I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately – about politics and protest, laundry and rain, international development and Africa.  It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the number of infrastructure deficits here and the lack of outrage.  I think my naivety has gotten the best of me over the past month.  It occurred to my yesterday how hard it must be to muster the energy to have outrage when you spend most of your day just meeting basic needs.


What a horrible doubled edged sword – you have to shuffle out at 6AM to get water and quickly get your laundry done and hung before taking your seat at the small booth where you sell phone credit for MTN in the rain.  Then, the food has to be cut, cooked, and washed up – who knows if you’ve got a stove, fridge, or a sink to do it in.  Multiply those tasks by a family of 6 and you’ve got the day of most women in Buea.  The lack of infrastructure makes everything more difficult.  It takes longer to get places.  When you get there you’ve got to wait in line because no one here holds to appointment times emailed days before.


I’ve spent the better part of the last month trying to find myself in the pulse of Africa and of course not finding me anywhere.  I expect my Internet to work consistently because the company, MTN, is huge and I pay for a their service – which works just fine in France.  Cameroonians expect very little in this realm because things don’t often work.  As my friend Michael commented yesterday, these technologies where made for the Western world and not for the wilds of Africa.  The cable lines, trained service people, and market which supports all of it simply doesn’t exist.


Sadly, the same is true for things I imagine people would like and surely they need.   A factory phone would be way more expensive than a Cameroonian is willing to pay – so they get cast off phones from Europe for a fraction of the price and just expect that they will break.  The idea of buying a new book is so foreign I’m not sure people here could ever imagine having a Buea Post Best Seller list.  I bet people would welcome a public library though – one stocked with books by African and international authors, books that have not been marked up by some student from Paris.


So, life is hard in Cameroon but they are used to the hardship – so used to the hardship it’s hard to contemplate anything but hardship.  Life is good enough in Cameroon that the hardship is bearable and people are grateful for what they do have – food on the table, ironed clothes, a clean porch, and a group of good friends chatting over warm beers.


Technology is supposed to exist to make things easier.  I put my laundry on to wash and call ahead to make sure my appointment is scheduled correctly.  I come home and put it in the dryer before sending a follow-up email and pulling my pre-cut, skillet ready, steak out of my fridge.  My corn comes shucked and my green beans clean – dinner is ready in about 20 minutes.  Before bed I’ve got time to send off a couple of email blasts to Congress, organize a flash mob party, and put back a couple of beers while talking about what a “real revolution” would look like.  I’ve had days exactly like this.


If instead, I spent an hour waiting in line for water; 2 hours hand washing my laundry; 3 hours hitting the various cold stores looking for meat; 4 hours trying to get some work done; and 3 more hours cooking and cleaning up – I’m not sure I’d give a crap what a revolution looked like.  I certainly wouldn’t care to entertain the foreign gal in my face asking me why I don’t care too much about voting.


So then, it could be said that Cameroonians don’t have time for our democracy programs, or to attend our information sessions on sanitation and HIV transmission.  They don’t want to attend a protest and they certainly don’t want to add more hassle to their lives by worrying about not being connected to the global interwebs.  They want the help of the international community – “ship us books, give us money, build us stuff – but, don’t ask us to keep it up or to get all excited for your generosity because quite frankly we don’t have the time or the energy.”  As I’ve said, that’s not totally true.  When something comes along that they do like they do keep it going – cell phones and water taps come to mind.  But, Internet and water lines into your home? Well, maybe in a few years.


This is a scattered post because I’m scattered in my thinking.  In my cross-cultural class we learned that development is not a linear thing.  There is no 1, 2, 3 steps to becoming a “developed” society.  It’s so easy to lose this lesson in the field when you sit back wondering, “these people have no idea what they are missing.”  The truth is they don’t, and until they do there is no amount of cajoling that will get them invested in it – and your not doing any favors by pushing things people don’t want on them.  By things I mean what Westerners might consider basic demands:  clean water, a stable and accountable government, economic opportunities, good transportation systems, safety regulations, ect.   After all, aren’t these things we Westerners are always demanding in our own cultures?  Isn’t that why we form unions and have term limits?  These are the things we want – so why wouldn’t Africans want them too!


The truth is, when Buea wants fresh water piped into homes with solid foundations and a fresh coat of paint Buea will get those things – just like we did in the US.  There was a time less than 100 years ago when most people in the US did not have these things.  There are still people who don’t.  When people decide that medication is more effective than traditional witch doctors then they will stop trying to cure their STDs with prayers.  When Cameroon decides they’ve had enough of their President they will get a new one.  It’s all a matter of priorities – and right now the priority is using what you got to make a good life.


So what does this mean for my chosen career?  I want so badly to help bring democratic institutions - a strong civil society that advocates for change and assistance to people who need it.  But, if people here don’t want the things funded by the traditional development community then what’s the point?


Maybe it would be better if we all just went home.  I don’t know.  Your thoughts?