1.27.2014

Letters from the Land of Gender Inequality

If I was a girl born in Cameroon, I'd feel this way too. 
I’m really great at making friends, especially friends in high places. That is actually the biggest overstatement of the year, bar none. This is the story of when I got in a 2 hour long verbal tirade and slightly physical fight with a new mayor of some town in the East – and I don’t feel one bit of remorse.

Danny and I traveled together to Abong Mbang Friday morning at 3:00am in hopes we would get paid – turns out we didn’t. Oh well, despite failing to predict when Washington would pay us, it was an overall successful trip where we ate all the food we crave (grilled fish and baton de manioc, smoothies and avocado salads) and where we prepped and bought a lot for the HIV/AIDS mural project in Lomié that is happening in a week. Saturday morning Danny and I went to the bus stop to buy our spots for a bush taxi headed to Abong Mbang. We got there and the taxi only had a few more spots to sell before we’d be on our way – great, so far it was smooth sailing and the least stressful trip to Bertoua I had ever experienced.

As the driver called out for the Abong Mbang-bound passengers to board, Danny got in the front seat and I got in the window seat the row behind him since I did not want the stick shift seat given my history of back problems, easily bruiseable butt, and lack of fat to cushion my behind from the various seatbelts, parking breaks and stick shifts that you sit on for the voyage. I sat comfortably smashed against the window in the second row with four others as Danny waited for the stick shift seat person to show up and get in. A big man shows up in a mayors uniform (clearly recently inaugurated and therefore likely a very corrupt a**hole) and orders Danny to get in the stick shift seat. Danny told the man flat-out no, and the mayor, who is obviously a grand who thinks he is God’s greatest gift to the Earth, responded with ‘but I am your superior’. Danny held his ground and made up a story about being car sick and that if he gets the stick shift seat and throws up on the mayor, then it isn’t his fault. Danny wasn’t about to be pushed around by some bigheaded nobody. That did the trick (I suppose the mayor was afraid of staining his new pristine poop-colored uniform with the vomit of a blanche). The mayor climbed in and Danny got his seat back by the window. Everyone wins, but the mayor.

That clearly wasn’t going to last long. We began driving and not more than 2 miles into the trip the mayor turns to the driver to tell him he hurts from sitting on the stick shift. The driver pulls over and the mayor and him get out. The mayor explains that he wants a seat in the back and that someone smaller should be in the front. ‘This is a woman’s seat’, the mayor chauvinistically explained. What he means by this, I don’t know. The mayor turns around and points at me.

Of the 8 or so woman in the car, he chose me. He ordered me to ‘go sit with my husband’ and Danny turned around and let him know that we weren’t married.  The driver illogically explained that if I am a girl and Danny is a boy and we are together, then that obviously means we are married. Danny and  I fought back in anger saying ‘Well, in America we allow men and woman to be friends without being married! It’s called platonic relationships, and unlike in Cameroon, it’s permitted’. Danny went on to tell the driver that it isn’t his job to tell me to sit in the front if I don’t want to. I told the mayor ‘no’ and tried to remain somewhat calm, but I already felt my blood coming to a boil, and it wasn’t because of the 100 degree heat.
The It's-a-Dusty-Trip wardrobe. 
Nose, mouth, ear, eye protection


 I was not going to sit in that seat. End of story. After several minutes refusing to move, the entire van got angry at my resistance and urged me to listen to this worthless, sexist mayor. Woman sticking up for themselves is frowned upon by men and woman alike here in the East. I explained about my back problem and how I can’t sit without back support for extended periods of time without hurting my back badly and he replied that it is very easy to go to the hospital after I arrive in Abong Mbang. I wasn’t even going to mention how I mainly didn’t want to sit in that seat because I didn’t want butt bruises for the next week.

At this point, I was fed up with this fool. I angrily got out of the car, looked him in the face and called him the few French swear words I know, I gave him the ‘your-mother-has-a large-vagina’ hand gesture, and as I walked by him I shoved my shoulder into his, which in hindsight, adding the physical aspect of this already tense verbal altercation, was probably not the brightest idea. But hell hath no fury like a pissed off redhead.

I sat on the stick shift seat and the driver complained that he couldn’t move into different gears. I told the driver ‘Ashia’ and that it wasn’t my problem and that if it is too hard to drive, then he should take it up with the idiot who made me move – and I looked back at the mayor, who is now sitting in my old seat drinking vodka sachets, celebrating the fact that he bossed around a white girl.
I purposely gave the driver hell for the next 30 minutes, after which he threatened to kick me out if I don’t sit further down on the emergency break and seat belt connectors. Good thing female reproductive organs aren’t on the outside of our bodies because if they were, mine would be irreparably damaged. We pulled over in Doume, halfway to Abong Mbang, and I was sure I was being kicked out of the car. Instead of being kicked out, another (a 4th) passenger climbed in the front seat with us, now sharing the stick shift seat with me, and forcing myself to hold my body up with my arms balancing and pushing off the two front seats as the driver changed gears between my legs. After 5 minutes my arms were shaking and the driver was again complaining about how he can’t change gears  because my legs were blogging the stick shift.

Then I exploded. There are sometimes in this country when I don’t recognize the person I become. This was one of them. I let it out of the driver and told him that if he bosses me around and tells me to sit in the front, then I’ll sit however the hell I want, and if he can’t drive the way I need to sit, then someone else can take my place (to which everyone else has some excuse as to why they can’t sit there). I screamed ‘I am a woman!’ and explained how the arrangement of female orifices in the nether regions prevents me front sitting the way he is ordering me to. The mayor kept making chauvinistic comments and told me ‘Hey baby, come and sit on my lap’ and I turned to him and I let him have it once more. I normally don’t give Cameroonian men the satisfaction of making me angry, but this time was an exception. As he pounded his vodka shots, I yelled at him, letting him know what a worthless idiot he is. I told him that if his position of mayor meant anything besides ‘corrupt, fat, old man’ and that if he had any type of authority or power whatsoever, he would not be riding in over-packed bus taxis such as this, and he would instead be in a private car.

At this point, Danny joined me and tried to come to my rescue. He yelled at the mayor about how it was rude to single me out to sit in the seat even though I explained I physically can’t sit in the seat, and Danny segued into an argument about the status of woman here. He went off and said that woman here are treated like garbage and are given no respect at all. Danny pointed out that right outside our window as we waited in Doume, a woman selling eggs was being pushed and harassed by a man, for no apparent reason, while other men stood around and laughed. Danny went on to say that this country is so undeveloped, and won’t develop, because men have such a negative view of woman. The only retort the mayor had to say was ‘Beating woman is okay, but at least we don’t kill them like in America’. I’m not sure what he was referring to, because killing woman isn’t a daily occurrence in the States, unless things have drastically changed since September. I turned around fuming and called the guy every swear word in French I know and ordered Danny to drop it. Danny’s finishing comment was ‘You treat woman so badly here, but even Jesus came from an woman!’, and with this being such a ‘religious’ country, that at least shut the mayor up for a few minutes.

We finally arrived in Abong Mbang and the driver refused to drive us to the bus station, so he left us on the side of the road with our bags, paint cans, and metal netting. Danny and I walked the 30 minutes to the gare and found another bush taxi headed to Lomié that was nearly full. The usual men who are always at the gare recognized me (my red hair sadly makes me easily remembered) and they all rushed over, referring to me as their wife and begin grabbing at me. Someone shouts to Danny that he needs to shave his beard and be more civilized. We both loose it again and raise hell in the grimy, cesspool streets of Abong Mbang.
Riding to Lomie 

After almost being refused to let in the car going to Lomié because we refused to pay the bogus $4 ‘luggage fee’ that only exists for Danny and I, we finally talk our way into the car. I grab the seat behind Danny by the window, like my original seat in the Abong Mbang-bound car. As the back seat is crammed with 5 people, one of whom is a 40 year old large man who is sitting on my lap, Danny waits for the stick shift seat person to show up. It is a man who refuses to sit there and turns and points to me and says ‘She will sit in that seat’. I let this new guy have it. My fuse was running real short that day.

I grabbed hold of the car seat around me and refused to move. I may have a 200 pound man sitting on me, but I would prefer that over sitting for the next unknown number of hours on the parking break. Nobody else was willing to take the seat and they once again tell me to sit with my husband. As I continue to vehemently refuse, Danny again comes to my aid and starts yelling about my back problem. After several minutes of back and forth screaming, getting up in people’s faces, and throwing in a few more obscene Cameroonian hand gestures for good measure, they resign to the fact that I won’t be sitting in the front. I finally won a battle in this very large war. We drove to Lomié at a snail’s pace (literally traveling only 8km/hr for long stretches of time), but we finally arrived as the sun was setting. I arrived back home covered in dust, with no patience, fuming over the sexist men in this country, and sporting three fist-sized bruises on my derriere. 

I’m not a crazy feminist, but the status of woman in this country, and the East in particular, is appalling. Women have given up their fight to become equal to the idiotic men here. Engels once wrote a thesis on how the world was initially a female-dominated society and how power quickly changed to men with the dawn of capital. If this is true, then Cameroon bears no resemblance to the female-oriented societies that were here thousands of years ago.

 It’s been proven by many that the most developed countries of the world are those which include woman in high-level positions and where there is the most gender quality. If gender equality is a prerequisite for development, then in Cameroon, there will be no developing. Peace Corps has been in Cameroon for 50+ years, which perhaps signals the fact that very little has improved since the program first began here. I know I won’t make a large impact here, and that isn’t my goal, but I’d at least like to think that something I do will make even the slightest difference. Perhaps that difference will be me yelling at the mayor. I can only hope that one of the woman in that car realized that they have a voice and can use it to stick up for themselves against the worthless men here.

I have a thick skin here, and my most recent trips to Sierra Leone prepared me for what Cameroon would have to offer. I ignore or brush off the marriage proposals, the cat calls, and even the men who shamelessly masturbate while they look at you walking down the street. I forcefully shove off and publicly humiliate the men who come up to me and rub their finger in a circle in my palm or under my armpit, a hand gesture which signals they want to have sex with me. I can handle those things most days as they are a part of everyday life here, and normally I don’t complain about it.
Cuddling made me less angry when I got home 
Days like Saturday remind me that all the things I ignore or deal with on a daily basis don’t signify that there are a few worthless idiot men here, but rather it is a systemic problem with practically all men here. Not only is infidelity commonplace and is only permitted for men, but I recently found out that the majority of men’s first sexual interactions/experiences in Lomié are not with consensual sex, but rather are a result of the men putting date rape drugs in young girls drinks and then subsequently raping them. It’s no wonder why STIs, HIV/AIDS, and teenage pregnancy are endemic in Lomié and the East. I now can’t walk down the street without passing young men and wondering how many girls they have raped. There are no Southern gentlemen here. One can work towards developing Cameroon all they want, but the way I see it, without gender equality and without the men getting their a**es whipped in line, this country is going nowhere.

My postmates Grant and Danny have repeatedly admitted how they couldn’t be a female volunteer here. One evening over our nightly candlelit dinner and board games, we had one of our deep conversations. Grant admitted to me ‘With the daily harassment and the constant threat of rape, I couldn’t be a female volunteer here. And I know that what I see you experience isn’t even the half of it because you are treated better when we are around’. It’s true. Thankfully I have a tough skin and I can handle most of what is dished out at me, but the days when I reminded that no matter how much ignoring I do, or no matter how many fights I pick with men in high places, that very little will change anytime soon. And that’s discouraging.

Honestly, there are times I seriously fear how I will integrate back to the States after being here and becoming so defensive and at times so angrily outspoken. I fear what will happen after two years of me having a tough guard up when I return to the states where very minimal defensive guard is needed. There are nights, like tonight, where I worry that this now instinctual defensiveness and harshness will remain a part of me long after my service is done. I feel this is one aspect of Cameroon I might not be able to brush off. But regardless, I won’t stop fighting…literally. 

3 comments:

  1. judy snyder27.1.14

    Sounds like a very uncomfortable trip to say the least! I hate that women are so disrespected like that. Like you said,if it helps one woman to at least voice her opinion maybe that will make an impact. Please be careful! I worry about all you PCV ladies! You do have it so much rougher than the guys as far as the respect goes. Let's don't compare living arrangements! Spencer definitely got the short end of the stick there!

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    Replies
    1. I'm always careful, don't worry! Spencer most definitely got the short stick housing-wise. I'm going to make sure he eats and lives well when he visits me in march and I'm brining him lots I fresh fruit and veggies when I go up north at the end of March.

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    2. Thanks so much, Karen! I know you will take care of him! I know all the PCVs in the North don't get as much fresh food. Hopefully you can teach him some meal tricks! Hey, he might have a tiny place,but the only upside is he didn't have to spend any of his money on furniture!

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