Before They Pass Away

Samburu in Kenya. Photo Credit // Jimmy Nelson
I've been consolidated in Bertoua for 1 month and 1 week - not that I'm counting. Okay, who am I kidding, I am counting. Life on consolidation is very boring. Internet is great, but it gets old. Food variety is amazing but...okay, there's no downside to that. But not having work, personal space, a house, Cameroonian friends, a daily routine, and being free to have conversations with my cat sans judgement is starting to have it's toll on me. 

The longer I'm in Bertoua, the more I'm forgetting the life I had in Lomié. While I guess some things I want to forget, other things I don't. It's saddening that with time, my memories of Lomié are becoming more dream-like. A month ago I could close my eyes and envision the sights, smells, and sounds of my neighborhood and the market, but now what happens when I try to do that, a blurry quasi dream-like image emerges which reminds me of somewhere I might've been, or I might've dreamed of - it's becoming harder to decifer the difference. The only things that remind me that yes, I indeed did live in Lomié for 8 months, is when I talk with my counterpart Yacouba, or my friend Didja (who is now visiting family in Maroua and might visit me in Bertoua in a few weeks), and Djouberou when he calls to tell me about how his patisserie is doing. If it were not for them, I'd question whether Lomié really happened or whether it was weird dream I had during one of my Benadryl-induced sleeps.

Well, here I am rambling again. The point of this post wasn't supposed to be about my life on consolidation, that will come in a later post. The point of this post was about a cool project I've found during one of my many hours of 'interneting' during my day. Lately, it seems like I'm riding a daily rollercoaster where one day I want to take Interrupted Service because I feel like I'm wasting my time waiting for my new post (and let's face it, I am wasting my time), but the next day I feel like shouting 'Hell yes I can do this! Nowhere to go but up now!'. Life in Cameroon is no longer filled with mystery, excitement, adventure and wonder. The things that once amazed me now are simply facts of life or daily annoyances. It's a sad day when you realize you stop observing the world around you with the wonder you did a year ago.

The other day while munching on Parle-Gs and peanut butter, I came across a photography project by Jimmy Nelson, a man who once traversed the length of Tibet on foot with his camera, and who subsequently photographed newsworthy topics such as Russia's involvement in Afghanistan and the Kashmir Conflict. After traveling through and photographing much of the outside world, he was inspired to create a project which he has named "Before They Pass Away". In his words:

"In 2009, I planned to become a guest of 31 secluded and visually unique tribes. I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. More importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world...[this project] would provide an extraordinary view into the emotional and spiritual lives of the last indigenous peoples of the world. At the same time, it would glorify their varying and unique cultural creativity with their painted faces, scarified bodies, jewellery, extravagant hairstyles and ritual language."

While the word 'tribe' makes me cringe due to my vehement hate for the word and its depoliticized, ignorant connotation, besides that this project is amazing. All 31 groups that Jimmy Nelson visited and photographed are beautiful and unique and demonstrate the diversity and wonder that is still in our world. His photographs and written descriptions of his jouney with each group can be found on his website. I took some time the other day and scrolled through the colorful and powerful images. I was confronted with the reminder that where I'm living is anywhere but mundane, common, and boring, despite the fact that I feel that way right now. I live in a country where 'pygmies' still exist, despite the constant pressure of modern, industrial life threatening their existance. I live in a country where Fulani cattle herders continue their age-old traditions as if the current international borders are invisible.

While it is easy for me lately to dismiss people here as 'derangey' and ignore the culture around me, looking at these photos put me back on the outside and made me look at Cameroon from a new perspective. I live in a country with hundreds of ethnic groups, each with their own unique tradition. I live in a country where ancient kingdoms dated back to the 14th century. I live in a country where the world's largest pastoral nomadic group exists: the Fulani (it's insane that I knew Fulani's in Sierra Leone, and now here in Cameroon - 3,800 kilometers away). Not only that, I live on a continent that is arguably the most culturally, linguistically, and geographically diverse of the world. 

I'm challenging myself over this next year to try to keep looking at Cameroon with fresh eyes. I think being in a new, completely different region will help with that, but I'm determined not to let this experience continue to pass without me seeing the beauty around me. While it's easy to dismiss this country and its people when a man inappropriately touches me, a baby pukes on me, or when things just simply don't make sense. It's been a rough year to say the least, but this next year I want to fill with culture, new languages, and the sense of wonder that I had when I first arrived. If that means clandoing and breaking rules, then so be it. Cameroon, you are gorgeous (and ugly in so many ways), but I'm determined to focus on your beauty for the next year.

To any PCV reading this, keep looking at your community/village/region with fresh eyes to keep the excitement alive. For those in America, when you get bored by your surroundings, try to find beauty in something/somewhere you haven't noticed before. What I am reminded of when I looked at Jimmy Nelson's photography is that what is mundane to some of us, is new, foriegn, and wonderful to someone else. I'm reminded to not let myself take this experience for granted.

On your coffee break, lunch break, or before bed, scroll through Jimmy Nelson's photographs on his website and rediscover the diversity of the world we live in. While it may seem so small with the increases in technology, our world is so vast and diverse that, to me, it's incomprehensible. While so much of the world is being homogenized by technology and globalization, there are still pockets of the world which are largely untouched and who protect their culture, traditions, and heritage - and Nelson's project aims to document them - before they pass away.

Himba in Namibia. Photo Credit // Jimmy Nelson
Huli in Papua New Guinea. Photo Credit // Jimmy Nelson


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