Monday, November 28, 2005

Death, Defying and Denying

Dear all,

Before we left, Alla told me that our bus ride to Bertoua, capital town of the East Province, would make me feel like I was really in AFRICA. For the 9 hours that we bumped along the red dirt path, the only accesss road to what should be a major destination, I began to understand. Looking past the sidelined buses whose fearless drivers had gotten themselves trapped in the mud, and the occasional overturned vehicle, I could appreciate the scenery that has been preserved by inaccessibility. I saw glistening pools of blue-blue water, set among lush marshland patches of banana trees, tall grasses, and (I'm sure) hidden rhinoceri and monkeys. In the more forested areas, we passed dark wet enclaves with black water creeks, and little naked boys setting off in their pirogues for a day of fishing and bathing. The houses we passed are beautifully constructed, with mesh-like walls built from a wooden pole criss-coss packed with mud. The houses look like baskets, and I'm sure they function like them, too: fill one with grains, and it will hold them; fill one with water, and it will all fall through. Luckily, it does not rain much during the dry season, and while travelers suffer from dust, the houses stand relatively sturdy. The rainy season must be difficult, though - with travelers being swallowed by thick, uneven mud in front of crumbling basket abodes.

I was especially intrigued by the fragile houses, in whose front yards sat gravestones that are, by comparison, very solid in their molded concrete hardness. The gravestones are chunky and unmoving, propped upright for all to see and notice. In their permanence they seem to have become central figures in the landscape, and so are used for all sorts of activities: sitting, drying clothes, and sunning vegetables for the market. I wondered if this contrast between temporary living quarters and the dependability of death could somehow represent an attitude of the people...not only an reminder, but really an embrace, of the inevitable passing of life. Given the reckless driving on city and country roads, the struggles of daily survival in a poor country, and the strength of religious belief throughout the population, the gravestones seemed a reasonable symbol of the acceptance and perceived comfort or "escape" of death in Cameroon.

I asked my newly-made friend on the bus - a struggling hairdresser from Douala with a newborn baby, a family in Yaounde, and a lover in Bertoua - if she was afraid of dying. Is death something you wait for, or something you avoid? I expected her answer, perhaps supported by religious justifications or economic explanations, to confirm my theory; but instead she looked at me, the mad social scientist, with a look of total confusion. "I'm terrified of death, like everyone else!" she said. Clutching her baby, she checked my sanity and asked, "Aren't you??"

As all my elegant and glorified ideas came crashing down, I realized that endings are always sad - whether you live in a basket and travel 9 hours on death-defying roads to sell the manioc dried over your late husband's grave, or whether you sleep-in on a waterbed and run a profitable business from your high-speed Internet connection at home. The poor but happy and generous family with whom I'm staying shows that survival is not always a resented struggle, and that people are not so selfish as to wait for the life escape that would separate them from dependent children and loving friends. The undiminished presence of death here, then, is not the result of a different attitude, but rather simply of a harder and more honest life. People don't have the luxury - the place, the time, or the money - of hiding that which causes fear.

To love and to life,



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