Monday, March 16, 2015

The Highs and Lows of Travel in Cameroon

Or, To Kribi and Back Again

While in the second of two five-hour buses required to travel from Bansoa, West Cameroon to Kribi, South Cameroon (not counting the taxis to Bafoussam, across Bafoussam, or across Yaoundé), I was pondering the joys of traveling. In my mind, I attempted to grade the delightful qualities of these public transportation mini-buses, commonly called "coasters." But even three hours into the trip I had not decided on a ranking because that implies that some characteristics are better or worse than others, and yet they are all so excellent! Here are a few examples, in no particular order of course.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

February is for Parties and Death

It's one of those mid-February days, when the rainy season isn't supposed to start for another month but the afternoons are already starting to become gray and threatening and windy. When everyone is rushing to fit in their wedding or wake or burial or funeral or other big event. When I simply cannot get any work done over the weekends because I'm busy attending all said events (and don't think I'm complaining, because I'd definitely rather be out with my friends). Two things seem omnipresent by the end of dry season: parties and death. 

Friends, family, food, drank.
Before I came to Cameroon, one of my many worries was how I would deal with death. I had this idea that people die every day in Africa and that it would be really emotionally draining. And in some ways that is true, but in some ways it's an exaggeration, and death is merely a part of the circle of life. 

So in these days when everyone holds their breath and watches the sky for rain, we also spend a lot of time mourning death and celebrating life. What better time than the end of dry season, when the majority of the plant life is dying of thirst but we know that the rain will soon come to make everything fertile again? 

Death rites are so interesting here in the Bamileke area of Cameroon, and I suspect more healthy than our own American system. When someone dies - old or young - the family holds the wake immediately. For one or several days, all the bereaved person's friends come over to cry with them. Whenever someone new arrives, they immediately go to greet the bereaved, who melts into tears. Women begin to shuffle dance in a circle around the drums, if the family has drums, or just in a circle if they don't. Men stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder on the side; they sing along but do not dance. And the song almost defies description: it has words but I could not tell you what they are; it has a tune but it's easier to follow the less you think about it. It's almost a song composed of suppressed moans of pain, perfectly in tune with muffled sobs, somehow expressing both sorrow and solidarity. The bereaved puts her hand on each of her friends shoulders, one by one; they return the gesture, saying "We are together" without need for words. Women shave their heads and wear all black. Everyone cries. 

Shortly thereafter is the burial. The dancing and crying is repeated, though the pain is clearly less raw, with the added component of a Christian service (in both French and Bansoa) for those who are religious. If it is a woman who died, all of her sons wear her clothes (yes, kaabas and dresses included); if it is a man who died, his widow and daughter wear his clothes. This is just another way of carrying the deceased with them, of remember him or her. The men dig a hole to bury the woman's body in front of her kitchen. There is more playing of drums, mournful singing, and dancing in circles. 

The drums.
Up to several years later is the funeral, and this involves no mourning at all. It is a huge celebration with all the friends and extended families (and with the giant polygamous families so common here, that can mean an entire village or two). Everyone stuffs themselves with food, drinks all the beer they can hold (unless the entire village has already run out of beer), and dances in more circles. The songs are no longer sad; the polyrhythmic bursts issuing from the drums faster and louder. The closest family members all wear matching new pagne clothes. Dry season is also funeral season, and it draws people back to their home villages from Douala or Yaoundé or Germany or wherever else they have landed as they grew up, to complain of the dust and backwardness of their place of birth. Despite all the complaining, they are happy to be home for a party, to see all their friends and family in a joyful reunion. 
Dancing in a circle at a funeral - with beers.
Each of those red boxes is called a "casier"
Each has twelve Cameroonian-sized beers,
Which equals two American-sized beers.
Then the money is finished and everyone goes home or waits, watching the sky, for rainy season to begin so they can start selling their fields' produce again. 
I <3 crazy hats. 

More crazy hats.
Also, that goat doesn't stand a chance...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Like a Busy Bee

It's that time of year again - where work comes and sits on your vocal cords and crushes your dreams. (Oh wait, that's nodes. #pitchperfect)

The school year winding down faster and faster, continuously interrupted by national days of fête-ing that turn into weeks of no school (Bilingualism Day, Youth Day, Women's Day, National Day...) or by testing weeks. That means all my school-related projects - which are most of them - also have approaching ends. This is kind of exciting - the end of May will mean the end of most of my work, and I can spend the last few months frolicking and sitting at the café sipping sweetened condensed milk with a bit of coffee mixed in. (#wishfulthinking) But it's also kind of stressful, because there are still so many things that I still want to accomplish before the end of the year!

Here's a rundown of what I've been working on lately...

1. Club FORTES : An extracurricular program targeting female high school students (though there are now 3 regularly attending you men as well!) to teach life skills and puberty and sexual reproductive health, issues which are not normally discussed either at school or at home. I'm trying to find a counterpart to replace me when I leave at Lycée Bansoa-Mbri, the school just ten minutes down the road, but without much progress. I am having better luck at Lycée Bakassa, which is more like ten kilometers down the road, but as a new school is more engaged and open to change. 

2. Youth For Change : Another extracurricular program, this one teaching civic engagement and active citizenship. It's in partnership with my host organisation RIDEV and targets 2nd year (16 year old) students at the Lycée Classique in Bafoussam. We teach motivated young adults about issues in their communities, like HIV and the environment, and then teach them skills (leadership, communication) to address those issues in their communities. We hope to take the participants on several excursions to see our theoretical knowledge at work in Bafoussam before the students plan and execute their own volunteer project! 

3. March 8th, International Women's Day : My peer educators and some motivated young women from Club FORTES are putting together and educational skit about early pregnancy to present at Women's Day. They will parade in matching yellow t-shirts in *distant* Penka-Michel (the administrative center of my town) and are very excited!

4. Camp FORTES : Round 2 is planned for mid June, right at the beginning of their long break from school. We're hoping to train 25 more young women as peer educators in Baleng, Bansoa, and Bafoussam - as well as giving the girls a "sleepover summer camp" experience that many Americans take for granted as part of their summer breaks!

5. Art Class : Postmate Danielle and I teach art class to four groups of 50 elementary school students at Kinder's House in Banock every Tuesday. The students range in age form 5 to 11, and as you can imagine, this makes for an exhausting day. But the kids love it, and their delight with using materials they've never been allowed to touch before makes it worth it - most of the time. We're currently playing with watercolors - all over their paper, their tables, their floors, their uniforms, their faces... 
(Special thanks to my grandma Kay Duffy and her artsy friends for donating so many art supplies to the school!)

There's plenty of other little stuff going on as well, but these are the big ones. 

Finally, during the first week of April, I'll be traveling to beautiful beachy Kribi for my Close of Service (COS) conference! I can't believe how fast time is passing; only six months left.