Cameroon: A land of family, friends and solidarity

I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Cameroon, Africa. Here’s a little something I wrote up about the experience:

I had no idea what to expect when I traveled to Cameroon last month. I had never been to Africa before, let alone this particular Central West African country.

I just knew things would be different, and that I would learn a lot. I was right.

I saw that many Cameroonians earn a living from selling fruits and vegetables. Because most of them don’t have cars, they must wake up at the crack of dawn to carry the crops from the fields to the market. It’s a colorful and humbling sight to see scores of Cameroonians — children and the elderly alike — balancing heavy baskets of goods on their heads along main roads.

We Americans don’t have it so bad, you realize.

I saw men in the airport going to extreme measures to earn a day’s wage. They accost you upon your arrival, asking if you need help finding your suitcases. You say yes, thinking they are airport employees. As they jet around the baggage claim conveyer belt, trying to match your luggage with a ticket you’ve given them, you realize they are not at all affiliated with the airport. They are just doing what it takes to earn some extra cash, working for tips.

I saw the excitement in a young man’s eyes when he told us he had won the visa lottery to move to the United States. His lips upturned up as he explained this was his third year applying, and that he had finally beat the odds. He wondered if his banking degree would suffice in the United States, with comparable American job candidates. Either way, he had a ticket to opportunity.

I could go on and on about the things I saw and the people I met.

But what struck me the most was the sense of community and interdependence that exists in Cameroon. In Cameroon, you are not in it for yourself, or your immediate family members, alone. You are in it is for your extended family, neighbors and fellow Cameroonians.

Sometimes it means that you will leave for a party three hours later than originally planned, as you wait for a distant cousin to show up, or have to squeeze into the backseat of a car with four acquaintances for a lengthy car ride.

But you are looking out for your fellow man, instead of letting him fall through the cracks.

I went to Cameroon with my boyfriend to see my good friend, a Cameroon native, get married to her fiancé, also a Cameroon native.

Even though the couple now lives in the United States, they knew they had to have their wedding in their homeland. Over the years they have maintained strong connections with the hundreds of family members and friends who are living in Cameroon.

As part of the wedding celebrations, I ventured with my friend into the Cameroonian villages her parents are originally from.

In one of the villages, the village’s chief — also my friend’s uncle — greeted guests and showed them around his palace. During the wedding ceremony, his wives and other women of the village accompanied my friend around the building, chanting in unison and swaying their hips.

My friend, who was covered in oil and wearing a colorful piece of cloth, danced with the women while carrying around a horsetail and live rooster and ringing a bell repeatedly.

Each object symbolized something; for example, the rooster symbolized my friend’s need to be punctual now that she’s married.

In the other village, women and children of the village performed songs and dances they had prepared specifically for my friend’s marriage.

Relatives made speeches about how the newlyweds must get along well with their in-laws, and keep from sharing their marital problems from potentially jealous or mean-spirited friends.

It impressed me that even though my friend’s immediate family has lived in the United States for 12 years now, and away for the villages for even longer, their native villages embraced them with open arms for the special occasion.

There were 600 people at my friend’s Catholic wedding ceremony, which took place a week later in Limbe, Cameroon.

Relatives now living in the United States had flown to their native Cameroon to attend the event.

I also observed a spirit of solidarity in the country’s poorer classes.

In the Limbe neighborhoods where plantation workers live, family shacks are separated by a mere several feet. Women gather to do one another’s hair in their front yards, children assemble to chase and throw sticks at one another, and men watch soccer together at the neighborhood bar.

When a man runs into his friend walking down the street, he stops to talk. While catching up he doesn’t simultaneously look at a BlackBerry, or immediately say he’s got a jet to catch the latest episode of a popular sitcom.

While independence can be a great thing, the sense of community that exists in Cameroon ensures that people are taken care of. While people may be poor or unemployed, they can always count on a friend for some food or shelter.

We Americans can certainly learn a thing or two from that.

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