Friday, November 20, 2009

The Dance of Oneness

These past few days I was blessed with the opportunity to accompany a woman named Chirsty who represents the Presbyterian Church and a development organization called RELUFA on a visit to a Cameroonian village that has been plagued by a monster of a plantation covering a total of 50 km that continues to expand. Since the 1970’s the banana and pineapple plantation now in the hands of PHP, a daughter company of Dole Fruit co., has been steadily engulfing the village countryside and as it does it gobbles up outlying small plots held and worked by the villages’ small commercial and subsistence farmers. When PHP does decide that it would like to expand even further the farmers whose land has been targeted do not have any option but to submit their land and although they are compensated they do not receive a fair price. * RELUFA works with local food driers and farmers that have relocated after an evacuation to package and sell dried fruit as Fair Trade produce to local and international consumers.

My first morning in town a local farmer named Pierre was kind enough to take me to his field and teach me farming, Cameroonian style. In general Cameroonians are exceptionally difficult to correctly gauge ages but Pierre was by far the most challenging. I decided that he had to be between the ages of 20 to 40 but was later informed that he was 53! Despite the hardships he has endured Pierre is one of the kindest, jovial and generous individuals I have ever met. After facing evacuation twice he decided that he never wanted to go through that process again so he bought new land and relocated far far away from town and close to the tiny village of Bobo. The trip out to his field included a ride through town, a twenty minute and several mile drive through one arm of the plantation and then an extra 5 or so minutes through the “bush”. This new plot was deep and without a motorcycle would be nearly impossible to reach. During the trip through the plantation I was continually shocked by the enormity of this seeming never ending plantation. Just as I thought the plantation was surely coming to a close we turned the corner and came across another leg. At times we came to points of higher elevation and one could look out towards the horizon in all directions and see nothing but the expanse of this plantation. For those who are familiar with conventional American agriculture this plantation put the biggest of American conventional cash crop fields look like a hobby garden. Seriously though, think about it, 50 kilometers!!!!

Upon arrival at Pierre’s distant plot I soon realized that this farm was like none I had ever seen before. The farms that I am accustomed to are generally laid out in a relatively orderly fashion with as much direct sun exposure as possible. Pierre’s plot, however, was quite the opposite of this. The entire plot was covered with a light shade of papaya trees and underneath, between and around the trees was a seemingly chaotic mixture of hot pepper, yam, eggplant, peanuts, various cooking greens, corn and beans. But, upon further familiarity the chaos turned into a brilliant vision as the different crops worked off one another for their mutual benefit. The papaya trees gave off a light shade and in the context of equatorial sun allowed more than enough sunshine pass to the levels below. The corn stalks climbed to great heights often towering over the short papaya trees, beans climbed the corn stalks, while the various leguminous crops offered a valuable boost to the already fertile soil. Pierre showed me some of his tricks, and we planted some Papaya trees using machetes as shovels and we ate peanuts straight from the ground. Pierre was sure to emphasize that peanuts right from the ground “C’est ne pas mieux.” (They are never better.) On our way back out he loaded me up with a lifetimes supply of papaya and corn to take back and share with friends in Yaounde.

That afternoon I went back to my hosts’ home, a local dryer, where Christy interviewed another local farmer to collect his story of evacuation. Instead of watching the interview I decided to hang out with the kids of the family. In true African form the kids right away put on some “musique traditional”, began dancing and exhorted me to join them. Now, I have never danced African style so of course I look like a complete fool and the lot of them begin cracking up and calling over their neighbors to watch the white kid try and fail to dance African. Before this event I was told by my host that white people never walk around these parts and in fact the only white people in the whole town are the bosses of the plantation who never ever associate with the village let alone walk through the “quarter”. In my previous strolls through town I was accompanied by gawks, smiles, hello’s and of course the whispers of “Le blanc”. So, needless to say a white dude freely cruising the streets, living and having fun with Africans was quite the strange sight. So, soon enough a crowd of about 15 neighborhood kids, boys and girls, from those who can barely walk to the age of 25 gather around the house on both sides, pack open doors and windows to watch this white kid dance with their African friends. At first it was a giggle fest as I struggled to pick up the subtle movements and powerful hip gyrations but with a little bit of practice I got the hang of it, the laughter subsided and was replaced with looks of pleased awe and verbal compliments. Then the best thing ever happened. As if it had been verbally communicated the entire room began to shuffle and within seconds the strangeness of the situation was forgotten and a dance emerged that transcended and merged color lines, culture and all other barriers that falsely separated us, a dance that stood as a celebration of our underlying and intrinsic oneness. God willing, the impression that this one sliver of a moment has made on me has also been implanted on the youth of Njombe and our shared dance has planted a seed whose fruits will bear the bounties of eased racial tensions and contribute towards the advancement of true peace.

From riding on the back of motorcycles through the dirt roads of the quarter to zooming past acre upon endless acre of the PHP plantation, planting papaya trees with machetes, whispers of “Le blanc” and one magical dance, this trip holds a tremendous place in my heart that God willing will only be the beginning of the work towards justice and oneness that I am given the bounty to participate in during my stay here in Cameroon.

[* This past summer I interned at an organic farm in Minnesota and although it was for only 5 months and was not even my land that farm became a part of my being. I lived and slept on that land, breathed its air, worked its soil and ate the boutnies of nourishment that it provided. I observed the crops, wild vegetation, trees, insects, watched the sky above and noticed the interaction of these factors with my own actions, the transformation of the seasons and the ever-changing weather. From my dirt stained fingers to the very blood in my body, I was Easy Bean Farm and Easy Bean farm was me. 6 weeks ago when I left Easy Bean Farm it took a toll on my spirit and for that reason I can get a glimpse of the emotional, spiritual and mental damage that these relocated farmers, many who have worked the same soil for generations, must feel.]

Jammin' at the Holy Day

I arrived in Cameroon on the eve of Friday the 6th of November and less than one week later I was able to attend the celebration of the Birth of Baha’u’llah hosted by the Baha’is of Yaounde 1. Now, being raised in a Baha’i family and for the past three years been a Baha’i myself I have celebrated a multitude of Holy Day celebrations in various settings, with a diversity of people and in a wide range of places. However, in all these dozens of experiences I have never once had a Holy Day celebration like I did that evening in Yaounde. Outside of the obvious factors of color and language this celebration contained a spirit the likes of which I have never seen anywhere. It began with a man named Antoine wearing traditional African formal wear opening and welcoming us to the celebration and was followed by a passionate speech by one of the members of the National Spiritual Assembly, also wearing a traditional African tunic. I soon learned that in West Africa there is never just one speaker and directly after the planned speech was over another man, wearing a brightly multi-colored suit stood up, completely unplanned, and gave a passionate impromptu speech. Although my French was not at a level to comprehend it totally he seemed to cover points that he felt needed to be addressed. After this man sat down Antoine came back, closed the ceremony but as if it was planned, round after round of individuals got up to lead the assembly in song and praise. The energy that these songs exuded far exceeded the passion and energy that I have ever witnessed at any musical fireside or devotion. Ever. A true testament to the powerful and re-energizing spirit of the West African culture.

As the powerful beats of these devotions vibrated the walls of this tiny concrete enclosure one young man picked up one of the hand-made Djembe drums from the corner and began pounding away to the rhythm. I thought this was a grand idea and so naturally, went to pick up another of these drums. I did not even ponder the fact that in the eyes of many attendees the mere color of my skin marked me as the least likely candidate to bang to the rhythm. I turned around, Djembe in hand, to a shocked crowd and hoots and hollers from the man dressed in the bright suit. I gave them all a reassuring knod, grabbed my seat and began jamming away. The other drummer and I jammed the night away and after it was all finished, shared high fives of mutual gratification.

As Baha’is we are called to promote the oneness of humanity at all times and in the states this was something that was intellectually very easy to do. But here in Cameroon where I am immersed in a completely different culture and stand out worse than a horrendously sore and gangrened thumb, even doing the simplest tasks of going to the market, walking the streets or even playing the drums, is a demonstration that beyond the differences of physical appearance we are each and all capable of the same actions and we must all partake of the same daily tasks and participate in discovering what it means to be human.