The Myth of Physical and Social Distancing in Cameroon

During the past two months, I have straddled Douala, Cameroon. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say I have been straddled by Douala.  Every day that passes seems to remind me that every other thing in this world (even microscopic organisms) straddles humans, despite our superiority complex.

Did we straddle American polio (1916), the Spanish flu (1918-1920), the Asian flu (1957-1958), HIV/AIDS (1981-present day), West African Ebola (2013-2016) and Zika virus (2015-present day)? Our generations certainly share a bond of fragility.

During my straddling or being straddled, I have enjoyed unfathomable humour, especially through my use of social media. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, I have enjoyed a litany of forwarded audios and videos on Whatsapp, in which barely literate Cameroonians are struggling to understand, fathom and assume a measure of responsibility in curbing the dangers posed by the pandemic.

In most of them, especially those recorded in indigenous ethnic languages, callers and receivers can be heard struggling to name the new “Mr Death” with numerous mispronunciations of Coronavirus and Covid-19: “folona virus”, “polona virus”, “bolona virus”, “olona varus”, “cololo virus”, “colonial virus”, “COVIS-19”, “COVIT-19”, “POVIS-19” and so on. Sometimes, eager to read far more into things than perhaps intended, I wish mispronunciations such as “colonial virus” were intentional. I yearn to caution against underestimating a suffering African – even an uneducated one.

To struggle to name something, even a deadly virus, is to acknowledge its existence and uniqueness. To confer upon Covid-19 even a mispronounced name is to affirm its (in)dignity of autonomy, its belonging with the rest of the (un)nameable world, thereby transforming its strangeness into a familiarity that startles and hurts.

To battle to name Covid-19 is to pay attention to a demon that has refused to listen to our cries. Covid-19 is like an Achebesque evil spirit that has paid us an unannounced visit. The louder we shout that we do not have a seat for it, the louder it reminds us that we should not bother, because it came prepared with its own seat.

Words and names are the ways by which we humans build relationships with one another, and with the natural and supernatural worlds. But then, shall we place a being that forces us to socially and physically distance ourselves in the human, the natural or the supernatural realm? We are told that intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world, and that intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

But is there any language of intimacy that can change our perception of Covid-19 as an indiscriminate reaper? Africa has lost two musical icons, Aurlus Mabélé and Manu Dibango, to a monstrous invisible killer that ordinary Africans are still struggling to name.

Aside from their roaring humour, the mispronunciations remind us that every pandemic usually imposes a language of its own.  Pandemics affirm the power of Babel. Covid-19 has affirmed an unabridged diction of havoc: lung fibrosis, dry cough, sneezing, mucus, runny nose, body pain and weakness, high fever, breathing difficulties, death.

These hitherto familiar words have acquired frighteningly new meanings. The world has responded with a large vocabulary for survival: self-quarantine, self-isolation, social distancing, physical distancing, wash your hands regularly, sanitizer, avoid touching MEN (mouth, eyes and nose), wear facemasks, disinfect regularly, total lockdown, community outreach. The panic mood has reached a level where we are even sanitizing our sanitizers!

The World Health Organization prefers “physical distancing” to “social distancing”, in keeping with the notion that it is the physical distance that prevents transmission. And so people can remain socially connected via technology.

Covid-19 is said to be no respecter of status, power or privilege. It is determined to devastate all in its path, the highly as well as the lowly positioned, the well named, the poorly named and the nameless. Naming and physical/social distancing are not new in Cameroon. In Cameroon, everyone is born for or against physical/social distancing, because one is either born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth  – one has a silver spoon destined for one’s mouth by one’s ethnicity and connections – or one is born with a shovel destined for one’s hands.

The nature of one’s birth automatically names one’s residential area. Those with access to silver spoons live in fancy areas with names like Petit Paris, Bastose, Beverly Hills or Bonanjo, places modelled after the viruses of exuberance and super abundance.

Those born with shovels live in the bleeding ghettoes of New Bell, Ndokoti, Bonaberi, Swine Quarter, Bonamossadi, and Briqueterie, wining and dining with the incurable viruses of poverty and lack. The denizens of our version of Beverly Hills have always physically/socially distanced themselves from the dwellers of our Swine Quarters, to avoid being contaminated with the viruses of poverty and lack.  

The government of Cameroon has not been indifferent to the unfolding nightmare of Covid-19, even if the measures taken thus far have begged more questions than afforded answers.

In his pronouncements, Cameroon’s Prime Minister, Dion Ngute, should have saved himself the trouble of advising Cameroonians to practice some physical/social distancing in order to avoid spreading Covid-19. Cameroonians have experienced development as something divisive, and not as something that brings them together spatially and socially.

What has been the nature of our socio-economic and politico-cultural bonding? Certainly not through the shared pairs or bonded pairs we know from the periodic table of elements, because there has never been any stable balance between our attractive and repulsive forces.

Sometimes one is tempted to believe that a life of super abundance is an advanced form of Covid-19 that results in physical/social distancing between one’s reasoning faculties. A Beverly Hills resident like Ngute can easily forget that, as a people, Cameroonians have always been physically/socially distanced by Chinese walls of power and powerlessness. Perhaps, our nation’s (mis)fortune has always been that power forgets, and that absolute power forgets absolutely.

Like many Cameroonians, I am a born and bred Swine Quarterian. I have lived in most Cameroonian Swine Quarters in Yaoundé and Douala. As Francis Nyamnjoh has depicted in many of his novels, the communities of our Swine Quarters are so congested that one person’s frontage usually serves as another’s backyard and vice versa.

Even the roads that meander through what he terms our “bleeding ghettoes” often serve as sitting rooms for many. In our Swine Quarters, drinking is a hobby. Our Swine Quarters are littered with bars that usually dish out doses of music in full blast through powerful loudspeakers, promising respite for Swine Quarterians who visit them to drown the powerlessness imposed on them by the rich and wealthy in the Petit Parisians. The bars function as kitchens, parlours and bedrooms for many.

Swine Quarterians worship physical and social nearness. To them, all forms of contact symbolize solidarity, while any form of distancing reminds them of their helplessness in the hands of Petit Parisians.

Luckily, Ngute’s government has been keen enough to avoid biting the very alcoholic finger that keeps it in power and that is why, during the day, Cameroonian bars are wide open, whereas schools remain hermetically closed.

There are even rumours that some bars that are covered by power have been operating during the night. After all, in Cameroon, alcohol solves a lot of political and socio-economic problems, and the PM does know this more than anyone else.

Swine Quarterians are not irresponsible drunkards. They are men and women who celebrate interdependencies. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but sometimes I cannot help thinking that Covid-19, just like the well-to-do folks from Beverly Hills, is jealous of our ghetto dwellers’ potential for conviviality, a potential that encourages them to become frontier Cameroonians reaching out, encountering and exploring ways of enhancing or complementing one another.

It does not take rocket science to realise that physical/social distancing is out of kilter with Swine Quarter lifestyles. Covid-19 preventive strategies should be blended with socio-economic and politico-cultural specificities. For the first time in human history, we are learning that together we die and divided we survive.

Until physical and social distancing are recalibrated and domesticated, they may not cease to be among Cameroon’s countless myths, with the only physical and social distancing being the ever-widening gap between our Beverly Hills districts and our Swine Quarters.

Hassan M. Yosimbom holds a PhD in African Literature from the University of Yaounde 1, Cameroon. He is a former ARUA-Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Ghana, Legon.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

Show Comments