Before leaving America, I spoke with several professors and friends about Cameroon, and came to understand that of course it would have some similarities and some differences to my life in America. However, I did not fully recognize any of those similarities or differences. until I arrived and spent time experiencing the life for myself. During my travels through the country, I met many people and visited different cities that helped me learn and experience culture and daily life in different parts of Cameroon, and also forced me to think more critically about what it means to be a Black American.
When we first arrived in Yaounde, I was tired! We left Douala at 4pm in the afternoon and according to our friends, the ride would be about 5 hours. When we arrived at the bus station, one of the bus line employees let us know there were no more ‘VIP’ buses, and our guide explained that the VIP buses are more spacious and have air conditioning. I thought to myself, “Hey we’re in a different country. We don’t need that VIP nonsense. ‘When in Rome’ Am I right?” I was wrong. As a result of the heavy rains, our bus was forced to take a detour, and drivers of many other buses did the same. Long story short, our 5 hour ride turned into a 15 hour ride. It was brutal, the bus was hot and humid, there was no air conditioner and the seats didn’t even recline. My privilege and ignorance were smacking me right in the face; I was not prepared for the long ride or discomfort, but by the time my luggage was under the bus, there was no turning back. In retrospect, it was a hilarious situation, and I’m glad I got a story out of it.
Our AirBNB is wonderful. After two and a half weeks of using cold water and washing clothes by hand, I was ecstatic to finally have access to warm running water and a washing machine! Within a few hours, I realized that I was being devoured by mosquitos and I started to doubt my ability to enjoy the comfort of my own residence. My roommate and I made due with the mosquito repellent wipes, spray and the small USB powered mosquito killing machine we packed. Again, I noted the internal conflict between my appreciation for the amenities we had and the additional comfort I’m used to at home or at MIT.
During the second night at our AirBNB, I spoke with my host and the friends who also came to Cameroon about my studies in anthropology, my goal of becoming an educator and opening my own school, and my view that education and other tools of socialization utilized poorly can be comparable to brainwashing people.
This eventually led into a discussion about the idea that America became a rich country not based on any inherent qualities of discipline or hard work, but based on over 200 years of completely free labor. I posed the question to the founders of the company at which I’m working: what if you didn’t have to pay your employees any money, at all, ever. How much easier would it be to get the organization up and running?
When I tried to describe my anger and bitterness that I feel towards America as a result of its violent, imperialistic history, particularly towards people who look like me, including millions of Cameroonians, my feelings were not shared. Often I was rebutted with the fact that I already have the blue passport. Despite the way that the country treats people who look like me, I still have the power and privilege to capitalize on all the benefits that being an American citizen affords me. In my discussions with more people from Cameroon, around the world and in the States, I want to be more attentive to their experiences and perceptions about their lives as well their perceptions about my country. I hope to share my own perspective in a way that’s honest to my experiences and respectful to theirs.
Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Ballard is a rising senior studying anthropology and computer science. This summer, she’ll be conducting market research for CassVita, an agricultural start-up that converts cassava into hypoallergenic, gluten free flour in Cameroon.