Published: March 30th 2011March 30th 2011
The past few weeks have been quite eventful. We have spent a lot of time with one of the other volunteers, Jessica, mainly at Bob’s bar. It’s nice to have someone we can talk to in English who can sympathise with us on the cultural differences! She is from Seattle, she was adopted from Korea and so everyone here immediately assumes she is Chinese. There doesn’t seem to be a concept of multiculturalism. When Marie-Claire first met her the first thing she said was “Are you Chinese?” Jessica said “No, I’m American”, Marie looked bewildered by this and proceeded to say “but you look Chinese. Valentina, doesn’t she look Chinese?” I had only just met Jessica myself and was pretty mortified by this entire scenario. Since then Jessica told us that everyone shouts “Chinoise” at her in the street, similar to the “les blancs” remarks we get constantly. I find it quite frustrating after a while but she seems to manage to stay quite laid back about it all. However, she did encounter a bigger culture shock which was pretty distressing. On her route to work, she saw a dead man on the side of the road who had by the
looks of him been murdered. More surprising than seeing this was the fact that everyone was just walking past the body as if it wasn’t there. She said that even when she gasped in horror the passengers in the taxi just looked at her surprised at HER reaction. She came to see us that evening to tell us about it and I asked Maman what it could have been. She said to us in the most blazé manner “we kill thieves if we catch them, we beat them to death…sometimes we burn them”. Jessica told me that she had been given the same explanation (also in a very nonchalant manner) by her colleagues.
The teachers at school had told me about this in my English class when we were discussing the death penalty but I assumed it was very rare and so dismissed it but having asked a few more people about it it turns out it is more common than I thought. We assume that the body is left for a while in view as a sort of deterrent to others but I feel like if that is a possible consequence of being a thief then you must
be really desperate to do it in the first place. We found it difficult to understand (for obvious reasons) but also because whenever discussing debatable topics in my English class they always refer to the Bible to back up their argument, it seems a bit contradictory in this case. Anything I have done like the death penalty, homosexuality, women’s rights, polygamy etc I tend to find that I am of one opinion and they are mostly of the complete opposite opinion. Homosexuality was by far the most interesting class, it is illegal here and if caught you can face a prison sentence. They described it as “satanic” and were throwing Bible quotes at me left right and centre, I attempted the whole “live and let live” approach to argue my point but I could see it wasn’t getting anywhere so I had to start getting some Bible quotes out of my own, I socked them a bit of the old “love thy neighbour” but I didn’t manage to change their opinions on this one. It seems strange though that there are some people here that think murdering a thief is acceptable but homosexuality isn’t. My classes have been so interesting
for me to learn about their culture and opinions.
Next culture shock for the three of us was a visit to the main prison in Douala. One of the women here (Odette) that works with The Humanity Exchange, works as a social worker with street children and young offenders. She was keen for Daniel, Jessica and myself to see the work she does and invited us to go and meet the young inmates. She explained that we would have to pass the adult prisoners to get to them but this did not concern us much at the time as I don’t think we had quite realised what was in store for us. There are 2500 prisoners, 60 women, all the rest are men. When we arrived Odette told us to leave all our bags in her office, then we went to be searched before we went in and then the door opened to go in and I could not believe my eyes! There was a courtyard with hundreds of male prisoners, all up against the bars and all trying to get our attention. The guard started unbolting the gate to where they were and there was a lot of
panicked “are we going in there? We’re not going in there are we?” flying about between the three of us. Sure enough we were going in there. Odette was telling us to stay in line, like we were on a school trip or something! We made it through without any problems but I was hoping we weren’t going to have to leave the same way, we soon discovered that we would indeed be going back in there and this time without a guard and having a little stroll round! I think as Odette works there and sees it everyday it isn’t much of a surprise to her and it’s probably easy to forget that for us this experience is less than comfortable. We visited the women’s section and the minors in between all this. Their quarters were not so shocking and were actually clean and not overcrowded. The minors receive an education and make crafts to sell. Odette said that once freed most re offend because they prefer to be there than on the streets which makes sense.
On a lighter note we went to the seaside town of Kribi with Jessica and some of the people at our school. It was really nice, big beaches and lots of places to eat fresh fish. There is also a waterfall there that goes straight into the sea, apparently one of the very few in the world. We spent a couple of days here and wish we’d had time to go back again.
So we are home in three days and quite happy to be coming back in a lot of ways. It’s been a very good experience and we are sad to leave people we have spent so much time with, especially not knowing if we will ever see them again.
Thanks to everyone who donated money!