Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lessons I've Learned III - Frankness

May 26, 2009

If one were to generalize Cameroonian and American culture, they would find that Americans are generally more frank – they share what’s on their mind. Cameroonians on the other hand will be more likely to tell you what you want to hear – ‘The bus will leave in 5 minutes.’ or ‘The item you’re looking for will be in stock tomorrow.’ It’s not that they’re lying; in their culture they’re just being polite.

Something that I’ve learned about myself since being in Cameroon is that I’m frank. And not just in the sense that Americans are frank – I take it to a new level. Maybe you’ve noticed that in my blogs. But I’m not sure I was always like this. I think living among a culture that will tell you what you want to hear has pushed me in the opposite direction. I want to know what’s going on, to cut through the BS and not play games – honesty at all costs. Here is a typical conversation that I might have while waiting for a bush taxi to leave.

“How long will it be before the bus leaves?”
“Five minutes.”
“Is it really going to leave in five minutes or are you just telling me that? I’ve already bought my ticket. I’m not going to go find another bus to take. I just want to know if I have time to go eat a croissant.”
“Maybe 30-45 minutes.”
“Thank you!”

As you can see, sometimes it can be very affective. And the man that told me the bus would leave in five minutes wouldn’t be offended at all. He knows the reality and in some way I think he respects a foreigner that understands him so well. Or at least he’ll get a good laugh.

But this quality of mine also has its down sides. Just a couple weeks ago, nearing the end of my service when I think I’ve figured everything out and I can navigate Cameroonian culture without problem, I stuck my foot in my mouth in a pretty big way. I was trying to secure a classroom where I could teach my 7 Habits adult class. Once, at the beginning of my service, I gave a business class to adults and used a government office devoted to community development. The man in charge let me use the classroom but charged me to have it cleaned after every class. I didn’t know then, but found out later that the money I gave him for cleaning just went into his pocket. In protest, I tried not to work with him anymore, but here I was in need of a classroom. Using the classroom I had used before would be the simplest way to get these classes off the ground and I didn’t have much time. I went in to talk to the same man as if there was no problem whatsoever – I just wanted to use the classroom again. We worked out all of the details regarding availability, number of chairs, everything. It was all set. I was ready to get up to leave – I remember putting my hands on the arms of the chair to stand up when he said ‘…and you’ll pay for the cleaning like last time, too, right?’ I wasn’t upset, just a little surprised that he would go there. I said very clearly and calmly no, I needed the classroom but wouldn’t pay for the cleaning. He pushed a little harder for the cleaning money and so I said, still in the same calm manner, ‘last time I was new to the community and to Cameroon. I didn’t know better. You tricked me. No hard feelings, but this time I’m not going to pay.’ This didn’t make him very happy, but I knew that I was right so I pushed it a little further. I told him that many of my Cameroonian friends had also told me that he had gotten the better of me. At this point he asked me for their names. I told him that the prefecture gives him a budget to pay for the cleaning of his offices and that he didn’t need my money. He refused, showing me a broom in the corner and claiming he was the one that did most of the cleaning (even though he has a secretary and several other employees under him). Then I brought up the fact that that the classroom was rarely even cleaned after our classes. This comment didn’t make him very happy. I asked him how much he had paid the local neighborhood boy to clean the classroom each time. I had given him 9000F to clean the room 12 times – way more than enough. He took this as a direct implication that he pocketed the majority of the money and was furious. ‘Every franc that you gave me went to the cleaning of that classroom!’ Oops! It was here that I realized that while still speaking calmly and without emotion, being more and more frank with the details was only getting me into more and more trouble (yes, I should have realized this earlier). He would absolutely never admit to what he did. If so, there was a possibility that it would come back to bite him. This was a chance he was not willing to take. He would deny, deny, deny until his face turned blue. What he needed and what I should have done from the beginning was to stroke his ego. I should have approached the situation saying ‘I know I paid for the cleaning last time, boss, but this time I don’t have the money. The classes are for the development of the community. I’m a volunteer and don’t have a salary. You’re such a big man in the community. I was hoping you could cover the cleaning this time.’

What actually happened was that I spent about an hour trying to smooth things over. After a lot of talking, he told me that I should write an official request to his boss for a partnership between the Peace Corps and his office. He claimed that he didn’t get any credit for the last class that I gave and this way he would be able to put it into his report. I thought it was implied, though it wasn’t stated, that this way I wouldn’t have to pay for the cleaning. It turns out that this was just a hoop to jump through, a way to tie up the process in bureaucracy. He was quite surprised when I showed up the next morning at his boss’ office to deliver the request. Obviously I didn’t read between the lines to know that he was just trying to get rid of me. The request is still collecting dust. I just think it’s funny (and quite ironic) that to get rid of me he asked for the creation of a partnership.

I ended up going to the mayor’s office to request the use of the town hall for the class. He agreed and didn’t charge for cleaning. Classes start next Tuesday. I’m still not sure if this quality is something that is going to stick with me when I get back to the states. Honesty at all costs has its good points and a lot of people find it refreshing, but it could probably get me into as much trouble when I go home, too.



Katie Kermeen Swisher said...

I often have foot-in-mouth syndrome - usually from speaking emotionally without thinking first. I can't imagine how much trouble I would get myself into in another country!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I am proud to be an American and very, very proud to be your mother!!!

I love you!