In the foreword to Margaret Mead’s ground-breaking and controversial first book Coming of Age in Samoa, her advisor, Franz Boas, wrote that:
Courtesy, modesty, good manners and conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.
I think Boas’ observation belongs in the Peace Corps training manual (and as the oft-regarded “Father of American Anthropology” whose rigorously empirical methods abolished the polygenitic, evolutionary and ultimately racist culture theories of his day, who could be more appropriate?) The trick for the newcomer tasked with adapting to a new culture is identifying, sorting out and deciding which of these cultural moors to adopt and which to reject. Half the battle is often simply trying to figure out what constitutes acceptable behavior. Almost everyone can relate at least one story of violating an unknown code of modesty or etiquette in an unfamiliar culture. A PCV here told me about a time he was invited by his neighbors to Catholic mass one Sunday. The service went predictably until he committed the cardinal sin of offering a tithe with his left hand before a shocked congregation. The left, of course, is reserved for performing “unclean” tasks and is thus a form of high disrespect to offer to someone. Using your left hand to eat from a communal plate is strictly taboo in most circles. Similarly, telling someone that they look like they’ve lost weight (a routine observation of good health in the West) is the social equivalent in most of Africa of saying, “you look like you have AIDS.”
In many respects, these are the easier cultural pathways to navigate. It’s inevitable that the Volunteer will eventually be confronted by an experience that shakes their own presumably “universal” set of ethical standards. For example, how should the PCV respond to the sight of a small child laboring in a field? Or being beaten in public? What about watching an old woman struggle with a 20 liter water container while able-bodied men stroll past? When brutal street justice is being meted-out on someone, should the PCV intervene? How does one react to witnessing a neglected wife and her children in a polygamous household? Or what of something as mundane as seeing a dog or cat kicked in a bar? These are the tougher questions.
A significant part of the Peace Corps’ ten week Pre-Service Training (PST) is focused on what’s called “Cross-Culture Competency”. Paired with Peace Corps’ famous intensive language training and the homestay experience, these programs are designed to help the doe-eyed trainee adapt to their new surroundings and, at least in theory, steer them around the more common cross-cultural pitfalls while squaring their ethical framework with the norms of their host country. Throughout the Cross-Culture sessions, the terms “cultural adaptation” and “cultural integration” were often bandied about, with precious little distinction given between the two. With all the talk of culture, I found that Peace Corps missed the boat by omitting a working definition of the word. Most anthropologists, I think, would agree on culture as:
The patterns of thought and behavior that are transmitted by a society that can be used to predict the actions of members of that culture.
This includes the collective beliefs, knowledge, art, morals, customs, habits, laws, economy and any other behaviors acquired by a member of a society. In short, no less than everything one is capable of doing is a product of culture. As the anthropologist is often fond of saying, culture permeates the lives of its members. The distinctions between explicit and tacit culture are even more troublesome for the newcomer. Explicitly, one knows that in Cameroonian culture, the plastic water bowl placed on a table is for washing your right hand before eating. The sight of a foreigner neglecting to wash or—God forbid—drinking from it would be an occasion, indeed. More subtle is the tacit understanding that achu is eaten with fingers. A Cameroonian simply “knows” to start into a plate of achu without waiting for utensils that will never arrive. In his place, a foreigner might gaze questionably at his plate and receive strange looks when he asks for a spoon. It is the latter, subconscious or unconscious aspects that are said to be part of tacit culture.
Given the breadth, depth and subtleties of culture, how can Peace Corps presume for a trainee to effectively adapt—much less integrate—into one so different from the West in such a short time? The answer, naturally, is that they don’t. Instead, our trainers try to provide us with a set of tools with which to interpret Cameroonian culture on our own accord. The rest is up to us after we arrive at post where we are free to make mistakes and, by degrees, achieve a level of adaptation that enables us to function as members of our communities and do our jobs. Consider again an anthropologist doing fieldwork. In such a role the social anthropologist often relies on a method known as the “participant observer.” This method, pioneered famously by Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, relies upon the cultivation of close personal relationships with local people as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observation and active participation in the social life of a group being studied. In Malinowski’s case, a Pole in a British-controlled territory during the outbreak of World War I, he found himself stranded among the native Trobrainders whom he had actively avoided direct contact with. In time (and out of loneliness, one might guess) he chose to participate in their society. Malinowski learned their language, formed close relationships and is rumored to have fallen in love with one of the islanders. In the process he also laid the foundations for what is now modern anthropology.
The PCV’s work may not be quite so grand, but in a very real sense each one is a participant-observer, like Malinowski marooned on his island, in his or her own right. Granted, we have the support of Peace Corps, the U.S. Embassy and the Marines to extract us should it become necessary. Still, we’re given a great deal of freedom and independence and are expected to figure things out on our own. Or, as a Volunteer wrote in the February ’04 Laughing Cow, “Peace Corps service is a damning and yet, also a liberating condition. One has so many constraints or challenges and yet at the same time carte blanche to completely screw up or do something extraordinary.” That sums it up pretty well, I think.
I often wonder about my own state of adaptation to the Cameroonian way of life. I’m able to express basic needs, observations and opinions in either Pidgin or French depending upon the situation. In conversation, I’ve acquired the habit of sucking my teeth to add emphasis or express commiseration. I’ve developed an odd affinity for—or at least a passive acceptance to—riding in overcrowded minibus taxis on bad dirt roads, which is to say most of them. As a matter of principle, I argue with taxi drivers in Pidgin over 50 francs (about equal to a dime) when I know I’m being overcharged. Traditional dishes have become the staples of my diet while Western foods have all but vanished. I mange le têt (eat the head) of grilled fish, simply because I like it. As my clothes from home get worn, ruined or lost I’m gradually replacing them with secondhand items from the market. I live in the same cheap rubber flip flops worn by millions of Africans. My friends have given me a Bakweri name, telling me that I’m a member of the tribe now. I can tell the difference between highly-prized “up” palm wine and the cheaper, watered-down alternative. From a distance, I can tell the difference between a plantain and banana tree without seeing its fruit. I know all of my neighbors and, in fact, most every business owner on my street. My extended network of friends and acquaintances spans from Buea Town to Limbe (to this I credit the exceedingly open and hospitable spirit of the Cameroonian people). I’ve acquired a whole host of tacit culture references and social nuances. Have I adapted to Cameroonian culture? Perhaps a little. And yet despite all of this am I any closer to achieving the Peace Corps ideal of integration? Can I realistically expect to become like a Cameroonian in behavior, action and appearance, or am I just another white man going through the motions?
Hans, my closest friend here, once told me, “there is a white that has lived in Kumba for fifteen years who speaks Pidgin like a Cameroonian and has married a local woman.” Certainly this man is farther down the road to integration than I will probably ever be. But still, I wonder what happens when he goes to Douala. Does the color of his skin instantly identify him as a foreigner as it would any other anonymous white man in the city? In unfamiliar places I’ve adopted a new body language: walk with eyes lowered and try to look friendly. I’ve been taken variously for a German, British, Afrikaner and Dutchman, among others. As I spend more time walking around Buea, I like to think that people realize I’m not another tourist or “bush faller.” Just about then I’ll pass the corner bar not 15 meters from my house and receive the shout I’ve heard a thousand times; “oh, white man, come!” If it’s too late to pretend not to hear it, I’ll satisfy the stranger’s curiosity and talk with them. Most of the exchanges are friendly, superficial (“so, how do you find Cameroon?”) and even pleasant. Other times I hear things like, “you come from such a wealthy country while we, look around, we are suffering so much—dash me 500 francs.” In Francophone regions the more direct, commonly heard equivalent is “tu m’as garde quoi?” (“what do you have for me?”). On some occasions I am grilled on the U.S. involvement in Iraq, the reign of Paul Biya, George Bush, my political leanings and the bitter legacy of colonialism and slavery in Africa. It is for these latter exchanges that I apply my best diplomacy. But mostly, I tell the truth. I am supposed to live with these people, after all, and any falsehoods will no doubt find me out eventually.
It would be too convenient to single-out race as the ultimate barrier to integration. I’ve spoken with a number of African Americans in Cameroon—not all of them Volunteers—who universally report that they are called “white men” (a note on terminology: “white man” is conferred upon people of either gender, irrespective of national origin or even skin color. It’s roughly equivalent to gaijin in Japanese or the Spanish gringo). This issue was raised during training sessions with Peace Corps recently, at which point a Cameroonian trainer confessed that he, too, is called a “white man” both because of his Western style of dress and association with the U.S. government. If a multilingual, native born Cameroonian can be regarded as a “white man” what hope does a Caucasian American have at achieving anything akin to integration in Africa?
Where am I going with this? Frankly, I’m not sure yet. This is a personal topic that is still very much in process. Check back later. In the meantime, comments are welcome.
Latest posts by Bill Zimmerman (see all)
- Announcing Open VC4A Venture Data - September 23, 2015
- Prototyping the Future on Elephantine Island - April 9, 2014
- It’s Always Sunny in Reykjavik (or) How I NSA-Proofed my Email - October 17, 2013