Archive for the ‘Cameroon’ Category

Why It’s So Difficult to Eradicate Corruption

January 26, 2013

Eradicate corruption

Whenever a new government or new party is elected, particularly in the Third World, a promise to eradicate corruption is always at the forefront.  But why do these promises almost never materialize?

The answer is more simple than it appears. Government doesn’t lead society; it REFLECTS society. If people in government are corrupt, it is because this corruption, this way of thinking and getting things done, is pervasive throughout the society.

So, at best, new parties and new governments make a big show of “attacking corruption” by arresting a few people.  What they are really doing, however, is just trying to scare everyone from pushing the boundaries of corruption, so that they don’t “get caught.”  All the while, even the new government officials continue with corrupt practices in their daily lives.  The people change, over and over, but the corrupt system never changes.

Why is this?

corruption

The problem starts with young children.  I see this every day as a teacher.

Young, impressionable children watch and notice the way their parents deal with the issues of life each day. In most third-world countries, when the child has a severe problem at school, instead of letting the child repeat the grade, the parents go in and “beg” or pay a bribe for their child to be promoted (because parents feel ashamed if their child is not promoted). When the child gets a bad grade or doesn’t do homework, parents do the same thing. Instead of children being taught that they will have the consequences of their actions, good or bad, they are taught that one can “get out of any consequence” by either paying a bribe, or knowing the right people. Is it any wonder that they grow up into corrupt adults?

Corruption will never be eliminated in government until it is first eliminated in society. Yet, speaking as a teacher, I don’t see this happening at all. Even five-year-olds are learning this corrupt behavior by watching their own parents.

I personally know of one case where a five-year-old told his teacher that if the teacher didn’t allow him to do as he pleased, “I will bring my father in and have you fired!”  (The result was that the foreign teacher told him, “Go right ahead!  Go get your father right now!  I’m waiting for him!”  The student didn’t know quite what to say after that, as he wasn’t expecting that response…..)

So where, exactly, does the endemic corruption in third-world nations come from?  It comes from the class system.  In order to have a meritocracy, and fair treatment for all, whether in the courts or in daily life, EVERYONE HAS TO BE EQUAL UNDER THE LAW.  In third-world countries, and even in many developed countries, this is unfortunately not the case.  Those who are born wealthy, or with titles, the right name, or connections can get away with crimes of any sort and no court will convict them.  This is truly what it means being “above the law.”

corruption 2

The ONLY way, therefore, for ordinary citizens to get justice, or even things done in everyday life, is through “knowing the right person (powerful people),” or paying a bribe.  In every class of society, those above exploit those below.  (This does not mean every individual in the society exploits others, but it is true as a general rule.) The rich exploit the middle and lower working classes.  Even lower-middle class people, if they have some economic success in their own lives, hire a maid and exploit her even worse than higher classes.  People on the lower end steal and cheat time-wise on their employers because they feel like they “deserve it.”  They feel this way because it is a passive-aggressive sort of class warfare.

Class warfare 2

The same dynamic plays out in companies where many bosses exploit their workers.  Since there is no justice in third-world countries, it is dangerous to resist directly, so they resist in a passive-aggressive manner, “forgetting” important things, showing up late, etc.   Their jobs are often protected by “work rules” which mean they can’t be fired for any of these sorts of infractions.

Not every boss is exploitative.  Unfortunately, when a foreign manager is working with these sorts of employees, their behavior is very confusing.  The manger expects a certain level of output, what is normal for himself, or in his own home country.  He gets only 1/3 of that and wonders what is wrong.  He tries every tactic to improve productivity, only to find workers getting worse and worse.  (He can’t fire them due to work rules.)  What’s wrong is those particular workers have the class-warfare mentality.

In third-world countries, because of the “class” system, no one will ever be equal under the law.  Even in countries with recent revolutions, such as in Arab Spring countries, the class system and class-warfare mentalities continue.  So I am not optimistic that they will be able to develop meritocracies.

Democracy (or democratic reform) means nothing without meritocracy.

–Lynne Diligent

Maids Are a Problem Everywhere….

January 12, 2013

M

As a foreigner, I’m tempted to feel like the problems I’ve had with maids just don’t happen to locals. However, as this series, “Maids from House-to-House,” (in Arabic) illustrates, locals do seem to have just as many problems with their maids as foreigners do.

At the moment, I’m lucky to have a good maid.  The other day my maid told me that about 80 percent of people she had worked for were bad; I replied that 80 percent of the maids I’d had were not good, either.

It’s difficult having someone in your house to cook or clean.  Aside from obvious risks such as stealing, you really bring a person with all of their personal problems into your home.  When one recent maid we had did not do the work correctly and I asked her to do many things again, she told us that the reason she went to work was to get away from her mother who was always telling her that she wasn’t doing things properly.  She complained that she expected us not to do the same thing!  We worked with her quite a while, with little improvement, and finally had to let her go.

Moroccan maids 2

One of the biggest problems is in trying to train someone to do tasks in the way you want, and not the way they may be used to.  Some maids cannot understand what is wrong with using a hand to flip water from a bucket all over the room (getting the legs of your expensive wooden furniture wet).  Others cannot understand why you don’t want your expensive wooden furniture wiped down with a wet rag (completely destroys the finish).  Others apparently wash the dishes as if they were wearing a blindfold, either don’t get them clean, or chip all your cups and plates because they are not careful, or don’t follow the procedures that you demonstrate and request.  Most waste cleaning materials such as cleanser, soap, or steel wool pads; most destroy equipment such as brooms–after all they are not paying for it.  Others lie all the time about work they claim to have done, but didn’t.  Others never wash their hands before working in the kitchen (except while you are watching).

Some maids do not keep themselves clean and even smell bad.  When I told my North African sister-in-law that we want someone with personal hygiene, she told me that many women actually want to employ maids who are dirty and smelly, in order to keep their husbands from chasing after them!

Apparently there are quite a few maids who attempt to “steal away” the wife’s husband, sometimes by using witchcraft.  Many say, “An attractive maid could steal your husband.”  Some maids are believed to practice witchcraft.  One foreign friend’s Moroccan in-laws visited her home while she was traveling outside of the country, and found that her maid had put some kind of witchcraft object in the kitchen cupboard specifically designed to steal away her Moroccan husband.  The in-laws fired the maid immediately.

Most maids have to be constantly supervised, either to make sure they are following the procedures you requested, and not doing as they please the minute you turn your back, or because they want to do as little work as possible.  Finding someone who can look around and see what needs to be done, learn to do it the way you want it done, and who can do it without being supervised is a rare find.

On the humorous Arabic TV series about maids, some maids who try to help but who make terrible decisions on their own.  Most maids gossip with other maids about their employers.  Some maids are even crazy (and sometimes employers who are crazy).

So why have a maid?  Life here is not organized to be able to work and take care of children on your own.  It is assumed that people either have maids or plenty of unemployed family members who  can do necessary tasks such as picking up children for lunch and taking them back to school, cooking the maid meal for the family at midday, or running errands to places that are only open normal working hours, such as paying a telephone or electric bill.  A maid is supposed to buy you some time, but often it buys as much headache as anything else.  If you are lucky enough to find a good maid, you want to hang on to her.

Maids, for Middle-Easterners, are also a status symbol.  Many families who grow up not being able to afford a maid get one the very minute they reach the lower-middle class (especially in the cities).  It’s a way to announce that you have reached the middle class.  In addition, the life of a middle-class working woman is not easy.  Generally, many women do all the raising of the children and keeping of the house, IN ADDITION to working full-time, while their husband spends his time at his job, but has plenty of leisure time at the cafe or with friends.  Middle-class working women have very little, or no, leisure time, and it’s a way for them to get some time to themselves, or to spend with their children.

Upper-class women generally have two or three maids, a chauffeur, a gardener, and a guardian.  It is the lifestyle everyone respects and aspires to.

–Lynne Diligent

The REAL Reason Arab Men and Boys Are Still Treated as Pashas by Women

December 5, 2012

Man Washing Dishes

“Kitchen! Kitchen!”  Most North African boys still make fun of each other by saying this, which means, “Sissy!” (For my foreign readers, this means, “You’re acting like a girl!”)

North African mothers still raise their daughters to do all the housework, and boys are not expected to help at all.  (The only exception is in some families where there are no girls, and the boys have learned to help.)

The first generation of educated, North African women are out in the labor force.  But are the attitudes of men changing?  Not yet.  Working women are still expected to work full time AND do ALL of the child care AND take care of ALL the housework.  In general, men are expected to work, and spend all of the rest of their time relaxing.  They still expect to come home and find “everything done and waiting for them.”  (A very few modern husbands do help out doing dishes or cooking, or with general housework.  But they don’t tell their friends!  Some even make sure the curtains are closed so no neighbors see them helping out, either.)

closed curtains

As one young dual-citizen North African-American girl told me, “In North American culture, MEN take care of WOMEN.  In Arab culture, WOMEN are expected to take care of MEN.”   This accounts for the shocking experience of American women who marry Arab men, only to find they are expected to take care of the man as if they were his MOTHER!  Many intercultural couples have hit the divorce courts over this exact issue, as many of these men are unable to adapt, even when living in America.

Will this change, in Arab countries, within a generation, as the second generation of women hits the workforce in 25 years?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why not.  This is my own theory, but when I discussed it with several local North African women, they all agreed with me.

Islamic inheritance laws give double to boys as they do to girls.  The reason for this is that men are supposed to be financially responsible for women under their care, in THEORY.  If a man is decent, he will do it.  (But just as everywhere, many men are irresponsible, or not decent.)  In practice, many women are never able to claim their inheritance rights, particularly in places like mountain villages.  (Crawford, 2008)

The essential point is this.  Every woman knows that she is under a man’s thumb, or will be in the future.  Girls are under their father’s control.  Wives are still under their husband’s control in most Arab countries (such as needing the husband’s permission to get or renew a passport, even for a foreign wife, such as in Egypt).  When women become widows, they are not free, but instead under the control of their sons, and at the mercy of their sons!  Love aside, THIS is the TRUE reason why mothers spoil their sons so extremely.  That son is eventually going to have power over them, and be responsible for supporting them in old age, so of course they need that to be a very strong emotional relationship.  But it accounts for why they young boys are treated as pashas (the amount varying by specific country, but in all countries when in comparison with the West, where boys and girls are treated equally).

When I asked several North African women, that what if inheritance (and divorce) laws were changed and made totally equal between men and women, do they think women would continue to treat men and boys as pashas?  Each of the women I asked answered me by saying, “What you say is true, of course they would not.”

However, since those inheritance laws are laid out in the Koran, I don’t see any changes on the horizon!

–Lynne Diligent

“Taxi Whores”

November 12, 2012

 

I live in North Africa.  Sometimes foreigners and expats assume that only they are getting taken advantage of by taxi drivers.  It’s always reassuring when we find out that the locals get ripped-off, too.  (Misery loves company!)

My local-country citizen, North African friend, who lives in another part of our country, recently arrived in my city by train.  He asked me, “How much does it cost to get a taxi from the new train station to the main square?”

I told him he had to be careful of the taxis which park right next to the train station, as they wait there to charge rip-off fares to everyone.  I told him if he could walk about two blocks, he could find taxis at the normal fare.  Unfortunately, he had too much luggage to do that.

Being a local North African citizen in his own country, he was able to get a taxi at only double the normal fare, although the taxis do get away with charging five times the normal fare to foreigners.  Instead of driving around looking for fares, those taxis find it easier to sit in a line all day, and just make up for the lack of fares by charging only one very expensive fare!  It’s a bit like prostitutes who are unwilling to work for normal wages at a normal job, and charge a high price for a few hours of work.

My friend replied, “Taxi whores! hahaha”

So I’m afraid I can’t take credit for this clever name…..

–Lynne Diligent

N.B — There are many honest taxi drivers; it’s just sometimes hard to find them when you need them!

“Know Your Enemy”

October 19, 2012

“Those Peace Corps workers are spies in our country!”

As an American living in the Middle East for twenty years, I am amazed each time I hear this.  Whenever I ask, “Why would you think that?”  I never receive a clear, satisfactory, or understandable answer–but now,  I finally have.

A North African friend explained to me that the saying, “Know your enemy!” is extremely popular throughout Arab culture in the Middle East. He said that most ordinary citizens in the street view the American government as an enemy, (regardless of whether their own governments are allies with the United States).  This is both because of America’s seeming “unconditional” support for Israel, and because the United States has been involved in wars in the Middle East, or in seeming support of previous dictators in the region.

Therefore, when  Peace Corps volunteers come to the Middle East, people wonder, “Why would anyone leave their own rich countries, in order to come and live in a very poor lifestyle, among us, saying they want to help us?”

Many Middle Easterners, especially those who are poor and living in rural areas,  just don’t understand the idea of volunteer work. (1)  (They are judging foreigners by their own standards, since they would not go to help others who were not part of their own family/religious group, or from whom they did not “want” something in return–such as information, or a natural resource.)  They just don’t trust anyone; in general, Middle Eastern societies are low in trust of others.  Their recent experience of colonialism increases their distrust.

When I point out, “What possible interest would the American government have in the life of your little mountain village?”  I usually get vague and confusing answers that make no sense to me (being a Westerner).  But now I have received an understandable answer.  My local friend told me, ” They think America is studying every aspect of how they live and think in order to better know their enemy.”

What a sad case of two ships passing in the night, in terms of cultural misunderstanding!

Just to set the record straight, Peace Corps workers are NOT spies, never have been, and never will be.  While they have apparently been ASKED on a couple of occasions (Bolivia and Cuba), read the link to see that they refused, and that this is NOT government policy.  However, when I pointed this out to my friend, she asked me, “OK, these volunteers refused to spy, but how on earth would we be sure EVERY Peace Corps volunteer would refuse to spy?”  At least now, I understand where they are coming from.

–Lynne Diligent

(1)  06-EuroMedJeunesse-Etude_MOROCCO.pdf  (p. 7, 8, 17, 23)

Eastern Help for Western Stress, Part I

July 25, 2012

You're fired!

Losing your job, having your spouse divorce you (or boyfriend or girlfriend break up with you), experiencing the death of a loved one, being filled with anger, or just feeling endlessly bored are types of serious types problems we all face from time-to-time.

Some people aspire to a calm life without any problems.  But such a life does not exist.  We are each in our own little boat, headed in a direction, and must navigate daily waves and storms.  Our job is to be able to move through these waves and storms, which are sometimes ripples, and are sometimes tsunamis washing away everything.

In the past, when such overwhelming experiences have happened to me, I found myself constantly ruminating on them, sometimes to the point where I could not work for many months.   But not being able to work did not help my problems;  if anything, it only made the problem worse, and gave me even more time to ruminate.  In other words, it kept me from moving ahead with my life for far too long.  If I had had the tool of meditation available in those times, it would have helped me greatly.

One common problem, especially younger people (and many older people, too), is the problem of constant boredom.  Our minds flit from one thing to another, and these days, we often use technology as  a solution to boredom.

But what if we are in a situation where we have no access to technology, or are stuck in a very boring and uncomfortable situation for many minutes, hours, or even days?  Meditation practice (not a religious practice), used as a tool, can enable one to just “switch off” boredom, and become fully present in that moment.

What is meditation, exactly, and how can it help?

While there are many traditions and ways of meditating, what they all have in common is that these methods are TOOLS used to turn off the left brain.

Over the years, I read several books on meditation.  Yet, whenever I tried it, I could never seem to concentrate or do the exercises; they seemed silly, boring, and pointless.

How can sitting and focusing on watching one’s breath, in and out, or chanting a mantra, ever be helpful?  For many years, I never got past this basic question (which I’m sure is one many others have, and with which I hope this article will help others).

There are several types of meditation practice. One type involves watching one’s breath. Another type involves chanting a mantra. Yet another type involves a special type of walking while counting steps, and paying attention to breathing. What these things have in common is that they are TOOLS; they are not the end in and of itself. Each of these tools bring the same result; they are a way to FOCUS THE MIND calmly on JUST ONE THING.

The main principle here is that your thoughts, your emotions, and your mind are not YOU.  The mind is a possession which  produces thoughts and emotions; it is something which needs to be trained and disciplined in order to restore tranquility to your soul.

Why? When the mind is not trained and disciplined we are at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. The benefits to be derived from training our mind involve becoming much more present in our daily lives, doing away completely with the problem of boredom, and not being whipsawed around by our emotions, no matter what storms or big waves which  life may throw our way. We remain calm, focused and present.  This helps everyone.

Finally, I have had some success with meditating, although I am still a neophyte.  Reading a different book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, which is written for Western readers with real lives, I was finally able to persevere using some of their suggestions, and obtain sudden breakthrough.  (What I liked about this book was that most books only talk about one type of meditation practice, and never get to the part about how it helps you; this book talks about different types of meditation practice from different world traditions, explains which parts are optional or can be adjusted to your needs, and discusses how meditation practice actually helps you.)

What it Feels Like When the Left Brain Switches Off

What does this right-brain breakthrough feel like? It is a very particular feeling. I would like to use the description I had of an experience of learning to draw to describe this feeling.

Unitl the age of 25, I did not know how to draw and was still drawing stick-figures.  Then I had a chance to take a six-session adult-education drawing class from a master art instructor.  We used the text, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards (which I highly recommend).

At the first session, the instructor had us look at a chair and draw our best representation of it.  Next, we had to look at our hand and do the same thing. We also had to look in a mirror and draw our best self-portrait. Last, we were given a photocopy of a difficult drawing by a famous artist, and told to copy it to the best of our ability.  We dated these drawings.

At the second session, the instructor explained the 90-10 system of drawing (looking at an object 90% of the time while moving the pencil, and only looking at the paper 10% of the time while moving the pencil). She also taught us the technique of using a pencil at arm’s length to measure sizes and approximate angles.

Demonstrating the “arm’s length” drawing technique for measurement.

This time, with music playing, we were asked to again draw the chair, using the 90-10 system.  We were then asked to turn the famous drawing UPSIDE-DOWN and copy it to the best of our ability, again using the 90-10 system.  Upside down? We were in shock.  But the results were AMAZING.

The third session, the instructor gave us a very difficult pencil portrait of a woman with loose, flowing hair in great detail.  We all thought this would be impossible for us to draw.  Again, she told us to turn the portrait upside-down and work while she played music.  The results were stupendous; they looked as if we had been studying art for years!

This feeling we got while drawing upside-down to music was a feeling of being “in-the-zone,” where everything was working perfectly and smoothly.  We all lost track of time, and were surprised to find that two hours had passed.  Our teacher explained that this trick of drawing upside-down confuses the left brain and TURNS IT OFF.

Why Turning Off the Left Brain Is Useful in Times of Stress

Meditation techniques teach you to TURN THE LEFT BRAIN OFF, especially in times of stress.  When we are bored, emotionally upset, or ruminating on a problem,we are using our left brain.  Meditation turns off your logical left brain, and turns on your creative right brain. How does it do this?

As a new practitioner of mediation, the hardest thing is to get past the one or two-minute mark.  However, once you manage to get up to three minutes without breaking your concentration, it suddenly becomes much easier, as you shift into the right-brain state.   It becomes MUCH easier and faster in subsequent sessions to turn off the left brain at will.

So, how much time does it take daily before one can experience the benefits of meditation practice?  Personally, I started experiencing the benefits once I was able to get to five minutes a day.

Benefits start once you reach five continuous minutes a day.

Having the first three-minute breakthrough makes it much easier, in exactly the same way that learning a foreign language is most difficult at first.  Once you have a basic level of vocabulary, it becomes much easier.

Meditation practice has nothing to do with religion (although some religions do use meditative practices).  It is simply a tool for training and calming the mind.

–Lynne Diligent

Part II:  Practical Help for Meditation Success

Different Interpretations of Rude Behavior–Intercultural Miscommunication!

June 14, 2012

(Google photo)

Some parents in our upper-middle-class Middle-Eastern school come in to see teachers and make demands such as, “I want my child moved up to the front row today, and I want him to stay right there for the entire school year!”  When a teacher tries to explain that they have to consider and balance the needs of all the children in the classroom, these parents sometimes reply,  “YOU don’t tell OUR children what to do; we tell YOU what to do, because WE pay your salary by bringing our children to your school!”  How does a teacher even respond to a parent with ideas like this?

As a foreign teacher, each time I had a strange encounter like this with a  haughty and disdainful parent, I wondered about this strange behavior toward teachers and administrative staff.  Whenever one of these encounters took place, I would ask my Middle Eastern assistant why these parents would behave this way.  I was always told, “They behave that way because they are rich.”  It still wasn’t clear to me what being rich would have to do with rude and imperious behavior.  So when I asked how the two things were linked, I always got the response, “They think they can behave that way because they have money.”  This didn’t clarify matters, either.  It was especially not clear since I knew plenty of other people who had even more money and did not behave in that sort of manner at all.

Aisha Gaddafi Libya

Typical “look” of the type of parent who “talks down” to teachers in the Middle East.

I understood my assistant’s words, but still did not understand the behavior, or what his words actually meant.  Ten years later, I believe I now understand–it’s not really about money, but about status.  In every country, many people try to follow and copy what they perceive the rich people doing.

Coco Chanel

For example, let us look briefly at the fashion of suntanning, in Europe and the United States.  In the 1800s, women used to stay out of the sun and even carry a parasol to keep the sun from falling on their skin.  Prior to 1900, those with tanned skin were presumed to be low-class common laborers.  In the 1920s, this perception began to change.

Coco Chanel

When Coco Channel returned from the French Riviera with a suntan, having a suntan (particularly in winter) became associated with having the time and money to vacation in warm places.  By the 1940s, sunbathing and suntans were popular everywhere.

In the Western United States in the 1960s and 1970s, students took great care while skiing to never use suntan cream (in order to purposely come back from skiing with a tan or a sunburn), and to leave the ski-lift tickets attached to one’s jacket all season.   Both of these actions raised one’s status, showing that he or she was someone able to afford to go skiing (an expensive sport).  From the 1960s onward (the age of jet travel) a suntan in winter demonstrated that one was part of the leisure class, able to afford to jet off to a warm destination in winter.

Other countries have other ways of indicating that one is a member of the wealthy, or leisure class.   In some Middle Eastern countries (such as Syria, among others), there is a special system which confers the ultimate status.  The most important people carry special cards in their wallets which place them above the powers of law enforcement officials.  Only members of the most important families are able to obtain this card, and so, are free to act without any repercussions.

Joan Collins playing the haughty and domineering Alexis Carrington on Dynasty.

Therefore, some people in the Middle East (especially the newly rich) perceive that what it means to “act like an upper-class person” is to act very haughty and imperious, as though you can order other people around, and no one can say anything to do no matter how rudely you act, or what acts you commit.   This is what I believe was happening in my school. My conclusion at present is that the parents who behaved in an imperious manner were mostly not well-educated or well-brought up, yet had the fortune through business or inheritance, to come into money.  Buy behaving this way, they are essentially trying to announce to others, “Look!  We are important people, and we are more important than you (the teachers and school employees)!”  So this behavior, in their mind, is a way for them to gain status and prestige, as well as to flaunt it to others.  As a foreign teacher, it seems to me to be greatly lowering their prestige, but people in my local country seem to understand that, “Since they are rich, they feel entitled to act that way.”

This system even affects the behavior of children in school.  Children in our school are often rude to their teachers, and completely uncooperative with regard to class rules (continual talking while the teacher is teaching;  not staying in their chairs; refusing to line up or walk quietly in a line; talking loudly, rather than whispering).  Every new idea works for just a day or two, and then it’s right back to the old behavior.

After teaching in the Middle East for twenty years, I now believe that the reason children are uncooperative is because being cooperative shows that you and your family must have low status.  High-status children behave as they wish, because to do so shows the other children that they come from an “important” family and are “above” having to follow the teacher’s rules.

–Lynne Diligent

My North African Postman’s Confusing Behavior

April 6, 2012

Typical North African house with wall in a prosperous neighborhood

For the past several months, instead of putting the mail in our mailbox, our postman has often been just handing it to workers who are at our house doing some remodeling.  One day, I caught the postman personally, and asked him to please not do that, but to put in in our box.  This seemed to take care of the problem for a while.

Two days ago, I was upstairs in my home, when one of the workers came upstairs with some mail to hand to me.  I asked him what he was doing with it and was upset that he came upstairs to find me.  He said the postman handed it directly to him, and he wanted to be sure I got it.  The postman had already left, so I didn’t have a chance to speak to him.  I was upset and just really wanted to know WHY he the postman did this again!

After discussing possible senarios as to why the postman reverted to his former behavior, I commented to the worker that I had asked the postman to put it in the box before, and just could not understand why he was doing this again.  The worker pointed out that the postman comes on a motorcycle.  In order to put it in the box (which in my country is not out by the street, but is a slot through the wall), the postman has to park his motorcycle and bring the mail to the mail slot.  Since the worker happened to be standing by the street at the moment he came, it was just laziness in not wanting to park his motorcycle and take a few steps to the mail slot.  Mystery solved!

I asked the worker next time to not accept the mail from the postman, or if he insists, just to put it into the mail slot himself, rather than walking through my home and searching for me.

Readers, how would you react?

–Lynne Diligent

My Most Embarrassing Secret As a Traveler and Expat

March 20, 2012

I am white, and I have an embarrassing secret.

Two decades ago, I had the occasion to travel for several months in Black Africa–Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire.

The first few weeks after my arrival, I was shocked at my lack of ability to recognize people; everyone looked the same.  I couldn’t tell people apart.  I thought something was wrong with me.

More than twenty years later, I found an explanation for my problem through watching a television program.  In this episode of The Good Wife, trial lawyers discover through the use of a consultant that it is difficult for most white witnesses to make accurate identification of black perpetrators, and equally difficult for most black witnesses to make accurate identification of white perpetrators.

This problem, as I have recently learned, is called “Difficulty with Cross-Racial Face Recognition.”

Kenya is a black majority country. When I first arrived, I had trouble noticing differences between people's faces.

After spending approximately three weeks in East Africa, I finally became able to recognize people and tell them apart.  I think what happened to me here as an adult was a reproduction of the experience all of us must go through as babies, yet none of us remember.  It is clear that we learn as babies to recognize best of all those we grow up around, most particularly our family, and our own race.  Recent research shows that it is in the extremely precise judgement of the micro-measurements of the face (which vary by race) where recognition takes place.

Burundi

When I traveled in Burundi (four years before the war with Rwanda), one person I spent time with told me, “I could never step over the border into Rwanda, or they would kill me.”  When I asked why, he told me, “They would just take one look at my face, and kill me.”

Tutsi boy

This person was a Tutsi.  At that time, not only did I not believe my acquaintance, but I could not tell the difference between the Hutu and Tutsi.  Now, many years later, the differences are clear.

Agathon Rwasa, a Burundian Hutu Militia Leader

Now I live in North Africa.  When traveling with my North African husband (who is Caucasian), I find people in certain regions speaking to him in the Berber language.  He doesn’t speak Berber.  My husband explains, “They just see my face and assume that I speak Berber.”

A Berber man with his daughter

I lived in North Africa for many years before anyone pointed out to me the facial differences between Arabs and Berbers.  Sometimes I can clearly tell them apart; other times not.  But even now, my recognition doesn’t even come close to those who were born here.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in a small village high in the Atlas Mountains.  That weekend I noticed something I had never seen before.  Everyone in the village had a very distinctive cranial shape, and a very particular set of ears.  It was distinctive enough that even if I saw someone who looked like that back in America, now I would ask them, “Are you, by any chance, from this particular village in the Atlas Mountains?”

Atlas Mountains

I finally understood why Americans (or maybe just me) are particularly bad at racial face recognition.  In most Old World countries, people have stayed in the same locations, and intermarried primarily with the local group for a long-enough time to develop very, very precise micro-racial characteristics.  Each village, even 20-30 miles away from each other will have very particular characteristics.  People from these countries are quite used to looking at people in this way, and recognizing which area they are from.

In America, we are not at all used to looking at people in this way.   Since we have immigrants from all over the world, everyone is entirely mixed up.  We have unlimited micro-varieties within every race.  If a black African or white European came to America, he or she would no doubt be able to look at many Americans of their own race, and know precisely where many of their ancestors came from.

America - the nation of immigrants

One important difference in America is that most people, even within their own race, have intermarried with others from many different locales.  So many of their micro-features would no longer be the same as might be associated with a particular European or African village.  Americans have always moved from one part of the country to another on a regular basis, as well.  In addition, many more interracial marriages are occurring.  For all these reasons, people are “mixed up” in America, and Americans are not used to recognizing people by looking at their micro-characteristics and trying to categorize where they are from.  But, as babies, they become used to looking at the micro-characteristics of their own race, in order to recognize family members.

Animal micro-recognition is similar.  Years ago, I used to wonder how biological researchers in the field could watch a troop or a herd of animals, and recognize each animal.  They all looked the same to me.

Later, after we got two cats from the same litter as pets, I began to see the subtle differences  in their faces and bodies, especially when there were several neighborhood cats who looked close enough to my own cats that I called to them by mistake.  Now I never make that mistake as I immediately recognize much more subtle differences, even from a distance.

New information is now being publicized about a condition called Face Blindness.  People who suffer from this condition are unable to visually recognize their own family members or close friends.  The short linked-to video on Face Blindness also explains the opposite condition, which is called being a Super Recognizer, meaning that one is able to recognize and remember every face he has ever seen.  These people are able to tell you where they saw a face, as well as being able to recognize a photo of any of those people taken at any point, at any age, during their lifetimes.

Through this new research, I now see that recognizing faces is a learned skill for most people, an impossible challenge for people with face blindness, and incredibly easy for super recognizers.

My hidden secret perplexed and embarrassed me for many years.  But now that I understand why I had this problem, I no longer feel so guilty!  Thankfully, in my older years I’ve now learned to recognize much more than I noticed in my younger years.

–Lynne Diligent


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