Water and Culture
by Serena Williams, Kribi, Cameroon
One interesting reflection on the importance of water in Kribi concerns the spiritual beliefs of many local peoples. Some of the local ethnic groups are the Pygmy (migrants from the Eastern region) Batanga, Mabea (Mabi), and Ngoumba (Ngumba). Local peoples who subscribe to Christian doctrines often are baptized in rivers through full body immersion. Catholics use sprinkles of water to conduct the same or similar rites of passage. Yet more traditional cultural values reveal the use of water as a tool of revelation. Or, as one woman said, "If you want to know the truth, you go to the water."
A story was told that an older man was found dead one day in the house of the younger of his two wives. Local people believed that the younger wife, who was not from the same ethnic group as the husband or the older wife, had intended to inherit all possessions by killing the husband. Claiming innocence, both women were taken to the river, where a large crowd of witnesses was gathered. The wives were thrown bodily into the river, with the understanding that coming out dry proved their innocence. Indeed, both women passed the test, and the husband was proclaimed dead from natural causes.
Another use of water in culture is through purification. For example, unlike the purification symbolized by the Western tradition of baptism, bathing and cleansing take place in the traditional system when families are believed to be cursed. If relatives are lost through bloody deaths, accidents, or if many family members are killed or die in a short period of time, the surviving relatives are purified with water and leaves to rid them of the curse that has overtaken their family.
by Kathleen Reaugh, Batouri, East Province, Cameroon
In the last few centuries, Cameroon has been shaped and significantly changed by the evangelical pressures of the Muslims in the north and the Christians—both Protestant and Catholic—in the south. While some estimate that up to 90 percent of the population has converted to one religion or the other, missionaries are still working hard to the win the rest over to their worldview.
Antoine is the Chef de Canton of Bandongone, a village 15 kilometers from my own. He wanted to become a Catholic for many years. But he was a good traditional Kako chef and had two wives, so he couldn't be baptized. For years he fretted over what to do. He couldn't send his wives away, nor could he take what he viewed to be this important next step in his newfound faith. But finally, as he told me, God stepped in and removed both of his wives. (He claims to be the innocent party in both the divorces.) He quickly found a new bride. The two of them went through counseling sessions with a priest, and they were set to be baptized.
All that was then lacking was a photographer, which is where I stepped in. At the chef's command, I arrived at the appointed hour at the concrete Catholic church. Upon loading his film in my camera, I was directed all about the altar. As the priest baptized Antoine with holy water, I reflected on the role of this water throughout the history of colonialism. How strong was its influence? Without this water, how different would the lives of Cameroonians be today?
by Karen McClish, Belita II, East Province, Cameroon
One afternoon, as I was sitting at my desk, a huge storm blew in. The storms here are violent and loud—unlike anything I've ever experienced at home in California. My house has a tin roof, and while it's wonderful at keeping me dry, the rain pelting on the tin sometimes gets so loud that I can hardly hear my Walkman! On that particular day, it soon became too dark to write letters (I was too lazy to light my lamp), so I put down my pen and just listened to the rain. What a beautiful sound.
Suddenly, the rain became louder and louder. How was that possible? It sounded as if someone were throwing rocks at my roof. I ran out to my front porch to see what was happening. It was hailing! Hail in Africa?!?! I was stunned.
Soon, dozens of children came running out of their huts, clutching plastic mugs, and started to pick up the ice that covered the ground. For many of them, it was their first time touching ice, and they loved sucking on it.
It's the only time that's happened in my two years here, and while it lasted only 10 minutes, I'm sure the children will always remember the day ice fell from the sky. I know I will.
by Maryanne Pribila, Bogo, Extreme North Province, Cameroon
It has already been a difficult morning. I waited two hours under a tree for a bush taxi to fill up. We couldn't leave until the taxi was jammed full with 30 people. Luck was not on my side; a taxi had just pulled out only moments after I arrived.
I live 35 kilometers outside of Maroua, the provincial capital. Although it is not a long distance, today the pothole-ridden, dusty road was neverending. By the time we reached Balaza, the central village between Bogo and Maroua, it was approaching 1:30 p.m. Prayer time. Faith, here, is stronger than any clock.
The driver pulled over and the back doors opened. All 30 people piled out. The driver was searching for his container of water. It wasn't water to drink, even though the temperature was easily beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit; it was water for ablution. On one side of the road stood a large mosque—the biggest building in Balaza—a striking candy-pink color. On the other side stood a mud-built structure with a metal roof. Although males and females were separated, their actions were the same. Each person took about one liter of water to clean before prayers. They would vigorously scrub lower legs, feet, arms, hands, faces, mouths, and even a finger to brush their teeth. One man stood outside the grand mosque and calmly called all worshippers to prayer. The men finished washing and prepared to enter the mosque (the grand pink one). The women also finished their washing and filed into the mud hut to pray. In 10 minutes, it was over. Everyone exited and we heaved ourselves back into the bush taxi. Now we were ready to continue to Maroua.
Bogo is a village in the Extreme North Province of Cameroon. During the hot season, it is basically a desert. People of the Muslim faith pray five times a day, every day. So for 85 percent of the population of Bogo (15,000 people), five times a day everything else becomes secondary to their commitment to Allah. Most use five liters of water for cleansing and preparation of the body for prayer—an amazing amount of water since, every evening, the well dries up. It is a great burden for the women and children who must travel to the well each scorchingly hot day.
by Madhuri Kasat, Garey, Extreme North Province, Cameroon
At six o'clock in the morning, Grandmama—or Maali, in Maundang—is already sitting in a shaded corner of her mud house. Her materials are at arm's length on the ground: a pile of moistened sienna-colored mud clay, a bowl of water, a kernel-less cob of corn, and a curved piece of wood.
I announce my greetings at the door and wait for her permission to enter. "Come in!" she responds. She is working on several canneries, vase-shaped clay pots that hold water for drinking and food preparation in the villagers' homes. Maali had walked several hours on several different days to collect the particular clay for the canneries. The clay is moistened with water and kneaded to soften it and remove lingering pebbles and sticks.
She first sculpts the bottom piece by molding out a small bowl, pinching the side to get even consistency. She waits to let the clay dry a bit and adds the next layer in the afternoon. Long "snakes" of the clay are layered onto the growing sculpture. She smoothes each layer with her fingers, sensing perfectly the thickness of the walls. Large canneries can take up to five days to sculpt. A nearly complete piece can suddenly crack and become useless. The process is long and arduous, but valued by the community. While it would be just as easy to store water in a bucket, every household uses canneries. The clay keeps the water cool and refreshing during the hot and dry season.
by Brooke Levandowski, Buea, Southwest Providence, Cameroon
When a woman becomes widowed, she is not allowed to bathe for a certain length of time. The old custom did not permit a woman to bathe for seven to ten days or longer. Now, however, tradition has shortened the period to three to four days. After this time the widow and her female friends and female family members go to the river. The other women bathe the widow to purify her and wash away the evil spirits that surround her.