It was another cloudy, muggy day in they city. Everywhere was noise: street noise from taxis, cars, motorcycles, even steam rollers, and tractors; shop noise from speakers blaring out of a cybercafe playing afropop, people arguing on the streets, people charging their cellphones from people sitting under umbrellas at “recharge” stations….just noise. And with that noise comes the eye candy – a feast of colors -clothes, fruits, buildings, rooftops, people, people, and more people. As I walked through the madness, I felt for the tiny hand that reached up and grabbed mine, a hand that belonged to the only person who could call me “Auntie Laura” and make me really feel like one. Walking down the busy street with my 6 year old companion, I immediately snapped into au pair mode, only this time instead of “watch out for that puddle of semi dirty water” it was more like “don’t fall into that ditch of raw sewage or get run over by multiple tractors fixing the road.” And yet somehow neither one of us was really scared or fazed, because we knew the terrain. Instead, I smiled and asked him, “Where to, Mr. Navigator?” As confident as ever, Tassah pointed the way “This way, I’m sure.” This is city life, and we were on our way to his summer camp program at EISERVI, a local nonprofit that I wanted meet to work with us on our program(to learn more about their projects, visit www.eiservi.org).
In all of the times I’ve been to “Africa” (vague concept I know) I’ve always had the luxury of living it up in the small town, or exploring that tiny village. This is the first time I’ve really stayed in the “big city,” and especially with a real family. Cities in general befuddle me anywhere, especially since I have issues with directions and smart phones. Worse yet, you always feel like a number, getting shuffled in with all the rest, and your fear of pickpockets or thieves skyrockets. Yet somehow it was nice to be in Yaounde for a month, because was really able to appreciate the chaos, and understand how cities are different, not necessarily in a bad way.
When thinking of capital cities like Yaounde, you learn quickly that the image of “dirty, poor starving simple African people” exaggerates the reality. Here you have the slums like anywhere else, which you want to avoid at all costs if you are white and stick out like a sore thumb. Yet there are the other places – the fancy hotels frequented by wealthy foreigners and local government officials, or elaborate villas high up above the city that make the Berkeley Hills look drab. It’s interesting how similar to home a city like Yaounde can be – the wealthy hiding in the hills, peering down at the reality below them from afar. The only difference is the difference – poverty and wealth are more dichotomous, with little room for middle class in between, and as “une blanche,” you automatically get sifted into the upperclass system, whether you like it or not. If you read William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden,” you’ll understand more of why and how this happens.
What is interesting, is that despite these extremes, the wealth does rub off, if ever so slightly. Literacy is higher in the city than in rural areas, and thanks to the many hospitals and facilities, even the poor have access to more resources. You may not find a Peace Corps volunteer stationed here, but the Peace Corps Headquarters, along with the US Embassy live here, and try to help out in their community as much as they can. That being said, imagine if wealth was better distributed, how those street vendor’s starving children would do so much better! Life seems to be really unfair sometimes.
So the question is: how is development work in a city different from a rural area? Well, despite the access to more, there is also less: less community, less trust, and therefore it is harder to create a network of people to mobilize for one cause. How can you connect people who are fragmented, coming from across the country and from all over the globe, speaking all sorts of languages, fearing the next person on the street, because you never know who will steal from you next….How can you create some sort of group that can make impact happen?
I can’t answer this perfectly, but from what I’ve come to realize in Yaounde is, you have to create your own “community” – when I say community I’m not talking about place necessarily, but people. It often starts with a small group, who share a common vision, or goal, such as education and youth empowerment, and can be fueled by a common language or people from a similar region. Most of the people I have worked with are originally anglophones, coming from the Northwest Region of Cameroon. Teaming together through their common feeling of “being nonfrancophone,” they have been great allies in our English dominant initiatives. A bonus is they also value education, as do we, the many teachers and nonprofit workers from ISSP in California.
As we walked out of our first joint meeting between EISERVI, Tassah Academy, and ISSP, I felt pleased to see how such different organizations can come together to create a new project. It was exhilarating to see how these different people could see and value similar things, and by working on this project we were creating a community – physically in Yaounde, but virtually online as well, with many partners in California. I was the lucky one who was traveling between the borders, building as many bridges as I could before my physical presence was demanded elsewhere. As we walked out onto the street in the night I could hear more noise: TVs blaring the World Cup matches, vendors grilling their suya meat, people laughing, talking, cursing their country’s team (another great community builder). Standing on that street, I felt so at home, so part of this city, finally. I had found my niche, my community where I belonged. And I was excited to bring their ideas and values home with me, to share with their soon to be friends in California. I can’t believe I have to leave next week already.