The Best of Systers Blog Meeting Beatrice
Rita Thissen, Longtime Syster
I want to share with you a little of my visit to Cameroon in May 2012, where I met Beatrice, one of our past Pass-It-On (PIO) award recipients. Having lived in the US all my life and never before having been in Africa, this was quite an experience for me, showing me how very different life can be in one part of the world compared to another, and how very much we share in our thoughts and feelings about life.
Beatrice lived at that time in the French-speaking West Region. Cameroon is a country with two official languages, with French being the dominant official language for most of the country, and English predominant officially in a couple of the regions. But the country overall has over 200 languages in common use, and Beatrice grew up speaking her village language at home and learning French in school. Along the way she has also picked up some English, and now her family has moved to an English-speaking region where she’ll be learning more.
For those of us who rarely hear more than one language spoken, to visit a country in which everybody knows at least three if not four or five languages is quite impressive! Growing up surrounded by multiple languages affects one’s viewpoint – it drives home the awareness that each person has a unique and personal cultural background. Depending on the situation, that awareness may be expressed as multiculturalism, a welcoming and inclusive attitude such as Systers fosters, or in the other extreme as tribalism or colonialism, in which a specific culture is promoted at the expense of others. Beatrice’s family warmly welcomed me as a curious visitor from a culture they see only on TV and aren’t sure whether to believe or not!
Beatrice and I found we had much in common, in spite of differences in upbringing and lifestyle. On an intellectual level, we both think analytically. We both like working with computers, especially logic and software. Beatrice has a degree in sociology, and she acquired a laptop and mastered SPSS data analysis software as part of her PIO award. I too thrive on logic, and I work in software systems for survey research, a branch of sociology. On a familial level, we both love children, enjoy maintaining close family ties, like cooking, enjoy music, don’t mind housework and feel that there are essential human values that cross cultures. We both like poetry, though I confess that Beatrice can write it well and I cannot.
We also found vast differences in our circumstances. My environment in the US includes reliable electricity, running water, on-demand access to the internet, easy transportation, dependable shelter and a steady income. Hers in a small city in Cameroon included none of those things. Power outages are frequent in the cities, and in villages there may be little or no electricity at all. Beatrice drew water from a well daily to wash dishes and clothes by hand. She cooked on a fire or on a propane burner. Grocery shopping is done daily (no refrigeration) in open-air markets reached on foot or by moto-taxi, in which a single motorcycle may carry a mom, one or two small children, and any purchases they have made. Cars are a luxury and roads are largely unpaved outside the big cities and highways.
How people use computers in Cameroon was astounding to me. Few people other than university professors have laptops of their own, having to go instead to pay-by-the-minute cybercafés where equipment is generally very old and slow. University students routinely do so, considering their email or Facebook access to be as important as eating! There is no free access at all, such as Americans find in public libraries or at work. Even businesses have no computers, with public records, medical records and accounting largely done on paper. Partly this is due to lack of electrical and data infrastructure, and partly it is due to economic barriers.
Beatrice was lucky that the house her family shared with another family had a mobile broadband key which she could use on occasion for internet access, though to use it one had to stand in a certain corner of the porch, balancing the laptop on the railing. Baud rates for “broadband” are comparable to dial-up in the US, with high packet loss rates. Most web sites were inaccessible due to the high level of data transfer required, and things taken for granted in the US, like automatic software updates, are next to impossible there. We spent 5 hours one day downloading the latest anti-virus dat file, and the cost of doing so would have bought food for the entire 13-person house for that day.
So what will Beatrice do with her laptop and SPSS knowledge? She is hopeful that one day in the future she’ll be able to find work using her computer skills. Few women have salaried jobs of any kind, other than as elementary or middle school teachers, or occasionally in retail sales. However, there is a growing sector of office work and research, in which there may develop a job market for women with computer skills. This is where Beatrice’s hopes lie, perhaps working at a university analyzing data, perhaps even in her own field of sociological research. But she’d be happy working in academic records or any other situation that would use her skills and let her help support the family.