1.24.2014

A Lesson On Cameroonian Politics and Bureaucracy

The Radio Station...Where Meetings Go to Die

I’ve been busy attending meetings all this past week and I’ve actually had a work schedule. My postmate, Danny, and I laughed about how having three meetings a day for a week is practically considered a month’s worth of work as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Despite the crazy and exhausting week I’ve had, I enjoy the busyness.

However, Tuesday night, at a meeting that I attend simply because it interests me, I was ready to put myself in a self-induced coma to avoid any further meetings. Tuesday night was the second meeting of the Baka and Bantu Forest People Art and Culture Association (say that 5 times fast). The first meeting was last Saturday (remember how I said I was attending a Baka celebration? It turns out I was lied to lure me into attending this association’s first meeting) and it was actually interesting, despite the fact I thought I would be attending a Baka celebration with dance, music, and free food (the main reason I showed up).

The new association is headed by my good friend Yackouba, who, as time goes on, I am convinced is involved in just about everything in this village. Yackouba wanted to create this association to preserve the culture of the ‘forest people’, both Baka pygmy and Bantu. There is a lot of natural art (i.e. the rainforest) and manmade art (traditional dance, instruments, sculptures, architecture etc.) here around Lomié, but there is not an association to protect the local culture and its art, nor is there an association concerned with expanding the awareness of local art. Unlike Western Cameroon where Bamileke and Bamum art and architecture is well-documented and well-preserved, the art and culture of Eastern Cameroon’s rainforest remains largely an undocumented mystery.

The association’s first meeting brought together artists of different domains to discuss the goals of the club. There were traditional dancers who attended, a man who creates theater and skits, people who play local instruments such as the tamtam, sculpturists, artisans, painters, and a few Baka who are interested in preserving their native culture. After I took three African art and architecture classes in college from an amazing professor who actually lived in Cameroon for some time (Hi Dr. DeLancey!), I’ve been enthralled by Cameroonian art and architecture. I was disappointed when I came to the East because I thought there was no traditional art here, but I was wrong, it turns out it was merely hidden from me. The local sculpturists who attended the meeting were extremely talented and had beautiful woodworks, but they have no market to sell them given that Lomie’s tourist industry has yet to explode. While this association has nothing to do with health, I wanted to still be a part of it since it’s a cause I’m greatly interested in.

While the first meeting was enlightening, the second meeting, on Tuesday at 4pm, was no more than pure torture. Danny and I arrived at 4 at the radio station where our meeting was held and waited as people slowly filtered in. After a few minutes, the meeting started. Yackouba announced that the meeting was going to be focused on electing the board for the association. In other words, there was really no point in Danny and I being there, but it was too late for us to leave at this point…so we wait and watch the process. 

Yackouba asked who wanted to be President of the association. Nobody spoke, nobody moved. Silence gripped the room for a good 5 minutes as we all awkwardly sat there looking at the ground. Finally a guy named J.P. speaks up and says that he is perhaps interested but says no more. Silence prevails again. A guy sporting a persistent scowl next to J.P. says ‘I want to say something…’, so we all turn towards him and listen, but he says nothing. He slouches back in his chair and slightly opens his mouth as if he were going to say something, but doesn’t. We sit and watch him for a good three minutes waiting for him to say what he wanted to say. Was he collecting his thoughts? Pangolin got his tongue? I have no idea, but after far too many awkward minutes waiting for this fool to speak, J.P. gets up and leaves and comes back a few minutes later with another man. He introduces this man as someone who is involved with just about every group in Lomié. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘a man who likes to probably micromanage things and here himself talk’.

Just a Pic of Lomie on my Morning Run
The guy who is involved with every club in Lomié suggested that Yackouba go find two large pieces of paper to hang on the wall, one to write candidates for the positions and one to write the final board members once they were decided. Yackouba left and 10 minutes later shows up with paper. Another 5 minutes was spent hanging the paper (anyone have scotch tape? Who has a marker? Is this location good or should we move it?). After no one else volunteered to be President, the position was given to this J.P. fellow. On to Vice President. Again, nobody volunteers. More awkward minutes pass in silence. Yackouba begins calling people by name hoping that they will volunteer, but no luck. Finally someone reluctantly agrees to be Vice President. Next, three minutes were spent writing his name on the paper that lists the new board members (how do you spell your name? Oh, not like that? Then how? Oh, that’s your last name? What’s your first name? Oh, that’s not how you spell it? I can’t hear you!).

Next position was secretary. 5 more minutes of awkward silence pass. I pass the time texting Spencer about post-IST travel plans, writing a budget for post-IST travel, creating a to-do list, doodling in my notebook, and then I glance over at Danny and catch his eyes, which silently confirm that, yes, this meeting is a crock of bull. A guy offers to be secretary, but the new President J.P tells him, ‘No, the job of secretary is always a female job’. I look at him and scoff and shoot him a look that says ‘sexist bastard’, but that makes him no different than 99.9% of men in this country. He then points to the only Cameroonian female in the room and says ‘She will be my secretary’. This poor young high school girl was at this meeting for the first time (as was everyone who got elected as a board member, but she clearly had no interest in being secretary). She fidgeted around in her seat for a few minutes, mumbled how she didn’t want to be on the board, and gave a few shy giggles and smirks as J.P. persistently insisted that she be his secretary. Danny and I look at each other again and silently agree that, yes, this man was merely pushing her to be his secretary because he wants to have sex with her. And that, my friends, is why HIV/AIDS is so prevalent here. After a good 20 minutes of the girl refusing, J.P finally won the battle, and secretary girl gets a seat on the board and will likely be J.P’s 5th sexual partner he has at this moment in time.

On to the position of treasurer; when this position was announced, hands shot up in the air. While there was a lack of those wanting to have any position on the board, the position of treasurer was in high-demand. Why? Because of money, of course! In typical Cameroonian style, everyone wants to control money so that they can gumbo (steal) some of the money for themselves. One of the want-to-be-treasurers was a guy who perhaps looked somewhat trustworthy, and he attended the first meeting. The other contender was the fool who ‘had something to say’ in the beginning of the meeting and instead wasted our time waiting for him to never talk. Not to mention that this fool didn’t attend the last meeting. President J.P. calls for the vote and Danny and I exchange glances. Danny breaks in and says ‘But wait, we don’t even know why we should vote for either of the candidates. Can they make a speech?’  J.P agrees. The first guy’s speech goes as follows: ‘I want to be treasurer because it’s an important position’. Wow, his words and ingenuity captivated me. The second, more untrustworthy guy says basically the same thing, yet he threw in the word ‘transparency’ for good measure. The voting was going to be public and performed by merely raising our hands if we wanted candidate one and remain still if we wanted candidate two. J.P had an issue with this and kicked both candidates out of the room and insisted on secret ballots, a measure that was very unnecessary. The next several minutes passed as paper was gathered and cut. Some new high school boys come in (whom Danny insists merely came because their friends who were at the meeting told them that there was a white girl at the meeting) and ballots were handed to them. Danny objected and angrily said, ‘These kids don’t know who/what they are voting for!’, and finally J.P. took their ballots back.

The first candidate, who wasn’t the fool, got elected by one vote. The meeting passed with the other board members being elected, or um, chosen, reluctantly. I made several verbal sighs and shot Danny several ‘help me’ looks. When all board members were elected, J.P. got up and sat with Yackouba and Ngono, where they persisted to talk quietly with their backs turned to us for at least 15 minutes. After enough ‘what the heck’ looks between Danny and I, Danny abruptly said, ‘Can’t this discussion occur when you aren’t taking up everyone’s time?’. J.P. agreed and returned to his seat. The meeting was finally adjourned two and a half hours after it started and as the sun was setting. Basically, it was 2.5 hours of sitting in silence – similar to an adult timeout. Danny and I left and Danny’s first words to me were ‘I wish you were sitting next to me because I was thinking of great Would You Rather scenarios!’.

We agreed that was possibly the worst meeting ever and we are hoping it stays the worst. We agreed that since our energy was all zapped out from the meeting, chicken and fried plantains were in order for dinner at La Plaza. The delicious dinner we shared on top of the large hill with a great view of Lomié nearly made up for the torture we just endured.

While this may not seem like too horrible of an experience, it was pure torture, I assure you. It was also the perfect lesson on Cameroon’s love of bureaucratic bull crap and what is considered important in Cameroonian politics and life in general: money.

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