12.16.2014

Ngatt: A Village Divided, A Village Connected

The Mosque and the Chief's House A Cote - The Center of Village and the Dividing Line between Gbaya and Poulo
During the past month I've been busy getting my projects solidified, and so far I'm happy with what I started in just a little over 2 months. I've got my men's group, which now meets every Friday after prayer; I've got my women's group, which now meets every Sunday afternoon; I've got my weekly pre-natal education sessions on market day; and I've got my newly formed weekly women's small loan group, where each week all the members give $1 to the 'fund' and at the end of the month, one woman receives the 'fund' (~$60) to begin a health or agriculture venture of her choice. I'm looking forward to seeing what the women use their loans for in the new year. Also in the new year I'm planning on starting a quartier (neighborhood) group for the Fulbe women that live around me, since they can't leave their compounds and walk to the school for my village-wide women's group. That group will also just be an excuse for me to get to better know the women that live around me and to give back a little bit to all my dadas that feed me and use my veranda as a napping spot. With all these projects and with the possible grant-funded AIDS testing campaign in February, I'm drawing the line for the projects that I'm starting. I feel confident and happy with what I've got going, and rather than overstretch myself, I'd rather get these various groups and projects on solid ground so that it's a seamless transition when the next volunteer replaces me.

But that isn't what this post is about. In an effort to better enjoy and appreciate the time I have left here in Cameroon and my quaint and friendly village, I've set about to look past the superficial exterior of Ngatt and really analyze and inspect the social and physical aspects which make Ngatt tick. While I enjoy the work I do as a PCV, the thing I enjoy the most about being a Peace Corps Volunteer is getting to better know my village, its people, its culture, and to put to use the skills I learned in college to better understand the area in which I live and work.
A View from the Top of Ngatt to the Bottom

While my academic background is in international relations and political science, I have a deep-rooted appreciation for African and Islamic art and architecture, which I discovered by taking a year of art history courses by one of my favorite professors from college: Dr. DeLancey, who also lived in Cameroon for a long time. So pardon me for delving into the art history nerd section of my heart as I write this post and analyze the spacial organization of Ngatt and its implications on Ngatt's social cohesion.

While Ngatt is just a small village of 1,000 which appears to have haphazardly sprung up out of the ground in the middle of the savanna (though this wouldn't be 100% incorrect), Ngatt, perhaps surprisingly, is a thought out village in terms of organization, which gives great insight into its social relations among the two groups who inhabit Ngatt: The Gbaya and the Poulo (the settled Fulbe).

Sometime between 20 and 30 years ago, Ngatt barely existed. It was just a little encampment whose size is now comprised of our market. My landlord grew up in that tiny Ngatt of yesteryear. Every day he comes to my house to nap on my veranda bed or cool down and drink filtered water in my living room  in order to escape the brutal midday heat. As we sit drinking out of bowls and looking at my maps, Oumarou (my landlord) sometimes reminisces of the Ngatt of his childhood. He recalls his mother sending him and his brothers to the nearest village, Kandje, to buy oil on a weekly basis. Oumarou remembers leaving around 7am after breakfast and returning around 4pm. Given how long it takes to walk from Ngatt to Kandje,  it makes me think his mother sent them merely so they got out of her hair for the day! I wouldn't blame her. Oil is something that is so ubiquitous and abundant in even the smallest villages, so the fact that Ngatt had no oil was testament to how small my village used to be - not that it's current 1,000 inhabitants is by any means large.

Fast forward a few decades and we arrive at the dusty, sandy village of today. The population has grown from its original Poulo inhabitants, and is now 85-90% Poulo and 10% Gbaya, with Mbororo encampments speckling our periphery.

The ethic divide in Ngatt is evident to anyone who spends more than a day here. While the Poulo and Gbaya are amicable for the most part (except for the occasional bucket thievery, which my landlord always insists is the fault of a "drunk, derelict Gbaya"), their social realms are very much separate and distinct. Ngatt sits on a hill, at the edge of the village at the top of the hill live our scant Gbaya population, who are all almost exclusively Christian; therefore, our tiny Protestant chapel also sits atop the hill. Midway down the hill is our market, which divides the Poulo Muslim and the Gbaya Christian sections of Ngatt.


Small Granary in Poulo Neighborhood
When you walk down the hill and traverse the market either by the paved road or by one of the small paths (my favorite), you enter the Poulo section of Ngatt. In the Poulou quartier, which is my neighborhood, we have our Al-Hadjis who sit roadside wrapped in their headscarves from Saudi Arabia, we have our houses concealed by walled concessions, and we have several Quranic schools, where at 6am and 1pm, children gather to write, read, and memorize the Quran, or get whipped if they fail.

The two sections of Ngatt are very much separate and distinct, both culturally, linguistically, and religiously. The Gbaya are Christian, they speak Gbaya, they spend the hot afternoons sitting under mango trees drinking palm wine, they spread folere flowers out to dry  in front of their houses, their houses are exposed to the passerby, they are farmers, and they eat exclusively manioc couscous. Meanwhile, the Poulos are Muslim, they speak Fulfulde, they spend their hot afternoons going to the mosque, herding cattle, or napping on my veranda, they spread corn out to dry in front of their houses, their houses are always walled inside compounds and are shared with extended family, they are cattle herders or Quranic teachers, and they eat exclusively corn couscous. If they are so different, how can these disparate populations find common ground in such a small village?

The Answer: Chief Amadou. Amadou is a really awesome chief who is always supportive of my work and encouraging of my limited Fulfulde skills. He is a young, good looking man in perhaps his mid-40s and is always decked out in a well-embroidered boubou. Amadou's house is located at the crossroad of our market. Our market/'downtown' is in the shape of a 'T', with the 'I' consisting of our few boutiques, our butcher, our shoe repairman, and our beignet girls, whereas the '-' is a path that traverses the village from Poulo section to Gbaya section and it is the 'overflow' section for when outside vendors come to Ngatt's market on Thursdays to sell their mobile phones or large burlap sacks filled with colorful spices and dried leaves. Amadou's compound is located right in the middle of the market, and right in the middle of all Ngatt. Located right next to his house is our main mosque, with its single male date palm, rising up barren without its female counterpart. Being in the center of it all, a middle-man if you so please, is a symbolic bridging of the two populations, but it isn't enough to unite them.
Chief Amadou starting the TIbati vs. Ngatt Football Game

The symbolism of being located in the center of Ngatt is not enough; the chief himself needs to somehow embody both groups in Ngatt, and for that reason, Amadou is perfect. Chief Amadou is Gbaya,  but he is also Muslim, so he literally bridges the divide between Ngatt's populations. Amadou spends a lot of his time inside his compound with his wives, or inside his receiving room with the village's Islamic elders. While all the village elders are all Muslim, the chief's aides, or his little minions as I call them, are all Gbaya. These aides go about setting up meetings, collecting in-kind donations to the chief on market day, and other menial tasks the chief doesn't want to do himself. In all that he does, Chief Amadou does his best to divide everything equal among the two groups he is meant to represent.

While the Gbaya gripe about the stinginess of the Poulos, and the Poulos whine about the drunkenness of the Gbaya, the two groups find a bridge between their two cultures: our chief. He wins the hearts and minds of the Poulos by being Muslim and organizing big fetes for all Islamic holidays, but he is by birth Gbaya, so he automatically has the admiration by our Gbayas. While both neighborhoods in Ngatt are quite different in all aspects, they find common ground in the middle of Ngatt, where their two cultures collide in the form of chief Amadou and his chefferie. While I'm sure Ngatt would function more or less the same without a chief who represents both the Gbaya and Poulo, I would argue that Ngatt is an especially well-organized, motivated, and cohesive village, which is rare in these parts, and I would attribute that to Amadou and the bridge he provides between Ngatt's inhabitants. Ngatt has grown over the past 20 and 30 years and has expanded around Amadou's chefferie and the principle of cohesion it symbolizes and encourages. 

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