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There is a lot of snow on the pavement here now. A few days ago, when the snow was not yet there, I made some interesting observations: you can date the age of a pavement by the number of chewing gum spots. The scale has not yet been calibrated, but obviously, new paving slabs do not yet have chewing gum spots, or only a few of them, while older ones are heavily covered with them.

Planetary scientists use the same idea to date the age of the surfaces of planets or moons. The more impact craters, the older the surface. Of course, that depends on the number of meteorites (chewing gums), but once you have established a statistics about that, dating becomes easy.

Other things you see a lot on pavements here in Cologne are cigarette stubs and little piles of dog shit.

In Cameroon, on the other hand, where I have just been visiting, pavements look very different.

First of all, there is no snow, but secondly, there is no pavement either. You have to walk on the tarmac of the street (if there is any), or you walk on a dusty or muddy or grassy “side walk”. Since people are walking on the street, it is a good idea for drivers to drive in the middle of the street instead of staying in their lane. Of course, you have to look for oncoming traffic. Well, driving in Cameroon is a story of its own…

The little remains of chewing gum are not there. So for dating the tarmac, different methods would have to be used (like the number of potholes). You don’t see a lot of chewing-gum-chewers in Cameroon. You also don’t see a lot of smokers. It looks like smoking never really caught on there. The smokers are mostly older men, but I am not sure about the statistics because in three weeks I have only seen three smokers, hardly a representative sample.

The dog shit piles are also missing (but not being missed – however, here in Europe it is better if you miss them). There are not many dogs in Cameroon. Some people keep a watchdog. Pet dogs in the sense Europeans and Americans have them are unheard of in Cameroon. People won’t believe that in Germany, there are shops selling special food and even toys for dogs, and stuff like that. Try telling them and they think you want to make fun of them. To have a pet is such a strange idea for a Cameroonian that in fact a Cameroonian social anthropologist named Flavien Ndonko wrote a scientific paper about the strange customs pertaining to dogs in Germany ( The paper’s title is “Deutsche Hunde. Ein Beitrag zum verstehen deutscher Menschen” (“German Dogs. A contribution to the understanding of German humans”). I met Flavien at the place of a shared friend in Hamburg; it was one of the funniest evenings in my life.

There is a great need for African social anthropologists to come to Europe and America and study the strange customs of the folks here! And there would be lots of discoveries to be made. When in Cameroon, I visited a university there (we were in the city of Buéa when they had the graduation celebrations. There were about 6000 Students graduating that day, plus their families. The city was full with people). Strangely, that university does not have a department for anthropological or ethnological studies of Europeans. A big gap in the academic landscape of Africa (I mean it!).

In his 1970 book “African Religions in Western Scholarship” (A highly recommended book, by the way) the Kenyan philosopher and writer Okot p’Bitek asked “Is there a place for social anthropology in an African University?”

He answered: “In my opinion the answer is, no. The departments of social anthropology in African universities where camping grounds for Western anthropologists. African universities can ill-afford to maintain these bases. Africans have no interest in perpetuating the myth of the “primitive”. The study of African peoples and their culture is the task of the whole university. What western social anthropologists purported to study, in the interest of their countries, will be covered by the Humanities departments: History, Geography, Economics, Languages, Literature etc., in the interest of African development.”

He was absolutely right, but what he did not see was a chance to turn those departments into centers for “North-Atlantic studies” studying the Germanic and Romanic tribes of the north. Flavien is a pioneer here!

To come back to the pavements: one thing you see lying around everywhere in Cameroon is small plastic bags. People buy little plastic bags with cooked peanuts as a snack, or whatever. There are not trash cans, so the packaging will end up in the street. Since people do not have much money at a time, they will also buy things in small amounts. So you see small plastic packages for instant coffee (for one cup), for washing powder (for one batch of clothes), for brandy (just one drink), and so on. In some places, people throw these things into the rivers, so they and up in the oceans, causing havoc for marine life. In many places, they burn them. When I visited Cameroon in 1999, the prevailing scents where those of fresh plants (it was at the beginning of the rainy season) and of charcoal. This times, these components were also there in the normal mix of scents, but a very prominent component, at least in the bigger cities, was the scent of burnt plastic. In Bamenda, a city situated in a basin, we actually experienced smog. I am sure the one in Beijing is worse, but it was not nice at all. I don’t know if the difference to 1999 was that in the rainy season they don’t burn so much of the stuff because it tends to be wet or if it had just increased – the scent of economic growth. This is a problem that needs a solution. People should be paid for bringing plastic trash (and other non-organic trash) to places where it is collected and sorted. The unusable stuff could then be sent to a landfill or a proper incinerator (with filters). One could finance such a scheme by taking customs or taxes on imported or newly produced plastic. This would make plastic things slightly more expensive but would bring some money to the hands of the poor and would remove trash and smoke from the environment.

Today, more snow kept covering the pavements. I am dreaming of Cameroon…

4 thoughts on “Pavements

    • Looks like we humans can never get what we like. The good thing is always what you don’t have.
      Generally however, I think one has to train to decouple the mood from the weather. If the weather is bad, let the mood at least be good.

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