Peace Corps Madagascar asked me if I could share a “traumatic event” that in turn could be use to instruct some Peace Corps Trainees (or perhaps terrify them) on how to cope when your coping skills have not been adapted to life in Africa.
Right away I thought of this story, which occurred in 1992, very early into my time in Cameroon.
I still remember the disorienting feeling, standing there in the damp dirt road, under the moonlight outside Sunny’s bar. Listening for sirens I wasn’t going to hear. Watching for the red and blue flashing lights I wasn’t going to see. Waiting for the police cruisers that weren’t ever going to come.
I had just started making friends and getting involved in the local music scene through “Doctor” Moses Fokong. The band was playing. I was having a beer. I was feeling as though everything was meant to be.
In life I have learned that the sense of meant to be is a harbinger of all hell about to break loose. But even now I usually only see this in retrospect. It’s a euphoric feeling; the exact opposite of what an early-warning system should be like.
The music and euphoria were interrupted when I realized that some variety of shit was going down.
A big drunk guy had attacked Doctor Moses with a broken beer bottle. The attacker was in his mid-20s and quite muscular. Moses, on the other hand, was in his late 50s, and somewhat frail. I still don’t know what started it.
The locals separated the big guy from Moses, and formed two separate containment huddles. I had not participated in the training drills, so I took the middle ground between these two groups and brandished my umbrella like a sword in the direction of the huddle containing the bad guy.
Standing there, looking ridiculous, was when I realized I needed to adjust my American expectations that men in blue were coming to diffuse the situation.
At first the revelation frightened me. Holy shit. This is the way of the world. But, it began to dawn on me, the locals didn’t want the problem to escalate any more than the police would have.
This was not the first bar incident in the history of Cameroon. There was a social and cultural response to the situation that was rapid, measured, and effective. The cooler heads were more emotionally controlled than I was, because in that society they had to be. And that fact was reassuring. I was the only one wondering what to do.
Inside the attacker’s containment huddle, somehow the big guy was convinced that he ought to leave. I’m pretty sure it was not the threat of umbrella justice.
I hired a taxi to take Moses to my house, and I put him in my spare room. I made sure that he was safe for the night. It was a small cut on his chest, about an inch long. Stitch-worthy.
The next day I interrogated some other friends who had been there. In particular Godwin, a big, badass-looking, 20-something guy who played drums. A body double for the guy who attacked Moses.
I challenged him. What I wanted to know, more or less, was “Why didn’t you step up and kick that guy’s ass?”
Godwin replied, “There were several people there who I did not recognize. They weren’t locals. I had no idea whether they were waiting for the situation to escalate, and maybe hoping that it would.”
It made me reevaluate not only my take on the situation, but Godwin. He was a lot smarter than I took him for — quite a strategic thinker. He had experienced his share of tense and volatile situations.
He was also someone who had quite a long view of life in that community.
Godwin not only wanted to survive the occasional testosterone flare-ups at local bars, he wanted to be able to live with the opinions held by others within the community. Sadly, he died fairly young of an illness, just a few years after I had left Cameroon. But he held the respect of those who knew him.
But through this bar fight, and processing it with Godwin, I realized that I had a lot to learn about the complexity of the society in which I would live for the next two years.
And that disorienting feeling, the one that tells me I’m in new territory; it still happens. It’s still unnerving.
But I have learned to expect that social inertia is strongly biased towards making it through the day, even in the most unstable places in the world.
And the moral of the story is…
The “argument from ignorance” is a common logical fallacy sometimes summarized as, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
What I’m saying, trainees, is that in Africa when the floor seems to fall out from under you, it’s probably because you don’t recognize that there is an African floor all around you. Just because you don’t see it in a form that you recognize, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
It’s a fallacy, to say nothing of arrogant, to assume that your community doesn’t have a way of dealing with garden-variety traumatic events — bar fights, robberies, car accidents, aggressive suitors, etc.
You don’t have to agree with these native strategies, but you might come to appreciate some of them. You may even personally adopt some of the better ones.
You have a lot to gain if you recognize going in that you are going to spend the next two years discovering your multitude of blind spots — particularly when all hell breaks loose.