The last time the world got a new Pope, I was living in Cameroon. Huddled around a tiny tv set eating dinner consisting of goat kabobs and pounded cassava, we watched CNN International’s looping scenes of devout mourners in all corners of the world. It didn’t make sense to me, despite having attended Catholic school for much of my youth, but the sadness extended to the streets beneath us as well.
After the food was gone, we decided the best idea was to turn off the television and walk downstairs to the bar on the corner. Litres of Guinness and Mützig in hand, we sat in cracked plastic chairs at a plastic patio table listening to the bar blare the same footage as had been in our apartment, only in French this time. We were there for hours, people watching, telling too-soon Pope jokes, and playing gin-rummy… until the power went out.
Rolling blackouts were nothing new, but we also knew this was our cue to head back upstairs. Three American women drinking on the streets could be a dicey situation depending on the day anyway, let alone in total darkness.
Soon after, the director of our study abroad program arrived at our flat with candles. This was one of those gestures that thoroughly endeared to us a man who had been handpicked by the president to head the Ministry of Education. Not only did he (probably) know that we had candles at the ready, but the director had People whose job it was to do this sort of thing for him, which could only mean that he’d felt like checking in on us anyway.
A few nights prior, he’d also shown up at our door unannounced. There’d been an altercation outside. The shots were loud and close, rapid-fire like those from a gendarme’s automatic weapon. Before it had crossed our minds to alert The Director that something had happened, his driver had knocked on our door. He told us he was here, but we should stay inside for now. The pair stood posted at the metal gate three floors below our flat until the area was deemed safe again. We never did find out what had happened.
Aside from the odd circumstance of The Director’s arrival at our door, it was a particularly well timed display of paternal affection. He couldn’t have known that we’d just found out that a young girl down the street had been raped and murdered earlier in the week. I’m fairly sure we never told him, either. Then, two nights later, we would spend the evening trying to hide from the unmistakable sounds of domestic violence in a building adjacent to ours. It echoed through the central courtyard. The woman’s wailing had been so loud that we could hear her inside our living room, even with all the doors closed.
But on the night the Pope died, The Director stuck around for a while. We talked about the gender of our kitten, Tater Tot, the latest Champions League developments, polygamy in Cameroonian culture, and Osama bin Laden. He never mentioned the Pope’s passing. On his way out the door, he praised us for our intelligence, laughing that while we were improving at cards the same couldn’t be said for our housekeeping.
This morning my father boarded a plane to Nairobi. It will be his first visit to Africa. When I spoke with him last night, I bugged him to take as many pictures as possible of the city itself. I could do without seeing safari pictures. I know exactly how awkward giraffes look when trying to drink from a watering hole, having just as often ignored the maxim he’s imposing on his girlfriend, a bonafide critter lover:
In the truck, out of the food chain. Out of the truck, in the food chain.
Instead, I’m most interested in things that have stuck with me about Yaoundé, like whether the seemingly built-up downtown has real glass in the windows of its skyscrapers or if they’re just skeletons of buildings, and what sort of rambling, organic shape the city’s streets will take. What are Nairobi’s taxi stands like? Is there actually grass anywhere within city limits, and what colors are the childrens’ school uniforms? My excitement was palpable, and though he promised to do his best, I’ve long ago realized that the things that are striking to me are not shared by most–closest kin included.
Because I asked, he’d told me of the things he’d done to prepare for his trip. This included calling his credit card company to tell them that he would be traveling in Kenya for the next ten days. The Texan lady on the other end of the line then informed him that it was required by the government that she inform him he’ll be traveling to a country that has been labeled as “high risk.”
I asked him if he found something odd about a credit card company being used as a mouthpiece for disseminating government information, particularly those of a non-fiscal nature. He agreed, and said that he’d pressed the Texan lady for what kind of requirement exists between her corporation and the government, and what rationale would link the two. Evidently she’d stuttered, then began repeating the same stock phrasing as before.
Yet the fact that Nairobi has been labeled “high risk” bothered me on an almost personal level, which is ridiculous since I’ve never visited East Africa myself. But neither had that Texan woman (probably)! How dare she worry my father!
I’d done my best to share my experiences in Cameroon with him via email, but I was selective. I’m fairly sure I didn’t tell my parents about the shooting outside, the neighborhood girl, or the time I was pinned against a rail along the biggest traffic circle in the city by two men in a crowded street in broad daylight. I thought I’d spare them impotent worrying whenever possible.
Consequently, I began reassuring my father that the government’s current designation of Kenya as dangerous was nothing, just a matter of fear mongering. (ie: “Carjackings are more prevalent in Chicago.”) He listened until it was his turn, then gently reminded me that though he’d never been to Africa, this wasn’t his first rodeo. My father then mentioned that Kenya would, to be fair, hold its elections during his visit.
Ah, so this was not the generalized warning I’d taken it for; this time it was specific. I started probing his understanding of what the last elections were like, (probably) letting worry creep into my voice.
“There was rioting on a not-small scale, you know.”
“Yeah, but we’ll be up with the Masai then. If they’d wanted control they would’ve taken it a long time ago.”
“Sure, but you’re flying out of Nairobi, right?”
“Yeah, but all we have to do is get to the airport.”
I found myself wondering which was more important: to note the complexities of just ‘getting to the airport’ can be in even the most ideal, politically stable conditions… or if I should point out that in the previous five minutes, we’d managed to reverse the roles we’d held for the past 29 years.
When I told my father I’d applied to study abroad in West Africa, he was more perplexed by me than usual. After doing my best to explain my reasoning, he just sighed. It wasn’t until months later that I found out he’d made a second phone call to my mother. By this point, they’d been divorced for about a decade and lived on opposite coasts. Apparently the conversation began something like, “Please explain to me why she would, by choice, put herself in this situation?”
Of course, the Popes have nothing to do with this story, really. It’s just an easy demarcation of time’s passage, a changing of the guard. Threats and elections (papal, national) loom in the background constantly, everywhere. But still, I have this itch… I’d like to think that my worry has roots in first-hand experience, but that’s (probably) the position taken by every concerned party throughout history. So I remind myself that Kenya is not Cameroon, and Cameroon is not Kenya.
We’ve come a long way, he and I. This summer he’d told me that he thought going to Cameroon was one of the bravest things I’ve done, but that it teetered on foolishness.
I hear the devil’s in the details.