I don’t remember his name, but here he was in 1979. I trust he’s well and prospering now.
“Dschang” sounds like a province in China, but it’s a hilly retreat in northwestern Cameroon, where the French colons used to go to cool off. Dschang is the last French-speaking town before you get to the English-speaking provinces to the west and north. I’m told it is an overpopulated metropolis now, but in 1979 it was a Shangri-la of savanna, favored by sun, water, and breezes. There were cottages for rent, the Centre Climatique de Dschang, run by a genial French couple.
I had one hour of work in Dschang, then parked myself for three days until the next plane out.
There were nature trails. They weren’t labeled so. The walking was good, so I did a lot of it. On my second hike up the hill from the Centre Climatique, I noticed a young boy following me, so I thought my privacy might be breached. I don’t mind being followed as long as the ulterior motives are clear. I put some small bills in my shirt pocket, and considered giving the boy some money and asking him if I might continue on my own.
He was mainly just curious, and hadn’t seen many out-of-towners. He studied me as I guess an anthropologist would, putting algorithmic matrices over my patterns.
I was the first to break the silence. He did have questions, but no requests. He wanted to know how and why a stranger lands in Dschang, and what in the world can be found outside of that town.
I said I was from Washington in the United States. About twice a day I walked, and he always appeared. As he had legitimate questions, I thought I might answer some of the easier ones. Back in my room I found a post card of Washington, and took it with me on the second day to show him. The child was puzzled at the photo, which showed an equestrian statue on the west slope below the U.S. Congress.
“C’est quoi?” he asked.
“C’est une statue,” I answered. He looked more puzzled.
“Statue?” The concept was not familiar.
“It’s like a man and a horse, but not really,” I explained. “More an imitation. Made of metal, marble, that sort of thing.”
Photos were familiar to him, large buildings and statues not. He had heard of horses but had never seen one.
We went a further distance up the path, and at this point we walked together. I preferred this to being shadowed and spooked from behind.
I realized his world was about as unfamiliar to me as mine was to him. “Is that a coffee plant?” I said, pointing to a green patch near the walking trail.
He found this genuinely funny, that a person from the greater world could know so little about his.
“That’s avocado!” he said, laughing. I laughed also.
I almost redeemed myself by spotting a eucalyptus tree on the horizon. I recognized it from trips to California. He beamed with a teacher’s pride, noting my potential, and ability to name at least one significant plant.
“You have those in your country?” he smiled.
“We do,” I answered. “But you don’t see them every day.” I meant, in California yes, in Washington probably not.
The boy processed this information and looked a bit troubled. My answer was not logical, and lacked information. After a few minutes running the facts through his filter, he said, “You say you have them in your country but don’t see them every day?”
“That’s right,” I said.
He put two and two together: “So in your country, the trees….walk?”
I laughed because his logic was watertight; he had nailed me. I explained that “don’t see every day” can mean that the observer changed positions, not the trees, just like in Dschang. He seemed relieved to be freed from arcane new patterns, and joined me in laughter.
We became friends. He taught me about his lovely environment. In a child’s natural way, he had pride in being able to teach something to an older person.
The three days were up and I went on my way to the next stops on my itinerary, and then home to Washington.
Weeks later the boy and my time with him haunted me. I wrote to the French couple who ran the Centre Climatique, and slipped in a copy of the photo in the envelope. I asked if they might help me locate the boy and give him bits of money for school. I should have figured out earlier more about him and where to find him.
The French couple sent me a polite letter back. Notwithstanding my good motives, they said, the mission made no sense: Any money coming the way of the boy’s house would be taken by the father and never get to where we all wanted it to be.
I got the point, and dropped the effort. No need to stir the pot in a community with its own ways.
The boy and my brief time with him still haunt me, and suggest that even good connections with people have a limited shelf life.
I wish the boy well; he would be 35 or 40 years old now. I hope he evaded the AIDS epidemic that had ravaged his country, and has had a chance to used his crafty logic and thirst for information. Of all human tools, these matter the most.
Dan Whitman teaches Foreign Policy at the Washington Semester Program, American University. As Public Diplomacy officer in USIA and the Department of State for more than 25 years, he drafted and edited speeches for U.S. ambassadors in Denmark, Spain, South Africa, Cameroon, Haiti, and Guinea-Conakry. A senior Foreign Service Officer, he retired in 2009 from the Bureau of African Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
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