Friday, January 18, 2013

White Man: I De Go Fo Walk!

Health Centre Front Gates - open and inviting for escape to walk

Going for a walk in town is a bit different than the rambles I used to take down the smooth grey concrete sidewalks of America. The concept is perhaps similar – to exercise the dog, and myself as well as maintain my sanity and give Jordan her daily dose of socialisation outside of the house.

So I’d like to give you a glimpse, albeit a fuzzy glimpse, of just how unique my afternoon jaunts are now. Come along, use your imagination, put on some loud reggae music, burn a small pile of paper and plastic, and pour yourself a glass of pamplemousse sweet drink!

The Walk:

“Jordan, you want to go for a walk?” * furry brown mutt comes bounding up to me and pokes her nose into her halter-style lead and leash.*  Dressed in my ‘sporting clothes’ of jeans and t-shirt, I sneak past the hospital entrance and breath a sigh of relief. No nurse or hospitalised patient has popped out from the hallway and waved after me calling out doctor, doctor. I’m a free woman for now.

Now, keep in mind that just walking one’s dog on a leash is a novelty in our town. Very few walk their dogs. Even fewer walk with their dogs on a tether. The few that do are dragging them to the local veterinarians for their booster shots or parading them around in order to sell them. Outside this, dogs are utilised as guard dogs and are confined to small pens during the day to be released to run around the compound at night.

Jordan doesn’t restrict herself to these cultural customs. She’s an intrepid little trooper. Born in sunny SoCal, she adjusted to the freezing ice and snow of Indiana and has now just as happily adjusted to the tropical climate of Cameroon. She’s become used to the taxis that whiz past her along the road, nearly clipping her whiskers. She doesn’t mind being a trendsetter in the campaign of walk-dog-on-lease-for-exercise! She cheerfully trots alongside me with her “gentle-leader” muzzle-leash and all too often jerks me to a halt when she suddenly smells an aromatic doggy odour on the nearby scrub of grass. Dogs!

Today, as we depart our compound’s front gate, we turn right toward GC Board Junction and Sandpit. A group of two younger men (some might call them ‘boys’ depending on one’s age!) are loitering at the corner kiosk and browsing the headlines on the newspapers that are strung along the clothes’ line. They are having a heated and loud discussion about life and politics – popular topics here, along with religion. They look up as I pass. “You are strolling with your dog?” they respond as they give the two of us a sweeping glance. It’s more of a statement than a question. An iteration of the obvious.

“Yes,” I answer, not willing to slow down my walk and trying hard to restrain my mischievous evil alter-ego that is begging me to tease them with sarcastic humour. The joke would be lost on them though. I successfully keep sarcastic alter-ego in check.

Satisfied with my answer, they nod. I continue my ‘strolling’ at a brisk pace.

I turn the corner with Jordan and we skirt the signposts and low-hanging wires – not sure if they’re electric or phone – could be either – best to leave them be! Crunching along the graveling stones of the peeling edges of the asphalt road, I pass a typical bar. It’s more of a covered porch that has a stack of plastic crates filled with full and empty Castel, Export 33, Malta, Smirnoff, and a few other beers. All come in litre size bottles. I ignore the jeers of “white man, come here!”

Their drunken laughter fades as I cross the street to reach the walking path trodden into the dirt on the opposite side of the road. As we go along, we dodge a kaleidoscope of people. Colourfully dressed women walking home from work. School uniformed youths bumbling around with their friends in school-packs, satchels hung loosely from shoulders. Young men who should be doing more useful work, strolling aimlessly with their friends, dressed in jeans and pink buttoned down collared dress shirts or t-shirts with rather interesting messages emblazed across them. Folks do not pick out their t-shirts based on the actual message conveyed by said shirt! Lucky for them – humorous for me J

I ignore the pollution for the speeding taxis that shoot up and down the road, beeping and skidding to the edge to pick up and drop off customers. By the end of five years, I will have collected a lifetime’s worth of leaden exhaust fumes – hopefully all the tropical fruit with its antioxidants will counteract the toxins! Jordan is unfazed except when a large, beer truck comes trundling along and roars past us. She jumps to the other side and I trip over her leash, not quite falling. 

 Jordan with her "muzzle" leash and two former volunteers on the way to the post office

 Front yard: View of Mount Cameroon

We come to a gravel-dirt street and make a detour down it. The path takes us into the ‘residential’ district. Houses of wood and concrete blocks extend endlessly along these nameless side streets. “Afternoon,” I greet a gentleman walking in the opposite direction headed for the main road.

“Good evening,” he answers.

“Evening,” I correct myself and continue onward without further blunder. There is no way to predict if one should greet people in the late afternoon with an ‘evening’ or an ‘afternoon’. If one says, good evening’ the other person more than likely replies, ‘good afternoon.’ If one thinks to wizen up and greet the next person two minutes later with a cheerful, ‘good afternoon,’ he will be met with a ‘good evening’. In the end, it probably doesn’t really matter. I find it comical. I’m not sure why there is such a mishmash of greetings. Perhaps it goes back to Francophone versus Anglophone influence? Bonsoir seems to work all afternoon and evening here. Of course, one could go with the safe greeting of ‘salut’!

Jordan halts me at the corner at a thick patch of grass for a sniffing break. I indulge her for a few moments but then I tug on her leash to remind her there’s more walking ahead and to stop dawdling so long. She acquiesces and we continue. Several chickens run across our path. Jordan doesn’t give them a second look. She is bored with chickens. An occasional mommy chicken will ruffle Jordan when the hen has a brood of chicks she is protecting. One would not believe the chattering-chicken swearing a mother hen can give an innocent dog. ‘squawk, squawk, squawk!’ Jordan backs off with a bemused look. She continues forward with only a small lingering glance at the little ‘chicken nuggets’ that cheep behind their mother.

We twist and turn; following the narrow back alleys of dirt paths that short cut round the houses and connect the side roads. We pass several black, white, and brown spotted goats that are tied up with pieces of fraying rope tied round a leg or a neck and attached to small bushes or rocks in grassy grazing patches. Jordan perks up at the sight of the goats. She LIKES goats. If she thought there was any hope of escaping her leash and giving chase, she’d certainly tear my arm off. However, I know all about her goat fetish and shorten up her leash admonishing her to behave herself around the goats. The curious critters lift their noses up out of the grass and stare, beady-eyed and blinking, wrinkling their noses at us as we pass. One of the bolder one takes a few steps toward us. Jordan eyes him longingly. Not today, Jordan.

Reaching the end of the gravel-dirt side street, we turn and gingerly cross a deep ravine filled with garbage on a rickety wooden-plank bridge - of sorts. It withstands our weight. Yay!  We twist along between towering corn stalks that reach above my head. The path eventually connects to another side street that leads us back to the main road.

Five children are playing in the front yard of neatly swept dirt. A football provides endless entertainment for all ages. These little tykes appear to range from two to ten years of age. Pity the mummies that must bathe them later today! The children take a break from their game to breathlessly call out in a asynchronous chorus, “white man…dog! White man dog!”  Jordan struts a bit taller and I am sure I see a slightly exaggerated swagger. I stop briefly in front of the laughing, giggling crowd of youngsters. “How do you know this is a ‘white man dog’?” I query them. They look at me like I’m not the brightest cookie of the batch.

Silence. “Perhaps she’s a black man dog?” I tease.

One of the bolder boys answers, “No, it’s a white man dog.”

“But how can you tell?” I turn to him directly.

He stares, not sure what to answer.

I typically do not engage the children on my walks in this manner, but today I’m feeling a little curious and more silly than usual so I persist with my question. “How can she be a ‘white man dog’? She’s brown.”

The older boy answers proudly and states what he feels must be the obvious answer, “Yea, like you.”

I laugh. “I’m not that brown.” (Sadly, this is true. One would think that living in the tropics would guarantee a healthy glow but I am still quite pale.)

He just giggles at his own joke and scuttles back to the safety of his friends who join the laughing. I give up. I am clearly outnumbered in my opinion! I smile and wave good-bye. The wait until I’m a few feet ahead and then begin their chorus of ‘white man dog’ again. Jordan doesn’t mind.

Panoramic view of Buea from overlook on walk 

A little further up ahead, another group of children appear at the edge of the road and being to chant, “white man, white man…”

I smile when I hear their auntie admonish the children. “Not white man – white woman”.

Reaching the main road, I cross over and find another small dirt walking path to circumvent the automobile traffic. As I stroll along with Jordan, a grown man, perhaps in his 50s, approaches me. He is dressed in a bright orange shirt with fancy embroidery. He is on the vertically challenged portion of the height scale with a protruding round belly that he carries with pride. “Doctor,” he calls out.

I stop and look at him. I don’t recognise him but that’s not unusual for me. I see a lot of people in clinic every day. Admittedly I don’t remember them all.

“Doctor,” he catches up to me slightly out of breath. “Good afternoon,” he extends his hand in greeting.

I shake it. “Good afternoon. How are you?”

“I’m fine, doctor,” he puffs. He pauses for a few moments while I wonder what his real reason is for hailing my attention. Finally he blurts out, “I’ve been planning to come to see you.”

I smile weakly. “Well, you are most welcome.”

He grins and then looks apologetic. “Sorry, doctor, I know I need to come to see you. My parents had high B.P. I just need to prepare myself.”

I stare at him not quite understanding where he is going with this chain of logic.

“I’m afraid that if I go to see you, you’ll tell me I have high B.P. too.”

I nod. “Still, it’s better to know if you have high B.P. and treat it.”

“I don’t want to have high B.P.”

“You could still have high B.P. even if you don’t come to the clinic.” I remind him. “It’s better if you know, then you can treat it.”

“I’m really stressed out now. I need go to the village and relax. Then my blood pressure will be ok. You see, all this stress…”

I listen patiently as he chatters on, clearly conflicted by his ambivalent thoughts concerning his health.  Finally he comes to a conclusion. “I’ll come see you.”

“Ok,” I smile. “We’ll be waiting for you.”

“You know,” he laughs to dispel any tension, “I am always too busy to come see you.” He looks around at his colleagues who are standing off to the side in front of a local bar. With a sweeping gesture he indicates his friends and drinking spot. “I spend too much time here.” He shakes his head. “That’s why I don’t have time to see you. I’m always here.” (At least he’s honest!)

“Well, you are always welcome,” I reassure him. “You should come.”

“Ok, doctor.” He shakes my hand again and then heads back to his friends. I still haven’t seen him in clinic. It’s been over a month.

During my exchange with this elder of the community, Jordan becomes increasingly impatient. She rubs her nose against my leg in an attempt to ease the itchy halter-leader on her nose. As I say goodbye, she eagerly pulls me homeward. I follow and carefully navigate my way through a small stream that flows down the path. The water comes from a broken water pipe. The pipe’s been broken for over a year. Occasionally someone patches the hole. Then it bursts in another spot. The end result is an almost continuous river along this portion of the path during both the dry and rainy season. 

Typical wooden plank bridge - Cross at your own risk!

The evening doves are beginning to coo as the sun dips rapidly below the horizon, giving the atmosphere a pinkish glow. The smoky haze that mixes with a little incoming fog creates an ethereal feel at the top of the small hill I climb. Jordan and I pick our way along the protruding rocks in the street that leads home. Mumbled greetings, exchanged smiles, occasional jeers of ‘white man’, or more likely, ‘white man dog’ follow us. We create a sensation wherever we trod. Walks are never boring. They can be a little daunting when one realises there is no privacy or quiet reflection spots. People are everywhere. It is a contrast from the hikes in the park back in America. Truly an African flavour with the colourful outfits, the greetings of white man, the stony paths, the tiny kiosks scattered everywhere, the suspicious stares from women cooking on their porches and peering up for a brief look at the strange pair of white man and dog.

At the roadside stand that forms a permanent fixture on the corner of the main road and this side road, there is a small fruit stand. The mother is selling peeled oranges, slices of papaya, and pineapple today. I give her a hundred francs and choose a papaya. She places it in the infamous black wrappers that enclose every purchase. Next-door is a small shop, which is owned by a Nigerian family. I pick up a rectangular loaf of white bread “Kumba bread”. Afternoon grocery shopping completed, Jordan and I reach the health centre’s front gate. We have successfully made a forty-five minute loop through the neighbourhoods of Buea again. This time I’m not quite so lucky as I pass the hospital entry. I sigh and let Jordan off her leash to dash the rest of the way to our front door while I enter the hospital to attend to a question the nurse has for me. Oh well. It was a nice escape while it lasted. A walk that is different from America; but, not lacking in colour and entertainment value.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18: 1-5

Couple neighbors cooking up dinner