Monday, October 24, 2005

Tracing Disordered Minds in a Disordered Society

Dear all,

There is a thought that popped into my head many weeks ago, and has since been bouncing around without ever developing into something I could reasonably express to other people, nor explain to myself. Finally, with the frustrations of last week, I think it has finally grown into something presentable - even if not entirely correct.

My untested observation is this: All crazy Cameroonians look and act exactly alike. A "fou" on the street is unmistakable in a crowd - he is sure to have ratty dreads in his hair, be shoeless, have torn and filthy brown and olive green clothes, and behave exactly as all other madmen do: wander the streets aimlessly, talk loudly to no one, yell passionately at cars and trees and road signs, and occasionally approach strangers to demand food and money. My experiences in the U.S. suggest that mental disorders can be manifested in innumerable ways, while Cameroon's fous follow a very strict code: crazy Americans might be withdrawn or outgoing, yet crazy Cameroonians are always loud and intrusive; crazy Americans might be obsessively clean or negligently dirty, yet crazy Cameroonians are always filthy; crazy Americans might be old or young, yet all noticeably crazy Cameroonians are adults. There is also a strikingly large number of fous, exactly fitting the crazy profile, all over Yaounde. I have been wondering - why and whence to they appear in this society?

My theory is as follows: People are not born "mad"; they are driven to an unstable state of mind, just as ideas are inspired and personalities are crafted, by surrounding events and people. Perhaps there is a certain type of person who is naturally vulnerable to instability...but when lives' pressures and individuals' experiences can be so variable, the combined effect of one's standard pre-disposition and one's individually-chosen factors yield diverse maladies. That is why in wealthy countries, where life can be comfortable and problems are created just as much as they are inflicted, mental illnesses are as unique as the sufferers' pestering in-laws, bad haircuts, unruly children, and tumbling marriages. In Cameroon, however, problems have a different nature; they come not from the individual and his/her choices, but from above. Instead of being driven to instability by their own created problems, I believe that the fous are responding to the country's maddeningly inaccessible money and jobs, its insanely corrupt systems of justice and order, and the infuriatingly self-destructive actions that people take against all this wrong. If there is some sort of universal "madness" in Cameroon, and madness is the result of a force in the direction of instability - then why not attribute it to a universal "force", a universal "life experience", that is specific to the country itself?

My last blog entry was met with a lot of worried emails and phone calls, and I know that people are wondering if I am capable of staying calm in this frustrating, frustratingly helpless, world. Interestingly - it took this wave of concern, originating in friend and family observers halfway around the world, to lend some self-awareness to my situation. All this "firey" anger that I had felt for the first time (and also for the first time, had not been able to control) was clearly my response to things that I couldn't change. There were the taximen, with their bricks and their riots - I could do nothing to stop them, and yet I put myself in danger with loud and foolish actions, because I didn't understand their fragile balance of political weakness and physical power. I also had a risky night out, with scheming little boys and a dark parking lot chase - my response to a minor physical violation was infinitely more aggressive than it needed to be (turning and walking away would have been just fine), but it felt so good, for one split second, to punish a 5-year-old who thinks he can take something for himself by taking something from others. (I believed that I could scare away an entire future of thievery and rape by chasing him once. After the deed was done, though, I regretted my impulse and thought it rather stupid - and way too optimistic - to think that I can fight crime by running wildly through the dark.) And as for the lack of running water at work - it's a challenge, but not an insurmountable one; we make do with borrowed water, and the lab directors will eventually get around the paying the bills. In the meantime I will work on making a still of the lab's own, and maybe run some tests with boiled bottled water, etc., to see if we can come up with another source of good water. But I have decided to NOT step on the big men's and women's toes by collecting money; for as simple as it sounds right now to me, they are hesitant to give me permission for it, and I must believe that they make these choices for a reason. Whether their reason is right or wrong, it is not my choice to make - and if I keep trying to make all the choices for lab bosses, rioting taxi drivers, and young thieves in my 4 months here, I will surely be overwhelmed...pressured...frustrated...destabilized...crazy. The "crazy" that I felt last week was the loud, foolish, reckless kind that all the fous display - and I think I have begun to understand how this society drives people to insanity.

The fact that there are so many fous indicates that the problem is rampant (more than in the U.S., at least), and that they are all adults suggests that the madness takes hold later in life - it is not innate, but developed. All signs point towrd a cultural specificity and etiology! I would like to track the madness through people's years, to talk to fous and find out where they come from, what they do, how and when their lives changed...but since I'm trying to avoid risks and insanity myself, perhaps interviews with the least understood, most feared members of society would not be a prudent independent research undertaking.

Well...I may not have the slightest hope of finding the order to this country; but it breeds a madness so simple, uniform, and accessible, that I might be beginning to understand at least how the disorder spreads.



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