Mentir (Saturday, 2011 March 5)

March 5, 2011

Got the most recent Times today with the other mail that Jenny left with Ryan in Bafoussam today. Issue 4, 2010 (PDF; 1.4 MB) has a short piece called "The Everyday Nuances of a [Organization] Volunteer", which caught my eye with the line "That’s five ‘little lies’ I had told, and it wasn’t even 10 a.m." It’s an interesting read about the "white lies" we tell during service. It’s surprisingly easy to tell people here "versions" of the truth that suit our individual needs at the time, from claiming to be married to saying that our organization forbids us from doing certain things. This is one of the peculiarities of being what we are. If we were immigrants or refugees, say, maybe we’d feel an obligation to be honest with these people, to be the best we could be to start the new rest of our lives.

I like to think of myself as someone for whom honesty is a deep personal commitment, but I break the rules a certain amount. The word "mentir" means "to lie". As a teacher, you hear it a lot in the phrase "Il ment!", "He’s lying!" I’ve listened to Cameroonians getting out of obligations, and they don’t seem to feel a need to make up stories or provide excuses like we do; they just say "No, I’m not doing that". And because of the inbuilt hierarchy of the society, nobody ever asks "Why not?" (although I guess they do sometimes ask the same question again).

This comes back to an ongoing problem I have with managing people, especially people here in my house. When I’ve been "performing" all day and I want to power down, and someone walks into my house to hang out, or to eat my food, I sit and seethe. But the truth can set you free, and it doesn’t even have to be a spectacular truth. Other volunteers just say "Can you leave? I’m tired/I need to work". And that’s culturally acceptable, I guess.

Today I watched Ryan take sugar cane from a kid on the street, just because he wanted to. That’s also culturally acceptable, I guess, but I couldn’t control my appalled facial expression. He figures the kids take so much of his crap that it’s only fair. It’s just another approach to navigating the two cultures in which we find ourselves. Ryan’s always been especially good at "playing Cameroonian", in haggling or in ordinary discussion.

So I’m still working it out, I guess. More later, maybe.

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