Courtney Baxter Off-Campus Study
Courtney Baxter ‘11
SIT: Development & Social Change
My memories of life in Cameroon come to me now in short waves and then roll away un-tethered from my life here in Granville, Ohio. It scares me how easy it has been to forget the smells of dust, and rainy season afternoon showers, and burning garbage—smells that eventually became home. It has been just as easy to forget the small conversations in Cameroonian French, the packs of school children walking alongside me on my own walk to school each morning, and the ways in which the spice “piment” infiltrated every meal and how my taste buds eventually acquiesced to the feeling of fire and spice. There were so many small moments and so many big moments in the four months I lived and learned in Cameroon, keeping them all constantly present with me has been a big challenge as I’ve begun my senior year at Denison.
And yet, when I do sit down and remove myself from the ebb and flow of life here and think about the experiences on a deeper level, I am simply in awe. I am thankful to say that Cameroon is present in my everyday life from the pictures on my wall to the Cameroonian outfits in my closet, but it is the constant questioning and the everyday newness that I miss the most by being back in America. When I was there I actually wanted to wake up at 6:30 a.m. every morning if only for the fact that I had no idea what the day would bring. Would I have an extended conversation about religion and politics with the woman from whom I buy my avocados? Would I visit a small NGO and fall in love with its work? Would the capital city’s premier rugby team flag me down from the other side of the road and propose to me? Would I reach the top of Africa’s second tallest mountain by sunrise? And what about Chantal, Grace, Ozzo, Mami, Siri, and Wilfrid, my extended “neighborhood family” – would we be playing two hours of soccer in the afternoon? All of these real life moments were serendipitous during my time in the many different villages and cities of Cameroon and I adopted a philosophy of “expecting nothing and everything simultaneously”.
I lived, breathed, slept and abided by this philosophy, which I believe let me grasp every moment as an experience to be valued, thought about, and often revisited in emails, blog posts, and expensive phone calls to America. One experience in particular comes to mind as the sort of thing that fits right into this category of expecting nothing and everything. After nine weeks in Cameroon I finally felt like I was getting a hold of the country, the customs, the people, the language and felt really satisfied with how much I had learned in that short time. But it was in the ninth week that our entire group took the overnight train to Ngaoundere for our last two-week homestay before our month of independent research. The train bumped incessantly through the night and with every stop the sound of young boys yelling “l’eau, l’eau, l’eau, l’eau!!” in attempts to sell us water wafted in through the open windows. Thirteen hours later, we finally arrived to a completely different Cameroon. The heat was so dry that breathing made your throat scratch and the dust in the air created a sepia haze that gave the effect of being in an old photograph. Yet the biggest change we experienced was the presence of Islam in this mid-size university town in the North. We were all placed with Muslim families and my good friend Abi had the unique experience of being placed with a polygamous family. About two nights into our time in Ngaoundere, Abi, who is very passionately Jewish, decided she wanted to throw a big Seder at her family’s house to celebrate the first night of Passover. So there we were, a group of mostly Christians and some Jewish Cameroonians and Americans sitting on multi-colored woven rugs in the living room of Abi’s Muslim polygamous family. As we all started singing the beginning Hebrew prayers, the Grand Mosquée, the largest mosque in the city located right next door, rang out the call to prayer through loud speakers. We all looked around and sat dumbfounded at the unbelievable situation in which we found ourselves. It was multiculturalism at its finest and truest.
I have come to realize that sharing stories like this is a difficult task because being able to fully translate my experiences to my friends and family is impossible. And yet I do it because I believe it is the least I can do in order to bridge any existing cultural misunderstandings, and in the process I get to relive the best four months of my life.
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