Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dirt Here

by Ampson Hagan

Brown University MPH
Peace Corp Volunteer
Health Sector
Cameroon 2013-2015

What the fuck is happening to me? I’ve been averaging roughly one shower (or bucket bath) per week. I don’t brush my teeth for days at a time and I wear the same clothes with barely a thought on personal appearance or even a general sense of fashion. In fact, I haven’t washed my clothes since I moved to this small village in the North region of Cameroon. That was almost 4 months ago.

Sure, there was that month in which I was flown to Morocco for medical care because I contracted amoebas that caused ulcerative colitis, and this excused me from having to consider my appearance and hygiene due to being hospitalized. It was nice to be absolved of responsibility of cleaning, and I didn’t have to wash clothes for that entire month (although I admit that it would’ve been nice to return to the ritualized act of throwing clothes in a machine and coming back 1 hour later to clean threads). I even got to take showers (with hot water!) in Morocco, so maybe my hygiene problem isn’t all that bad.

Well, no, it is that bad. The reason I was sent to Morocco, the reason I contracted that vicious infection was not a good one. Amoebic dysentery is an infection that occurs as a result of poor hygiene, and the amoebae are present in contaminated food and water. That contaminated food and water are tainted with animal feces that carry the amoebae. Unclean hands move the contaminated food and water to the mouth, proving to be the recipe for a delicious infection. But wait, before you judge me too harshly, please consider the fact that there is no running water in my village and it’s terribly difficult to wash my hands here. The well water is not safe to drink (see above) and most of the food I eat was once on the ground, surrounded be the feces of at least 5 different types of animals including that of humans. I’m almost always touching shit, or touching something that touched shit, or…

I lost all sense of personal hygiene, or even pride in looking good, smelling good. Dirt has taken up permanent residence under my fingernails. When I rub my arm, large flakes of dark brown crud fly in the air, finally dislodged from my scum-mottled skin. When I lick my lips, I can taste nothing but salt and water-starved saliva.

A few days ago, I decided to clip my fingernails (less dirt gets trapped under trimmed fingernails) but when the trimmings hit the floor, I didn’t move to retrieve them. Now they’re slowly being covered by sand and dirt on the floor of my home. The ground that I walk on is perpetually covered in five different kinds of animal excrement, trash and decaying matter, and all that shit keeps coming into my house. But I’m getting more comfortable in my space, so I began walking around my house without shoes. Hello Dirt, meet feet.

My feet, the two glorious extremities that support and move me, are in such bad shape. Crusty, cracked, sweaty and peeling, my feet hardly ever get cleaned, or even washed with water at all. This is a difficult task for me, especially since I take bucket baths in an unsanitary concrete latrine. I have let my feet, my two beautiful and strong feet, go by the wayside. My shoes are caked in so much sand and dust that I can hardly see their original colors.

The dust is a major culprit of the sanitary crime that is my new life. It’s a shame that I almost forgot to mention it. There’s so much dust that after a month away from home all my stuff was covered in a thick brown film. Debris constantly falls from the holes in my corrugated tin roof and lands on my floor, my stuff, my food, and even penetrates my mosquito net to welcome me in my bed.

The night guard at the health center asked me if I wanted to take a bath there. I thought he was simply offering me access to a new amenity (I think the opportunity to take a bucket bath at the health center is a recent development), but after looking back on it, I think that he probably felt that I really needed to bathe. Perhaps I looked unwashed smelled foul. He probably thought, “This dirty American who came all this way to help us looks like shit.”

Almost everything here is foul and polluted, but what’s remarkable about being here is seeing how this aesthetic quality, dirt (or the absence of it), has become part of what people from rich countries associate with poor Africans, and maybe even Africa in general. The imagery of the “starving African child” trope never involves a kid who just took a shower or is seen sitting in a verdant, lush city park. That kid is patently starving, and more visibly, living in squalid conditions with tattered clothes and open skin abscesses.

The “give a dollar and save a child” commercials feature some cute kid with just enough facial smudges to evoke compassion and guilt on the part of would-be donors but not too much for those same guilt-stricken onlookers to quickly turn the channel in utter disgust. Abject poverty isn’t pretty. Is there any dignity in dirtiness? Here, in this sun-scorched country in the heart of Africa, dirt, dust and grime are everywhere, and on almost everything. What’s worse is that people aren’t spared. The “dirty African child” is not just a Western creation; it’s part of the scenery here.

That one grubby-looking kid on the side of a busy city street digging through the trash, torn pants, sweat dripping from his nose, is not uncommon. The community response to his scavenging is equally as pedestrian and tacit as his actions are unsurprising. No one really bothers, or acts as if it’s a problem. Sure, maybe, a guy shouts at the kid to stop going through the trash, but his reproof sounded as if he was reprimanding the boy for being so blatant in his trash-digging and should’ve been more discreet about it. Besides, many people walked past this boy before Mr. Social Norms came along and re-established order.

Unfortunately, this image of the scavenging kid is indicative of how poverty affects children in Cameroon. In villages, (especially mine), I see a lot of children who are covered in dirt and grime. The sight of rings of white crust around the mouth, alabaster colored dust from concrete debris caked all over their arms, legs and faces, gave me pause at first, but now I’m conditioned to all of it.

Their clothes look as if they’ve been worn beyond their intended lifespan, riddled with holes and marks that come from overuse in tough conditions. These kids look crazed when they flash a beaming smile from behind mud-hardened, crusty faces.

When these kids graduate from playing with colorful candy wrappers in the trash and walking around poop-laden fields barefoot, to the hardscrabble working life that constitutes adulthood in much of this Sub Saharan African country, they’ll probably be a bit cleaner. In fact I’m sure of it. As I scratch my itchy legs more and more black dirt and dead skin cells slip under my fingernails, I remember seeing rather clean looking women cooking and doing daily household activities while their grubby children run play around them creating a cloud of dust in their wake.

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think kids should be kids, and if their appearance is just a phase of life, then maybe it’s healthy--socially speaking. Back home in the States, kids are messy all the time, and they can be cute little germ spreading mini humans. The difference is that most kids in the U.S. don’t wake up in the morning that way. Here, this squalor is a symptom of systemic poverty. In the U.S., there’s running water in most places and people have been conditioned to using soap for decades, but not here.

In my village, people look dirty a lot. Most people don’t use soap. I’ve only seen one person brush his teeth. I don’t even know how often people bathe. The term “dirty African” is dancing a malicious minstrel number in my head, turning me against my own.

I hate how this dirt ruins their skin, obstructs the view of their wonderfully deep tones. It makes me feel as if their skin isn’t good enough to be clean. I share their possession of dark skin, from my African father and heritage. I’m particularly keen on keeping it clean, obliged to represent my roots with pride. My pigment is a gift, and I owe it to my father, my family, to keep it clean.

Being filthy, with my education level, agency, and social connections, is nothing more than an aesthetic affectation that elicits some romanticized idea of hard, rugged work, performed by someone who doesn’t have to work with his hands.

People think it’s cool, people back in America, to be a “weekend warrior” and have people think me tough, robust and admirable. Working “hard” and looking filthy or grungy are commodified traits for me, for someone like me. This imagery is something that I can easily access because of my socioeconomic status relative to that of the people in my village, my American nationality, and my education; I can be as unclean as I want to be, but it’s not a necessary part of my life, because I don’t have to work hard in this village to live better than anyone else here.

My laziness is a testament to that axiom. I’ve been languishing in my own filth for weeks but with conscious volition. Pretentious desires to integrate with my community, to be more like the villagers, have subconsciously encouraged me to abstain from bathing as often as I have in the past. All of it is fake. This whole time I’ve been trying to make up for the widely held notion that I’m not African enough, my skin, however dark it is thought to be, is not dark enough. Mitigation was my motivation, my reason to stay dirty, my logic that told me that this ploy would make up for the fact that I’m not black but American/French/Foreign and therefore white. It was a cheap trick to think that I could reduce the cynicism and derision I get for being “white” by being sullied and soiled. My behavior was insulting. I thought by roughing up my coffee brown skin I would ingratiate myself to the people of my village, would make my skin more ebony like theirs. They noticed that I had lint in my hair and sand all over my face. No one was impressed, and they gave me that “Why is this rich American so gross?” look.

Being unclean or smeared with dirt and sand doesn’t make me more “African” and it certainly wouldn’t make people like me more. My behavior was an indictment against Africans, implying that the essence of their culture could be so easily accessed and mastered by something so superficial as being dirty. I reduced a culture to a temporary condition, rendering it nothing more than a response to a binary question: Clean or not clean?

I’ve reconditioned myself, my thoughts, to consider Africans as unclean peoples, and this reconditioning has been governing my actions and corrupting my thoughts. The unrelenting need to fit in, to integrate into my new community, and my impatience led me to a "shortcut". Maybe I was never really interested in putting in the time and work necessary to truly integrate into my community, but part of my job requires that I bring my slice of Americana to my village, to show people how Americans can be. The least I can do is bathe more often.