Anglais (Saturday, 2011 January 1)

January 1, 2011

For New Year’s, I went to Bamenda, which is the capital of the Northwest region. Of the ten "regions" in Cameroon, the Northwest and the Southwest (which are north and west of the West region, respectively) are the "Anglophone" regions, where most people speak English or pidgin. The other eight are "Francophone" regions, where most people speak French.

We talk English gingerly here, unused to people who understand this language or our accents. It’s a welcome surprise that we can just talk, but it’s weird too. It’s weird understanding the things you overhear without having to think about it. It’s weird thinking that people probably understand a little bit the things you’re saying too. It’s weird that language isn’t a struggle.

And suddenly all your worn-smooth-from-use French phrases for getting around this crazy country are no longer appropriate. "Chauffeur, je sors ici." It didn’t stop Jenny from trying to address Cameroonians in French out of force-of-habit, over and over again, as I giggled and scolded her. Le Cameroun est bilingue, but you definitely get the impression that French is a little resented, and that they really identify with their adopted European second languages.

The language barriers aren’t gone, of course, just changed. People will try to talk to you in pidgin, which sounds like it ought to be intelligible but isn’t. And there are still all the Cameroonian-specific things with inappropriate or unusual English names. (like prune, which is rendered in English as "plum"; what we call pimante in French, a spicy pepper sauce, is called "pepe", pronounced like the word "pay" twice).

Volunteers in the NW say that the locals speak "Anglophonian" (but not to their faces). A common salutation in Anglophonian around this time of year is "Happy happy!", which means "Merry Christmas and a happy New Year". I had a fun time asking Allison’s counterpart how you say things in Anglophonian. Example: soya, which are street meat skewers, is just called "soya". Poisson braisé, another classic drunk food, is called "grilled fish". In the West, we call the semi-homeless semi-beggars fou, meaning "crazy", as in "Look out for the fou over there"; Allison says that they sometimes refer to such people as "madmen" (which is awesome).

[Side note: I tried to ask Jacqueline what she thought of the Cameroonian French and if it is as Twilight-Zone as the English we hear. She said at first that it just takes a little while to get into the rhythm of it, but when pressed did admit that some of the French people use is "bad French". Also remember that this woman speaks English, French, and Swedish, so she’s probably pretty accommodating about languages. I’m taking this as a "yes".]

People talk about money differently here too. Anglophones, and accordingly Anglophonian Volunteers, use an abbreviated form: the sum 2,800 CFA is said "two-eight", with an implicit "thousand — hundred". Whereas Francophone Cameroonians always say "deux mille huit cent", "two thousand eight hundred". The French words mille and cent are a lot shorter than their English equivalents so maybe that’s why they get more airtime. I haven’t conducted a survey on Francophonian volunteers, but I think I’ve witnessed "twenty-eight hundred", the use of "mille" in English ("three mille" = 3000), and use of French sums outright.

Allison was playing with her new blender, and I’ve wanted for a little while to get one myself, so we went shopping. Allison paid 10,000 CFA, about $20, for hers, and Jenny swore to get me one for 8,000 CFA. I think that for Jenny, haggling is the game and buying things is just the entry fee, whereas I tend to overpay, sometimes by two times or more, and still haven’t gotten great at haggling, so I was glad to let her try. She got it down to 9,500 CFA. You get what you pay for and I’ve been told to keep an eye out for cheap shit blenders, but I doubt I’ll use it extensively enough for it to really be a problem.

When I bought my blender, the shopkeepers called out to each other in French, so I naturally switched to French too. Jenny scolded me right back for doing business in French, but once I’d opened the door, they weren’t interested in going back to English. They even put Moulinex on the receipt (which is a brand name but means "blender", like "Xerox" means "photocopy"). Code switching is fascinating, and I’m super pumped to be able to finally do it myself.

Bamenda itself is beautiful. One says that it is built into a valley, and when you come in, you’re at a high point with many gorgeous views of this sprawling Cameroonian city. wp:Bamenda has a pretty good picture. I think we got out at a place called Up Station (which is what we would call a gare, station, but they call "car park" here); to get back we found a car at a place I think called Finance Junction (be sure to pronounce it with a short "Fee" sound). I keep saying that Bamenda’s population is like 300,000 people, based on this list, but the article on Bamenda itself lists its population as 269,530 based on a 2005 census. (Bafoussam is shown as 180,000 on the list, but the article on Bafoussam gives its population as 239,287 based on the same census.)

It’s a lot calmer here, and it especially feels less aggressive than the West. (But Allison says she gets déranged a lot when she’s alone.) The vegetables they have are different and better. Cucumber! Broccoli! OK, not great broccoli, but still! I kind of like it, and expect I’ll be clandoing up in that direction again in the near future.

We went out drinking with Allison’s counterpart the night before New Year’s Eve. I am pretty sure we tried to sing the National Anthem outside the bar, but I do not remember which nation it was. On the way back, Jenny declared: "I’m a pterodactyl! Rawr!" and then charged up the hill to Allison’s house.

The party itself was pretty great too — great fun to see Allison, Ben, Jenny, and Jacqueline, and to meet three new volunteers from the last community health/agroforestry stage. Allison cooked up a storm, producing gyros, Greek salad, french fries (Anglophone: "fried Irish"), and cut up a couple pineapples. Aerial support was provided by Jenny in the form of shrimp crackers and a watermelon that she haggled for and then was obliged to purchase. We played a game that was named "charades", but really wasn’t quite charades. The ones that I performed: "provocative eating of the pineapple", "talking dirty in Pidgin", "siamese twins", and "gangbanging a Fraggle" (which was a real challenge, let me tell you). There was also one "clue" that was challenging to perform because it was a picture of a blowjob being performed by what Jenny claims was an eagle. So, how many words? Sounds like..?

Lots of heart-to-hearts. Notable topics include: the two volunteers from our stage that are going home (about which more later); the divorce that one volunteer is going through, and by extension long-distance relationships; the way we act towards each other and the Cameroonian who walked uninvited into the party; Jacqueline’s motherly scolding of us when we fuck up, and whether this is at odds with the desire we assume she has to be "one of the guys". Other topics of conversation: the Fulbright student (which is different from a Fulbright scholar) who is living with Jacqueline, and how she is adapting without the support or training we got; vacation plans for Easter break; which Volunteers’ problems could be solved by "vigorous fucking". We also had wine from a bottle (as well as the miserable stuff they sell in boxes) and little itty-bitty firework things for when midnight struck.

Up until 3; awake again at 7:15 to find that Jacqueline and her "postmate" were already gone. Allison made pancakes, data was exchanged, and despite my qualms about travelling on New Year’s Day, we headed back. That gives me time tomorrow to do laundry and plan a lesson or two for Monday, just in case some students happen to show up to school. I’m working with the lights off right now because I don’t want my neighbors to know I’m here.

Still looking for a New Year’s Resolution (Evi’s). Chasing a sensation that I’m going to figure something out very soon. Listening to "This Year" by the Mountain Goats:

I broke free on a Saturday morning
I put the pedal to the floor
Headed north on Mills Avenue
And listened to the engine roar
My broken house behind me and good things ahead
A girl named Kathy wants a little of my time
Six cylinders underneath the hood crashing and kicking
A-ha, listen to the engine whine
I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me
I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me

—Mountain Goats, "This Year"

Happy New Year, everyone.

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