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!