Cities


Okay, so recently, both Dave and I have been bragging that we have yet to pay our first bribe in Africa – and cockily surmising that, perhaps, we can make it through our travels without contributing directly to the corruption we’ve seen so much of.

 

Not so lucky.

 

Scene: third night in Yaoundé, the night before we should be able to go and hopefully, finally have our visas extended. We have spent a lovely day out in the rainforest visiting chimps and gorillas, getting sunburned, and thoroughly enjoying. We’ve shared an early evening meet-up with a GHAPE board member, talking politics and microfinance. As we prepare to go out for dinner – a bit late at 8:00 PM for Yaoundé – Dave says:

 

“Megan, leave our passports here; I don’t want to be out in the city with them.”

 

“But, Dave, we are required to carry IDs with us – do you have another form of ID?” (We’ve just read this in our guidebook two days ago, ironically,)

 

“Megan, they never check!”

 

Fast-forward two hours, feed Dave and I a fine Italian meal in a setting worthy of Casablanca, and put us in a cab heading home at 9:20 PM (happy that we are in time to see Jimmy Carter on Larry King Live on cable CNN – a city luxury for us.) We round a corner, pass city hall, and POOF! Five policemen are blocking the whole road. The cab driver, sighing, pulls over and provides two heavily endorsed and legalized documents. I look at Dave and Dave looks at me. The policeman then requests our identification. I pull out the copy of our passports I am carrying where our passports normally are, and explain that, for “surété,” we have left our passports in our hotel. We get the speech that I’m expecting, that if we have just copies, the copies must be “legalizés” – meaning we pay 1000 CFA ($2.50) for a stamp on the copy.

 

We wait for the bluster to pass, hoping, and I explain that we are “nouveaus” here and didn’t know. No dice – we are told to “descendez.” We walk around behind the vehicle, feeling as criminal on the dark street under bright headlights as if being filmed for “Bad Boys.” The officer explains the rule again and tells us the fine for traveling without documentation is 37,000 CFA (almost $100 with the falling U.S. dollar exchange rate). I say, “Combien?” doing my best to look wide-eyed and incredulous. He repeats the shocking figure. I look overwhelmed and say, “Mais, nous n’avons pas l’argent. Nous avons laissé l’argent et les passportes dans l’hotel pour le surété.” The policeman asks how we are going to settle this now. I repeat the above, adding, “Je ne sais pas.”

 

Then comes point-blank: “Vous-avez combien?” I say 5,000 (which is true). The policeman says, “10,000.” I pull out the 5,000 I have, to see it this will suffice. The policeman repeats, “10,000.” I turn to Dave, in English, “You have 5,000?” “Is that what it’s going to take to settle this,” Dave looks incredulous. But, he pulls out another 5,000, the policeman accepts our $25 – at least a day’s salary here, if not a month’s for a good number of the folks we work with every day in Bamenda. We thank him (really, this is what is expected) and that’s that. Deed done.

 

And, because we’ve been watching so much CNN these few days in Yaounde:

This is Davis Shuey and I approve of this message – though, I did not say, Merci!

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There is a dead body in front of our house.

Megan: I know, it seems like we are always writing when the shit hits the fan, but I am starting to believe that is just human nature. We have spent a beautiful first two weeks here in Bamenda, Cameroon, working in the office of our host organization GHAPE and heading out into the field to interview microcredit recipients. But, although we don’t subscribe to the “good news is bad news” principle, those stories may have to wait.

Dave: Like previous installments, and those yet-to-be-written, this takes place during a journey. This one is a tad like Stand By Me (based on Stephen King’s The Body), though, we weren’t actively searching for a corpse whilst wrangling with angst over being too fat, too blue-collar (RIP River Phoenix), too abused, or having a deceased John Cusack for a brother. No, we just wanted to come home in one piece after another 9-hour marathon bus ride, this time from Cameroon’s capital, Younde, where we got extra pages for our passports.

M: We got off the overnight bus this morning, around 7:30 am, the time our office is starting work. Late, we gave in and hopped a cab back to our house, which, yes, is right behind the GHAPE office. About halfway up the last hill before Rendez-vous Junction, where we live, the cab driver asked, “So, you people stay up this side?” We said, yes, and before we could say more, we saw a crowd gathered just in front of where the GHAPE sign should be and, the next second, Dave said, “There’s an accident. Oh no. There’s a body.” As we drove a wide girth around the body and I looked in vain for a smashed car or motorbike, it became apparent that something far less innocent had occurred.

D: I saw the body. The broken chair. A shirt saturated in a dark reddish color (away from the body), and beyond that, a red stain stretching down the street for one meter. Hair that looks red. Nike shoes, that look weighed down by rocks. A pile of leaves? Then the cabbie spoke, “Yes, it happened 2 a.m. last night. He was a thief.” This was no accident.

M: I hadn’t seen as much as Dave, and was still just trying to piece together information, while we tried to convince the cab driver to stop, yes, really, right here, where everyone is gathered. This is our stopping point. This is where we live. And, no, we really want all 300 francs worth of change; no, we aren’t giving you an extra 100 francs just because you pretend you can’t do the math… By the time we were out of the cab, with bags collected, and turned again to face the scene, we saw one of our coworkers at GHAPE standing in the front door of the office, also looking out at the scene.

D: Then we heard the details. The man on the street supposedly cut someone across the back of the neck while stealing a cell phone. The victim died in the hospital and, within hours, the public took matters into their own hands – finding the thief, beating him to death, and leaving his body on the street for all to see. Children were gathering. Our coworkers looked rather nonchalant – not embarrassed, or sad, or even surprised. I know the police aren’t trusted around Bamenda, but is this really how things are done here? Another coworker would later ask me in the office, “So, what do you think of our Jungle Justice?”
M: Sometime in the midst of all of this, Dave and I both realized, and admitted, that this was the first time either of us had seen a body – except for the prepared and laid out bodies of family members at their funerals. The raw physicality of the dead body is perhaps the part of all this that sticks with me the most. At first, we headed straight to the office, not wanting to see. Later, after hearing the details, a group of coworkers announced that someone was bringing the picture of the boy who died – the innocent one – and everyone poured out to see. Dave and I found ourselves following along, and suddenly, standing just across the street, staring through the living, moving bodies surrounding us at the still, deflated-looking one, lying bare-back up among a pile of debris. The way that his shoes hang, scarecrow-like off the end of his two legs. The way his shirtless back does not move up and down. The way that the debris seems arranged for public spectacle – a big stone, a broken chair, some dirt and weeds and unidentified rubble – while the rest of the road remains clear for cars to pass. Finally, his face turned to the side in the direction of passing traffic – I could only look for a moment – which did not betray good or evil, right or wrong, fear or anger.

D: Seeing the body feels tawdry, forbidden, even rude. And writing about it now – perhaps even more so. But why? Is it our prepackaged, sanitized Western notion? One that will never see the Death Penalty on public display again – which would surely mark the end of capital punishment. Or white washes victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we couldn’t handle the trauma after in Mogadishu (re: Black Hawk Down) or Vietnam (re: the 60s). Death is real. The need for justice in the form of an eye-for-an-eye is real. We as participants are real. For me, the most shocking thing wasn’t the body, but how normal this seemed for everyone. During breakfast of eggs and coffee, our neighbor said this happened before, in fact when someone tried to break into the house where we are living. And in the office, we continued along with the workday, 15 meters from the body. Occasionally someone would go to the window to see the incessant crowd, or step outside for news if the family would come to recover the body.

M: Which brings us to the next point: that the body is not disappearing, leaving behind only a white chalk line and a police barricade. The custom, as it was explained to us, dictates that the body will be left there, blocking half the road and the entrance to our office-house compound – between us and the rest of the world – until the family comes to recover it. If there is a family, that is, and if they want to claim this body as their own. If it still remains after two or three days, it will be collected by the same public that left it there, to be buried down the road.

D: Yes, this was explained by the guy in the nearby shack where I buy french bread, and who a few nights ago concurred after 10 p.m., that the Rendez-vous ‘hood is sketchy, “Oh yeah, I saw an armed robbery here last year. Got the guy across the street, then me.” He said the dead guy on the street was trying to steal cell phones all night until he lethally knifed the last victim – who the proprietor knew. But even he didn’t seem shaken.

M: When we left our house a couple of hours ago – ironically, to go to the police office, which doubles as the immigration office, to have our visas extended – the body was there. When we go back, well, we shall see. In the meantime, we walked into the police office, wondering, do they know what happened just up the road? How do they figure into this justice? Judging by the stacks of paper and fully occupied desks, they don’t. The incident may be reported on the news, just as we heard last week of an incident where police beat to death a man who had stolen a car. But, the lines dividing those that can wield “justice” from those who cannot are different from the world we are used to.

However, before this starts to sound very “us and them,” “civilized versus not,” I will say what I said after the third coworker sighed, cynically, something along the lines of, “Ah, Cameroon, mob justice.” The same – or a very similar thing – happened just a few summers ago in Chicago, when a van driver and his companion passing through a Southside neighborhood jumped a curb, hitting three young women – one later died. A mob pulled them out of the truck and beat both to death. The only difference, I imagine, is the reaction of the authorities whose role was circumnavigated:

Chicago police superintendent Terry Hillard denounced the attack as “senseless,” “cowardly” and “disgusting.” “This is not street justice, this is not vigilante justice, this is not justice of any kind,” Hillard said.

D: I’m sometimes a relativist, and I understand from almost everyone we’ve talked to that the police won’t do anything here in Bamenda. In last week’s interviews with GHAPE members, I’ve heard of the poorest of the poor being robbed – so I see the frustration.

I don’t know what else to say. Maybe the body won’t be there when we get back – that’s what I’m hoping. I turned my head the last time passing. In the end, we’ll see if every so-called “bad guy” has a mom who loves him. We’re truly living in strange times, where rule of law dovetails with vigilante justice. To quote Radiohead’s Kid A, “We’ve got heads on sticks. You’ve got ventriloquists.” Sometimes the lifeless speak the loudest.

Life is hard in Lagos.

I am certain that this could be said of life in many places in Africa, and the world. But, on day five in Lagos, the grinding frustration of everyday life has seeped into my bones just as the humid air has coated my skin. If we set up a chart with the balance of cost of living vs. quality of life and plotted points for the various places Dave and I have been over recent months, Lagos would be an outlier far off the curve – double or triple the prices of anywhere else with only a flickering of the amenities of daily life.

Blackouts: Energy shortages may be expected in a city of 20 million in a developing country, and certainly we have become used to blackouts sprinkled throughout our travels, as well as being completely off the grid. But, over our stay here in Lagos, we have seen at best 6 or 7 hours of intermittent electricity a day – thankfully, often during the night. Now, day five, we are currently going on 30 hours uninterrupted “without light.” As an energy-dependent American, and a spoiled and impatient one at that, I feel a tide of entitlement, helplessness, and empathy rising in a confusing – and yes, hot and bothered – mix.

I have never had to ration my electricity use. During all my growing up, if you had more gadgets than outlets, you just pulled in a power strip. Rationing electricity in my life has been a matter of thrift (oh, those ComEd bills during the summer fan season or the winter space heater season!) and sound environmentalism. It has never been a matter of pure unavailability. Now, I write this post from my laptop, staring uneasily at the red battery in the upper right hand corner that warns me I have one hour left of juice. I have turned off my headlamp, which has been eating two batteries a day, to conserve it for later, when the computer goes out. I will soon duck out to the street in search of another candle. It is too hot to sleep – no fan or A.C. and barely a cross-breeze. Although, I must brag that I am getting better at attuning my schedule to the daylight hours – going to bed earlier and rising at dawn with the call to prayer and the roosters.

The trouble with blackouts, I am finding, is that they get all of us living or lodging in the surrounding area at once. So, just as my pressure is rising to explosion and I would kill for an ice-cold coke, I circle the areas vendors and each has only lukewarm bottles on offer. I decline the bottle, sheepishly and apologetically, and both vendor and customer offer a sympathetic shrug – “no light.” We both know just how long it has been, but when the light will return is a mystery.

Scene: It is night in Dave and my $30 hotel room above the market (note that we pay a `10% service charge, presumably for buckets of water brought up to our room on a daily basis but no Value Added Tax or VAT, since the owner explains that the city is not providing services so he refuses to charge/pay this fee). We lie still as we can, sweating into our sheets and waiting for a breeze. We take turns bucket-showering throughout the night. Suddenly, the light springs on and our window A.C. unit sputters and rattles. I jump to close the windows, Dave pulls a mattress off one of the beds and shimmies it into place on the floor directly in front of the unit. As he wrestles with the mattress and sheets, I play with the plug and adapter (got to have the right angle) to siphon a little juice into the laptop – and then we haggle over the relative importance of using charging slot number two for my camera or his ipod.

Fast-forward five minutes or three hours or however long we are blessed with light – and suddenly we wake to find that the A.C. is off and our gadgets are half charged. All arrangements described above go into reverse – windows open, mattress back on bed frame in hopes of a passing breeze – until the next coming of the light. Speaking of electricity and technology, I like to picture the above scene in comic glory of the Charlie Chaplin silent movie era, with Dave and I clumsily tripping over each other and elbowing each other in eagerness to take advantage of each moment of god-given energy.

The careful reader will have gathered from foreshadowing the subject of my next rant: water. How does a city of 20 million provide running water and plumbing to its citizens? Answer, apparently: it doesn’t. As far as we can tell, the city and most dwellings are outfitted with complete plumbing for running water. We are in hotel number three and each has had a sink, a flushing toilet, a shower and/or bathtub and…buckets of water, carried up by hand from unknown origin. I don’t have many complaints about this system, since we are not hauling the water up three stories (except that one time) and a bucket shower (when desperately needed) is just as refreshing as its running water equivalent. But, we do wonder about those living here everyday.

On the other end of the water cycle, let’s just say that everyone knows where the water goes when it has been used. An open sewer system runs through the city. In the nicer areas, the open sewers are cemented and about five or six feet down, running between the sidewalk and the street. In our neighborhood, the sewers run along the edge of each narrow street of packed mud or patchy brick, only about an inch below street level. They pass in front of houses and occasionally cross the street, making walking quite a treacherous negotiation. I learned the hard way – no light in the nighttime streets plus rampant sewage makes for bad experiences.

The thing about sewers like these, clogged with as much trash as sewage and open for evaporation, is that they don’t exactly “run,” as one would hope or imagine. As we learned a few days back, and Dave quipped, “Saturday is sludge day.” Each household or neighborhood or some level or organization clears the sludge out of its section of sewer and leaves it in piles to dry and be collected. We learned from our hotel operator (the one who is not collecting the required VAT from us) that the sludge collection is another private expense paid for by each household rather than a service provided by the city.

Please note, dear readers, that there is an escape from this lifestyle in Lagos, if you can afford it. Just an island away – from Lagos Island to Ikoyi or Victoria Island – there is a network of air conditioned, 24-hour generator-operated, private security-guarded shops, malls, and hotels, where a ticket to a Hollywood blockbuster costs $14 and a second hand hardcover book costs $45. Dave and I have flitted in and out of this world, blessed by the presumption of wealth that goes with our whiteness (though not our outfits or cheapskate attitudes). It makes for quite a contrast in extremes.

Which brings me to the third rant, which I will keep short since this overlaps with the news you can read from many better sources: Corruption. Our trip from the Benin border to Lagos (no more than 50 kilometers) included: one Beninese border guard asking for $5 to give us a departure stamp on the same day we paid $25 for our transit visa through the country (I pointed this out and he waved us through); no fewer than six separate negotiations with Nigerian border officials, each of which could most likely have been speeded by a twenty naira bribe; and five road stops by well-armed police or customs officials, who blustered about small (invisible to the un-uniformed eye) irregularities until the our bus driver or his assistant slid a bill out the window. Never before have I seen police doing so much to disrupt rather than control traffic flow (picture five armed men taking one lane of two on a road notorious for heavy traffic and randomly waving every third car down with their AK-47 or akin).

The raw cynicism and humor of our fellow passengers – strangely shared by the officers shaking us down – was a fine introduction to Nigeria. Scene one: Officer, after flipping through our passports and eyeing the Lonely Planet on Dave’s lap asks, “So, you are tourists?” “Yes.” “You want to know Africa better…okay.” All our fellow passengers think this is riotously funny and we hear the line repeated from the back of the bus. Scene two: Another officer picks on a young man sitting next to us with a big bundle wrapped in plastic on his lap. “What you have there?” “Shit.” “Old shit or new shit?” “Old shit.” “Okay, move along.”

A last word, as my battery heads down to reserves and warns five minutes left – despite all, the disparity of wealth and wellbeing more than anything, Lagos has not impressed us as dangerous. People are friendly (sometimes too friendly, i.e. “How are you? I love you; I want to marry you,” all in one breath before I turn the corner), curious about us (“Hello, my friend, where you going?”), and regularly give us smiles, greetings, and hugs on the street. The more days that we remained in our market neighborhood (four, including an extra day for Dave’s first major Africa illness), the friendlier life has become.

Mixed with the friendliness, of course, we are impressed by Nigerians’ – or at least Lagosians’ – mix of cynical humor and infinite patience. Both are products of growing up in the environment described – and the main reasons that life in Lagos is hard for me (less so for Dave who comes with a bit more cynicism). Try as we might to focus on patience and empathy during our short stay in this world, our idealism and sense of justice (or entitlement), and need for modicums of comfort get the better of us. We have expectations, while I would warrant most in Lagos do not. The signs all over the city that exhort the public to “Keep Lagos clean” and “Pay your taxes” only underscore the realization. As the woman who makes us our morning coffee and beans and rice summed it up, matter-of-factly, followed by a smile and a laugh, “Yes, we Nigerians suffer a lot.”

feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgWell, folks, time flies by and here we are on our second to last night in Dakar. I am now struggling to feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgtype on my English language keyboard (on my laptop) as I have become accustomed day by day to the French language keyboards dominating the internet café scene around these parts. My apologies for the lack of photographs in recent weeks: we live in a strange world these days – an enormous West African city with internet cafes on every corner, each filled to the brim, but all sharing a limited bandwidth so that none has the speed to upload more than a couple of images in an hour. But, we shall overcome, eventually.

A snapshot of life in Dakar: Dave and I arrived three weeks ago to the day, on February 11, and since arrival, we have been living with a kind Senegalese family in the northern banlieus of Camberene. Truth be told, I have still not figured out whether we are actually in Dakar proper or not, but we are at least on the peninsula, about one hour by bus from centre ville. Think of it as commuting from Hyde Park (south side of Chicago) to Rogers Park (far north side), then subtract the “El,” add round-the-clock traffic, multiply the bus systems by three, divide the cost of a taxi by 10 (and cap the cost at 2,000 CFA or $5 per ride with bargaining), substitute diesel for any other fuel type, throw a couple of horse carts on the sidelines, and eliminate bike lanes or any lane divisions whatsoever – and you will get the general picture.

Our adopted home is, miraculously, just a block from the beach, which is a blessing for many reasons. First and foremost, it gives us a respite from otherwise interminable city blocks. Second, it is our compass since we landed far off of our Lonely Planet map and must navigate the neighborhoods purely by sense of direction, frequent requests for mysterious landmarks that seem to delineate the city for locals (i.e. “Eglise,” or “La grande mosquée prés de la mer,” or “Pharmacie Yacine”), and pure trial and error; for me, it was a boon to discover that if I am truly lost I can just stop, wait for the call to prayer to end at the nearest mosque, listen for the sea, and head in that direction.

But, before your imaginations run away with visions of a tropical beach paradise, let me clarify the most visible purpose of the sea in this city: it is the most convenient trash dump for all the surrounding neighborhoods. So, no matter how I love bathing, I would not think of setting more than a foot in the ocean around here. To arrive at the beach from our house, we navigate a veritable levy of refuse, from broken flip-flops to fish heads and food scraps. Goats love it. Rats love it. Children seem to still be able to enjoy a game that looks like king of the castle. For our part, we plug our noses and scamper to the other side, where the sea does its part, clearing away 25 meters of sand fit for walking, running, push-ups (men here dig troughs in the sand to heighten the push-up experience), and of course, football.

We do feel close to nature. Our house boasts two sheep – one male and one female, carefully tied at just enough distance from one another to assure no hanky-panky – one chicken, a neighbor’s rooster (who shares his daybreak services with us), a bevy of mice, cockroaches, and flies. No mosquitoes as of yet, but we sleep in our mosquito tent nonetheless. Call us romantic.

feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgDave and I are learning French, each with our own pace and method. Each morning, I wake up, thanks to the rooster, at 7:00 AM, make coffee, and haul derriere to school for four hours of French class. Dave tried this schedule for the first few days, but even his love of classroom learning could not overcome the early hour, and he switched to home schooling. I am trying to study for two, but find the going somewhat uphill since Wolof is more dominant here than French, and many – including our host mother – speak very little if any of the language. Thus, immersion it is not, but the important things are coming along, I have just purchased my first French language novel by a Senegalese authoress, and I am certain that I can haggle the heck out of any taxi driver between here and Cameroon.

As I read him bits from this posting, Dave reminds me to mention that we have discovered the wonderful world of bootleg DVDs. Most recently, on our five-day trip to the Gambia (English language!), we found the 25-movie-per-disc phenomenon, and we now have every major American picture made on the subjects of Africa, apartheid, and Hollywoodized ethnic cleansing on one disc. Thank you, China, for filling the developing world with such treasures! Seriously, on a side note, the percentage of products in the Senegalese markets that are “made in China” is astonishing. Luckily, we have found tissues manufactured in the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire and vats of homemade peanut butter (called “tigga digga”) in nearly every corner store, which sums up a large percentage of our daily purchases.

And so, our study of local economics and means of transportation continues…in new and different landscapes. Mali around the corner and Cameroon just appearing on the horizon. Dakar, until next time!