Beliefs, Perceptions, and Reality

ew men have imagination enough for reality. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When a majority rules, it feels like their beliefs and perceptions are grounded in facts and based on reality. But they are actually based on artificial constructs, on missing information, on things we don’t know and cannot see, on elusive beliefs and personal experience, on intentional manipulation that obstructs our view, and on willful ignorance. Regardless of where they come from, beliefs and perceptions are people’s reality. Whether their reality is real reality, only time will tell.

Since we all have different beliefs and perceptions, we live in different realities to a certain degree. Having any kind of relationship with anyone means dwelling in that person’s distinct reality or a new reality together. This whole conundrum of trying to understand the state of things as they actually exist has taken me back to the period when I was writing Love Evil. It’s personal because the protagonist is my young adult self. She is a Peace Corps Volunteer living and working in Africa. She journals her experiences, as I once did:

Living in Africa is like living on another planet. It’s completely illogical! People believe that evil spirits hiding outside the body cause illnesses. This means that if a spirit were to get inside my body, as Iya is afraid it could, I would be the source of her sickness. The witch doctor would have to stomp on and scream at me, like he did with the stone.

Many of the scenes in my novel happened in real life. Iya (the word for “mother” in Fulfulde) was my host mother during Peace Corps Training in Cameroon. She was having headaches and hired a witch doctor to come over and cast out the evil spirit that was causing them. After chanting and fiddling around with some handmade trinkets, this doctor pointed to a spot on the ground. Something underneath the soil was the source of her headaches.

Iya made me go into the house because she was afraid for my life. Her fear came from her belief that my white skin made me weak and susceptible to the evil spirt. Back then, I was a know-it-all, a “liberated” feministic classic American college grad, and I challenged her often on her beliefs. I had no problem debating with her and her boyfriend on their Muslim religion and polygamous practices. I saw her as misguided and myself as enlightened.

That day, I stood at the window and watched the doctor dig into the earth. He found a stone, threw it up in the air, danced around a few times, jiggled his hips while popping his arms into the sky. He stretched his hands and fingers wide open, and screamed at the top of his lungs. He then pretended to watch an invisible evil spirt lift itself from the stone, float above the wall that bordered the yard, and scurry over yonder. At last, he threw the stone over the wall like a hot potato. Magically, she felt better. Her sickness was gone, according to the witch doctor. She paid him and he left.

For most of my life, it seems that I’ve been in a quandary between facts and fantasy, beliefs and reality. After Peace Corps Training, I worked at a village health center with a regular doctor. I did all kinds of things from consulting patients to assisting with the delivery of babies. I remember one morning an older man came in with a puncture wound on the back of his leg. It was the size of a quarter, full of pus, and smelled horrid. There was another wound on the front of his leg, scabbed over. He could barely walk.

“What happened?” asked the doctor.

“This here in front is where I fell. This here in back was made by my brother, to let the spirit out.”

“Was the knife clean?”

“I don’t know,” replied the man. “It was in his pocket.”

The doctor examined the wounds. “You have a nasty infection. If you had waited longer, you would surely have lost your leg, but I think we can treat you with a strong antibiotic and lots of rest.”

I took the man to the other room and then returned, where I proceeded to put the medical instruments into a pot of boiling water and clean up the examining table.

“It must be difficult to be a doctor here,” I said.

“Yes, it takes a lot of patience. You should have seen what happened a few months ago. An old man came to see me. I told him that he was dying, and there was nothing I could do. So he went to see a witch doctor, who offered him a way out.”

His eyes seemed watery; he wiped them, and forced a smile. I waited for him to regain his composure.

“A few days later, the man started feeling better. His grandson, however, got very sick and died. He was such a beautiful little boy, just five years old. It happened so quickly.”

“That’s terrible.”

“The pastor was very upset and made the man into an example of what a Christian should never do. Black magic is a big problem here.”

“Indeed it is . . . people have tried to convince me, but I don’t believe in it, honestly.”

“Better if you don’t believe. Belief is a powerful thing,” said the doctor. “It’s why we have this problem.”

“Come on—things don’t happen just because people believe in them.”

“Yes, they do. Energy comes from believers, and it shapes the reality in which they live.”

“But belief can’t take sickness from one person and give it to another. That’s impossible.”

“It’s impossible in your world and mine, because we don’t believe that something like that could happen.”

The doctor went to the other room to check on his patient. If belief becomes reality, I thought, then reality must live in the brain.

“So what part of the brain is responsible for beliefs?” I asked when he returned. “How do they get there?”

“The whole brain is an engine of beliefs. It takes sensory data, looks for patterns, and infuses them with meaning. Neurons that fire together, wire together; and this creates our world.”

“So the only way to change the reality of this place is to change people’s beliefs, by rewiring their brains?”

“You got it, Wendy. Something colossal would have to happen to change the way they see the world.”

I have an American friend, Stephanie, who lived with the same family that I lived with in Cameroon. All volunteers live with a family for three or four months during their training. Although it was one of the most challenging periods of my life, I grew close to them and we are still in touch today. Unlike me, Stephanie speaks fluent French and has returned to visit many times. She went again recently and sent me a synopsis of her observations and experience:

While it was really nice to reconnect in person with everyone, I must say that I found it not so nice to see that Cameroon is still basically in the same place — save for having cell phones —  as it was 30 years ago. In many ways, things have gotten worse. Yaoundé is overpopulated, extremely dirty with piles of rotting trash everywhere, polluted with unrelenting car emissions, suffering from horrific roads and infrastructure neglect, risking cholera outbreaks due to streams and muddy streets filled with sewage, and stifled by the worse stand-still traffic jams I have ever experienced (and I’m from LA!). This is the first time I saw scores of people picking through the trash piles on the dirt sidewalks to find food or something to sell. Theft is common; while I was there, the house I stayed in had bikes stolen from the barbed-wire, high-walled compound; the thieves continued on to the neighbor’s house and stole laptops and TVs from inside the house. Friends said that if they ever left their house for a week without anyone in it, they’d return to a completely empty shell of a home with every stick of furniture taken. I was told to never take my iPhone out in public, and if I used it in a car, to be discreet and have the doors locked and windows up.

The average person still lives in poverty and has little chance of finding full-time work, even if they have a college degree. I heard countless stories of bribery, government corruption and general neglect of public funds. Police check points /shake downs are more common than what I remember, coupled with “road safety” crews that ostensibly are there to make sure people are wearing seat belts (imagine that in a taxi-brousse; can you put a seat belt around your goat?) but really it’s just about getting beer money. Biya is still president (for life), secluded from reality in his Yaoundé hilltop fortress or in 5-star hotels in Switzerland. He and his cronies point to new stadiums and autoroutes built for hosting the Africa Cup of Nations in 2022. I saw the Bafoussam stadium: grass has already overtaken the parking lot and a lone guard was at the entrance hanging his laundry. The short and impractical Yaoundé autoroute has no cars, no hope of being maintained, and no signage except a big photoshopped photo of ever-young Biya holding a soccer ball.

There is a civil war in the Northwest and Southwest provinces with an estimated 5,000-6,000 deaths, most being civilians. Many of those in the war zone have fled east to the cities (Bafoussam and Yaoundé), contributing to the overpopulation and hygiene crisis in those already bursting locations. This is in addition to the continued displacement into Cameroon of Chadian and CAR refugees. 

Adamaoua, the North, and Extreme North are off limits to Westerners due to security concerns. Supposedly the road from N’gaoundéré to Garoua is so bad that it now takes 8-10 hours to make the journey; the infamous falaise is more dangerous than ever. And, three decades after I left, Poli still does not have an asphalt road. Merde.

You can always say “on va faire comment” and shrug it off, but overall, it was sad and I fear that my friends and yours are caught in a country that is at the brink of being a failed state. Their neighbor Gabon just went through a bloodless coup. Quickly thereafter, Biya shook up his military cabinet to ensure loyalists were at the top; a leader does that when he fears the worst. There were rumors while I was in Cameroon that Congo had a coup (false, it appears), which set off a mild panic with my friends. 

On a happy note, most people still have enough to eat, despite the fact that food prices have exponentially increased. There are several Carrefour megastores in Yaoundé and Douala — in the main Ydé Carrefour, a whole aisle is filled with Nido canisters 🙂 . The tribes and religious groups appear to be harmoniously living together (I’m not including the the Civil War between Anglophone separatists and the Francophone government in this rosy assessment). Those who can afford it continue to buy land, work in their fields, and slowly over decades, build homes. Their future is still in Cameroon. Others with healthcare degrees, science backgrounds and/or engineering/computer skills are being courted by Canada to move and work there, all expenses paid. I know a couple who is moving to Montreal in late October. Their future, along with thousands of others, is outside of Cameroon.

What’s changed the most, since I left there some thirty years ago, is my own beliefs and perceptions. I used to think we Americans were smarter than everyone else, more civilized, and even more blessed by God. America was special, and the rest of the world needed us. I had no other reason to explain our nation’s fortunes. We fought for others, for democracy. We paid for wars because we cared! I honestly believed that our nation wanted to help the whole world, while expecting nothing in return. That’s why I joined to the Peace Corps.

Today, I believe that Africa is not poor, but we are stealing its wealth through a modern form of imperialism. I believe the words of John Maynard Keynes, who said “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” Although it’s not really capitalism (for another post). I believe in the children from my village, who jumped into my deep trash pit to pull out tampon holders and the cardboard cores of toilet paper. They used my garbage to make toys.

I believe this year of 2024 is going to be one in which people’s perceptions, all over the world, change. It’s a hunch—I am not a diviner. I picture it something like what happened at the end of The Wizard of Oz, when the wizard behind the curtain was exposed. This will be followed by a financial reset in 2025. I believe whatever happens will work together for good and ultimately bring people together in a way we haven’t experienced before. I believe in doing a happy-new-year dance for your dogs, cats, and kids. I believe in eudemonia: happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason. That’s the best we all can do.

Happy new year to you, and happy birthday to my mommy who was born on this calendar day in 1947! A lot has changed since 1947, eh? Just about everything! And a lot more will change over the coming years. While I know that calendars and years and birthdays are a human construct, that only our species keeps track of time this way, that today is really just another sunrise and sunset we get to enjoy on Planet Earth…I believe people’s perceptions of reality are getting closer to the state of things as they actually exist…I believe in people’s ability to change for the better…And I believe this leap year of 366 days will bring it on.

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