Bush falling (verb, Cameroonian slang): “refers to the act of one moving out of Cameroon to another country, preferably a more developed one, in search of greener pastures or the “prestigious” title of a “Bush Faller”. A Bush Faller is someone who has successfully accomplished the task of Bush falling.”
I’m not your typical Bush Faller. I didn’t make the decision to leave Cameroon in search of a better life –I had no choice but to tag along on the coattails of my parents as a youngster. As a result, today I miss out on some of the best aspects of bushfallerism –such as the large social network to celebrate your every homecoming and ‘gist’ (gossip) about who’s been up to what since the last time I was there, which Minister has been jailed for ‘corruption, etc. I also escape some of the worst consequences –endless queues of relatives (some more distant than others…) who never bothered to contact you while you were abroad, but somehow know your intimate travel details so as to accost you the moment you descend from the plane, with tales of their latest economic woes that only you can solve…
Nevertheless, I’m definitely one of those you might call ‘foreign citizens’ (c.f. this very blog!). Anywhere in the world a stranger asks me where I’m from, I’ll always answer, ‘Cameroon’. But Cameroonians who speak to me in Cameroon will assume I live in the USA. They can spot the ‘foreigners’. It’s in the way we speak, the hair we wear, the way we fail to look in all directions for traffic, fail to haggle prices properly, our general mannerisms…Usually, I hardly pay attention to this odd sensation of being at once at home (that sweet, warm, tropical smell that hits you as soon as you step off the plane) and estranged (the total chaos and incivility that greets you at immigration). But, most recently, for the first time I went on an extended stay to Cameroon without my parents. Without the shelter of them dealing with all the hassles, it was like being there as a real adult for the first time. To add to this, the purpose of my visit was to get a new passport, which, of course, brought on further reflections on identity and belonging…. Of course, I was hardly ‘by myself’ , as my family was all around, but suddenly I began to notice more the differences between my experience in the country and that of those who live there, what it really means to live in Cameroon as a Cameroonian.
I’m used to being in places where the fact of my Cameroonian-ness is a standout feature, where people will go out of their way to connect with this aspect of me once they find out about it (‘I once went to school with a Cameroonian’), where my last name will be mangled beyond recognition, where my interlocutor will profess an undying love for Samuel Eto’o… In Yaounde, all of that disappears. Nobody bats an eyelid at the dark green passport. Everyone’s names consist of syllables and consonants you wouldn’t imagine could go together. Everyone eats cassava and leaves at home. Being Cameroonian is just another irrelevant facet of life.
When I’m there, I’ll watch Africa Magic channel all day. I’ll devour suya meat from Briqueterie. I’ll drink a Castel (or two…), as if it’s my tipple of choice back in Europe. I’ll dance the night away to coupe decale, ndombolo, makossa, bikutsi and all the rest as if I’m used to hearing on the radio every day. In many ways, I’ll just be your average Cameroonian.
But then, I’m also the stranger. It’s not really the fact that all the neighbourhoods in my ‘hometown’ look familiar but if I try to make my way across town alone I’ll get hopelessly lost. Or that I wonder when I try to haggle and vendors refuse to lower their prices whether it’s because they can tell from the way I talk that I’m a product of successful Bush Falling. It’s this: A woman cuts in front of everyone in the immigration cue in the airport and is instantly subjected to a storm of abuse by other irate passengers, and I stand to the side laughing. The customs guard heartily abuses me for literally stepping one inch beyond the yellow waiting line, yet it’s a struggle to wipe the smile off my face. The general pettiness, unpleasantness, rudeness and aggressiveness of your average Yaounde official doesn’t much bother me; oftentimes I even find it amusing. But this is only because the daily battles fought by average citizens are not my battles. As much as life here can push you to the limit of your patience, I know that I always have an escape route. Even if I decide to stay in Cameroon, I know that I have the option of leaving, and that knowledge tames the anger and frustration that I see in everyone else’s faces. This is where I feel the difference, that between a Bush Faller and the rest, most acutely.
For many years, while growing up abroad, I felt no pull to go back home. But now, when the plane begins its descent into Yaounde, I feel a tingle of excitement. I savour that first breath of air drawn on Cameroonian soil. Still, I can’t help feeling that I’ll always be partially on the ‘outside’, looking in. But then there are moments –getting into an argument with a truck driver blocking our route, trading insults knowing that we’re only succeeding in making each other more angry when a solution could easily be found, but each refusing to back down because of our innate pigheadedness –where I feel the Cameroonian in me clearly. That’s good enough for now.