Monday, November 9, 2009

Small miracles

The sunlight is an explosion of gold filtering through the dust kicked up by skipping feet, shuffling hooves, spinning wheels and ricochets off the fiery orange uniforms that silhouette the bodies of the children who fill the primary school yard. It lasts only a moment before our Jeep has passed on heading back into the city, but that's long enough for me to see that the scene has changed in the hour since I last passed this way, heading out of town to the airport. Dad must be on his bus headed for Garoua by now, just one more adventure in living in Cameroon as the airplane which was supposed to be transporting him has been detained in Garoua, the next provincial capital, 2.5 hours away, because of the dust in the air here. As I begin the return to my everyday life as a volunteer once more, the transformation of this simple schoolyard scene, which I pass by without a second glance on any given day, makes it clear that my vision has shifted.
Among Peace Corps Volunteers, the collective wisdom maintains that around 11-15 months of service (I'm at 14 right now), disillusionment and impatience with the system are commonly-experienced emotions. While a year is certainly long enough to experience the difficult side of living in, and interacting with, any place, it's easy to let that overwhelm you and cause you to lose sight of the beautiful, the unique and the wonderful things that also exist in any place if you can look with the right eyes. Being surrounded by people who are more or less mirroring (though imperfectly, with various refinements) your experiences and reactions, losing some degree of perspective becomes simple. Having the chance to re-experience the place for the first time as my dad did, I was reminded of the many discoveries which can come with presuming the best about someone rather than the worst, the reward to be gained from seeing an individual rather than a stereotype, no matter how much that stereotype is grounded in experience, the miracle in the man crippled by polio who still manages to propel himself through the world with nothing more than two hands and his tenacity.
Recounting this I realize I'm depicting myself as somewhat of a modern Scrooge. That's not really what I'm trying to say. There are still many things each and every day which take my breath away with their beauty, their poignancy or just their staggering reality, but with time I do acknowledge that I've also lost sight of much of the initial magic or potential held by every moment. It's nice to have some of that objectivity back after four days of showing this incredible (in every sense of that word) country to my dad, and I hope I can hold on to this new perspective a while.
So without further ado, here are some of the small miracles I experience all the time:
* The brilliance of the sky at night when the electricity goes out
* Standing in the middle of a cotton field with nothing but mountains around for miles
* The people who silently forgive me the mistakes I never even realize I have made
* Sunset scenes over the mountains, that come in every color depending on the dust/clouds in the air
* The ease with which I can often make people smile or laugh, just by attempting to speak their language or carry something on my head
* The grace and kindness found in unexpected places
* The feats of balance and strength I get to witness every single day, whether involving motorcycles, bikes, or just one's own body

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Muzungu! Wut up?! or "Adventures in East Africa"

Warning, this blog is epic.

“Oh my gosh, this is the nicest place I've ever stayed!” Jana and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, then quickly swung back around to see if the incredible sight before us was really true. There it was, the balcony overlooking ebulliently flowering trees sloping down to the deep blue water tinged gold by the setting sun. Welcome to the Deluxe Geodome of Boonyoni Amagara Hostel on Itambira Island, Lake Bunyoni, southern Uganda. It's proof of how long I've been in Cameroon and traveling African style that it took me about 2 hours to realize that despite the en suite outdoor shower (water questionably solar heated) and pit latrine, with stunning views over the lake, these accommodations would probably still not quite have prompted the “nicest place I've ever stayed” comment from most of you reading this, or from myself a year ago. But after nearly one year in the Sahel semi-desert region of north Cameroon the abundant lakes and lushly forested hills and towering volcanoes that form the border lands between northern Rwanda, southwestern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined with decently paved roads and Cadbury chocolate to create the closest thing to paradise I think I'll see for a while.

Our two day stay on Itambira Island came after almost a week of traveling in northern Rwanda, beginning in the capital city of Kigali and continuing to Gisenyi, a town on Lake Kivu bordering Goma, DRC before crossing the border at Cyanika into southern Uganda. The city of Kigali has undergone such rapid growth that the map in our (2006) Lonely Planet could barely even serve as a starting point for finding our way around (the fact that we had it upside down for the first day may also have contributed). Luckily with English, French, Jana's knowledge of the local KinyaRwandan language and some strong legs we managed to navigate the city center area pretty well and found some great places for eating and drinking (including a local beans and chapati breakfast that cost about $0.50). Thanks to strict prohibitions on littering and a country-wide ban on plastic bags, Kigali is by far the cleanest city I have visited in Africa (and maybe America too!) It's also home to hundreds of international NGOs, so our novelty as “muzungus” (white people) was pretty limited. Combine all this with the full-size Nakumatt supermarket featuring (at least, for me these are features) assorted European chocolate bars, cheese and ice cream (all things in short supply nearly anywhere in Cameroon) and Kigali comes out seeming like a city that wouldn't be out of place in a much more developed country. The triumph of this city is highlighted from the gardens of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, set on a hill outside the city center. As visitors move outside from the museum building, with its history of the conflict and tribute to its victims and heroes, and begin to descend to the mass grave and memorial gardens, the skyline of downtown Kigali is clearly visible across the hills, suggesting the progress towards a future that has been made from such a chilling past. To be honest, I found the memorial itself to be fairly infuriating in that it seemed a quintessentially Western way of writing and remembering the history of the genocide, with little to offer the citizens of the country who continue to exist in the aftermath. But maybe it is meant primarily for us (it certainly feels targeted that way), the Western tourists first and foremost, to offer a venue for reflection on our complicity in this atrocity and provide some measure of absolution of guilt afterward. I don't necessarily know how I would have remembered or memorialized the genocide differently, only that this attempt felt contrived and hollow. That being said, coming from a Western perspective I sensed the history of the genocide in every area of the country I visited. At the Memorial, we learned that the Catholic Mission where we were staying had sheltered thousands of Tutsis during the genocide, and that the St. Famille Church we passed each day on our walk in to town had been the site of a massacre of other Tutsis hiding there who were betrayed by a pastor of the Church. On the road from Kigali to Gisenyi, the word genocide must have appeared on at least 10 signposts for various turnoffs, though what was being said about the genocide was unclear as the signs were in KinyaRwandan. The other overwhelming feeling I got from the country though truly was one of a drive for progress. All along the roadways between Kigali, Rhuhengeri and Gisenyi (over 3 hours of travel) we saw men and women tenaciously farming the hillsides (which sometimes sprung from the earth at 70° gradients!), but also digging in trenches that ran along either side of the road the entire way. The push towards development of the infrastructure of the country is impossible to miss. Hopefully in developing that infrastructure and building Rwanda's future, some measure of peace is being made with the tumultuous past.

Entering Uganda from Rwanda was a simple matter of paying a $50 visa fee and visiting about 3 different officials for the appropriate documentation. From the border we headed for Kisoro, the town nearest the village where my friend Mark is serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. The same beautiful, green rolling hills continue throughout the area, set against the dramatic backdrop (on a clear day at least) of the Virunga volcanoes. Kisoro is the launching point for the Gorilla treks which make the area renowned; it's the region that inspired the book Gorillas in the Mist, about the life and work of primatologist Dian Fossey. After a night's rest in Kisoro Jana and I crammed ourselves into a matatu, or bush taxi, and began the sweaty but breathtaking ride to Kabale, the town that would launch us to Lake Bunyoni and the Amagara Island hostel. The distance as the crow flies between Kisoro and Kabale is 30 km, but with a route almost completely defined by hillside switchbacks the trip took the better part of 4 hours. A quick taxi ride (this time a personal taxi with a driver who helped us get caught up on all our American celebrity gossip) landed us on the shores of Lake Bunyoni, where we'd heard there was free transport to the island... which there was, sure enough, in the form of a hollowed-out eucalytpus tree trunk, powered by (alternately) Jana or I and our trusty guide Bright. The ride took nearly an hour, but the stunning views of the other islands and the lake made the time seem to fly, at least whenever I wasn't holding an oar. Upon arriving on the island, we checked in to our fabulous geodome, and spent the next two days enjoying the sun, the water, the stars, the stories and company of fellow travelers and the hostel restaurant, which was definitely designed to cater to the tastes of Western travelers (veggie wraps, quesadillas, french toast, oh my!) When the time came to leave, we decided to jump in with 4 other guests and pay the motorboat to take us back to the mainland. It was nice to get that perspective on the trip too, though it got us back to reality just a bit too fast. Reality this time took the form of a 90 minute wait to fill a shared taxi back to Kisoro. The day was so clear and beautiful though that once again the views of the volcanoes and the countryside made the time pass easily. One of the men in the front seat (there were two in addition to the driver, plus 4 of us in the back of this Toyota Corolla) was wearing an Eto'o (Cameroon's most famous football player) jersey, and I tried 3 times to bond with him over that fact, but because of the language differences probably only succeeded in convincing him that muzungus are crazy. We spent the next two nights in Kisoro with Craig from Scotland, the local VSO volunteer, shooting pool, eating beans and matoke (a type of banana) and learning the dance moves to Kwatcha Kwatcha, a Ugandan pop-hit. This also gave my friend Declan time to perfect his distillation of some really cheap vodka (hint, it comes in plastic packets kind of like sweet and sour sauce at a Chinese restaurant) using cooking charcoal and coffee filters. We also climbed one of the hills that surround the town to get some perspective on Kisoro and the incredible countryside that surrounds it, before heading to yet another lake, the name of which I have forgotten, where we got to swim in full, amazing view of the volcanoes (and allegedly surrounded by pythons), much to the entertainment of the villagers living on the hill nearby. After stocking up on veggies, avocados and passion fruit (and being so distracted by some pineapples that I stepped into the street and collided with a bicyclist), we headed over the hills to Mark's village, where we enjoyed more time together beside another lake (keep in mind the I get excited when the seasonal rivers around my village have puddles in them), watched Declan create a bike-powered cell phone charger, visited the health center and met several of Mark's friends and co-workers. A highlight for me was definitely the milkman's visits each night with still-warm milk which we then boiled (got to avoid the tuberculosis) and enjoyed under the crystal clear night sky. To see another Peace Corps post in a different country was really interesting, as so many things differ between our assignments, not least of which is the temperature (and environment)! In Uganda, health care is provided free of charge by the government, and HIV/AIDS is a prominent issue for the country, and one around which much dialogue is focused, whereas in Cameroon health services are user-paid and, at least in the north, HIV/AIDS has been heard of, but not something people would generally admit to having or about which the majority of people are educated, beyond the sometimes meaningless mantra of “abstinence, fidelity, condoms”.

All too soon I found myself back across the border, down to Kigali and flying above the clouds through a breathtaking lightning storm over the Central African Republic, on my way home to Cameroon. And in many ways coming back really did feel like coming home – to where people understood my French, I knew the value of things and I could name more than one major city. Nothing could have been a more appropriate welcome than preparing to board my flight back to Douala from Nairobi, a flight that could not have been more than 1/3 full but for which, nonetheless, the opening of the gate prompted what could best be likened to a one-way rugby scrum as all 25 people boarding this huge 747 attempted to get through the 6 foot wide doorway at once. One year in, On est toujours ensemble.

By the way, more pictures are here:

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quand on chant, on ne bouge pas.

Amadou, quand on chant, on ne bouge pas.

"Amadou, when we sing, we don't move." These were the first words out of the master of ceremony's mouth as the last strains of the Cameroonian national anthem faded out, and they were directed at the energetic 5 year old standing in the third row. You see, during the national anthem, this young man had been unable to contain his enthusiasm and made it known by walking up to the front row and vigorously tapping the person sitting at the end of it. Thus began the graduation ceremony for the 50 or so paper crown-adorned nursery school students finishing the 2009 school year. I couldn't help laughing at this start, because I can so clearly picture my own mother admonishing one of her energetic young students in exactly the same way.

And in many ways this ceremony definitely proved that some kid behaviors are 100% universal. For the next 75 minutes or so I watched 5 and 6 year olds perform songs explaining the days of the week and the months of the year (in French AND English!), introducing themselves, reciting speeches about family and school, playing games like musical chairs and engaging in contests to see who could eat the fastest and which young man could put his shirt on and button it up most quickly (no contest actually, as the second place contestant couldn't even get his first button done.) And of course plenty of 'bouging' despite the instructions of the principal. It was a really fun and funny afternoon, from start to finish. Before the ceremony started I got to watch the graduates arriving with their families and it was fun to watch the kids try to rig their seating arrangements at the front of the crowd.

While so much of the ceremony could have taken place in any nursery school back home, a few elements did remind me where I actually was. These were the skits presented on HIV/AIDS and family planning, and hearing 5 year olds telling one another to practice abstinence, be faithful or use condoms was certainly something else. The kids seemed to love acting out the family planning skit, as most of them got to be kids, coming before their mother and father with the newest crying addition to the family to ask for food, for money for school fees, for medicine for a sick stomach. Who knows how much of either message registered with the kids or the audience, but it sure was a reality-check!

This was definitely one of the most fun/interesting graduations I've attended in a long time (my own included), perhaps in no small part due to the fact that the stars of the show had an even shorter attention span than I did, making the last 10 minutes of prize presentations a near free-for-all. I found myself thinking back fondly to the days when I performed “Shoo fly, don't bother me” and swung fans at my kindergarten classmates on the stage at Garden Street. That would probably have been right up my pal Amadou's alley.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Les blancs font les choses!

Continuing the French lessons, this literally means, “White people do things!” and was the theme of my most recent conversations with Jacques, mostly regarding a number of technologies that have been developed to facilitate health care in alternatively-resourced settings such as rural Cameroon. We were discussing vaccine vial monitors, small squares stuck onto all vaccines which portray a purple circle surrounding a white square to indicate that the vaccine has not been exposed to temperatures which would render it useless during its travels from the laboratory to the rural heath worker's cooler. In the event that a vaccine has been allowed to get too hot and therefore become ineffective, the white square turns dark purple. It is a pretty great technology. another technology that impressed Jacques are the auto-disable syringes whose plungers cannot be retracted after being used once, thereby making it impossible to use the same needle to inject multiple people. The whole conversation started when Jacques was putting together a safety box for the disposal of used syringes and other medical materials. The box starts as a flat piece of cardboard and after following 7 steps of folding and punching out pieces it becomes a free-standing rectangular box complete with a handle and an opening with a sliding cover for inserting the used materials. The most recent development to come our way shows further how the manufacturers of these products recognize the realities of the health care workers who use these items everyday to save lives at the village level. The new pentavalent DTPw-Hib vaccine, which comes in the form a solvent which must be mixed with the vaccine solute before administration of the vaccine, comes in vials containing 2 doses of vaccine each. The advance here is that many of our rural vaccine posts only attract 5-10 children for each monthly visit, and since vaccines which must be mixed prior to administration, like the Hib, lose their efficacy between 10-12 hours after mixing, I've seen health workers decide not to vaccinate kids directly on schedule with these vaccines because to vaccinate 2 children they will then lose 18 doses of a vaccine such as BCG, which comes in a 20 dose vial.

All this equipment may seem rudimentary from the standpoint of the American system of medical care, but the difference it makes out here in the villages of Cameroon is hard to exaggerate. When studying such advances in school, I acknowledged these as neat and creative solutions to some significant technical problems with delivering health care in developing countries, but to actually see them at work is to understand that it is nearly impossible to exaggerate the difference they make. In a place where electricity, if it exists, is sporadic at best, vaccine vial monitors literally save thousands of lives that would be lost to vaccine-preventable diseases otherwise. For people whose manner of existence depends on the nearly infinite recycling of almost every possession, where children routinely scavenge things from piles of trash to use as material for toys, auto-disable syringes and safety boxes prevent many injuries as well as illnesses. So whether it's accurate to claim that it is the 'white people' doing these things or not, the impact is not lost on the rural health workers whose daily lives these advances impact profoundly.

Women's Day and Fete de Toro

March 8th marked the 98th Global Women's Day. In Cameroon, the day is celebrated with parades, debates and cultural celebrations in many villages. The women who parade nearly all sport outfits made from the same fabric designed specially for the occasion and sold country-wide. The parade itself is very brief, with women in various groupings marching in front of a bandstand with a number of local officials and spectators. The event was much smaller than that held for International Youth Day, and in some ways struck me as “Much ado about nothing”. For the most part, the women who are able to participate in this and most of the other events of the day are those whose husbands will allow them to buy the fabric and have their outfits made, as well as leave the household to take part in the festivities. It kind of strikes me as a Hallmark holiday taken to the extreme. My village didn't have a debate this year, though they had in previous years, the most recent of which turned into a session advocating the right of men to use violence to control wives who are not fulfilling their domestic obligations. Subjugation of women is a serious issue in my community and nearly all others throughout the region. One colleague told me he was not going to do anything for his wife for women's day because she did not respect and honor her obligations to the household and went out with her friends whenever she wanted to. This is a commonly accepted rationale, and the Women's Day celebration here did little to combat or even address this mindset. Joanna and I also attended the gala in the evening which turned out to be another pretty exclusive event, attended almost solely by the members of my community with power and means, which was disappointing but educational. The awkward highlight of the day was the invitation to participate in the opening dance, which I tried to refuse before being told that it would be insulting to do so. They then explained that what I would have to do was dance with a mystery “cavalier” (literally, knight), who would be announced just before the dance. As all this happened before dinner, I spent most of the meal agonizing over who I was going to be assigned to dance with and creating countless scenarios where I phenomenally screwed it up....luckily I was actually one of about 6 “couples” thrown together and the ceremony of opening the dance only lasted for about 8 seconds, largely uneventful thankfully!

Another interesting celebration which I got to witness the same week was the Fete de Toro, a traditional Mafa celebration which happens once every 3 years. My counterpart and I biked out to one of the villages served by our health center for the occasion. All week different villages had been taking turns celebrating with music, dancing, drinking and the ceremony involving the release of the bull from a compound and then the chasing down of that bull by any individual wishing to be involved. Jacques and I arrived in the village and after leaving our bikes at the house of one of the health center workers were shown up the side of a nearby hill to where a huge crowd was forming. At the top of the hill were set about 5 small huts which made up the compound of the family who had chosen to sacrifice one of their bulls. There were easily 250 people scattered throughout the houses and also across the rocky sides of the hill, a set-up which seemed the perfect storm for disaster if the bull got too wild during the chase. At the time of our arrival, the organizing committee, which is appointed by the traditional chief of the village and is identifiable by the wooden sticks they carry, were in the process of deciding whether to release this bull or not. After studying the situation carefully, they walked away from the hut where the bull was confined and moved off down the hill, followed by many of the villagers. One explained to us that the committee had chosen not to use this bull because they sensed that something bad would happen if they did. Given the layout and location of the crowd and the compound, I told Jacques I was inclined to agree, but he just laughed at me and explained that it wasn't that the environment was hazardous, just that after careful study the organizers had sensed something in the nature of the whole situation, the nature of the bull and the atmosphere of the day, which had foreboded disaster to them, so they decided to move on.
Luckily for us, there was one other bull in the village which had been offered for the fete, so after descending the first hill and climbing part way up another we were fortunate enough to find a bull that the organizers deemed acceptable and the fete was on. The head of the organizing committee coaxed the bull out of the enclosure within the compound and out into the field in front of the house, and what followed was a crazy scene of men jumping around grabbing at the bull in order to catch and subdue it as it bucked and stumbled around the yard, sending whole sections of the crowd scurrying out of the way. Fortunately Jacques and I got to observe the action undisturbed from a rock ledge partway up the hill. After a few laps around the field, the bull was at last mastered and guided back into the compound by the committee head, and the young man who conquered it was patted on the head with a handful of flour to mark that he had succeeded. The conquered bull would now be kept in the house for another 2-3 days before being slaughtered and eaten by the village in yet another celebration.
I asked around a bit (with Jacques translating the Mafa for me) to find out more about the origins of the Fete de Toro, but the closest thing to an explanation that I was able to get was that it helps them mark the passage of time in the Mafa culture: for example if someone wanted to approximate the age of a child, they would figure out how many Fete de Toros the child had lived through. Whatever the original reason, it was certainly an interesting cultural tradition for me to witness, and provided plenty of conversation with Jacques as I tried to explain the Western tradition of bull fighting, which definitely stretched my French vocabulary as well.
I think that's about all for now. Nearly every day continues to hold some new adventure, and I'll try to write more frequently and share these with you all when I can. Thanks for all the thoughts and comments.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Riddle

What do you get when you combine two different teams of majorettes doing routines to 'Do You Believe in Life After Love', a lightening fast 1000 m footrace won by a teen wearing jelly shoes and so much dust in the air that the temperature was nearly 10° cooler than normal?

Well, my village's celebration of the Fete de la Jeunesse, National Youth Day, for one. This week long celebration began with several nights of cultural soirees (shows) put on by students from many of the schools in and around the village, featuring many choreographed dance routines to both African and Western music, skits on subjects like corruption, health and disease, and gender relations in Cameroon, which the students had spent weeks preparing. There was a huge turnout for each show, including all the important elected and appointed government officials for the village as well as hundreds of youth, and the performances ran past midnight. All in all it was quite a party, although I did dramatically storm out of the first night's show when a drunk man in the audience took it upon himself to handle the crowd control of the young kids crowding around the sides of the stage to see the show, by whipping them savagely with a branch. This behavior was explained away by his intoxication, but no one in the audience moved to do anything to stop it for several minutes, so I decided I had to leave rather than just sitting there complacently. I might have been better served going to speak with him, but I'm honestly not sure what I would have said, in French, as when I'm flustered I tend to come up with some pretty incomprehensible French. The next night the crowd control measure were much less violent.

The week finished up on February 11, the official National Youth Day, with students from many of the schools in the surrounding area gathering at the stadium and parading in front of the authorities of the area. Each school wore their uniforms and marched in formation while singing songs about the youth of Cameroon in English and French. After everyone had marched about 8 of the schools came back and had a number of their members perform dances to a highly varied musical selection and on several occasions featuring brightly colored sticks or hoops as props in the dances. After a brief midday break, the festivities recommenced with the championship game of a youth soccer tournament that had been going all week, as well as several footraces featuring the winners of earlier elimination rounds. With live announcement of each step of the action in all contests, there was hardly a dull moment. Following the matches the prizes for the best acts from the cultural shows of the week, the parade and the sports contests were given out by local personalities and then the crowd headed to the market to eat, drink and socialize for the rest of the night, then return home to recover and prepare for the next big party, coming the 8th of March for International Women's Day. I promise an account of that every bit as riveting as the preceding one, which I think reads a bit like a newspaper article, because my creative writing skills are failing me today. Thanks for reading along anyway, and thanks for all the posts, they make my day, even if I'm not very good at responding.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

On a typical day (well, those don't really happen here actually, but anyway) I wake up around 6 am to the puppies crying to be fed (oh yeah, I got a puppy named Jupiter), with backup vocals from the goats, cows and roosters of the neighborhood. After feeding them I usually get in about 30 minutes of yoga (if I'm feeling ambitious) and then cook myself something for breakfast. Lately the most popular choices have been oatmeal or a concoction listed as 'Something Good for Breakfast' in the cookbook where I found it during my first week at post, when I was looking for inspiration for exactly that! (recipe included at the end if you want an idea what it is) Breakfast is about as far a my day goes with any sort of routine so far.

This past week my counterpart Jacques and I have been riding our bikes out to do routine vaccinations in some of the surrounding communities that make up the health catchment that Jacques is responsible for. The communities themselves are generally pretty small and lie anywhere between 15 and 40 minutes ride/hike out from the village proper and the hospital, many beautifully set at the foot of the rocky hills that frame nearly the whole village. Although they aren't incredibly far from the village proper, the changes in living conditions in some of these communities are tangible. In one, there is literally almost no water for over a mile. An NGO came and tried to drill to put in pumps last week but went away again after hitting rock in three different places before getting to water. I don't know if they will come back and try again. The malnourishment seems more pronounced out in these areas too, although I admit I may just not be looking in the right places in my own village to make that comparison. Either way, its been eye-opening and very educational to see these communities and their struggles and hope I can eventually do even the littlest bit to help them.

Vaccine outreach happens only 4 or 5 days out of each month, so when I am not doing that with Jacques I've been finding other ways to keep busy, as his health center, which I will probably end up doing a lot of my initial work with, has not opened yet due to a lack of equipment. Twice a week I help out at the hospital with prenatal consultations done by the traditional birth attendants, a project started by the Peace Corps Volunteer here from 2004-2006. I think I've mentioned this work in an earlier post. It's also really interesting work and the traditional birth attendants that do the consults are wonderful to work with. We've been seeing anywhere from 4-30 women each time and I am learning a lot from the work, both about the norms of pregnancy here as well as about the general challenges faced by women in accessing medical services autonomously from their husbands.

Besides prenatal consultations and vaccine outreach, I've been filling the rest of the time doing technical research, exploring the area a bit, working with a community group started with the previous volunteers to plan a youth camp for the summer, and working with the Health and English clubs at the high school here in preparation for the Fête de Jeunesse, or National Youth Day, which is happening here next week and actually involves several days of performances by the various clubs and ends with a big parade and party next Wednesday. I'm sure I'll have plenty to write after that!

So far my days end pretty much as they began – I feed the puppies and either cook myself something to eat or visit a friend in village for dinner. I take a brisk bucket bath and settle in with whatever book I'm currently reading. Right now it's 'War and Peace' and as it's over 1000 pages I think that will keep me occupied a while. I definitely feel like I am starting to get the hang of this and am looking forward to all the new challenges and lessons the next two years hold.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Tu va t'habituer....

It literally means, you are going to habituate yourself. This is one of the most frequent statements I hear on a daily basis from Cameroonians and while it is almost always a response to me explaining that I am not cold in the mornings or evenings here, and that the thought of 140 degree weather in March and April makes me want to cry, it's a helpful philosophy to have. You'll get used to it. Right now I think I'm at the second stage of culture shock as defined by our medical manual where it seems like everything is different and the habituating is a bit of a never-ending process. Yesterday I saw a child in a full-on snow suit complete with a fur-trimmed hood at 7 was probably 60 degrees. And he was probably the envy of the neighborhood. Everyone gets seriously bundled up here in the mornings and looks at me like I am crazy in my short sleeves and skirt. Don't I know it's winter here? It hasn't rained since mid-October and won't until May or maybe June. Moving from Seattle, the idea of eight months without rain seems impossible, but the reality of the situation, and the gravity of it, is strikingly apparent every time I pass another huge river bed that has been reduced to miles of sand dotted with people washing clothes in the puddles of water they've dug down two or three feet to reach. And this is the cold season, where temperatures dip to 55 or so overnight and hit 95 in the shade at midday. Some days the sunlight is tempered by what look like clouds that could hold rain, but most of the time that's actually all the dust the Harmattan winds blowing down from the Sahara are bringing in.
Climate is just the first, albeit the most ever-present, difference I'm encountering here. Time is a whole different ballgame too, with most meetings I've been present at running on for 3 or 4 hours, partly because few people even begin to show up until at least an hour after the scheduled starting time. Another place time scheduling seems to be very flexible is the schools, which are supposed to run from 7:30 to 2:00 but inevitably end around noon or so, often because there are not enough teachers to teach all the subjects. At the high school (lycee) here there are nearly 1600 students but only about 22 teachers, 11 of whom just left for additional training in the provincial capital. This includes the only English teacher they had, and the principal has been trying to recruit me to step in. I'm going to start working with their English club, but don't feel ready to commit to a teaching job just yet. It's going to be an uphill battle for the students in exam classes to get fully prepared with so few instructors though, and from reports from other volunteers it sounds like unfortunately this is the norm rather than an exception throughout at least this province, if not all of Cameroon. I hope I'll get a better sense of the situation as my work with the Club Anglais continues.
The other day I was walking back to my house with a friend wearing a baseball cap to keep some of the sun off my face. An old man called out to me, “Bonsoir, pere!” an interesting variation on the usual calls of “Nassara”, “La blanche” or “Ma soeur” which had my friend in stitches laughing as he explained that the man thought I was a priest. Guess he missed the skirt! The initial perception any given Cameroonian decides to have of me is shaped by a complex and varied mix of experiences they've had with non-Africans. While I am neither explicitly a missionary trying to save souls (though I certainly have been entrusted with a mission in my service here) nor another traveler passing through town I am also obviously not one of this village, not yet. Children who don't live in my quartier still hopefully demand 'cadeaus', 'bonbons' or 'argent' from me routinely and only today did I finally get charged the same price as the rest of the villagers for an item of street food, a small step in a struggle that I imagine will continue for quite a while. Throughout all of this though I am continually reminded of how lucky I am to get the chance to work through these growing pains, to uncover more and more of the puzzle that is daily life in Cameroon. As a wonderful line from the poet Ben Okri reminds me, I have been given such “a gift of freedom to think and remember and understand,” to get used to a wholly different way of life so that I can better find ways to give something back somewhere along the way.

Monday, January 5, 2009

By the way, I've been here for over 100 days now!

So, I've been meaning to put up a new post for a while now, but have been procrastinating a bit because I really didn't know what to write about....there has been so much going on in my life here in Cameroon but at the same time it isn't necessarily the time of stuff that is breaking news, or makes for a terribly interesting blog read, I don't imagine. However, as I am sufficiently embarassed that the other day I received a letter from my friend Tans referencing my Obama post (knowing that mail takes at least a month and usually closer to two to get to me from the U.S., I have just bought myself two hours of internet and will take a stab at making this interesting for you all. So here it is, the first post from me as an official Peace Corps Volunteer!

Myself and the 27 other volunteers in my stage were sworn-in in the presence of the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon, the Peace Corps Country Director and many other regional Cameroonian dignitaries on December 4 in Pitoa, the village where we had lived and trained for the previous 10 weeks. The next day we said goodbye to one another and our homestay families and took off for our respective posts throughout the Grand North of Cameroon. For me this meant a four hour bus ride followed by about an hour car ride through the mountains to my village. This trip is usually made on a motorcycle, but while I've come to believe its possible to fit nearly anything on a moto, two suitcases and a bicycle might be pushing it. Honestly though, one of these days I'm going to devote an entire post to a song I'm writing, to the tune of "Down by the Bay", called "On a Moto" and its going to be a wonderful chronicle of some of the more ridiculous things I've witnessed being transported on motorcycles across this country.

I should have time for that these days too, as life in village so far is a bit slower than that of training. My past for weeks have largely been spent settling into my house and community and celebrating the holidays. First up was Tabaski, also known as Fête du Mouton, which literally translates to Celebration of the Lamb. It's a Muslim holiday which follows 70 days after Ramadan and celebrates the story of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son and then God's intercession to save the child by substituting a ram after Abraham had demonstrated his obedience. It is celebrated with lots of music, dancing and consumption of a lot of lamb. Christmas was spent in Maroua, my provincial capital, with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers and featured 90° weather and chicken fajitas for dinner, made from whole cooked chickens we bought off the street. As I write this it is New Year's Eve and I'm back in village preparing to celebrate with a volunteer from a neighboring village. We're going to attempt to make pizza from scratch in a dutch on the results to follow.

When I'm not busy fêting I've been getting a feel for the health realities in my community here. I spend two mornings a week assisting with pre-natal consultations at the local hospital and will be going out into the mountains this week with my counterpart to observe the routine vaccination outreach program. The job is definitely made more interesting by the fact that in 9 out of 10 cases, interacting with patients means having someone translate my questions from French to Mafa, the most prominent local language, and the translating the responses back into French for me, which I sometimes then need a minute to work out to English. I'm hoping to begin studying Mafa soon, but in the meantime its really interesting to be so dependent on another person to accurately and reliably understand and translate every single thing you want to say. Once again every day is a learning experience, some come easier than others, but literally just walking down the street staring at the beautiful mountains that surround me and the people of this place I am constantly in awe of how lucky I am to be experiencing all of this, now and for the next two years. I miss all my friends and family often, especially throughout this holiday season, but I am thankful everyday for this amazing journey and thankful to all of you out there who are following me on it. Bonne année à tout le monde!