Monday, October 17, 2005

A Rant from Ridiculous, Culturally-Insensitive (or Too Sensitive?) Me

Dear all,

If Cameroon and I are in a relationship – two partners who have taken the risk of a four-month lease together, to explore each others' characters in intense cohabitation – then there is new evidence of closeness in our budding relationship. We had our first trusting run yesterday, me without glasses or mobile phone in hand; for I have finally become comfortable enough to run alone through the neighbourhood, fearing neither (lack of) safety nor my own (lack of) direction. It is liberating to have my hands free and my vision comfortably reduced to a blur; I can run faster, and I no longer have to endure slipping frames and foggy lenses. At the same time, though, I must be honest about this relationship – sometimes Cameroon and I argue, and I find myself getting quite easily worked up... Three times in the last two days, I have felt my temper flare like I didn't know was possible.

This weekend, I went out on the town (for the first time, at night) with two of my friends – Alla (former SIT student, returning Rotary Scholar) and Estelle (an Australian, interning with an HIV NGO). *More on this fantastic night later.* As a single white girl, I have been warned many, many times against going around by myself in the dark; but here, flanked by two other single white girls, it seemed that I had found a really great way to avoid trouble. Haha, yeah right. We attracted a decent amount of attention wherever we went (so thankfully taxis were never hard to find) – but most memorably from a group of young bandits outside the boulangerie. This group of 5- to 7-year-old boys had a very methodical approach to getting the best of people: they surround foreigners and plead for money or small purchases, then distract them with physical contact like shirt-pulling and (in our case) ass-grabbing, and finally run away with whatever money and goods they have earned or stolen. When Estelle's ass was grabbed by a tiny little boy, who subsequently celebrated his conquest with dance and song, she turned around and said, "Get off me, you little shit!" When the same boy got Alla a minute later, she ignored the assault, walked a little faster, and complained that the same thing had happened to her. So when I was touched, for the third time by the same boy, I could not help myself – I turned around, hiked up my skirt, raised my hand and my voice, and, like a madwoman, chased the bugger through the parking until he and all his gang scattered. I only hope that he feels a little bit ashamed, that he realizes that girls cannot be taken advantage of, and that being white does not mean a person is necessarily stupid or slow. I suppose that we all have different ways of dealing with life's little annoyances…and mine is apparently to turn on them, chase them wildly through a dark parking lot, and generally be a greater terror than they...even if they're just cute little kids.

This morning, most of the city taximen went on strike to protest police harassment and fines; and to make their protest more effective, those on strike took it upon themselves to stop all working taximen from taking passengers. My driver, Augustine, was one of the few who showed up for work this morning – he picked me up as usual, but within five mintues we had already twice changed our course to avoid violent crowds of protesters, and we finally ran into a small brick- and log-toting bunch that forced me and my neighbor Ton-ton, the taxi passengers, out of the car. While my full-grown Cameroonian male friend, Ton-ton, opened his door and stepped out without protest, my small white frame felt much braver (or stupider), and I decided to put up a fight. When some big guy with a giant brick forcefully opened my door, I (naturally) glared at him and slammed it shut again. Then when Ton-ton and Augustine calmly told me to just get out and start walking, I spun around as if they were crazy, asked what all the nonsense was about, and had to be very reluctantly escorted away from the scene by Ton-ton. All the while, I felt this fuming, pulsing, strong beat deep down in my heart and gut, and I was just so uncontrollably angry...only with the little kids, and once or twice before when people have tried to grab me, have I felt so firey. What bothers me is this: those taxi drivers, who hate the police for making their business an unprofitable danger and their lives an unpredictable hell - a minefield of bogus fines, charges, confiscations, bribes, and roadblocks, protest the "enemy" by being just as bad. All the charges, confiscations, violence, and road malfunctions today were due to the protestors themselves, who simply replaced the police on the streets. I couldn't stand that they would use a better-sounding purpose to assault fellow drivers, interfere with innocent passengers, and generally menace the whole city...and, to top it off, that there was no use hoping that the police might regulate. If I am ridiculous for chasing after little kids who might not know any better than to steal (though I doubt it), then I certainly won't be called ridiculous for standing up to these guys. They are the ones who make no sense! Uh, that is, if they hadn't been weilding 20-pound objects and and swinging them toward the windshield a foot in front of my face...

Then this afternoon, as the lab team sat down in our most efficiency-oriented meeting ever, we made a great plan for the rest of the week... Gather all the samples we've been working on for the last two weeks, make the final preparations for the tests, load the amplified malaria parasite DNA in agar gels, run all 256 sets, analyze results - something to show for all of our work was finally in sight! But the details of the procedure - even the simple task of mixing distilled water with agar powder to set the gel - quickly sobered my jubilant state. We don't have water. Wait, can I say that again? WE-DO-NOT-HAVE-A-DROP-OF-RUNNING-WATER-IN-THIS-WHOLE-DAMN-LAB. (And we need distilled water, exclusively - when, in a moment of sheer desperation, we almost used my relatively expensive bottled drinking water as a substitute, we had to admit that mineral-fortified spring water probably wouldn't benefit the "pure" gel that much. Only the plumbing system is hooked up to the distiller, so we can't even pour water into the stupid thing to get a few more drops.) I can hold my bladder all day long because toilets don't flush, and I'm now accustomed to washing my hands with 70% alcohol and tissue paper instead of soap and water before eating...but to not have 3.5 liters of water so that you can carry on with your experiments - my G-d, that's insane and unacceptable! The monthly bill is a mere 16 000 CFA (about $30 USD) for the entire lab complex - and with at least 25 people working here, not drinking and not peeing here, I think that we can manage to pay the university bill ourselves. So I'm going to do the unthinkable, first thing tomorrw morning (because first thing in the morning is always the best time to do the unthinkable...when you're not really thinking yet) - I'm going to talk to the big directors of the lab, Drs. Mbacham and Leke, to tell them that our situation is absurd, and that I'm going to go to each lab worker and collect 500 CFA a month for water. I might step on some toes, or suffer a concussion when the social structure that heavily crashes down on my head, but this is CRAZY!!! Some people will complain that they don't want to give money to the government, but I have a plan: if I tell them that it's actually going to go to flushing their shit down the toilet, maybe the symbolism of that act, with government in mind, will change their stance!

Now I am sitting safely at the lab computer, where the greatest danger is a power failure just before I submit my letter (not entirely unheard-of). With my fingers crossed and my breath held, I send you my love.



Blogger Christy Misogianes said...

Mara your blogs are quite entertaining :) Good luck with the running water situation ;) I miss you!

11:08 AM  

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