Friday, April 2, 2010

March Madness

The coming of the month of March heralds many things. Beginning with International Women's Day on the 8th, the month is almost certain to include the first mangoes of the year, the height of cotton and onion harvesting and the true onset of the hot season. Each of these events has its unique impact on the choreography of daily village life.

Celebrating my second Women's Day here unfortunately did nothing to dispel my initial impression that the events organized around this day are little more than a charade. While there is some uplifting solidarity among women displayed during the annual parade, a corresponding display is absent on the part of the male power-structure of the community – male turnout for this parade (as well as most of the other events of the day) is dismal, particularly in comparison to the support (or at least the physical presence) garnered by other holidays such as Youth Day. The majority of celebration surrounding the day happens in the local millet wine markets, as participation in most other events organized for the day (the parade, the lunch and gala dinner parties) implicitly require rather significant financial resources (usually dependent on the accord of a husband) to purchase an outfit made from the year's uniquely designed fabric. Almost no mention is made of the women's rights which the day was created to promote and celebrate.

With Women's Day out of the way, the all-important business of harvesting the year's cotton crop can get underway. The landmarks of the harvest are the 40ft orange containers scattered throughout the fields and villages, points for local farmers to bring their crop for collection and transport out of the area. For days after these containers appear, you can see and hear grown-ups and children standing in them singing while they march on top of the cotton to pack it in. Another tell-tale sign of the cotton harvest is the sudden interest in making the road linking this countryside with the larger towns and cities passable for trucks. Last year that meant bringing in tons and tons (literally) of sand to cover over the rocks and dirt that are the enduring components of the road. While this is arguably better for trucks, it tends to cause more problems than solutions for motorcycles and bikes, the main modes of transport for the majority of the locals. Fortunately, this year a much more concerted effort was made at actually fixing the road with packed dirt, and so far its been a treat to ride on! Whether the improvements will withstand the torrential rains of June remains to be seen.

Finally, March means mangoes, a welcome arrival as papaya season ends.Kids can be seen on any given road using home-made hooks on long poles (usually 2-3 sticks fastened together) to knock or drag mangoes from the trees. These mangoes are the saving grace of an otherwise difficult season where daily temperatures soar well above 110 degrees and a night marked by a low of 90 is considered a blessing. This year has been a little cooler so far courtesy of the haze of dust that has sat in the air for the past few weeks and blocked out much of the sun's scorching rays. This dust travels down from the Sahara desert on the Harmattan winds, and while the relief it brings from the heat is wonderful, it also causes problems for respiratory health and contributes to an increase in meningitis cases this time of year. It makes for some pretty incredible scenery too (the above picture is completely unmodified).

All said, March is a month of extremes and of significant challenges, most notably water and food shortages as the months since the last rain and the last harvest wear on. Fights sometimes break out around the water pump, where some days people wait in line for hours to get a turn at the pump, and women and children walk miles to dig holes meters deep in the river bed to find water. That is the reality of this African life, one which I continue to feel privileged to witness and participate in. Thanks for continuing along with me!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Brussels Airport, February 1st, 2010: The sun is just rising and the world beside me is a perfect mix of grey-blue dawn, white snow and sparkling airport lights and I am here in between, headed away from America, headed into Africa.

I've decided to take you along for the rest of the journey back to my village, so pack your resilience, flexibility and sense of humor and leave behind your concepts of time, schedules and order. Here we go!

Douala Airport, February 1st, 2010: The heat and humidity as you step off the airplane nearly knocks you over. You navigate immigration and the baggage carousel (all your luggage made it!) and head for the taxis. After about 10 minutes of negotiation you find one that won't cost you “an arm and a leg”, assuming it doesn't get into an accident. So you're off into the madness of this city, which sweeps you along to the familiar soundtrack of horns, Ivorian pop music, voices raised in laughter and deliberation. Then its onto the lovely, air-conditioned bus and you're flying past the jungle punctuated by roadside stands selling palm wine and “bush meat”, headed for Yaounde.

Somewhere in the Center province, February 3, 2010
: Well now its nearly midnight and you are rolling along through the jungle under an ocean of stars, on the train headed north. With each stop new voices emerge from the darkness and pace below your windows singing their merchandise: Bananes! Bananes! Baton! Baton! Miel! Miel! Miel!. The 14-20 hour trip is much easier from your bunk bed in the sleeping cars than from a seat in first class, though the bathrooms are just as unpleasant. After nearly 17 hours (this time), you arrive into the warm African morning and join the crush of people and luggage trying to exit the station through 2 small doors. You quickly realize that apparently your rolling suitcase belongs on top of your head instead of behind you on the ground.

Garoua, February 4, 2010: After a much-needed overnight break, you're back on the road north and engaged in a battle with the people sitting behind you over your need to have the window cracked in the 90+ degree morning heat. The chickens under the seat are joining in the racket too but you scored a snack at the last stop from the boy who came by the window selling plantain chips, and the views out the window, lush fields and hills replaced by dusty open plains scattered with huts, the occasional herder guiding his cows, begin to look familiar and the road ahead doesn't seem as long as it could.

Mokolo, February 5, 2010: Nine hours or so of such bus travels sees you joyously delivered onto the streets of Mokolo, one little adventure away from being home. The motorcycles flying to meet the bus are the only thing that would separate this town at first glance from a frontier town in the American Wild West. You find a familiar face among the crowd of potential drivers, wedge you helmet on and hand your suitcase up front and then you're off towards home, clutching the motorcycle frame and rejoicing in the views whose beauty does not diminish no matter how many times you've taken this bumpy ride through the mountains to descend into the village and be welcomed back by the chorusing cries of the neighborhood children.