausting. Maybe if we all lived in the same village it would be possible.
So here in Cameroon everyone is family, but what I learned is that you still should not tell people when you travel and keep your house firmly locked. Yes, I got robbed. I went away for a few days and came back to a practically empty house! They even took the mattresses off my beds! After this I learned what kind of precautions everyone else takes. 1) never tell anyone when you travel, 2) never leave your house empty. I know that it didn’t happen to me because I’m white. It happens to almost everyone. Also I feel safe because I know that they people who came to rob me came because I wasn’t there. My neighbor across the street has a house here although his family lives in a neighboring village. So he travels a lot. A little boy, of about 13, kept breaking into his house and was just taking whatever is lying around and eating his food. They found the boy and he explained that he came from a ways away to go to school and was just hungry. So he would break into the man’s house and eat something between his classes. Young people don’t have money of their own and as a result often have to fend for themselves. Unemployment among youth is pervasive. Young people between the ages of 12-21 work out in the farms with their parents in order to help their parents make a living and eat. They have no income for themselves and no occupation in general to keep them busy. With a complete lack of work opportunities crime is the way to get some income.
The experience of getting my house broken into left me feeling discouraged, betrayed, violated and angry. At the same time it has reiterated to me the importance of trying to reach out to youth. The decisions that young people make now will resonate into the future, whether for good or not. Perhaps I can’t provide work opportunities but I can point young people to other options and help them learn some of the skills needed in order to pursue honest occupations.