Everybody in the whole neighborhood was standing at their window. As we would every night, we were all smiling, cheering loudly at people we couldn't see but could only imagine, exhausted by sleep deprivation and stress, putting their lives on the line for ours. Crackling, hissing, "bravo! "and tears. Then the windows closed and we all went home.
First there's my mother. Smiling, my mother. As natural as one can be when you pose for a picture squatting in front of a tree. Then, behind her, there's the garden. Hibiscus, duckbill flowers, yuca, roses and dwarf roses, aloe vera, anthuriums literally burst the screen. The ones I see and the ones I guess. All of them refuse to let their warm hues and heady scent be muted by any anxiety. I search for a depth, a third dimension, in vain. It will have to end there: a big smile and exquisite tropical flowers. In these troubled times, this bubble of carelessness conveyed by WhatsApp is perfectly cynical and offbeat, but has no intention of apologizing for it.
This recklessness, which obviously never leaves us. I don't know why I say "us". Me, I'm apparently in the "White people" category, people in a hurry and under stress, too serious, not funny. Having said that, I receive my mother's GIFs and humorous videos with an annoyance that is all the greater because it is often preceded, I admit, by half a smile. It's better this nonsense about husbands who can no longer see their mistresses because of lockdown, about girls who pretend to be sick to get money from guys, about our President who prefers to go into quarantine in Switzerland, rather than these videos explaining that the virus doesn't kill Black people...
Let's laugh. As the Cameroonians say, let's just live. The cliché of the good savage who is perky and smiling against all odds actually wins out in these troubled times.
Let it be clear, we are the chosen people. Who have suffered for five centuries all the outrages of which humanity is capable, but the chosen people nonetheless. I admire the way in which the defeated convince themselves that they are not so defeated and that, in another dimension, invisible to the common man, they are the winners, they are the ones who have defeated and humiliated, not who were defeated and humiliated. We are slaves, we are poor, we are despised by all, we are ignored, we are discriminated against, we are objectified, but make no mistake: we are princes, we are rich, we are enviable and envied, we are respected and feared, we are deified, the real ones know. This rhetoric allows us to continue to endure suffering, generation after generation. This lexicons of pride, strength, power, resilience, unsuspected exceptionality, is found among all minorities – women know this, and especially Black women with this concept of #blackgirlmagic, which says "you are extraordinary" and means "you always find a way to get through it anyway, so...". This lexicon allows resistance whilst making people believe you're bending your back. Or it allows you to bend your back and make it look like you're resisting. We are the chosen people. And your virus can't hurt us. Lock yourselves up, die in droves, wear masks, we'll be spared.
I made an accommodation certificate for my mother, who should come this summer. Since she couldn't find anyone who would travel these days and could give her the document, I had to make up my mind to send it by Chronopost. An hour and a half's queue in front of the post office. Then fifteen minutes of waiting, the time it took for the lady to check that the Cameroonian borders were still open. Then €61.
Over there, no presidential speeches, no lockdown, no masks. Makes you wonder if it is us, on this side of the sea who are crazy. If something has eluded us.
... Wash your hands at the entrance and exit using soap and 0.5% chlorinated water, at the water points installed for this purpose or using a hydro-alcoholic solution available at the reception area of the various premises...
Cameroonian French is words you only hear there, or only there meant this way. Some of them exist in the dictionary, others don't, and it doesn't matter. It is the use that rules. "Look at your arms! Go anoint yourself! ", " he's got dysentery... ", " push the bench-tables a bit ", " See you next-next Thursday ".
We also like "heavy French", which is inaccessible to the average person, but which in any case only impresses the person who uses it. "Water points"? Aka, you couldn't say taps? You're in France!
And finally, Cameroonian French is also sometimes these words, which even the man in the street understands perfectly, but which don't correspond to any reality. We hear them, we grasp their meaning, but what we capture above all is their emptiness, the absurd copy-paste that gave birth to them. We almost feel sorry for them, these "refugee" words: from a world where they were someone, they arrived in this country that ignores them. For example, "wash your hands", in a country where the majority of the population is not connected to running water (mainly because the funding for the project never got where it was supposed to) and the privileged minority suffers cuts so frequent and long that everyone – well, those who can afford it – has a borehole in their backyard. No permission is required. You pay, they dig. And at worse you pay, they give you permission.
"Wash your hands". But also "any offender will be banned from accessing the premises". I myself am laughing out loud while I am copying this sentence. Who's going to stop who from entering the town hall without a mask? Oh, well, it depends . If it's a "big somebody", those people who have drivers, the security guard obviously lets him go through: "Hello, Chief!" If it's a poor hare like him, of course he does. A person who lives in the social class just above... maybe, who knows? It's only the people with intellectual looks, big glasses, small pockets, or else the mbenguists like me, who do they think they are, after all? Yes, with those he'll probably be overzealous. "You know the rules, ma'am. It's written here, I think you can read. I'm telling you that you can't enter without a mask."
It is still the NGO leaders, still non-African men and women, who are concerned about the potential impact of the virus in Africa, who are publishing forums calling for the opening of borders to health care personnel and medical equipment. Our governments, for their part, remain silent. There are 50,000 of us to follow Lady Ponce's livestreams on Facebook. We send each other photos of our perfectly coordinated outfits, masks matching the dress or shirt. "If you are explained Cameroon and you understand, it means it wasn’t explained properly.".
I try not to think about what I feel is coming: the social grumbling, the army, the thousands of dead, the scenes of looting. The silent question: of violence and the epidemic, which one will kill the most ? And the other question that we, the people of the diaspora, still don’t consciously dare to formulate: What are we going to do, we who have the obligation, but also the chance, to remain cloistered at home, what are we going to do to save others?
We're doomed to watch. To watch Africa react with its emotions, its experience, its reality. Its mistakes, too, perhaps. And so what ? We're doomed to let it be, and let it go at its own pace. And later, live with the fact that we couldn't do anything.
It's… I don’t know what day it is…. and nothing's happening. However, an article in Le Monde said that there are 7 respirators for 1,000 people in France and... 0.3 in Africa. Logically, WhatsApp should be buzzing with ugly news and creepy pictures, right?
There are the traditional media which note that "for the time being, Africa is relatively spared by the virus", the Afro-optimist articles that underline all the innovations underway on the continent, and the Afro-militants who remind us of the richness of the traditional African pharmacopoeia. And there is me, who have ingested too much Africa-bashing while living here, and am unable to believe in the continent.
They say #stayathome but still #besupportive. Take care of your neighbors, take care of your elders. And what about close relatives who are far away? They've never been so far away.
In Cameroon, mourning is above all a logistical challenge. Hundreds of people - ordering food, avoiding intruders, making sure no one steals chairs or beer bottles. The pain of losing someone you love has to sneak in between phone calls, planning meetings, budgeting. At least I have the feeling that this was my mother's experience when she lost her own mother 10 years ago.
Since then, I've been preparing myself to deal with it too, one day, when my phone will ring for that. First the logistics, amplified by my "repat" status who doesn't know the codes, and only then, violent as a boomerang, the pain. But if it were to happen today, in this context, no travel, no meals, no bottles of beer. No logistics. Nothing to anchor reality in body and mind.
In his third address, the French President referred to Africa. How touched I was! Like a fan who listens to a song and says to oneself, "That bit was written for me!" Like when I read an article that uses inclusive writing.
In the midst of my internal tribulations as a "world citizen" as they put it, torn between a world that wins and a world that loses, the former often to the detriment of the latter, the fact that the winner, who embodies all my privileges, has a thought, consideration perhaps, at least a mention, for the fate of the loser, who embodies my childhood and many loved ones, warms my heart. That will not stop Trump from suspending the United States contribution to the WHO budget. Nor will it stop the G20 from playing hard to get to grant a moratorium on the debt of African countries. And I will still have to deal with the fact that, willy-nilly, I am on the winning side. Always that feeling of betraying someone.
So yes, I cling to the presidential remarks because I want to believe that, even if they are written by people who are more strategic than sincere, they take away some of my guilt and worry. France is thinking about Africa, so maybe France will "do something". I can rest a little on the idea that my other loved ones over there are not totally abandoned because France, not me I must admit, is "doing something".
Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs
Centre for Analysis, Forecasting and Strategy
NDI-2020-0161812 (open circle)
Diplomatic note - for final addressees
Subject: CAPS Note: "The Pangolin Effect": the storm coming to Africa?
Abstract: The Covid-19 crisis may reveal the limits of the Governments’ capacities, as they are unable to protect their population. In Africa especially, it could be "one crisis too many" which destabilizes durably, even which undermine fragile states (Sahel) or accelerate the decline of political regimes that arrived at the end of the road (Central Africa). Seen from Africa, Covid-19 takes the form of a political chronogram that will amplify the crisis factors for societies and states. Given the discredit of the political elites, it is necessary to find other African interlocutors to face this crisis with political consequences.
We're good, aren't we, in the host country? We earn our living in euros, we help the family left behind, we're proud to say that we're doctors (yes, yes, I cure white people!), but when the virus appears, we find ourselves prisoners, tied up here against our will (I have to treat white people until when?). To go to heaven yes, but not to die. Certainly not.
There is this silence in France. In the streets, in the courtyards, in my apartment. Life hasn't stopped – there's the laughter of children, the young people hanging around, the applause at eight o'clock, the queue in front of the chemists, the garbage collectors. What has stopped is the unbridled race of the so-called developed countries, the perpetual and senseless ballet of things and people to produce and consume more and more. I hear the birds singing, I hear my children learning, I hear my heart beating, I hear life expanding at my neighbors, I hear the silence and I hear the hope of a coming rebirth.
There is, coming from Cameroon, silence too. But another silence. In a country where the President has still not spoken and there are rumors that he is dead, it is a silence for me that is terrifying, a silence like a time bomb. Every day I wake up thinking, "Well, still nothing...", but I can't get any relief or gratitude for that.
I'm not hoping for what I'm expecting.
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Alexia Sena lives in Paris, she is French by desire and Cameroonian by heritage. She created in 2020 Joyeux Bazar, a podcast that questions and explores the multicultural experience. Alexia enjoys writing, coloring, and red wine.