Bilingual Baloney?

During the last week of January, the students and teachers at the high school celebrated Bilingualism Day (have you caught on yet that Cameroonians love their “_______ Day”s – Bilingualism, Youth, World AIDS, Teachers, Women’s, etc,?) .

Cameroon has two official languages – English and French. Bilingualism Day was started years ago to act as a unifying holiday. During the day, people in the Francophone regions are encouraged to speak in English, while French is spoken in the Anglophone regions. The idea is that Cameroonians must make every effort to become bilingual in order to communicate with their fellow countrymen and with the rest of the world.

However, in reality, Bilingualism Day should be called “English and French Day/La Journée d’Anglais et Francais” because it promotes those two languages only and not bilingualism in general – the ability to speak any two languages. In Lokoti, many people are bilingual by the time they start Primary School. If you are Gbaya, your patois is Gbaya, but you also learn Fulfuldé. If you are Fulbé, your patois is Fulfuldé, but you also learn Arabic. It is often in Primary School that children are first exposed to French and English. French is the primary language of school classes, but children start taking English classes from the get-go. While it has been proven that children can absorb languages easier than adults, I can only imagine this overload of languages is confusing for many Cameroonian students. I have seen the results of this lack of focus on any one or two languages. I have read notes and tests of students in the last year of Primary School (the equivalent of sixth grade) and their spelling is atrocious (lefe = l’oeuf/egg, mesi = merci/thank you). This continues throughout high school, as the students have no real grasp of either French or English.

With that being said, Bilingualism Day ensues. This year people gave speeches on the official theme of Bilingualism Day 2013 (“Bilingualism: a cornerstone for the professionalization of an emerging Cameroon”) and there was of course, marching and dancing (in true Cameroonian holiday fashion). My English students made posters with messages that promoted bilingualism and while I applauded them, I still couldn’t help but question the very concept of promoting bilingualism, especially as it is written in the Cameroonian school curriculum.

Baloney or not, at the end of the (Bilingualism) day, I guess I am grateful for the two official languages, for it means I get to hear at least of smattering of my mother tongue daily. 

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New Year, New Blog Posts (I Promise!)

The month of September always seemed more like the start of a new year for me than the New Year ever did. This was because September always meant a change of scenery – from the pool to the classroom, or from New Jersey to Washington, DC. However, this January truly felt like a New Year. I rang in 2013 surrounded by friends in New York City and less than a week later, I enjoyed a cup of chai surrounded by friends back in my village, Lokoti.

 

The brief change of scenery, in the form of my (wonderful, amazing, delicious, cold, snowy, festive) trip to the East Coast for the holidays, was exactly what I needed for when I returned to Cameroon, for I was pleasantly overwhelmed with everything I have learned to love about this country. As my taxi driver, Etienne, drove me 40 minutes from the Yaoundé airport to the Peace Corps house, I was as smiley and content as my 6-year-old self in our family car as it crossed over the bay to Ocean City, NJ. Except instead of the smell of salt air, I smelled burning trash, instead of the sight of seagulls, I saw wild dogs and instead of the hum of 104.5FM, I listened to a mélange of P-Square and Lady Ponce blare from street bars.

 

I don’t necessarily love the burning trash or the wild dogs, but I love what they actors in: a hectic and gritty, but lively quotidian life. It was only upon returning after my trip that I realized how I revel in all the constant energy that surrounds me. This new outlook, combined with the familiar when I got back to my village. I was welcomed by the familial faces of friends and neighbors who couldn’t wait to tell me about the return (and improvement in quality) of the electricity! In return, I introduced them to their newest foe turned friend: Rosco, a dog I inherited from a volunteer who just completed her service. All of these things and more have proven the month of January worthy of its New Year status.

 

So in this New Year’s spirit, I was inclined to make some New Year’s Resolutions. Some of them have been going quite well (I’m becoming a Sudoku master with every daily puzzle I complete), others have fallen by the wayside already, such as: “Complete four workout videos a week” (how can anyone seriously stand to listen to that P90X guy?). Blogging is among these resolutions. I resolve to keep up with the blog for my remaining year in Cameroon. With that being said, I have three partially written posts that will posted, belatedly, in the coming weeks (I cannot guarantee that they won’t all end up being about Rosco).

 

Here’s to 2013.

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My Camerooniversary and Constant Confusion

I officially celebrated my One-Year Camerooniversary in September, however, one-year ago today I was sworn-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. As will be chronicled in a near-future blog post and has probably been noted by many of you who receive emails from me, Peace Corps service is like no other sequence of mood swings that I have ever experienced (and I’m saying this as a Gemini). However, at the end of every single day, even if it ends in tears or frustration, I can honestly say that I am happy I took that oath one year ago. Everyday I have the opportunity to learn new things. That might not seem exceptional, especially in the age of the internet when everyone and thing can be Googled in a moments notice, but I’ve been learning things that cannot be found online. With that being said, there are still oh so many things that make me question “Why?” (I guess these are the cases in which Wikipedia could be helpful…), even after one-year. Here are 6 such things (the number doesn’t represent anything or mean anything specific – just like many things I’ve encountered here):

1. “C’est qui?” “C’est moi!”: When someone knocks on your door and you ask who is there, 99% of the time they will respond with “It’s me!” I was looking for something a little more specific…
2. “Tu es la?”: In following with the last point, people love to state the very obvious. It is common to hear people exclaim “Tu es la?” (“You are here?”) when you walk in a room or “You are eating?” when you are mid-bite, and of course, “Nassara!” (“White person!”) when you are most definitely white.
3. Coffee or Tea?: Tea is consumed when people need to stay awake, while coffee is known as a beverage you drink when you want to sleep. Sleepy-Time Tea would not have a market here.
4. The rules of hygiene: You are a filthy person if your feet are a tad bit dirty, but body odor, outrageous pit stains, kola-nut stained teeth and cozying up to babies without diapers are acceptable and somewhat embraced.
5. Etiquette that would confuse Emily Post: There exists a very strict etiquette in terms of how your greet people, how you treat elders, how you address a crowd, etc. However, at the same time I am amazed at how many times people fall asleep at public events and while visiting people. With the later, I am not talking about a doze – people take full-fledge naps in their friends’ living rooms. While I’ve been writing in third person and still do not understand it, I’ve definitely partaken in naptime.
6. There’s no saying “Cheese!”: For one year now I have been on a crusade to have people smile more in photos to no avail. Photos are like family heirlooms here, since it is pricey to print out photos and not many people have cameras. When visiting people’s houses, they will often pull out a stack of photos to show you. The photos are a wonderful portfolio of different family members in a variety of different poses (my personal favorite is part thinker – hand on chin, pensive visage, part mid-latrine usage – a strategic squat). However, the smiles are always missing.

In a time when we have access to find answers of many questions ranging from “In what year was the World Food Programme started?” to “What does yolo mean?” (just two of my many Google searches), it is somewhat refreshing to not know why some things are they way they are. If anything, it continues to keep life exciting, even after one year!

[I started writing this before I noticed that one of my fellow PCVs wrote a very similar blog post earlier today. Please check it out for more baffling facets of life in Cameroon: http://peacecorpspeach.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/10-things-i-still-dont-get/ (I especially endorse Numbers 6 and 7)]

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6886 Miles from the White House

Four years ago, I sat five blocks from the White House watch Wolf Blitzer excitedly rearrange his holographic electoral map as each state reported. Then as history was made, I joined by peers in running to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a very memorable going-away party.

This year, after my team “The 2%” (bonus points if you understand the team name) was eliminated from the corn hole tournament at our Election party, I sat 6886 miles from the White House. I was with a dwindling group of PCVs watching Brian Williams hypothesize the route to 270 votes (thank you MSNBC Live Streaming and Camtel Internet!) early on November 7th. There was no dash to the White House, instead there were embraces and small celebratory outbursts mixed in with yawns as the results were announced. It was 8am in Ngaoundéré , after all, and most of us were in bed before the President took the stage for we had heard what we needed to hear to get a good night’s (day’s?) sleep.

I awoke a few hours later to a handful of missed calls from people in my village. With each call returned, I received a “Felicitations!” on Obama’s victory (impressive considering Lokoti hasn’t had electricity since a few days before the election). The congratulations continue to this day as I walk through town (part of me wonders what people would shout at me if Romney was victorious). Most of these people could have preemptively congratulated me because anything other than a second term for Obama did not seem possible to them.

[It should be noted here that there are many Cameroonians (especially in larger towns) who follow polling data and watch France24 coverage of the election as much as your average GW student (replace France24 with CNN) and therefore they fully understand the ebb and flow of the months and days leading up to the election. However, the average Cameroonian is more akin to my friends in village, whose confidence in a second term for Obama was nice, but completely overstated.]

There same people were puzzled when I could not tell them with certainty which candidate would win. The response is quite understandable when taken in context. Cameroonians live in a theoretical democracy with presidential elections every seven years. However, even with a field of 15 or more candidates, the question is never who will win, rather by how much.

On November 6th, as Americans were lining up (in very long lines, I hear) to vote, Cameroon was celebrating Paul Biya Day – commemorating President Biya’s 30 years in power. Even though the night of November 6th into the day of November 7th was nailbiting for us, Paul Biya Day made me appreciate all the more that 8 years is not a given and that the 22nd Amendment was ratified and is followed.

Discussions about mandate limits and more confusing ones about the Electoral College were the least of the interesting conversations I got to have with Cameroonians during the run up to the election. Whether it was during the late, late night hours when we were waiting for the debates to come on TV or over a cup of chai mid-afternoon, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to discuss the campaign, explain U.S. government and listen to my friends’ insights. I’d put any of my Cameroonian friends up again a AP U.S. Government student!

There is nothing quite like being in the nation’s capital on election night, but there is something equally as memorable in spending an election season abroad – memorable in the sense that I’ll never take an Election Day for granted.

[The 2% refers to the percentage of Americans polled that thought Mitt Romney’s full name was Mittens. God Bless You, America.]

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Two Thousand Twelve is the Year of the Girl

I am a Girl Scout through and through. It is because of Girl Scouting that I sought out service opportunities, joined a sorority (nothing quite like a support system of inspiring women), was voted “Most Likely to Start Everything with an Icebreaker” during Pre-Service Training and am here. Needless to say, I believe full-heartedly in Girl Scouts (minus the uniforms – I’m only lukewarm about them). This year Girl Scouts celebrated their 100th birthday and while I was thousands of miles away from the celebrations, I’ve been able to celebrate and honor their mission through opportunities here in Cameroon.

I rang in the summer with something characteristic of both the season and of Girl Scouts: a camp! With students out of school, my friend and fellow PCV, Charla (a Youth Development Volunteer) saw an opportunity to work with girls in my village and her town, Meiganga (30 minutes away from Lokoti). In both of these places, the gender disparity in high school is outstanding because many girls stop school after primary school. Knowing this, we focused our camp on girls in the last two years of primary school (ages 11-15). Our camp was called “Choisissez un futur!” (Choose a Future) and concentrated on transferring the life skills needed to make healthy life decisions. We spent a week in Lokoti and a week in Meiganga. Each day had a theme that blended nicely with the day before. The themes were: leadership, HIV/AIDS prevention, communication, decision making and goal setting.

One of the best days was the HIV/AIDS prevention themed day. This also happened to be the day I was most nervous about presenting, mainly because Lokoti is a fairly traditional village, therefore the topics of reproductive health, sex and HIV/AIDS are not discussed that openly (we did have parents sign permission slips acknowledging that we would be covering these topics). However, Charla and I did our best to create a safe environment where everyone would feel comfortable talking and asking questions. We knew we had succeeded when after doing a condom demonstration, the girls asked if they could open the packets and touch the condoms. This led to some silliness, like blowing them up to become balloons and stretching them over arms to test their strength. But however silly those things seem, having the girls become comfortable navigating condom usage was no small feat. I believe it was that same safe environment that has allowed the girls to become more outgoing overall. While in the beginning of the camp, girls were reluctant to speak in front of their peers, they are now (during club meetings) all clambering to be the first to speak up. Those leadership skills we talked about starting to be put into action.

Later in the summer, I was invited to attend the first annual National Girls Forum, organized by Peace Corps Cameroon’s Youth Development program. The objective of the forum was to bring together Peace Corps Volunteers and host country nationals (each volunteer brought two people from their village) who are working on girls empowerment issues with the ultimate goal of sharing best practices and creating a national network of advocates. I attended the conference with the Guidance Counselor from the local high school and a very motivated 18-year-old high school student named Hadidjatou. In many ways Hadidjatou could be the poster child for girls empowerment in Cameroon. Hailing from a large traditional Muslim family in a mid-sized village, she has persisted against the odds to continue with schooling. She is the third oldest, out of ten children and the first child to continue with her education way into high school (she currently has three more years left). Her older sister, only a few years older, married and with one child already, represented Hadidjatou’s expected future. However, being a very bright student, she wanted to continue with schooling and vowed to herself not to get married until she finished with school. She knew that she could make all the promises to herself that she could imagine, but that in reality, she was not the sole decider of her future. She pleaded her case to her parents and her parents agreed to let her continue with her studies, but stressed that they could not continue paying for it. As a result, Hadidjatou has found odd jobs, such as selling in the market and working in the fields to pay for her school supplies (thanks to her stellar performance in school, the teachers have agreed to pay her school fees). Needless to say, her participation in the conference brought a lot of perspective and life to the statistics that were read during presentations.

Upon returning from the conference, Hadidjatou and I have continued working with the girls who participated in the camp in Lokoti. The girls have so much potential, but so little opportunity to exercise it. To remedy this, they’ve formed a girls club called The Dynamic Girls of Lokoti (“Les filles dynamiques de Lokoti”). During meetings we talk about life skills (similar to what was covered during the camp), do teambuilding exercises, play games and of course, we start every meeting with an icebreaker. The girls have really started to take ownership of the club and be vocal about what they want to do as a group. One example is that the girls wanted to do more sport-type activities. As a result, we started “Sport Samedis” and we do a variety of sports every Saturday morning at 6am (chosen because there are not a lot of boys out at the field to interfere or bother them). Whether we are teaching ourselves how to play soccer, doing some sun salutations or partaking in some traditional dancing and singing, it is obvious that “Sport Samedis” and the club, in general, are wonderful outlets for these girls, many of whom are becoming leaders before my very eyes.

The “Two Thousand Twelve is the Year of the Girl” tagline has been used on a lot of 100th anniversary Girl Scout products, but it many ways it has also defined my year in Cameroon and if the Dynamic Girls of Lokoti have anything to do with it there’s nothing stopping at the end of 2012, Thousand Thirteen is looking pretty bright too!

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Learning the Ingredients, Savoring the Meal

I’m sorry for not posting for such an extended amount of time! Your email notifications did not stop working; I did in fact take a three-month hiatus from blogging, but not necessarily on purpose. Cameroon is at the height of rainy season, which means advancement for the fields of cassava, but frequent interruptions for the electricity grids. In the states, rainy days would always be my most productive when I’d complete paper assignments and even start writing review outlines days in advance, but rainy days in Lokoti have just meant a lot of false starts with work done on the computer – a few ideas for a blog post here, a few lines of a grant proposal there – before the electricity cuts out for a day, a week or even 20 days (that’s the record).

Leaving the excuses behind, these past few months have been great and characterized by spending a lot of time with friends and family. The setting of a lot of this time was spent at my friend Hadija’s house – more specifically, in her kitchen*. When playing the word association game with kitchen, my name would not come up in the first thousand guesses. I have never been one to spend much time in a kitchen (and the cooks I’m sure were grateful since I can barely tell a teaspoon from a tablespoon), but in Cameroon, women spend hours upon hours in their kitchens. As a result, so have I – the kitchen has become one of my social spheres.

One of the most memorable moments in Hadija’s kitchen was on my birthday in June. I was having a party later in the afternoon for some people in my village at my house, but my meager two-burner gas stove was no match for the amount of food we were planning on preparing. In the morning, I went over to Hadija’s house to start preparing the spread – plantains and spaghetti (yep, that’s a thing), beans, beignets, biscuits, rice, meat, sauce, etc. Just as I was peeling what seemed like the hundredth plantain and wondering how we were ever going to get everything prepared in time, a couple of my friends showed up to help and less than an hour later the chief’s first wife followed suit. Once I got over the shock that I was peeling plantains with the first lady of Lokoti, I felt a sense of normalcy in that this is what happens the morning of a big party in the states when you have a group of great friends – everyone contributes a little time so that no one is carting the burden.

In July, Hadija had to share the kitchen not only with me, but also with my mom, aunt and sister who were in Lokoti visiting. All five of us found a seat and the four of us watched Hadija prepare (in a room that size, the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” hits home, so we let the expert do her work). Meanwhile we talked, played with Hadija’s baby and in the case of my sister, had our hair braided by Hadija’s daughters. The best part was enjoying the meal together – tasba (a leafy green sauce) and corn fufu. Before my eyes she made a pile of leaves and some corn flour become my favorite Cameroonian dish.

It is now the Ramadan season meaning that Muslims in Lokoti do not eat or drink from sunup to sundown. As a result, Hadija doesn’t start preparing food until later in the day – around 1:00pm when she starts preparing for dinner (the leftovers of dinner being what is eaten early in the morning). In addition to preparing dinner, she also makes maasé, a type of rice/flour doughnut. A handful of children sell these doughnuts in the marketplace around 6:30pm when men are leaving the mosque after evening prayer and sunset (talk about knowing your consumer market). One of the many things that has been amazing for me is the fact that while cooking she cannot taste-test any of it. I’d be nervous that the sauce might not be flavorful enough or that I put too much salt in something else, but she just knows. I guess that comes with years and years of practice considering that she started learning how to cooking at 8-years-old.

In all of these cases, I cannot help but flinch and express my amazement when Hadija, bare-handedly, lifts a scalding pot from the fire and places it on the ground. She uses no pot-holder, oven mitt or simple rag. She responds in telling me that in two years when I leave Lokoti, I’ll be able to do the same thing. I’m not as confident that I will develop that same skill, but I see myself leaving here being able to do things I couldn’t have done before coming, many of which are from lessons I learned from Hadija while in her kitchen – like creating something from scratch without measuring cups or a recipe book (or in the case of work, excel spreadsheets or an assignment rubric). Her kitchen is at one time a classroom and a coffee shop where I am both student and friend.

* Some insight on the Cameroonian kitchen: The typical kitchen in my village consists of a small mud-brick room with a tin or grass roof. Inside is relatively dark, the door being the only source of light and the ceiling is covered with black soot from the smoke. Cooking is done over a fire with three mud bricks being used to support the cooking pot. Women normally squat while preparing and cooking or use low to the ground stools – there are no counters. The most common utensils and cookware are: sturdy pots, ladles, knives, a flat slab of stone and a rock (for grinding vegetables, spices, etc).

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Le passe, le present et le futur

No one told me about the post-IST* funk. In many ways it felt like the post-holiday period where all your decorating and planning is dumped on your sidewalk like your Christmas tree and your left looking at your long list of New Years resolutions and the daunting schedule you’ll need to accomplish them. Here in Cameroon, I arrived back at post with a sunburn and a list of project ideas. Aloe helped with the sunburn, but making sense of how to implement work was a bit trickier. Three months seems like a long time to gain an understanding of the community, but its not. It certainly takes a while to figure out the nuances of working in an environment sans Microsoft Outlook among many other things. On top of being stuck professionally, I returned to my village at the start of rainy season meaning I had to quickly adapt to a lot more mud and a lot less electricity. With all of this, I found myself thinking about the more comfortable past – the first months in Cameroon when I was under the umbrella of a family, the first few months at post when my main job was just to get to know people and even the United States where family, friends and cheese run abundant. Just as I was at the height of all these feelings, I received an email from my friend, Kait, with a quote that seemed beyond fitting. It said,

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep – leave it anyway except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it.”

       – Beryl Markham

While I still cannot help but look at photos or read old letters and think fondly of the past, this month I’ve tried to take my own collection of photos (more like mental snapshots) to remind me of the joy that’s found in the present and the potentialities of the future. Here are some of those snapshots:

  • My friend was having work done on her tin roof, which is common around this time a year because tiny holes can cause a lot of problems with the heavy rain. An older man (I’m estimating his age to be around 70-years-old) was working very hard on the roof. Upon completing his work, he hopped down from the roof , tossed his hammer euphorically and squatted down to enjoy a bowl of “riz-sauté.” I constantly people toiling away daily, but it was wonderful to see the delight and repose that comes after a hard day’s work.
  • With the start of the rains, come mangos. The trees are full of this ripe fruit and their peels litter the ground everywhere. After a few months of meager fruit and vegetable availability in our village, mangos are celebrated. Something I’ve loved watching these past few weeks is the children in Lokoti rejoicing the mango rains. Before school, after school (sometimes during school), you can spot children with long sticks pointed high trying to knock mangos off their branches. Or you’ll find children climbing the giant trees in search of fruit, but also adventure. It’s been fun to watch and delicious to enjoy the fruits of their endeavors (pun intended).
  • My friend Hadija, the superstar best friend from the last post, had a beautiful and healthy baby boy named Mohamadou Awalou on March 9th. In Fulbe tradition, the baby is named one week after the birth and the mother cannot leave the house for 40 days. Last Monday, Hadija left the house, beautifully clad in head to toe pagne with Mohamadou in his new tie-dye boubou (long shirt). New mothers who leave their house for the first time bake beignets (think Cameroon’s version of Dunkin Donut Munchkins) and then hand them out as they go house to house visiting their friends. Not only was I thrilled at that fact that my friend can again accompany to market and visit me at home (not to mention, the added bonus of receiving beignets!), it was truly a blessing to see a healthy mother and child – something that is less taken for granted here.
  • If you were told that a nurse was taking notes on a presentation that a McLean child gave, you would probably automatically think of my very smart nursing student brother, Tyler. But last Saturday, that person was me. During Nutrition Day at the health center, I gave a presentation on healthy eating and the food groups to a group of about 35 women who came to have their babies weighed. During the presentation, I noticed the Chef de Centre (the head nurse at the health center) taking notes as I was presenting. After a month of feeling incompetent in the professional realm, that was exactly the boost I needed. It also illustrated the character of the nurses at our center – they are always willing to take the time and learn about how to approach the knowledge they already have from a different perspective to benefit the population that they serve.
  • Something that will be hard to capture and take back with me in two years is the feeling gained when groups of children exclaim “SAMANTA! Bonne arrivee! Bonne journee!” Some days I find it hard to muster up the energy to leave my house, but I only need to walk less than 15 seconds outside of my house to be reminded that many people are invested in me being here and that this is where I truly belong in this moment. I am welcomed.

April has been a month of making sense of the past, present and future (it’s a lot harder than conquering the past, present and future tenses in French) – learning to live in the present and face the future boldly. Soon I know that this – language gymnastics, work frustrations and all, will be my safe and sunny past, a far cry from the cloud it looked like at the beginning of this month.

 

*IST: In-Service Training. A training for PCVs after their first three months at their post. After IST, PCVs are allowed to start projects, whereas the first three months are primarily for community assessment activities.

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