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Thursday
Nov212013

Indiga Writing

 

It’s early in the morning sometime in January, and although I haven’t had my coffee yet I’m still lucid enough to get the impression that everyone in this room is whispering about me. Who am I kidding- there are no whispers, they’re actually speaking pretty loudly, I just can’t understand them. I speak both French and English, meaning I should be ahead of the game here, so what’s the problem? Well, they’re speaking in Yemba, the patois of the greater Dschang area, including Baleveng where this women’s meeting is being held. But how do I know they’re talking about me? Live in any Cameroonian town long enough and you’re bound to pick up the word for ‘white person’ (in this case it’s something that sounds like ‘indiga,’ in case you were curious).

My social awkwardness aside, it’s probably a good thing they’re talking about me. I am here, after all, to talk to them. As a Peace Corps Volunteer working in Dschang, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Breaking Ground on some of its projects, most notably the Baleveng water project that wrapped up this summer. My first task was what landed me in that room full of older women, a smile plastered across my face and praying someone would switch into a language I understood: meet with the women of the village, communicate with them the project priorities and ensure their opinions, such as where to place the water spigots, were spoken for in the larger plan. Unfortunately hand signals only go so far in describing things like water towers. What does work? Hand-drawn maps (really putting that architecture degree to use!). Oh, and a translator. That helps too.

Cameroon is officially a bilingual country, the two national languages being French and English. And I speak those- gold star for me! A little trickier are the 200 or so local dialects that tend to be people’s first language and vary from village to village. This hasn’t really been a problem for me on a daily basis because in Dschang everyone, or at least everyone I interact with, speaks French. Meaning it’s easy enough for me to give myself a pat on the back for being able to greet people in Yemba when walking around town, because no one really expects me to actually speak it. After greeting me they automatically switch into French anyways, so no further effort on my part is needed.

But here in village it’s a whole different ball game. Most of the older women in the community never received enough of an education to learn French, as that wasn’t the priority when they were growing up. So Yemba it is. Luckily a younger woman, Mabelle, was able to help me translate throughout our meeting. I suspect a few things were still lost in translation- like when a woman would be speaking in Yemba for a good 20 seconds and the response from Mabelle would be, “Yes, she wants water.” But that’s one thing that you’ve just got to roll with when you’re working on the ground here in Cameroon; all the information you need isn’t going to come to you neatly packaged and ready to digest. You’re going to have to cobble together the story from multiple sources is seemingly imperfect pieces until you get a reasonable complete whole. Language is only one of the hurdles to overcome as an outsider working in a community like this- getting used to being called ‘indiga’ all the time takes some getting used to as well.

There are some things, however, that need no translation, and those are the parts that stick with you. After another such women’s meeting at the nearby Chefferie Minka, the whole group stood up and started singing and dancing in appreciation of me for bringing the village water. As if I, the girl who showed up with the notepad pointing to spots on a hand-drawn map, was responsible for all of the effort put forth by others culminating in that moment. That sense of gratitude sticks with you, so much so that it effaces other details of the memory. I don’t remember in what language I managed to squeak out a response, but I know it was this: Thank you.

 

Erin Kelly has been serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon for one year. She is based in Dschnag and has worked very closely with Breaking Ground and the Community Partnership Project in Baleveng. 

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