Toussaint and a Tragic Clash of Cultures



 (click on image above to access the link to the article)

I was scrolling through some articles on the New York Times website, and this one, “The Boy, the Ambassador and the Deadly Encounter on the Road,” written by Helene Cooper, was particularly compelling. The tragic story of six-year-old Toussaint, who was struck by one of fourteen S.U.V.’s escorting a UN ambassador to a nearby refugee camp earlier this year, is full of cultural contrasts, valuable insights, and questions of impressions.

Examples of village life in Mokong, Cameroon give the reader an honest image: “The women carrying their onions to market atop their heads step aside when a car approaches. The occasional stray cow ambles down the center, chased by local herders. The men with logs balance jerkily, while an entire family wobbles precariously by on one bicycle.” You get the idea that life here is rural, and yes, there is poverty, but Cooper’s description is not doused in pity or sadness.

Toussaint Birwe, thoughtful, curious, fascinated with insects, reminds me of my little brother at age six. The fondness his parents and grandmothers have for him sounds like my own family. And his dedication to an older, taller boy at school? Well, we were all there once.

Cooper’s descriptions of family life in Mokong make it seem relatable, especially in contrast to the Americans. “Gleaming white sport utility vehicles” and the “American Navy SEALs… [with] automatic weapons in their arms and bandannas covering their faces” blaze through the road leading to a refugee camp nearby. For many residents of Mokong, this is their only impression of us. In this article, my fellow Americans look more like inaccessible and all-powerful gods, like high-tech executives in a sci-fi movie. This interesting clash of cultures opens up all kinds of questions about the lasting impressions each group takes away from each other.

Of course, the American motorcade had no choice but to amass the security that it did. Their close proximity to a recent terror attack and their nationality itself were threats (another gem of this article was how informative it was about security and the local risk factors). I found this tidbit particularly interesting:

But the Islamic group has struck villages closer to the border and the Sambisa Forest, where American military officials believe most of the fighters have been hiding.Two weeks before Ms. Power’s convoy came through, Boko Haram kidnapped three children from Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North.

To the villagers in Mokong, that assault was a distant twenty miles away. To the United States security officials escorting the convoy, that attack was far too close for comfort. That difference in perception says much about African and American cultures, and the varying tolerances each has for risk.

And of course, the tragic centerpiece of this tale is little Toussaint’s death. It’s hard to discern if there is any blame to place– it happened so fast, the driver was in a rush for security reasons, Toussaint was small and should not have run into the road like he did. It would have been difficult to avoid and no one meant for it to happen. Nonetheless, anger and grief were unavoidable, especially given the immediate response. The American convey had no choice but to keep moving so as not to become a terrorist target. It left villagers confused and enraged, and definitely not in favor of their American visitors. The Americans did what they could by later returning to the village to express their sorrow and promise reparations to the family, which consisted of “$1,700 in cash; two cows; sacks of flour, rice, salt, sugar and onions; and cartons of soap and oil” along with a well outside their home. I would like to know about other cases of civilian deaths abroad as a result of the American government– how is the compensation determined? Is it a fair value? What happens if American negligence is proven?

The accident in Mokong was senseless, somber and the damage it did to Cameroonians ‘ perceptions of our country and, not to mention, the Biwre family is beyond repair. Cooper did a good job of showcasing the emotions of the villagers, while not being overly critical of the American convoy (which expressed authentic grief). Her thorough account allows readers to form their own takeaways of an incident not necessarily denouncing of the American convoy, but unfortunate in nature. I am glad that a worthwhile piece, rich in emotion, honesty, and lessons, was dedicated to Toussaint amidst so many other urgent and large scale tragedies around the world. I highly recommend this article.


source: The New York Times

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