Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barack Obama Coiffure

On the way into Garoua, our provincial capital for the time being, there is a hair salon of sorts which has recently changed its name... I don't know exactly whose coiffure it was originally, but last week it was officially re-christened, "Barack Obama Coiffure". The new and improved Barack Obama Coiffure joins the legions of "Fan Club Barack Obama" establishments that have spontaneously materialized over the last two weeks. These days on the streets of our training town the standard greeting of, "Nassara!" is occasionally replaced with "Barack Obama!!", always accompanied by a jubilant pump of at least one fist. As I imagine most people abroad at the moment could affirm, people here in Cameroon are absolutely hysterically excited about the next President of the United States, and it has been really cool to witness that excitement and hopem. Really and truly this victory has become a victory for all Africans in the eyes of so many people here... "On va dominer!", "We are going to dominate!" one of my neighbors yelled to me yesterday. It's really a magic time to be an American abroad, at least in Cameroon, because overnight the attitude towards Americans has changed dramatically, from ambivalence if not outright dislike to admiration and inspiration. Someone else commented to us the day after the election, "In America, anything really is possible."

The past two weeks have been full of new and exciting changes. On election night I was actually hours away from my homestay family and fellow trainees in a village in the Mandara mountains which will be my home for the next two years (well, after I finish training next month). I woke up at around 4:30 in the morning and stepped outside with my radio in time to catch the end of the live broadcast of John McCain's concession speech under an incredible African sky full of stars.

My week at post with the current volunteer was wonderful. My town is medium-sized and is home to the district health center, serving as a referral center for 11 smaller health centers scattered throughout the neighboring mountain villages. I will be working with all the health centers in some capacity, though the work to be done with each of them varies tremendously. Some have no electricity or running water and all of 10 boxes of medicine in their pharmacies, while others have beautiful, freshly painted buildings and all the basic health equiptment but very few patients coming to use their services. I am both intimidated and exhilirated by the challenges and possibilities that await me there, as well as the nearly limitless potential for projects. The post is also physically beautiful and the previous Peace Corps Volunteers who have served there have had really positive experiences with the people of the area as well. Back in training now I find myself impatient to get to post and get started doing the real service work I anticipated when I joined the Peace Corps.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Every day is a journey

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
- Matsuo Basho

I've been struggling a little bit in figuring out what to write on this blog, because although each and every day here is full of new and ridiculous and wonderful adventures, reducing the experiences to a few words that will mean something to anyone else is a little tricky. So today I'm going to try to describe something of my daily life here, though no two days are the same, hoping some of the wonder and novelty and randomness comes across.

Most days I wake up around 5:30 to the call to prayer from the Mosque across town, in time to see the incredible colors left over from the sunrise and bask in the 70° morning air which will heat to 90° or more over the next hour. The next 15 minutes or so are the closest thing I get to silence throughout the day, as the village is only beginning to wake up. By 6:00 life is happening at full speed as my brother and sisters wash themselves and the dishes in the courtyard and my father ushers the goats out into the street to begin their day of grazing around the neighborhood. By 6:45 I'm sitting down to a breakfast which alternates between fried dough, pain au chocolat and an omelet, all with hot, sugary tea. After breakfast it's off to the Peace Corps training center behind my brother and sisters headed to school. It's about a 10 minute walk from my house to the center, and one of the other volunteers made the really brilliant analogy that most days it feels like the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast as someone shouts, "Bonjour!" every 5 or 6 steps and little children run up to shake our hands.

Training consists of multiple hours of language class as well as technical skills training given by current Peace Corps Volunteers and cross-cultural and medical presentations from Peace Corps staff. Our new favorite person is the women who sits just outside the gate of the Peace Corps compound selling bags of peanuts the size of a fist for 25 FCFA, about $0.05. The little finds like this (they come in a sugar-roasted variety too!), or the cheese that doesn't have to be refrigerated, have become our big daily victories as we try to create a little bit of similarity to home away from home here in Africa.

After school we usually head out for bike rides, play soccer or grab a cold drink at one of the local bars before heading home to our families around 6, as the sun goes down and the bats the size of small dogs and the mosquitos start to come out. I eat a dinner of couscous and sauce and then watch spanish soap operas dubbed into French for a while before having a wonderfully cool bucket bath under the stars and going to bed to BBC World News at 9, tucked safely away under my mosquito net.

So that's the average day, though no day is really average, what with dying lizards falling out of trees onto my classmates heads, US presidential election absentee ballots being hand-delivered to us on a Sunday afternoon at a party to benefit Chadian refugees or motorcycles carrying three people and a bleating goat flying by. Life is never boring, and I hope reading about it hasn't been!

Thanks for all your messages and thoughts, it's wonderful to hear from friends and family around the world. You are all in my thoughts frequently, each step of this journey.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On est ensemble

(Written 10.05)

On est ensemble. Three simple words of greeting given to us by our health trainers which encompass so much more. Literally translated as We are together it's a phrase which describes the general sentiment around training these days pretty well. We are together....a lot.....learning language, sweating profusely, sharing many of the same struggles and victories as we progress through the weeks. I've been in Cameroon for just over two weeks now – a quantification that doesn't begin to match up with my sense of time these days. In many ways it seems so much more than 2 weeks ago that I first stepped off the plane in Douala and into the 100 degree heat, remembering little of my French from high school and completely clueless about the culture or the country I was walking into. Two weeks later finds me living with a Cameroonian family of 8, rattling off French and Fulfulde greetings to my friends and neighbors every time I walk out the door, dodging goats and motorcycles with similar frequency-- and on multiple occasions simultaneously --as I walk to school, and perfecting the art of the bucket shower under the stars at the end of each sweaty, crazy day. In two weeks I've already learned and experienced so much...I've learned to appreciate the late afternoon downpour that breaks the 100+ degree heat, the stranger who invites me into their home to share their Ramadan meal. I've learned to wash my clothes by hand in a bucket and eat with my hands and (kind of) bargain for prices in the market, and so much more. Life is pretty simple, and pretty awesome in its novelty so far.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taking the plunge...again

A ship in the harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are for.
~ William Shedd

Today I officially join the Peace Corps as a trainee, the first big step into the next two years of my life. It is fitting that three years ago today I took another big step as myself and a dozen friends threw ourselves off the 218 m Bloukran's Bridge in Storm's River, South Africa trusting our entire lives to a few hundred feet of bungee cord and a set of cloth harnesses. Though certainly not equal, both these experiences represent conscious decisions I have made to not let fear or uncertainty hold me back from experiences which might help me grow and challenge some of my fears.

In joining the Peace Corps today I am certainly forcing myself out of my comfort zone and into an experience which I know will be incredible because it is going to challenge me physically and emotionally and mentally from the very first day. Living with a family that is not my own, who do not really speak my language, who eat food that I don't even recognize and who are probably a little freaked out about hosting me too, not knowing a single person I am going to be spending the next three months's incredibly intimidating and incredibly exciting too.

My overall ambitions for the next 27 months are fairly simple. I want to completely open myself to the experiences which come along, especially the difficult or frightening ones. I want to give as much of myself as I can to help the people in my village help themselves by identifying ways to improve their health that are both culturally appropriate and feasible without continual external aid. I want to work as hard as I can to understand health and illness from their perspective and find solutions and ways of sharing knowledge that respect these perspectives while also presenting plausible alternatives. And I want to continue to tackle new fears head-on and overcome them and grow.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Countdown to Cameroon

I officially have two weeks left before I begin the next 27 months of my life! At this point I've gotten past most of the anxiety about being away for so long and I'm excited to get back to Africa! I have very little idea what to expect from Cameroon or the Peace Corps (probably overall a good thing) but I'm really hopeful that Central Africa will be every bit as wonderful as Southern Africa was.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me this summer will know how much I agonized over what to name this blog...I enlisted the help of several friends and family in brainstorming for a clever title like my friend Liz's, the PCV in Benin who got to name her blog 'Benin There, Done That.' Or the Cameroon PCV (who I can't wait to meet) who already has a blog called 'That's What She Said.' The competition was pretty tough and at times I doubted if I could even write a blog if I couldn't even come up with a catchy name...

In the end I've decided to go for idealistic instead of clever and borrow some lines from a wonderful Nigerian poet, Ben Okri. These words depict so much of what I love about my experiences of Africa so far -- the amazing hope and joy that people seem to be able to effortlessly create in the face of what I -- and I think most Americans -- would consider incredibly depressing and hopeless circumstances. While I doubt that I'll profoundly change the world by spending two years in the Peace Corps, I do not doubt that my life will be changed and inspired by the experiences I have here. I hope this blog will be a way for me to include some of you in these experiences, both in the moments of difficulty and frustration as well as the moments of hope and inspiration.