ASHIA

I should have written this post ages ago. It is only about a word that has revolutionized my thinking and inevitably reduced my need for other vocabulary. Ashia. What does it mean? Don’t bother asking Merriam or Webster, because they won’t know. Ashia is a word in Cameroonian Pidgin English, but it is also used by Francophone Cameroonians. I learned about this wonderful word during my first week in Cameroon, while I was still doing orientation in Yaoundé. It is probably the only thing I remember from that week, actually… Anyway, so what is the definition of “ashia”? Well, there are a few. Its basic definition is “sorry”, but it’s so much more than that. It can also be an expression of empathy, or just a simple greeting. I use it and hear it many times a day. One of these days maybe I’ll count the number of times. Sometimes “ashia” (pronounced “OSH-ee-uh”) is abbreviated to “ash” (“osh”) or lengthened to “ashia-oh”. Regardless, the answer is always “thank you.” Cameroonians respond with “thank you” to everything. For example, every morning my neighbor and I greet one another. This is how it goes:

Neighbor: “Jaclyn! Morning!”
Me: “Good morning.”
Neighbor: “Thank you.”

Now that I think about it, is that what we should have been saying all along? “Thank you”? When “ashia” means “oh hello, there”, you still respond with “thank you”. I guess you are just thanking the other person for acknowledging your presence? Is that it?

The best thing about “ashia” is that it can be used both sarcastically and sincerely, just like with “sorry”. If my friend asks me if I will buy him a beer, I like to say, “Um, no. When have you ever bought me a drink?? Ashia!” When another friend tells me that her husband’s sister’s brother-in-law’s cousin has died, I also respond with “ashia!” If I walk past an old woman who is clearly from the farm, carrying a hoe on top of her head and maybe even a baby on her back, I also greet her with “Evenin’! Ashia, mama!” Finally, whenever people ask me for anything, whether it be sincere requests for money or the hair on my head, they will always get an “ashia!” out of me.

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20th May vs. 4th of July

18-Jun-2013

 

I recently experienced my first national day in Cameroon – 20th May. According to Wikipedia (the most reliable source), “Cameroon has no single date of independence. The United Nations Trust Territory known as French Cameroun achieved independence from France on 1 January 1960, and British Southern Cameroons changed status from a Trusteeship under British administration to a federated state within Cameroon on October 1st, 1961. The government chose 20 May as Cameroon’s National Day to commemorate former President Ahmadou Ahidjo’s abolishment of the federal system of government and creation of a unitary country in 1972.” I’m sure that was really interesting for you to read. The Fourth of July definitely wins this contest when it comes to its history.

 

The United States’ “Fourth of July” celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from Great Britain. Independence Day is our National Day, but we do not celebrate it with “march pasts” and boring speeches from the president and/or mayor. Different parts of the country observe Independence Day in different ways, but most celebrations are outdoors, as it is summertime everywhere in the U.S. Across the country, there will be fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics, carnivals, and concerts.

 

As far as I know, 20th May in Anglophone Cameroon always takes place at the “grandstand”. The grandstand is often not so grand, as in my village, but every event is held there nonetheless, and every event is the same. There is always a “march past” involving students wearing sometimes new, clean uniforms, singing a Cameroonian song whose lyrics are impossible to understand, and competing for some award (is it money?) for arm-swinging togetherness, straight lines, and quality of song choice. Sometimes other people march, like tailors’ unions or butchers’ unions or political parties (I still don’t know what any of them stand for), but the march past is always very long and boring and I just don’t care. The day before 20th May (I guess that would be 19th May), I attended two football (soccer) matches. Don’t crucify me, but I had never watched a soccer match in its entirety until that day. I can’t say I enjoy soccer any more than I did before, but I wasn’t TOO bored. At the grandstand, the buy’am sell’am women received a trophy and money to fight about later for winning the women’s match against the female workers. The Misaje Council also won their prize for winning their match against the Misaje Workers’ Association (male workers) with penalty kicks. A few people received some money for winning foot races that apparently took place the Thursday before, between Misaje and a bush village, Chunghe (seriously, where was I?). In the morning, before reaching the grandstand, I spent almost an hour taking photos of my neighbor Glory’s primary school students. They had a lot of fun singing to me and copying my silly poses.

 

The afternoon and evening is spent eating and drinking way too much. In my case, being well-known in the community (you would be, too, if you were the only white person), I was invited to two receptions. Actually, I was officially invited to one, and then an invitee of the second invited me along, and no one seemed to notice I wasn’t supposed to be there. The first reception was at the D.O.’s residence. The D.O. is the divisional officer who is appointed by the president to each subdivision. In truth, I don’t really know what he does. I just know that I get free food and drink whenever I go to his house. The food wasn’t completely awful this time, and they had Coca-Cola, so I was happy. It started pouring before the food was served, and everyone freaked out. It’s Africa, and people are afraid of rain. I don’t understand. A few hours later, I headed to the next reception, hosted by the inspector of basic education. This man oversees the primary and nursery schools in Misaje. Earlier that day, he was awarded the second-highest medal of something for thirty years of work. I told you, these grandstand events are boring and I can’t be expected to pay attention. There was more food and more Coca-Cola, and you know I can’t refuse free food. After that, I went to the market, where it looked like everyone in the entire subdivision had come out of the bush to buy and sell and enjoy. The market hall had been open for children to come and dance. When I asked if I could take a peek inside, I noticed that the hall was rather empty. I guess parents had not given their children enough money to pay the cover. Around 8pm, I went to the health center and remained there for the next three hours, as there was a labor case. The labor was long and difficult, and the 17-year-old Muslim woman barely spoke/understood Pidgin English. The baby girl was born unresponsive, and while she started breathing better within the hour, she died less than 24 hours later because her mother kept giving her water.

 

20th May used to be celebrated in my village for one week, but celebrations have since been restricted to three days. With that, I think villagers have consolidated a week’s worth of drinking to three days. I cannot tell you the number of times I was propositioned in those three days by drunken men. Well, sober men, too, but that’s a different story.

 

When I think of the Fourth of July in the U.S., I think of fireworks and barbecues and the beach. I hope to spend this Fourth of July at one of the beaches in Cameroon. There will be no fireworks, but I think I can survive without those – the loud noise of fireworks used to make me cry when I was younger. I don’t know how you celebrate your National Day, but I’m sure it’s an occasion, just as it is here.