Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Happy New Year,' said the guy in the stairwell... in March

Last Friday, which was March 20, myself and two coworkers -- two Americans, one Swiss -- set out on a mission to pay too much for coffee.

As we descended the stairs, two distinguished looking men were heading in the opposite direction. Both Malagasy, I assumed. The older of the two, said, "Happy New Year" as we passed.

Gosling, schoolgirl, or train wreck
A schoolgirl in a plaid skirt jumping from an exploding airplane?
Ryan Gosling can't compete with that.
Screen shot: Yahoo News
Here in Madagascar, I get a lot of, "Monsieur!" from people on the street. Or for the more advanced, "Bonjour Monsieur!"

When I try to speak French to many people in Madagascar, I encounter that many people don't remember much from the French they were taught in school, or maybe they never finished school. "Bonjour Monsieur!" could be a good percentage of what they know.

And I can't blame the Malagasy for preferring their native language over the language of their ex. It was a forced marriage after all.

But, Happy New Year? In English?

My coworkers mocked amongst ourselves.

"I suppose," I said with false empathy, "that if all I knew in German was gesundheit, I'd reach for that whenever I crossed paths with a Germanophone, for any situation."

Yuk yuk... I'm a smartass.

We failed, by the way, to pay too much for coffee. The only espresso machine within a casual radius was down.

Saturday, which was March 21, something caught my eye after reading an article on Yahoo called, "Community based innovation promotes sustainable development in Madagascar," (my kind of light weekend reading).

Sandwiched between "Ryan Gosling Defends Eva Mendes' Sweatpants Comment" and "Deadly train accident in Bachhrawan, India" there was a thumbnail and a link that, from the corner of my eye, looked like a schoolgirl in a plaid skirt jumping from an exploding airplane.

I clicked through to discover that for the Balinese, Saturday was Nyepi, which is followed (according to the Balinese calendar) by New Years Day.

Nyepi is a national holiday for "self-reflection and meditation and activities such as working, watching television or travelling are restricted," according to Yahoo News.

Four out of five ain't bad. In fact, I'm usually four-for-five Nyepi on weekends. (I didn't meditate. I'm not sure I can -- not Hindu style, anyway.)

And the plaid-skirted schoolgirl is actually a topless dude participating in "Mesabatan Api," which occurs before Nyepi. It's a pretty fantastic photo.


 "Mesabatan Api"  gung Parameswara/Getty Images
Not a topless plaid-skirted schoolgirl; not a drunken holiday weekend barbecue.
Screen shot: Yahoo News
Photo: gung Parameswara/Getty Images

I don't hear much about Hinduism in Madagascar. As far as market share goes, Hinduism is the RC Cola of religions Madagascar. Hindus don't make the top three, trailing somewhere behind Muslims -- and Muslims are at about 7 percent.

Neighboring Mauritius, has a plurality of Hindus, at 48.5 percent (which makes me want to visit Mauritius while I'm still in the neighborhood). But I couldn't find any indication that Mauritius celebrates New Years Day on the Balinese calendar -- although Mauritius is closer to Bali than is Madagascar.


4573 miles from the New Year
Screen shot: GlobeFeed.com

The chances are looking pretty slim that the guy in the stairwell was a Balinese Hindu wishing us a Happy New Year.

But I like the idea that the old dude, later that evening, was topless, in a plaid skirt, and jumping through fire. So I'm going with that.

Happy New Year.

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Bolobolo Woman

This song has a long history, most of it in my head.

My friend Moses -- the same Moses who got into a bar fight years ago -- asked me to find him an American wife. Moses had some mental health problems which led his wife to move out. For some reason he believed that an American woman would be more faithful.



I kept this song in my head as a very inside joke. But in 2008, another friend from Cameroon, Gregory -- the same Gregory with the frozen fish store -- came to attend my wedding. I told him about the song idea. He liked it, and helped me tweak the lyrics into better Kamtok (a.k.a. Cameroonian Pidgin English).

The Lyrics and English Translation are available here >>

Sex doll in a box - Boing Boing
Photo: Boing Boing


I never recoded it until now. I thought I'd try it on my Madagascan kabosy.

Since Moses was a musician; a saxophonist, among other things, I added this sax solo from a website called Looperman.

In case you can't make out the lyrics, in the song I do find Moses a faithful American woman -- an inflatable sex doll.

No, the ironies are not lost on me here.

Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What I learned from a bar fight in Cameroon

My doctor here in Madagascar asked me if I could share a "traumatic event" that in turn could be use to instruct some Peace Corps Trainees (or perhaps terrify them) on how to cope when your coping skills have not been adapted to life in Africa.

Right away I thought of this story, which occurred in 1992, very early into my time in Cameroon.

I still remember the disorienting feeling, standing there in the damp dirt road, under the moonlight outside Sunny's bar. Listening for sirens I wasn't going to hear. Watching for the red and blue flashing lights I wasn't going to see. Waiting for the police cruisers that weren't ever going to come.

Godwin: Thoughtfully badass, and a drummer
I had just started making friends and getting involved in the local music scene through "Doctor" Moses Fokong. The band was playing. I was having a beer. I was feeling as though everything was meant to be.

In life I have learned that the sense of meant to be is a harbinger of all hell about to break loose. But even now I usually only see this in retrospect. It's a euphoric feeling; the exact opposite of what an early-warning system should be like.

The music and euphoria were interrupted when I realized that some variety of shit was going down.

A big drunk guy had attacked Doctor Moses with a broken beer bottle. The attacker was in his mid-20s and quite muscular. Moses, on the other hand, was in his late 50s, and somewhat frail. I still don't know what started it.

The locals separated the big guy from Moses, and formed two separate containment huddles. I had not participated in the training drills, so I took the middle ground between these two groups and brandished my umbrella like a sword in the direction of the huddle containing the bad guy.

Standing there, looking ridiculous, was when I realized I needed to adjust my American expectations that men in blue were coming to diffuse the situation.

At first the revelation frightened me. Holy shit. This is the way of the world. But, it began to dawn on me, the locals didn't want the problem to escalate any more than the police would have.

This was not the first bar incident in the history of Cameroon. There was a social and cultural response to the situation that was rapid, measured, and effective. The cooler heads were more emotionally controlled than I was, because in that society they had to be. And that fact was reassuring. I was the only one wondering what to do.

Inside the attacker's containment huddle, somehow the big guy was convinced that he ought to leave. I'm pretty sure it was not the threat of umbrella justice.

I hired a taxi to take Moses to my house, and I put him in my spare room. I made sure that he was safe for the night. It was a small cut on his chest, about an inch long. Stitch-worthy.

The next day I interrogated some other friends who had been there. In particular Godwin, a big, badass-looking, 20-something guy who played drums. A body double for the guy who attacked Moses.

I challenged him. What I wanted to know, more or less, was "Why didn't you step up and kick that guy's ass?"

Godwin replied, "There were several people there who I did not recognize. They weren't locals. I had no idea whether they were waiting for the situation to escalate, and maybe hoping that it would."

It made me reevaluate not only my take on the situation, but Godwin. He was a lot smarter than I took him for -- quite a strategic thinker. He had experienced his share of tense and volatile situations.

He was also someone who had quite a long view of life in that community.

Godwin not only wanted to survive the occasional testosterone flare-ups at local bars, he wanted to be able to live with the opinions held by others within the community. Sadly, he died fairly young of an illness, just a few years after I had left Cameroon. But he held the respect of those who knew him.

But through this bar fight, and processing it with Godwin, I realized that I had a lot to learn about the complexity of the society in which I would live for the next two years.

And that disorienting feeling that tells me I'm in new territory, it still happens. It's still unnerving.

But I have learned to expect that social inertia is strongly biased towards making it through the day, even in the most unstable places in the world.

And the moral of the story is...

The "argument from ignorance" is a common logical fallacy sometimes summarized as, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

What I'm saying, trainees, is that when the floor seems to fall out from under you in Africa, it's probably because you don't recognize that there is an African floor all around you. Just because you don't see it in a form that you recognize, doesn't mean it isn't there.

It's a fallacy, to say nothing of arrogant, to assume that your community doesn't have a way of dealing with garden-variety traumatic events -- bar fights, robberies, car accidents, aggressive suitors, etc.

You don't have to agree with these native strategies, but you might come to appreciate some of them. You may even personally adopt some of the better ones.

You have a lot to gain if you recognize going in that you are going to spend the next two years discovering your multitude of blind spots -- particularly when all hell breaks loose.


Note that the opinions expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.