Yesterday, we decided to move our daily run to the late afternoon, rather than complete it in the morning as we usually do. Our regular three-mile route takes us to the outskirts of Buea Town and then down a steep verdant hill into a neighboring village, and then back again. It is always a beautiful run, but yesterday evening was especially gorgeous. The sky was clear enough to see the enormous volcanic mountain rising up just behind town; the setting sun shone deep orange off of low-hanging puffy clouds; and the air was rich with the smell of smoke as people prepared to cook their dinners. And as we ran through Buea Town on our way back home, several kids along the way saw us and called out, as they always do: “white man!”

This is a greeting we have encountered ever since our first day here. We hear it mostly from little children, who shout it at us not derisively or pejoratively, but more as a way of identifying us and trying to get a wave back. Much to Clara’s dismay, kids never seem to manage “white woman.” Adults say it too (“white man,” not “white woman”), although less frequently—it seems as though at some point, most kids learn that this is not an appropriate way to greet someone.

Coming from the United States to teach in West Africa is, we recognize, a complex issue. Much as we try to shrug off the yells of “white man”, we recognize that our work and our experiences here are irrevocably influenced by how we are perceived. Sometimes, being a “white man” here makes our lives easier but has consequences we never intend—we have been flagged through police checkpoints that locals might otherwise be stopped at, and we have been helped first or offered seats when we arrive at already-crowded shops or schools. Recently, Josh had a chance to visit a ceremony organized by our local counterpart in which school supplies were distributed to local at-risk children; there, he was graciously invited to speak to the children and then participate in passing out supplies. Josh had not financed or organized the distribution of these supplies at all—he just showed up after being invited to the ceremony—but the ceremony’s organizers nonetheless exhorted kids to thank him, and not them, for giving the supplies.  Just as we have been thanked for things we did not provide, we have also been invited to provide goods we are not able to give. Just the other day we were approached by a kind young man who explained that he was from a local orphanage, and would we give him our number so as to arrange a visit to see what the orphanage was like and perhaps give a gift or two.  Well-meaning people seem to assume that white people always bring gifts, and always have money to give.

Being a “white man” also makes our lives more challenging at times: people will ask higher asking prices for many local goods, assuming (often correctly) that we do not know their true cost.  Occasionally, people will stop us on the street asking for things we could not possibly provide, such as marriage or business investments (“would you like to invest in precious stones?”) or, even more commonly, a request to be taken to the United States. Many people assume simply entering America will make you richer and will make your life better. There is even a local lottery in which people pay small sums of money to be entered into a drawing for a chance to win an interview at the American Embassy and, perhaps, a visa to the US. None of these incidents occur every day—in fact, the more time we spend here, the more we feel like a part of a small community where friends and acquaintances cheerfully come up to us on the street to greet us and see how we are doing. But these incidents do happen, and will continue to happen for as long as we live here.

Of course, the history of “white men” in Africa is long and complex. In Cameroon, the colonial presence of the Germans, and after World War I, the British and French, is not commonly discussed.   Perhaps the current political climate trumps most discussion of the more subtle and insidious marks left by colonialism—we recently read in a local newspaper that Cameroon is listed among the 20 most corrupt nations on earth. Slowly, however, we’ve heard small mentions of the legacy left by decades of foreign laws, foreign money, and the imposition of foreign culture.  During one particularly memorable taxi ride, we were given vivid descriptions of various battles that took place here in Buea between tribal chiefs and colonial troops.  As it turns out, we live just a few hundred meters from the site of one such battle.

Interestingly (and perhaps troublingly), the aforementioned taxi ride is the only time we’ve heard about the violence wrought by colonial regimes.   Much more commonly, we hear about how colonists developed infrastructure (the police headquarters, the governor’s mansion, the local university campus, and many of the buildings now occupied by local and foreign NGOs) and built schools.   We’ve even heard about the ‘civilizing’ (not our word) effects of colonialism.  One friend pointed out a young woman to us, asking, “do you see those scars on her face?  She was born with four eyes—that means she could see into the world of the spirits when she was a baby.  It is not good to see the dead, so there is a ritual to rid a young child of this vision that involves giving small cuts on the face.  Before civilization reached Cameroon, such a child would have been killed.”

With our daily experiences as “white men”—and our awareness of the history of colonialism in Cameroon—we are left with lots of hard questions about our role here. Is colonialism a long-past event that is overshadowed by current political concerns, or is there merit in understanding how contemporary problems in Cameroonian politics are rooted in Cameroon’s colonial legacy? What is our role in Cameroon’s legacy of interactions with foreigners, and how can we make sure that we are supporting positive and sustainable development here? How should we act when confronted with people who want something from us that we are not ready to provide—even if their intentions are honest? And what should we do about the daily shouts of “white man”?

These are questions we will likely encounter for our entire year here, and they have no easy answers. For now, we think about them when we are sitting together after dinner, digesting and talking about our work here.  We have also generated some quick responses to kids when they shout out “white man.”  If we are feeling tired, we sometimes ignore them; when we are feeling sarcastic, we sometimes yell back with a laugh, “black pikin,” pikin being a Pidgin term for “child” from the Portuguese word pequenino, or “small one.” But more frequently, we stop walking and take the time to chat with kids, explaining, “Our names are Clara and Josh. We are your neighbors. You should greet us by saying “good morning!” It’s gratifying to find that more and more children are doing just that.