Age-Young Wisdom

As I reflect on my past two years, I realize just how many lessons I have learned – some technical, some philosophical. Some of the greatest lessons I have collected have surprisingly come not from my knowledgeable counterparts, the teachers or even the traditional chief of the village, but from the plethora of children that call Lokoti home. Here is a sampling of those lessons:

 

Lesson #1: Make the most of what you have

Whether it is making dolls our of empty bleach bottles or sledding down a hill of mud after a rain storm on a piece of plastic bag, kids definitely make the most of what they have, even when it is not much at all.

 

Lesson #2: Challenge yourself

One morning during a bike ride, I stopped at a Primary School on the outskirts of town to fill up my water bottle at the school’s water pump. The students had recess at the same time, so I decided to take a break and introduce them to a favorite school yard game from the United States: duck duck goose. However, we changed the words a bit to make it a little more culturally relevant (also as a cover for me, since I didn’t know the word for goose in French). We called it: mouton mouton chevre (sheep sheep goat). Halfway through the game a little boy, much smaller and younger than the other kids was doing the “mouton mouton chevre”-ing when he chose one of the biggest boys in the group to chase him. However, the little boy outran the big boy proving that you can succeed at the impossible – all you need to do is challenge yourself and rise to the occasion.

 

Lesson #3: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

One day I was walking was running late to a meeting (American late –I still arrived ten minutes before anyone else showed up). I had just taken a bucket bath and a lot of my clothes were still on the line drying. So I tied my hair up in a bun right on top of my head and threw on my kaba (think: an African fabric mumu dress). As I rushed to the school, a girl passed me and said “Tu es belle eh! (You are beautiful!)” So on a day that I felt very frazzled, another person found me beautiful.

 

Lesson #4:  Pay attention to the details 

If you ask a kid to draw a picture, you will get a very detailed and technical drawing of an object. The most commonly drawn objects are cars, Cameroonian flags and houses. When kids draw they often draw with a ruler to ensure that lines are straight. They will also add a lot of detail to everything – cars will have gears, the Cameroonian flag as a tri-level pedestal and houses come furnished with couches. When it comes to drawing people, they are much more realistic than my stick figures (which Cameroonian children don’t normally recognize as people). So while creativity may be lagging a bit, accuracy and detail are very present and attention to detail is a good thing!

 

Lesson #5: Patience is a virtue

Many, many, many situations here have only reinforced the importance of possessing patience as a character trait; however, I was most inspired by the patience I saw in children. While I thought I was finished cleaning beans after a half an hour of picking out stones and pieces of dirt, I always had neighborhood kids reminding me that there was at least another 20-minutes of work left. I have those kids to thank for not having chipped a tooth on an undiscovered rock after two years!

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One Month

The complete and updated list:

If were you to judge my presence in Cameroon solely by the experiences I write about on this blog, you might have assumed that I had left already. For that I apologize – keeping up with a blog is no small business – I can now understand how people are full-time “bloggers.” Yet, I am still here! And happily so at that, which has been making it hard to face my inevitable departure. Alas, those final days have arrived and I am down to one month. Exactly one month – I leave Cameroon on November 9th.

With these 31 days, I aim to revel in all those things I have come to love (I refuse to say “one last time,” since I fully intend to make it back to Cameroon in the future). In honor of the 31 days I have remaining, here are 31 of those things I am going to savor during the final countdown and inevitably, miss the most* about this place I’ve called home for the past two years. The list is composed of many things that have become very quotidian to me, but as my days grow more and more limited, I’m reminded of how interesting, strange, delicious, [insert many more adjectives] they were when I first encountered them. Here they are:

1. Franglais: If you’re lucky, you might hear me slip into franglais ever so often when I am back in the states. It’s a wonderful mix of French and English that makes perfect sense to fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, but not to my parents when I speak to them on the phone on Sundays – just ask them – sometimes I struggle to find the right English word to describe things. I’ll miss communicating with such incomprehensible ease.

2. Cameroonian French: In addition to franglais, Cameroonian French is another sort of pidgin language I have picked up since being here. Unfortunately, I have picked it up to the dismay of my years of actual French. Inversion – you ask? Well you can forget that. And compound tenses? Who needs those when you have the present, simple future and past tense. Also, when in doubt you can always substitute the pronoun “on (one)” for literally any other pronoun. “On a dit que je parle comme une africaine, non?”

3. Fulfuldé greetings: Following with the languages, I will also miss the stream of greetings in fulfuldé (the language of the Fulani people – a primary language in my village). Even if you are rushing to go somewhere, you will always stop and greet your friend, with at least three questions. Here is one side of a dialogue: “Hello. You are here? How are you? Thank you. How is your health? Thank you. How is your family? Thank you. How is the cold? Okay. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Lovely. Goodbye!” Here is the other side of the dialogue, “Hello. I am here. Good. Good. Good. Good. Okay. Thank you. Goodbye!” It is especially wonderful to witness the endearing exchange between two older “Aladjis” (respected, older, Muslim men), however, my favorite person to exchange greetings with the marabout, who is my neighbor who asks these questions at least four times a day as I past by. He ends every exchange in “woodi” (lovely) reminding me that life really is just that.

4. The great outdoors: I will miss being able to spend the majority of my day outside. Whether I am walking in between meetings, having those meetings in outdoor classrooms (aka under trees), washing clothes, sitting with friends, etc. I am almost always outside. This fresh air I have taken for granted and will miss.

5. Moto rides: I take motos to get from place to place (not including 1+ hour trips) when it is too far to walk. Whether it is hopping on a moto in the regional capital for a quick zip to a restaurant, or the 30 minute moto ride in the wide open savanna between my village and the neighboring town, they are always fun. It ranks up there with my other favorite forms of transportation: walking and trains. However, with moto rides, you get a really cool accessory as well: a moto helmet that makes me look more Power Ranger than Peace Corps Volunteer. I’ll take it and maybe even use it for Halloween.

6. Thank you: I’ve taken to saying “thank you” when I ask how someone is and they respond “Good.” Also sometimes just when someone says “Bonjour!” I loved hearing people respond that way when I first arrived and I still love it. I don’t think we hear thank you enough in our world. This remedies that.

7. Chai: Not to be confused with a chai tea that you might get at Starbucks. This chai is sugary tea that is consumed many times a day. I get a bit jittery after a few glasses, but I would bet that the average Fulani man consumes a thermos of chai a day. Fun fact: My friend’s baby, Mohamadou’s first word was “chai.” He has good taste [pun intended].

8. Fluidity of time: I am half going to miss this, half going to say “good riddance!” The relaxed time here has definitely worked to my benefit in some situations. For example, for those under-the-weather days, it’s easy to push back a meeting a few hours to get a bit more sleep or until that medicine kicks in. Or when I’ve been engrossed in a book, I know I’ll have some time to continue reading before my meetings start since everyone will show up late. This fluidity of time also allows time for more human interaction. No one is in a rush, so it allows for some genuine conversation and interactions, even if the class you were supposed to get to is starting at that very moment.

9. Nkongosa: Translation: village gossip. Yes, I know gossiping isn’t very becoming, but sitting with mamas while they nkongosa has become one of my favorite guilty pleasures. Lokoti might be a village, but let me tell you, it could be the setting for quite a soap opera. We’ve got wives confronting mistresses with knives, bandits with machetes, presidents of organizations who steal dues, a chief who demands the equivalent of $300,000 from the construction company in exchange for him allowing them to build a paved road through the village (as you might be able to guess, that paved road did not get built), a veterinarian who is switching out vaccinations with sugar shots for cattle, sorcery, so much sorcery… the list can go on and on. Who needs television when you’ve got nkongosa?

10. SA-MAN-TA: I can say with quite certainty that I will never live in a place where every single person will know my name. Or even if I do, chances are they won’t be yelling it out every time I stroll through village. For some groups of kids, spotting me and yelling my name has become somewhat of a playground game that comes with a repetitive song. Instead of “Cinderella, dressed in yellow, went outside to kiss a fellow…” these kids sing, “Bonjour SA-MAN-TA! Bonjour!…” I will miss channeling my inner Belle (think: the first scene of the Beauty and the Beast as she is strolling through town and greeting everyone).

11. Cucumber season… mango season… seasonal food in general: While onions and mysterious green leafy plants are the only veggies you can count on at the weekly market, there are some wonderful food seasons that provide a great break from the monotony. Some of my favorites are cucumber season, mango season and avocado season. Once during cucumber season, I bought too many cucumbers and tried to make “cucumber bread” (note: cucumbers do not work like zucchini). During mango season, besides snacking on mangos, I enjoyed mango upside down cake, mango salsa, mangos in my chili, etc. As for avocado season: non-stop guac. While the end of a good food season is sad, I’ve enjoyed having to look forward to eating a certain food and not taking it for granted. And because our vegetables and fruits are not shipped thousands of miles to be available during all seasons, when we do get them, they are local and fresh, and therefore more delicious.

12. Making tofu and soymilk: While I know I won’t be pining to make my own tofu and soymilk in the states since it will be readily available, I have loved being capable of transforming soy beans into delicious food and drink. Homemade tofu and soymilk have been great protein-filled treats for me through the past two years.

13. Learning: Every moment of every day here presents a chance to learn something new. My goal is to bring that mentality back with me.

14. Teaching: As with learning, I have had constant opportunity to teach here. I’ve taught in formal settings and in informal settings on a variety of subjects. Food groups, goal setting, family planning, how to make rehydration solution, making paper chains and snowflakes, etc. Every moment of everyday spent with someone here is an opportunity to teach them something new, and as I mentioned above, learn something new.

15. Kossam: Kossam means milk or yogurt in Fulfuldé and is a delicious and refreshing natural yogurt. Kossam is found everywhere in my region, as the Adamawa is known as the “land of milk and honey.” It is normally served in Bar Latiers (Milk Bars) frequented normally by Fulani men. However, the milk bars in my area have accepted my female presence and love of kossam sans sucre.

16. Street meat: Beef is also somewhat abundant in my region, since there are so many cows. In villages and large towns, there are vendors that will sell beef brochettes grilled over an open fire and they are oh-so-tasty.

17. Prunes: Another food favorite. Prunes in Cameroon are not like the prunes we know in the United States. In fact, the only thing they have in common is the name itself. Prunes in Cameroon are a strange vegetable, kind of like a small bitter avocado. I know I’m not selling it well, but trust me – it’s delicious.

18. Bar shopping: Whenever you are sitting at a bar or restaurant many vendors will pass by selling a variety of items from trays on their head. From bar favorites such as candy and kola nuts to shoes, mirrors, etc. you never need to choose between an afternoon of running errands and drinking and socializing with friends, for you can do two at once!

19. Fripperie: Ever wonder where some of your clothes go when you donate them? Well, some of them end up at the fripperie (known as “the frip” to PCVs). The frip is a section of the market that sells western-style clothes for reduced prices – a shirt costs 20 cents, a skirt 40 cents, etc. Today I picked up two pairs of heavy wool socks (for a hiking trip in a few weeks), for 40 cents total! From “Class of 1997 Reunion Clam Bake” t-shirts and authentic hockey jerseys to snazzy blazers and leather bags, the frip has got everything you could ever need for daily attire, or an awesome Halloween costume. Sometimes I think Macklemore might have written his song “Thift Shop” after spending an afternoon “frip-ing.”

20. Sachets of mayo: Yep, I’m probably the most disgusting person you know – I LOVE mayo. No shame. And here, in Cameroon, you can buy mayo in plastic sachets perfect for one-time, individual use. If I’m eating grilled fish and the fish mama doesn’t have mayo, I don’t need to fret because chances are, I have a sachet of mayo in my bag. In true scout form, I’m always prepared.

21. Sachets of liquor: I know this sounds a little gauche, but I will miss liquor sold in plastic-bag sachets. Want a mojito? All you need is a 25 cent bag of “Zed’s Vodka” and a Crystal Light Mojito mix. Or a whiskey ginger? Well, that’ll cost you an additional 25 cents, since “Lion d’Or Whiskey” costs 50 cents, but still – even that beats happy hour prices back in the states.

22. Mirror dancing: Exactly what it sounds like. When you go out dancing in Cameroon, you will find yourself in a club lined with mirrors. Those mirrors were meant for you – the dancer! Cameroonians and Peace Corps Volunteers alike will find themselves dancing with, well… themselves. It is totally normal and accepted to have a line of people dancing with their reflections in the mirror. At first I was hesitant, but after that first solo dance, I was hooked. So for a good night out in Cameroon, all I really needed was me, myself and I.

23. Dancing craze: In addition to mirror dancing, there is just a general culture of dance here. Everyone – men, women, children, babies (videos of baby Mohamadou dancing available upon request), grandmas and grandpas alike – dance. When do they dance you ask? Whenever there is any sort of background music on (even if it’s just a catchy ring tone). I love that there is no stigma attached to people, especially men, dancing their hearts out!

24. Carrying items on my head: While I have not mastered the hands-free approach, I have gotten used to carrying heavy or awkwardly sized loads on my head, using one hand as support. It is much more comfortable than having to readjust the load in your arms every so often. It also gave me major brownie points from mamas in town.

25. Washing clothes at the stream: During the last few months of my service, I took to washing my clothes at the stream. Not only did this cut down on my water usage, but it also gave me a great opportunity to socialize with mamas. Washing clothes at the stream is quite the social event and gave me ample time to brush up on my village nkongosa!

26. The sunshine: Even during rainy season, the sun doesn’t hide for long. I have gotten my fair share of Vitamin D while here and I loved it (don’t worry, I’ve also slathered on my fair share of SPF 75 as well).

27. Spaghetti omelet sandwiches: An omelet with spaghetti in it all put on a baguette. Also known as the best breakfast food in Cameroon. Now I know it doesn’t have a bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel to compete with, but still…

28. Starry nights: Words cannot describe how brilliant the starry night skies are in Lokoti, thanks to no light pollution. Sometimes I catch myself staring up at the sky for the amount of time it would take me to watch a 20-minute television episode – the sky is just that entertaining. And when those starry nights are accompanied by a full moon, it is brighter outside the house than inside with your headlamp.

29. Public transportation: It isn’t comfortable or convenient, but it has been enjoyable for me. The long periods of waiting in the bus station for the bus to depart followed by the equally long ride to my destination has allowed me copious amounts of time to read, listen to podcasts, meet new people and just generally think my thoughts. I also believe that public transportation in this country has made me a much more patient person, and you know what they say – patience is a virtue.

30. Candle lit nights: Eating dinner, journaling and reading by candlelight has become so normal to me, that sometimes I need to step back and remind myself how gosh-darn romantic I’m being. So if you ever walk into my house in the states and see a plethora of lit candles, don’t assume I’m courting you – I’m just reliving my Lokoti-nights.

31. Pagne: Pagne is the brightly colored and interestingly patterned “African” fabric that many women and men wear here. You buy pagne in rolls of 6 yards and then are free to create whatever you want out of your chosen fabric – dresses, pants, blazers, bags, pillow cases, bow-ties, hair-bands, etc. Besides being beautiful, pagne allows you to be creative in what you wear. You are no longer forced to choose styles that are available in the clothing stores that season, for you can design your own style! After drawing your dream design, your tailor – either a fabulous southern Cameroonian woman with sass or a quiet, but detail-oriented Fulani man – will take your measurements and create your custom article of clothing – for less than $10. While I cannot wait to don corduroys and boots upon my arrival in the states, I will definitely miss my pagne collection (and how amazing it was at masking sweat). Even more so, I will miss seeing everyone so vibrantly attired, no matter what the season.

* This list does not include people. If I included people, this list would have had to be three times as long!

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How Fasting Made Me a Better Cook (and Other Unexpected Discoveries…)

            I am writing this post at my friend’s house – my feet covered in tape and lale, a type of natural henna, and wrapped up in plastic bags. This is exactly where I would expect myself to be and exactly what I would expect myself to be doing. It is, after all, August and just a few days away from Eid al-Fitr (known here colloquially as Fete de Ramadan) meaning that there is not much to do besides sit for three hours as the lale dyes your feet beautiful for the celebration. This process is done three times over, on consecutive days to ensure a well-absorbed color. But even more so than that, I expected to be here because I expected a majority of my Peace Corp service to be spent with others, learning about and participating in their cultural practices. What I did not expect about this situation is that I would be wrapped up in a heavy comforter, wishing for a snuggie and some wool socks instead of these plastic bags on my feet. It is cold out and has been raining steadily since this morning. The cold combined with the monotonous drone of the rain drops hitting the tin roofs are enough to make you want to curl up in bed and hibernate until the end of rainy season (when you add fasting for Ramadan into the equation you get one of the least productive months of the year). This bone-chilling cold was something I was not expecting when I moved to Cameroon. I sure know better than to fall for mainstream misconceptions of “Africa” (I put Africa in quotes since referring to Africa in a blanket way, as if it is one analogous whole, is a misconception in itself), like “It’s hot in Africa!” I knew Cameroon would not be like New Jersey in July, at least not all year round, but I was not expecting to need anything more than a cardigan or light jacket to keep comfortable after all, the equator is not too far away. So to my surprise, I am living in a region that gets cold enough to warrant heavy sweatshirts and markets filled with old, donated ski hats and wool socks.

            The cold weather is just one of the many unexpected aspects of my service thus far. These unexpected discoveries are numerous enough to fill a novel, so I’ll just elaborate on a few more. I never expected to…

 

… become a better cook amidst a month of fasting. Many of you know that cooking is not my forte. Before coming to Cameroon, I barely knew the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon, how to properly chop an onion or what sauté really meant. However, in a newfound state of self-reliance, I was forced to feel my way around the kitchen. After a couple months, I improved my cooking skill to “passable” and then to an “okay,” but that is where I plateaued… until now. This year, I am fasting for Ramadan meaning that I cannot eat between the hours of 5am and 6:30pm (I modified my fast to allow for some water during the day). As a result, I start to get very hungry around 4:30-5pm, so to satiate myself, I start cooking. While normally, I’d be impatient to eat and therefore not allow things to cook as long as they should (I may have even acquired a taste for not-well done pasta), Ramadan has forced upon me self-control and patience, especially in the kitchen. In addition to cooking for appropriate amounts of time and simmering longer (ah the flavors!), I have also embarked on some more time-consuming and ambitious meals. Some of these include: pizza and Stromboli (homemade dough, sauce and cheese), pita and hummus (homemade pita and hummus made from chickpeas that started dry), tofu and bean tacos, potato-cheese soup with homemade bread and elaborate breakfasts-for-dinner (scrambled eggs, hash browns, pancakes and biscuits). I know for all of you chefs out there, this might not seem like any big feat, but for me, it is leagues away from my buttered pasta start. And that is how I became a better cook while fasting, ironically so.

 

… become an early bird. That’s right, folks, I am officially a morning person, at least in Cameroon. I love to sleep and in the United States, if I didn’t have a commitment, I could (and sometimes world) sleep until noon. I was never one of those people who could wake up after eight hours or who would wake up without feeling drowsy. Even on those sleep-in days, I would wake up groggy. However, in Cameroon, it is quite the opposite. I’ll wake up by 5:30-6am and feel wide-awake. Even if I don’t set an alarm, I’ll still wake up by 7am. Now granted, I do go to bed much earlier than I did in the states, but still, I’m not inclined to sleep much past those needed hours. Especially with a work schedule that is flexible and mostly self-dictated, I did not expect to want, nonetheless feel good about, waking up early in the morning. (Note to parents: this does not guarantee early-rising once back in the states. Do not get your hopes up.)

 

… paint my nails consistently during Peace Corps service. This last one is a bit trivial, but it is quite indicative of a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers’ expectations before service and the realities that they discover. I cannot tell you how many volunteers (I cringe to admit, even myself) brought cargo pants to this country. Cargo pants, hiking boots, water purifying tablets, solar chargers, etc. are among some of the packed items that make new Peace Corps Volunteers seem like intrepid explorers, or at least some very prepared campers. These items are very useful when we go camping or travel in Cameroon, but not so much needed in our villages. If we showed up to our villages dressed in our cargo pants and sprayed with big repellent, we’d be sight to be seen, especially next to the impeccably dressed women in their pagne ensembles sprayed with a perfume they probably picked up in market the week before. You see, life in “Africa” isn’t some hardship excursion into the wild; there is a normalcy about it. And that is why I even though I did not anticipate painting my nails every week, I continue to do so.

            While all of these things and more were never expected, I have certainly welcomed them… well, maybe not the cold.

 

[Another thing I didn’t expect: to neglect this blog. More posts coming in the next couple of weeks! In the meantime, feel free to check out photos-  http://www.flickr.com/photos/samanthammcl/sets/]

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Discovering Community Development

In June 2011, I received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. The invitation consisted of a blue folder with a litany of forms and an assignment booklet. It certainly wasn’t as grandiose as the folder I received four years earlier from my university (a full color portrait of George Washington – a bit superfluous, yes?), but it didn’t matter to me for I was one step closer to being a Peace Corps Volunteer! I must have read the first page of the assignment booklet one hundred times over. “YOUR ASSIGNMENT – Country: Cameroon, Program: Community Health Project, Job Title: Community Development Agent…” I could locate Cameroon on a map and had an idea of what a Community Health Project might be, but only a vague idea of what “Community Development Agent” meant. 

Through these past months I have learned a lot about community – how to integrate into one and the roles of each member, institutions and culture in shaping one. I have also witnessed development – development aid in form of UNICEF/UNHCR handouts, development of infrastructure (paved roads!), early childhood development, etc. However, it was very recently that I was able to pinpoint something truly as community development.

This moment came as I took a seat to watch one of my counterparts, Ousmanou, give a presentation on facilitation skills to the group of “Mères Leaders” (Leader Mothers) at our Care Group workshop. Unless you are a Public Health major or a Peace Corps Volunteer, some of those terms might seem a little foreign so allow me to explain:

  • Care Groups: The Care Group approach is a community health strategy. The program builds a team of “Leader Mothers” who will represent, serve and present important health information with groups of 10 households each. Each month, “Leader Mothers” will attend a meeting during which health center staff and community health volunteers will train them on nutrition, disease prevention, common illnesses and other healthy family practices. Following the meeting, the “Leader Mothers” will host a meeting for her own group of 10 households, disseminating the information she learned. The “Leader Mothers” will deliver vital health messages at a time that is convenient for the families using culturally appropriate language, stories and examples. This community-based strategy not only improves coverage of important health information, but also provides a supportive social setting for learning and asking questions. The approach was developed by World Relief in Mozambique, but has since been used in communities around the world. My counterparts and I have been really excited about the potential of this program, as is Peace Corps Cameroon. They want more volunteers to incorporate Care Groups into their work and recently brought in a “Care Group Expert” to lead a seminar. During the seminar, we found out that Lokoti is the only community (with a PCV) in Cameroon currently working with Care Groups. We are proud to be the pilot!
  • Mères Leaders: “Leader Mothers” (Mères Leaders) are the driving force of this program. We currently have a team of 20 mères leaders (a leader and an assistant leader) from 10 different quartiers in Lokoti. They are responsible for their own groups of 10-15 families.
  • Counterparts: Counterparts are the cornerstones of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s work. They are HCNs (host country nationals) who help you plan and implement work projects. A volunteer can have many different counterparts depending on the work they are involved with. For the Care Group project, I am working with three counterparts: Issa, Ousmanou and Abdoulaye. They are all part of the COSA (Comité de Santé), which is a group of people who volunteer their time to assist the health center with vaccination campaigns, nutrition days, etc.

This is the community development I witnessed:

Community (n):

1. a group of people living together in one place; 2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals.

The sense of community has been embedded in the project each step of the way. The project itself was suggested only after studying a community needs assessment. Before implementing the project, it was presented and approved by the Lamido and other village notables (as per village protocol). At that point it was understood that the project was not going to be the health center’s project, or my project, but the community’s project with each person playing his or her role to ensure success. In the case of the village notables, their role was of patron – lending their highly regarded support to the project.

During the planning and early implementation stages, I worked closely with three counterparts who through their membership in the village health committee had proven themselves as true public servants. The meat of the project – forming groups in the neighborhoods, identifying Leader Mothers, etc. – can be completing credited to the work that these men did, all voluntary and without financial recompense. This is especially noteworthy since most work in Cameroon isn’t completed without some “motivation” (financial or in-kind bribes or payment).

On the day of the training, this sense of community service that I saw in my counterparts was echoed in each of the Leader Mothers as they introduced themselves and explained why they wanted to be part of this program. They spoke of wanting to be promoters of healthy practices that would help people in their neighborhoods. An older woman spoke of wanting to learn new things, but to also lend her years of experience to the other women in the group. The head of the health center and a nurse attended the training as well to pledge their support and offer their technical knowledge and assistance to the Leader Mothers and their groups. Here’s to not asking what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!

In addition to the support of the community-at-large and the participation of the sub-communities that each Leader Mother represents, that day, during our first training, we created another sense of community – a community of Leader Mothers. Some of the women were friends, others knew of each other, but some had never met or interacted before the training. However, by the end of the training, they had formed a bond – after all, they were likeminded individuals who want to serve their community. The camaraderie was visible on Women’s Day when they marched together and presented a song to the Lamido of our village. They continue to support each other, whether in reminding a fellow Leader Mother of the date/time of our next meeting, or helping to explain a key health message in a different way. This solidarity is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the group transcends the social divide that normally exists between the Gbayas and the Fulbés (the two ethnic groups in Lokoti) at the village level.

Development (n):

a specified state of growth or advancement

Through this project I have seen many states of development. I have witnessed my counterparts developing new project design and management skills while strengthening their already existing skills as community leaders. I’ve observed Leader Mothers developing leadership skills and facilitation skills which lead to them feeling empowered to go forth and make a difference in their neighborhoods. The information they bring to their neighborhoods will eventually lead to less sickness and therefore will allow community members more time to go to school, be professionally productive and be a present, active and dynamic member in the community’s affairs and subsequent development.

Since learning is an ongoing process, I know that my understanding of community development will continue to change and if you will, develop. However, I can say that this Care Group project has certainly given me a comprehensive orientation on the subject! 

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The Spring Break That Almost Broke Me

Now I can certainly get behind a week on the beach with a smoothie in one hand and a good book in the other. In fact, that’s exactly how I spent last year’s spring break: lounging on the black sand beaches of Limbé, eating fresh seafood and camping on the beach underneath the stars. This year though, an opportunity with a bit more adventure presented itself; so I spent Spring Break 2013 trekking 40 kilometers in and out of a valley, eating freshly caught river catfish and camping riverside in a national park. On the last Monday in March, five of us PCVs headed out for a three-day camping trip with a Cameroonian guide. We had packed food for more than three days, a hammock, a couple boxes of Cameroon’s finest wine, playing cards, books, journals and of course, our ever-trusty headlamps. With our prepared packs and a whole lot of zeal, we thought, “What could go wrong?”

 As it turns out, lots of things – well, not necessarily wrong, but contrary to what we had imagined and expected. Here are some examples of what we imagined and what we actually received:

 Mbéré National Park

What we imagined: While we not expecting a Cumberland Gap-type National Park with marked trails and picnic areas, we were imagining some semblance of trails.

What we got: During the first hours of our hike, we had trails thanks to the many farmers and cow-herders that have, over time, created them. However, as we ventured further into the valley, the trail became less apparent. As we approached our campsite in the heart of the valley, at the end of our hike, there was no trail at all. Instead we pushed ourselves through dried brush being sure to guard our eyes against any fling-back branches. We were in the definition of the African bush.

 The wildlife

What we imagined: Elephants, black panthers, antelope, monkeys, etc. Mbéré National Park is said to have a lot of elephants. In fact, last year, the army was sent to the area to dissuade the poachers who had been encroaching on the heavily populated area. We had also heard of black panthers and while we weren’t truly eager to cross their path, we were thrilled with the romance of entering such wilderness complete with African safari favorites.

What we got: A lot of birds, a snake, elephant excrement and a plethora of mosquitos. An ornithologist would have had a field day just as the anopheles mosquitos had a field day with us.

Our Guide

What we imagined: Our guide was a middle-aged man who was the brother of the Lamido of Djohong. We chose him after learning that he has been leading a group of French archeologists and Cameroonian archeology students into the valley every summer for many years. Because of this, he had a supply of tents, something we needed. His respectable position in the community and his experience leading foreigners into the park led us to believe that he would be a great guide. And we couldn’t beat the price at $10 a day! Additionally, we expected the friendly, congenial and laissez-faire attitude that many Cameroonians have.

What we got: A man who vacillated between a kind companion and a borderline misogynist. Our guide was very knowledgeable of the area and therefore we felt very safe with him. However, after the first two hours of the hike, his patience with us started to waver. He wanted to increase the pace (this is the first time I’ve encountered a Cameroonian that walks faster than an American). During a pit stop at a watering hole at the hour three mark, we asked him how much longer until we arrived at our camping site (we were told it would be a 3 hour hike). He responded without any hint of joking, that it would probably take 13 more hours because of the women (it ended up taking another four hours, fyi). That was the first of many, many backhanded comments that were made against my friend and me. Insult my ability or skill, but do not insult my sex. This obviously did not make for the most encouraging environment. Later that night though, we broke the proverbial bread by sharing catfish that he had caught for dinner. In sharing his meal and conversation and over subsequent card games, we saw his kind side, which had been shadowed earlier in the day.

The trek

What we imagined: We expected a three-hour hike with moderate difficultly and pockets of advanced difficulty (during the steep descents/ascents). Since French archeologists and Cameroonian students were able to complete the hike, we thought we would have no problems doing so.

What we got: As I mentioned above, our three-hour hike turned into a seven-hour hike, however, the difficulty of the hike mirrored our expectations. As a very goal-oriented person, not knowing where the finish line was (geographically or time-wise) was very frustrating. When we finally arrived at our campsite with blistered feet and drenched in sweat, we learned that the group of archeologists he brings into the valley normally stop and camp at the first watering hole that we stopped at (at the hour 3 mark). They also use porters, so unlike us, they do not have heavy packs to carry. I am glad that we continued to our campsite further in the valley because the site was beautiful. We were camped in the woods, near what could be described as a babbling-brook (but on a much larger scale). So while our goal was unknown for most of the trek, it was well worth it.

Despite all of this, I am still here, albeit with more than a few mosquito bites and the giardia box checked on my “tropical diseases” bingo card. While there were many moments of near agony, I do not regret choosing this spring break. In fact, I think it just put the PCV-skills we’ve been honing to the test – just as in our villages and professional lives, we had to take each unexpected aspect and strenuous incline with the same patience and flexibility. 

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A Day of Service

(Like many of these more recent blog posts – I meant to write this post months ago!)

 

World AIDS Day is recognized on December 1st of every year. It can be acknowledged in many different ways. Some of you have most likely participated in World AIDS Day events – voluntary testing, candlelight vigils, speaker panels, etc. In Cameroon, this day is often a very lively affair. It is celebrated (I use that verb with purpose) through dances, skits, presentations, testimonies, etc. Everyday can be a reminder of what loss the HIV/AIDS epidemic has brought, so World AIDS Day tends to focus on community resiliency – prevention and support, rather than the lost. My original intention was to sit down a write a blog post in honor of World AIDS Day and document the realities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Adamawa Region (where my village is located), which has the highest rate of HIV in all of Cameroon at 9.1%. Outside of HIV prevention presentations that I have shared with many groups, conversation around HIV/AIDS is limited due to fear in going against religious beliefs and widespread stigma. My hope was that the World AIDS Day events that we planned would provide me with more insights and anecdotes that would be helpful in terms of work and that I could share here. But, as with many things in the Peace Corps (in Cameroon, in life in general?), things didn’t go according to plan.

 

Lokoti did celebrate World AIDS Day on December 1st… and December 2nd, with some hiccups. In looking back at the rollercoaster that was planning and implementing World AIDS Day events, I have realized it really mirrored Peace Corps service as a whole. As Peace Corps volunteers, we experience many highs and lows throughout our service. Sometimes the highs or lows can last for a full month, but more often, they change on a daily to weekly basis due to the nature of our work and our distance from the familiar. Let me use World AIDS Day as an example…

 

Holding a World AIDS Day event in Lokoti was very important to me. As the first volunteer in this village, I am trying to lay the foundation through presentations, conversations, demonstrations, etc. for more focused and impactful HIV/AIDS interventions in the future. Additionally, I had heard that the year before an NGO had come to Lokoti and hosted an event that people still talk about, therefore there was a lot of community interest. I was approached by the president of the youth association (L’association jeunes solidaires de Lokoti) and was thrilled at the opportunity for collaboration – after all, the most successful projects are those planned and managed primarily by the community. I was so excited after our first planning meeting with the executive board of the association: the Sport Chair was going to organize the teams and football match, the President was going to handle publicity and equipment (generator, amplifiers, etc.) rental, others were going to prepare a presentation and the Social Chair was going to gather the actors/dancers for the skits, etc. Fast-forward to the next meeting when everyone says they are still working on their tasks. Every subsequent meeting was like this and I started to feel more and more discouraged. I had to keep telling myself to be flexible and that the event planning in the United States that I was used to was unlike event planning here.

 

I found out on the day of the event that my worries were not unwarranted. Up until the last hours of the event, we were running around trying to find another generator and gathering enough benches. The projector we asked to borrow from the health center ended up being in a neighboring town, so we had to send someone to get it. In addition, the Social Chair never did gather people to perform dances, so we’d have to go without. The only thing helping to relieve my stress in those hours was the fact that a lot of people were watching the football match we organized as a type of publicity and that they were going to head to the main event afterwards.

 

After all the running around during the day, we breathed a deep sigh of relief when everything was set up in front of the chief’s house (the benches, the amplifiers, projector, laptop, music, posters, etc.). We were excited to execute the event that we had planned – to have a few speeches and presentations about HIV prevention and then show “Scenarios d’Afrique,” a collection of short films made by young Africans on the subject of HIV/AIDS prevention, support and stigma. We gave presentations, people asked questions and all was good as we pressed play on the first short film. After about 3 minutes of the film, the generators that we had started having problems. After an hour of trying to fix the problem, we had to call it a night – it was around 10pm. I was upset these technical difficulties would be unfixable, but I was assured that with a few changes we could show the film the next night. I was worried no one would show up for the second night.

 

However, despite these difficulties, we attracted huge crowds both nights. There were people of all ages and market mamas came to sell snacks to the masses. On night two, I was marveling at how many people came back, even after the failure of the night before, when across the way I noticed a group of people huddled and yelling. I went over to watch what I thought might be someone dancing as we waited for the film to start. I was shocked to find a boy whipping (with plastic tubing) a young pregnant woman. The woman had arrived in Lokoti just a few weeks before and was living at the hospital. She had walked from the Northwest region of Cameroon and had only a piece of fabric to clothe herself. While I cannot say with certainty, it seemed as though this woman had a mental disability. “Fous” (“crazy people”) here are treated very poorly by many people – it is not uncommon for people to throw rocks at them or shout at them to leave. I stopped this abhorrent activity right away and tried by best to comfort the woman. Coming from the Northwest, she spoke Pidgin English, so I tried my best to communicate with her and eventually we ended up sitting together. She left to go back to the hospital an hour later, but for that entire hour people kept a distance from me, approaching me only to ask me why I wasn’t afraid of her. After that situation, I was surprised to find myself later in the evening joining in on the cheering as some brave youth participated in a condom demonstration relay race and as they answered trivia questions about prevention. I found myself just as proud of certain members of the community as I was disappointed in others just a few hours before. Talk about highs and lows.

 

So in conclusion, no, the event did not run seamlessly or truly according to plan and neither has my service. However, laughs were had, key information was transferred and a community was brought together on December 1st (and 2nd) and hopefully my service will have those same effects.

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Apple(s to Apple) for the Teacher

Way back in October of 2012, the teachers in Lokoti, along with teachers in all the villages, towns and cities of Cameroon, celebrated Teachers’ Day. On that October 10th, the teachers sang of educating the future of Cameroon as they marched through the village (no holiday here would be complete without marching). Following the march, we had a roundtable discussion on the need for advocacy on behalf of teachers (a precursor to a Cameroonian teacher’s union?). The day ended with a party complete with food, drinks and awkward colleague interaction.

 

Following Teachers’ Day, I had all intention to write a post about the very people this holiday honored, but never did. However, after attending last month’s teachers’ “Amicale,” I felt inspired to finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Amicale is a meeting that the high school teachers (I am included in the group because I teach an English class at the school) have monthly. Every first Saturday of the month we get together to eat, drink and collect money (that then gets redistributed to the “host teachers” for the month). In French, “amicale” means friendly and that is exactly what these meetings are supposed to do – promote an amicable environment amongst colleagues. However, I have mixed feelings on the environment that is actually promoted. In many ways, it feels like a being a fly on the wall of a men’s locker room. But, in this case, I am a very outspoken fly and always make sure the female perspective is heard (there is one other female teacher, but she is much more reserved). We spend a lot of time discussing the meeting policies (you must give 100 francs if your cellphone rings – 20 cents or 300 francs – 60 cents if you are late, everyone must bring two pieces of soap if someone in the group’s wife has a baby, etc.) I spend a lot of this time perusing the room of teachers, checking out their nifty clothes (they are among the most fashionably or at least most interestingly dressed people in the village) and just killing time before the food is served. Last month, I started to think about the group and how I might describe Cameroonian teachers to people who have never met or worked with them before. I settled on four adjectives, which also happen to be green cards in the game, Apples to Apples.

 

I want to preface these adjectives by saying that they are based solely on my opinions of, interactions with and observations of the teachers I work with and are no way descriptive of all the teachers in Cameroon.

 

Cosmopolitan: While the backgrounds of the teachers vary (some being born into poor families  

in rural villages, other being raised in a middle class urban setting), they all attended universities in big cities. For at least a few years, these teachers lived and soaked up everything that comes with cities – diversity, entertainment, modern luxuries (indoor plumbing, internet!), etc. It is not unexpected that these teachers would be very cosmopolitan. Their modern and sleek apparel and attention to grooming (I’m convinced they own stock in Axe, or something like it) set them apart. They are often very well connected and technologically accessorized. Their cellphones put mine to shame and they access their email on their laptops more times in a week then I do in a month. They are also always ready with their digital cameras. In addition to their material possessions, they are also more inclined to delve into “cultured conversation.” The way conversation can vacillate between current events and pop culture is reminiscent of a conversation you might overhear at a Dupont Circle Starbucks (more on this below).

 

Intelligent:       I am not exaggerating when I say that the majority of my colleagues could explain the top five international news stories in more detail and with more historical background then the pundits on CNN. Thanks primarily due to their frequent internet access, they are constantly up to date and informed on current events happening around the world. I especially like talking to them because they provide an alternative to the Eurocentric and Americanized point of view I normally receive. These are well educated Cameroonians who chose to stay and work in their country and so it goes without saying that they want to protect the interests of their country and are weary of superpowers, who in their opinion, view the world as their taking. With every point they make, they reinforce it with historical examples. Sometimes I wish I had my lecture notes from college history classes to use as a cheat sheet in these discussions. They are also extremely informed in the subject of politics – American, French, Senegalese, Cameroonian, you name it. Once I hung my head in embarrassment when they were discussing a speech Joe Biden just gave on gun violence because alas I had not read the speech, instead I had spent my time looking at Buzzfeed’s collection of Joe’s best expressions during the State of the Union. Anyways, between their knowledge and astute perspectives, I full heartedly believe that Cameroon would be in a far better state if leadership in the political system was more accessible for people like these teachers.

 

Touchy-Feely: It could be a product of their modern upbringings (or in some of their cases, their

exposure to more liberal surroundings once they went to university), but the teachers I work with are notoriously touchy-feely. Since in my village, interactions and comments made between the opposite sexes are pretty conservative, the atmosphere with the teachers seems all the more extreme to me. In interacting with me, they are not physically touchy-feely (besides the kisses on the cheek à la francais and some questionable dance moves), however, their comments are quite invasive. They constantly broach the subjects of marriage, sex and infidelity and not in a general sense, but through pointed and graphic questions towards me (or whoever else they are talking to). However, this doesn’t even scratch the surface. They often push further when it comes to people in an inferior position to them. I am spared because of my position in relation to them (being colleagues). Female students at the high school aren’t as fortunate. It is widely known, mainly because the teachers do nothing to hide the fact, that a few teachers from the high school “date” their students. Higher grades can be given, absences erased, etc. by visits with certain teachers. This is an unfortunate, but very real part of the school life (and the culture of corruption) here, which is why giving girls the life skills to effectively negotiate situations is such a key part of the work volunteers do in their communities.

 

Respectable:    Now it may seem counterintuitive that the adjective “respectable” follows the  

despicable behavior that I just wrote about, so let me explain. For every slimy colleague I have, I have a friendly, kind and respectable one (albeit sharing a crude joke once in a while). As is the case for teachers all around the world, these people chose an honorable profession that is often thankless, especially in Cameroon. Teachers get paid around 150, 000 francs ($300) a month, $60 of which often goes towards rent. Sometimes the government postpones paying teachers for months at a time. Due to this, many teachers take on a secondary job, such as farming or selling food in the market to supplement their income. Working conditions are just as meager. We have no photocopier or printer in Lokoti, so if teachers want to mass produce a test or worksheet, they type it using a type writer then print copies with an antiquated printing press-type apparatus. Needless to say, the only materials they receive for their classes are: the classroom itself, a few desks and a chalkboard (they provide their own chalk). Imagine teaching an informatics class without an actual computer, or a chemistry class without any lab materials therefore having to resort to rudimentary chalk-drawn diagrams on the board.  Despite this, the teachers still manage to transfer knowledge to and inspire hundreds of students every year. I have witnessed teachers helping struggling students study for their tests and giving pep talks to students who say they might not continue in school. Additionally, these teachers organize extracurricular events such as “Orientation Day” (think: Career Day), Bilingualism Day, etc. to promote learning in another manner outside of the classroom. They don’t need to spend their time doing this – time they could spend emailing their friends in Yaoundé or cultivating crops to sell, but they do it for the welfare of their students. I’d say all of that is pretty respectable.

 

Later today (I am writing on Saturday, March 2nd), I get to attend our Amicale for March and spend some time with the teachers I just described. I’m looking forward to sitting next to my fellow Anglophone, Julius, and clinking our “33 Export” beers to our families far away (his in the Northwest region of Cameroon, mine in the United States) and enjoying a delicious meal and hearty camaraderie. At the same time, I’m bracing myself to take deep breaths and hurl poignant retorts when a fellow teacher makes an unsavory comment about the rights of women or gay people (two common topics of conversation). But, as with many situations, I am prepared to balance the good with the bad (apples).

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