my digital native

I can scarcely believe it has been nearly two years since I traveled to Cameroon with my colleague Ekema and a small group of university students.

My colleague is Cameroonian, and although his students and I were in very good hands with him as our guide, at times the experience was stark. The frequent absence of running water, the common presence of mosquitoes and malaria, and the repeated occurrences of dysentery were physically challenging. The language barrier (in addition to French and English, the colonial languages of Cameroon, the country lays claim to hundreds of tribal languages and many varieties of pidgin) was at times wrenching. As a linguist, it’s my preference to speak the language of the community I’m living and working in. Often in Cameroon I could not do so, and I found the resulting sense of isolation and, at times, even distrust difficult to come to terms with.

Yesterday, my colleague caught me in the hall and we spoke briefly about starting a language preservation project in Western Cameroon. We’ve spoken of this before, of course, as he maintains deep ties to his native country and I maintain a deep commitment to language documentation and linguistic diversity. We talked for only a few minutes, but afterward, as I walked across campus to my car, it was impossible to suppress memories of roasting corn, sold streetside from rusty drum grills; droning scooters carrying families of three and four, sometimes as many as five; and the scratch of burdens (tree limbs, huge palm fronds) being lifted from the heads of the men and women who carried them, then loaded into old Toyota truck beds.

I’m more comfortable observing than being observed. Being an incongruent white in a landscape rich in verdants and browns is incompatible with that preference, and I recalled too the touch of the many rough, warm hands against the pale of my own palms, having been extended to me in cordial greeting, or perhaps more likely, in curiosity.

It’s true that the infrastructure in much of the country is un- or under- developed. Roads, where they exist, are unreliable. Road blocks, illicit or not, are set up in small towns and enforced by armed men. You must pay a bribe to pass, and it’s safer to travel with a Cameroonian who understands how to negotiate these fractured, often unfriendly transactions. A brief downpour can flood the passageway and render travel impossible, and drought conditions create great clouds of hot, thick dust which cling to your skin and hair and throat.

Americans may envy the internet speed enjoyed by Scandinavians and Germans, but the wireless I purchased from street venders in Buea was, even by American standards, intermittent and crawlingly slow. This latter detail I had shared with my son. I even showed him a photograph of the corrugated metal shed from which the twenty-something entrepreneur sold me an access code (cash only, CFA). The floor was cracked concrete; wires hung like tired tendons beneath a rickety table; chickens wandered in and out.

The drive from campus to my son’s school isn’t so far, perhaps twenty minutes. And Cameroon lingered on in my thoughts as I drove to pick him up. He must have listened, intently, when I had shared with him details of my experiences there. I was sick for weeks after I returned, and it had been impossible to conceal this from him. It wasn’t that inconvenience that gave him pause, though, when after asking about his school day and after completing our conversational rituals, I asked him if he’d travel to West Africa with me next year.

For how long, he asked. Nearly eleven, I recognized the quiet of his gears churning and of him imagining himself in the conditions I’d described… “Maybe a month,” I tried.

No. I wouldn’t like to live in a country that doesn’t have technology, he answered. I love the guileless truth in his answers, even when it’s difficult for me to accept, even when it stings a little.

He’d gotten in trouble recently and was awaiting the close of the few days ‘tech grounding’ he’d earned. Was he that attached to Minecraft, his Kindle, his iPhone (yes, he has one, and although we didn’t set it up with a line, he and his friends quickly located and downloaded apps to enable texting and voice calls)? Was he that addicted to games like League of Legends? This morning he posted an old toy he found in our attic on Craig’s List. In January he self-published a Kindle book.

He’s a self-proclaimed ‘adventurer.’ This very moment he’s trudging through the woods of our backyard with the machete I carried home to him from Cameroon. But he’ll be back in shortly, where he’ll complete his homework on his computer, check for email queries about his Craig’s List post, and try yet again to re-negotiate the terms of his grounding.