On Wednesday, we left our hotel in the capital, Yaoundé, for our training site in Bafia (or Bokito for the health volunteers). We had lots of time to get excited and/or wet-our-pants nervous during the days leading up to the big event as well as the two hours it took to load our ponderous weight of very important stuff (and ourselves) into a bus and two or three trucks for the drive up. I thought we had a lot of stuff to begin with, but then they added water filters and medical kits into the mix and, let me tell you, we needed all the additional trucks we could get. A significant number of us slept on the ride up, missing views of the biggest river in Cameroon and a body bag from a bad traffic accident. (I think I’m glad I fell asleep.)
It had taken about as long to pack the trucks as it took to get there. (A Returned Peace Corps Volunteer--RPCV--who is visiting Cameroon thirty years after his time here told us that it took him three days to get from Yaoundé to Bafia in his era. Crossing the river before the big bridge we used, I imagine, was a great source of adventure.) Upon arrival, e all piled into the school rooms which would later serve as our training site, along with all our soon-to-be adoptive families. It was like a middle school dance, where we trainees were all in little groups along the wall, anxiously eyeing the families around us and hoping someone who we would like would ask us to dance. They eyed us right back, toddlers and teens and moms and dads, although I can’t tell you what they were pondering.
Luckily, they were braver than we. Kids started running over, tugging on sleeves and asking: “Kimberly? Kimberly?” trying to find a name without a face and often without a common language. They paired us all up in a big ceremony, with lots of hugs and 1-2-3 alternating cheek kisses and running around finding misplaced med kits. That first hug of a homestay mama and papa made us all breath a huge sigh of relief: we were welcome, we were wanted, it would all work out.
I am staying here with the Zom A Pon family, a retired couple with seven kids who have all moved out. As I was warned, they feed me well. On my first morning, I was offered for breakfast: two pain-au-chocolat, a loaf of bread, coffee, half a fish, veggie stew, bananas, and I don’t even remember what else, but it was enough for at least seven people my size. I am staying in a big house, complete with 2 bathrooms, 2 kitchens, 3 bedrooms, a tv, a fridge, electricity, and running water. Not what you expected? Me either, but then this isn’t the first time I’ve been left confused by my own stereotypes and misguided expectations since I arrived. As I anticipated, Africa is indeed much more than tv’s images of starving kids. Here, like in the U.S., there’s Fanta and Coke, chicken and beef and fish, annoying 8-year-olds and awesome 8-year-olds, babies and grandmas, electricity and water. And sometimes even wifi.
This is NOT to say that everything is the same as in the US. The neighborhood roads, for example, can be potholed to such an extent that I wonder how the suspension system still functions on any car here. Like in Italy or Egypt, I’ve seen an awe-inspiring variety of objects of the back of motos, from families of five to mountains of bread ready for delivery. (The smell of fresh-baked bread and gas those particular motos leave behind makes an odd combination on my morning meanderings.) I see children playing soccer with completely flat balls, perhaps because they’re better than no ball at all. Yesterday, on of the other volunteers named Erich learned to slaughter a chicken. There’s no system of trash collection to speak of. And, of course, the culture is different; for example, Americans think of “clean” as no dirt anywhere, whereas Cameroonians seem to think of “clean” as no mess anywhere.
Despite the language and culture differences, I’m not at all uncomfortable here. For starters, unlike some other trainees, my GI system is still intact and I haven’t had an allergic reaction to the food, laundry detergent, or water. (One trainee spent the first two days with the skin on his face and neck burning from a reaction to his pillow. He did not have the best first few days.) I can communicate fine with my family, with Mama Giselle who sells avocado sandwiches and phone credit near the training site, and with women on the street who call me “ma fille” (my daughter). In fact, I’m not only not uncomfortable, but I’m also HAPPY. I’m already learning: how to do dishes or flush the toilet (!!) or bathe when the water stops running, how to get water from the well, how ot do laundry by hand, how to cook like a Cameroonian (think absurd amounts of palm oil, high in saturated fat), how to use a mosquito net. I’m already changing too: I get up at quarter to six. In the morning. And I’m usually in bed by 8:30 and asleep by 9:30, lulled by the pounding of rain on the aluminum roof. (You’re probably wondering, is this the same girl I knew?! The one who always said the only reason she would get up before 7 was to catch an international flight?! But yes. It’s true. Also, I live with retired folks, who are not so different from retired grandparents at home, so take that into consideration.)
Then again, some things don’t change… My family had discovered my love of chocolate and fruit, and makes sure I have something vaguely equivalent to Nutella every morning with my coffee and breakfast.
One last-minute addition to this post… My roommate is a mouse and I saw a spider THIS BIG (ball your right hand into a fist and stare at it with disgust) this morning. My homestay mom found my reaction hilarious.