Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Unexpectedly Expected

Or, Why Our Stereotypes Are Dumb and We Should Open Our Minds

It seems like everyone wants to write the blog Ten Things You'd Never Do In the U.S. And there's nothing wrong with that post, with admiring what is exotic. It's impossible not to notice what is so different from what we're used to!

But I want us to remember, too, that not everything is the "exotic," different, black to our white. Nothing is that simple. So here's a list of seven stereotypes, many of which I held and which are commonly held, but which are simply not true. 

1. Weather

Stereotype: Sub-Saharan Africa is hot and dry. There are huge savannas with blowing golden grasses, parted by the long legs of giraffes as they pass baobab tress on their route to the watering hole. The sun beats relentlessly.

Reality: In the West Region of Cameroon, there's a rainy season and a dry season - and in rainy season (March to October) it gets COLD. I mean, it's not winter. (To my students, I explain winter in the U.S. as being like living in the freezer for three months. They are mind-blown by this idea.) But I head to buy long sleeves and sweaters and jeans because I didn't pack them! I have even been known to wear a *borrowed* airplane blanket like a wrap skirt over leggings. And yes, I have gotten compliments on that wrap skirt…
...turns to the red mud of rainy season.
The red dust of dry season...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Life Lessons Learned, Year 1

The road less traveled?

As I'm listening to Aya by Davido for possibly the hundredth time since 7am, I'm contemplating this place where I find myself. In my house with no sound proofing and all of the noises come in from the market: children's antics on the way to school, moto engines revving (it sounds like a dirt bike competition out there), horns honking, Market DJ's beats vibrating over everything.

December 11th marks Month 15 of my Peace Corps service. While I'm online, I read about adventures that I'm not having and people I admire and sometimes Melancholy threatens. But then I remember: I am having an amazing adventure. The adventure of a lifetime. (Though I hope to have many more adventures before I get fat from making cookies for my grandchildren. That way my stories - which are of course the price of eating the aforementioned cookies - don't always start with "When I was in the Peace Corps…")

I suppose it is inevitable that while on this escapade, I learn a thing or two.
Cameroon is full of love and rainbows and unicorns. Or something.
"Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life - and travel - leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks - on your body or on your heart - are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt." - Anthony Bourdain

Some of the things I've learned have been practical… Always check your pants for live spiders before putting them on. Check the beans for rocks and the tomatoes for worms. Don't respond "yes" to a question in the local language that you don't understand, because you might be agreeing to a shotgun wedding. Greet everyone, because that way no one can be insulted. Always carry clean water and tissues or toilet paper with you, because you never know. These are the things that get you through the days unscathed.

Enjoying the scenery
But many of the things I've learned have been more philosophical.

I have spent a year full of downtime (is that an oxymoron?), a lot of time hanging out with me, myself, and I. In college, I spent all my time with friends or classmates or boyfriend or books. Here, not so much. And that was really rough at first. How to fill all that time? But somewhere along the way I became more comfortable with solitude, and sometimes I even crave it. And I have become intimately acquainted with me. When talking about Peace Corps, people almost inevitable toss out clichés like "discovering oneself" blah blah blah. But maybe there's some truth in that overused phrase. It's an unfinished process, but learning how to deal with solitude and learning the necessity of self-reflection has definitely been - healthy? fulfilling? At the very least, good.

Admiring the tree I call "fire tree" for its bright orange flowers
Here's a short list of "how to be happy life lessons" I've learned during my Peace Corps service:

Physical comforts (like running water or consistent electricity) are some of the least important requirements for being happy.

Time is money, but sometimes slowing down is worth it.

Sometimes you have to stop and appreciate the little things...
...little things like preparing & eating nkwi.
So much is possible with a lot of stubborn persistence and a little creativity. Set little goals and work towards a big one, celebrating the little successes along the way. But also never do yourself what you can get someone else to do. It's good for development, it's good for you, and that's a win-win situation!

"Unplugging" - partially removing myself from Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube - is great for one's mental health. It encourages me to pursue complexity rather than simplicity, to seek out relationships with physical proximity rather than Likes.

The value of human relationships is immeasurable. Not only for work (why do we spend so much time discussing this "networking" thing?) but also for the simple reasons: friendship, solidarity, happiness in each other's company.

We're all connected.
And last but not least, when you're down and everything feels wrong, a dance party with P Square is always right. #testimony #tastedamoney

Dance partayyyy

All night looong

And all day looong.
Dear friends: What "life lessons" have you learned from traveling or living abroad (or just living haha)?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Fun-tivities in Foumban

In the West region of Cameroon, November and December are the months of cultural festivals. Cameroon is incredibly culturally diverse, and you only need to look at the local languages to see the extent: some sources (by which I mean Wikipedia) estimate that over 230 languages are spoken here. In my village of Bansoa, people speak a different language than Dschang (20 kilometers north) or Bafoussam (20 kilometers south) or any of the villages in between. Which is to say that in November and December there approximately a million parties. And I had the pleasure of attending Nguon, the Bamoun cultural festival in Foumban, at the beginning of November. Here are some highlights!

1) The Sultan's Palace and museum: This is without a doubt one of my two favorite museums in Cameroon (out of the two I've visited). It's full of treasures like the skulls of our enemies that were subsequently used as goblets and parts of animals killed a really long time ago. The excellent tour guides and/or his excellency Josh Shelton will happily tell you plenty of fun stories, like that of the tenth sultan Mbue-Mbue killing all his enemies to forge his borders in blood and black steal then comparing himself to a two-headed snake. It's a symbol that stuck, as you can see in this concrete structure that will eventually (and I stress evennnntually) house the new museum. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Hiking in Beautiful Bangang

About 2 months ago now, Danielle and I went to go visit Alec at his post. He lives in a health center, in a quartier called Bamboue, in a village called Bangang. Bangang is somewhere way off en brousse, at least by the standards of the West region. Located in the Bamboutos mountains, it's full of waterfalls, a tea plantation, logging areas, odd rocks, and terraced farmlands. Some (like Alec) argue that it is the most beautiful post in Cameroon, and though I'm not sure I would go that far, I will agree that it offers stunning scenery. As an advance apology for the really long post about Foumban and its cultural festival - coming soon to an internet-enabled device near you - I'm going to show you instead of telling you how beautiful it is. Alec took us on a meandering five hour hike, and this is what we saw… 

View of the tea plantation and Bamboutos mountains (I think)

Danielle & Alec, taking a break and enjoying the view

A big white sheep dog resting on a big grey rock

View towards the South (?) - probably can see my post from here!

Stumbling across the creek

View of the waterfall

Then we climbed above the waterfall, involving running
away from very large cows with very large horns.

Enjoyin the sunshine :)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Definitive Guide to Washing Socks (According to Me.)

Are you struggling to wash your socks? Do you often find that even after washing, your socks appear dingy? If you do not have a washing machine, this may be you! (Then again, if you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, this may not be you, and all of your Cameroonian friends may be clucking their tongues in judgement when you turn your back.)

After extensive observation of Cameroonian women doing laundry followed by a  period of trial and error, after only 14 months of Peace Corps service, I have discovered the perfect sock-washing-system! Simply follow these steps for brilliantly clean socks.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Karoling in Kumbo!

I feel I should apologize for my tardy blog posts. Sorry, friends and strangers, readers and skimmers! But I also wonder - does the lateness, the rarity of this blog post make it more valuable? Will it be more popular or less popular? Either way, dear followers, this should be a fun post because it is a post in which I take a trip to Kumbo!

Saturday, 6 September 2014, morning: the beginning, the day of travel, the start of a new adventure - and time to pack. I hate packing, so I have progressively put it off later and later, finally reaching my current point where the moment I finish packing is the moment I bumble out the front door, turning the key twice behind me in the wooden door and securing the heavy padlock on the metal, outer door. I maneuver myself and my bag and my cumbersome motorcycle helmet across the balcony, down the uneven concrete steps, and through the dark and narrow hallway until I emerge, blinking, into the sunlit marketplace in front of my bar.

I carefully tread and thread my way between unhurried shoppers of all ages, bamboo tables piled with produce, carts overflowing with plastic kitchen utensils or used clothing, plastic mats on the ground spread with okra and onions, giant 100-kilo bags of rice or peanuts or red or black or white beans, and rushing vehicles. It's market day, and I will be glad to escape the bustle of today and the work of a few days. I find a bush taxi which will take me out of Bansoa Chefferie and down to the main road, the paved route connecting Dschang and Bafoussam and Bamenda, connecting me to my adventure. The taxi is heading in to Bafoussam, but I get out earlier, at Carrefour Dschang, the three-way intersection between those three cities. Instead of going right towards Bafoussam, I cross the road and turn left, waiting for my opportunity to hitchhike up to Bamenda. It doesn't take too long before a man driving a big, spacious truck pulls over and offers me and three very tall men rides. The three  men, being gentlemen, stuff themselves into the tiny bench of a backseat, long legs and arms held tight to their bodies, and enthusiastically begin conversing in three or four languages: French, English, pidgin, and a local language I don't recognize. I'm silent in the front seat, enjoying a rare moment (and by moment, I mean two hours or so) of traveling in physical comfort. As a light drizzle starts, I do nothing but breathe and let my eyes wander over the beautiful hills and valleys of the borderlands between the grasslands West and mountainous Northwest regions. 

I never travel through Bamenda without stopping to enjoy a frankly luxurious meal - this time, lunch at PressCafé, namely a Greek salad complete with olives and feta cheese (cheese! cheese!) accompanied by a hot coffee and homemade bread. After my satisfying meal, which I shared with Hillary Clinton (by which I mean her book), I take the long taxi ride across the city and then wait for a bush taxi to fill then proceed along the Ring Road to Kumbo. I realize I'm paying for the comfort of my morning's drive with the discomfort of my afternoon's.  With four adults and two young children in the backseat - one screaming six-month old, one calm five year old - I am tilted sideways, have nowhere to put my arms, and am sweating. In other words - a return to normal travel. We bump and thump along the rutted Ring Road, first climbing up out of Bamenda past waterfalls and waterfalls, then rapidly descending down the mountain into a valley. The woman to my left falls asleep; the woman to my right falls ill; my left leg falls asleep. Despite the discomfort - or perhaps because of the discomfort? I have a theory that physical discomfort causes one to appreciate beauty more - the view is stunning. Real mountains, forests and fields, waterfalls and lakes! I can't help but feel my spirits rise with the scenery. As we pass Ndop, the road improves. Jakiri wizzes by, and I know I am close. Then, two hours after leaving Bamenda, I arrive in Kumbo. One more motorcycle ride and there it is, my destination: Shannon Clawson's house! And it is a house with a view: the air is clear and the sun is setting behind majestic Mount Oku, the third highest mountain in Cameroon. Is it American or is it human that any mountain I see, I want to climb? 

I have had enough sitting in cramped places for the day and just want to relax after my voyage, so (after much talking) Shannon and I head to an upstairs bar with a balcony to watch the sun set over the mountains. Unfortunately, we talked too much, so we mostly missed the sunset - but we found a few friends to make up for it. Cait (a new PCV) and Mark (a Cameroonian friend to all PCVs) joined us and we embarked on a wide-ranging conversation about the education system, the plight of the Cameroonian youth, and Mean Girls, the flowing words aided and abetted by flowing beer. So one thing leads to another, so one beer leads to another, so one bar leads to another - and before the night was through, I visited three bars and made many new friends.

We do not get up early the next morning. But when we do get up, we feast on pancakes and locally grown coffee. (I learned that Starbucks sometimes sells coffee grown in Cameroon, right next door to Kumbo - keep an eye out, readers!) Shannon has work to do, so I traipse off to find Lianna, another PCV from my staging group. Her house is also beautiful, with more stunning scenery. I know I keep using the word "stunning," and I will try to show you with the pictures, but really they do not do it justice! I stand on her balcony, and I breathe the almost-cold air (we're at pretty high altitude), and I feel like I cannot look enough. But it would be awkward if I just stood on Lianna's balcony for hours, so instead I walk inside and try to hold that feeling of seeing something unexpectedly beautiful inside, like a warm secret. For lunch, we make… more pancakes! And then we go meandering to find a waterfall. Our path leads us - down from her house to the road - up to the market - down to the creek - up the hill - down through a bamboo forest - until we arrive below the waterfall. Kumbo is not particularly flat. Is it American or is it human nature that any waterfall pool I see, I want to climb into? 

After enjoying nature for a time, we meet Kat and Shannon at the cafe (where I cannot resist the temptation to order a hot chocolate) and then go out to dinner. When I say "go out to dinner," I don't mean that we go to a restaurant with menus, sit down and order, sip wine and water out of clean glasses… In fact, just erase all your ideas of going out to dinner. We go find their favorite mama who sells exactly three things out of three different plastic containers: beans, rice, and cabbage. We tell her we want cent franc of each, and go sit down. "Cabbage mama" slops them onto four battered metal plate, and then deposits said plates onto an uneven wooden table covered in a white-and-pink-flowered fabric, located in a dark and dingy hole in the wall. It is the second most delicious beans and cabbage I have ever tasted. Due to our late hours the night before, Shannon and I do not stay out late tonight.Instead, we retire at her home for some Anchorman giggles. 

The sun rises on the my third day in Kumbo. I meet Lianna in the Café (which I manage to find all on my own, with the help of a painted concrete statue depicting some religious leader; I found it rather frightening the first time I saw it and so it stuck in my mind) and we relax. I sip ginger tea - it makes my tongue tingle! - and read some more Hillary book. I'm on the (very short) chapter about Africa, and the oversimplification makes me mildly angry. When we get bored, Lianna and I being wandering. We visit a library-slash-jewelry shop and become overly excited by ALL THE BOOKS!!! We visit the market and I buy absurd quantities of pagne. We buy foodstuffs for our dinner plans: vegetarian sushi and egg rolls. Shortly thereafter, we climb some stairs to a balcony restaurant. This experience is somewhere between "going out to eat" of the night before and "going out to eat" in America. Still no menu, but a nice table with beautiful pagne table cloths and a fairly friendly server - and the most delicious chicken I have eaten in country. Nom nom nom! 

Am I sick of eating yet? Not even close! For dinner, Lianna teaches me to make egg rolls entirely from scratch at her house, while Shannon and Cait and Kat make vegetarian sushi and spring rolls at Kat's house. We join forces (Lianna and I walk over while singing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs, because, why not? We're weird already, might as well be really weird. Plus - we came bearing gifts!) for a feast of asian-inspired food. By the time we are ready to leave, everyone is full and happy - but then the rain starts. Rain, rain, go away… But no rain song-and-dance helps. Like an unwelcome guest, the rain is staying the night. But we still have to get home. So we wander out, the lucky ones (me) huddled under rain jackets. The roads - no, paths - are steep and slippery, and I'm not used to navigating them. Shannon can't help but crack up as she watches me trudge up the hill after her. 

Picture this: I'm wearing light blue jeans, already marked by mud and rain, and green Chacos that don't give me any traction in the slick dirt. On top, a shiny greyish-purple rain jacket, with my purse and my purchases shoved underneath so I have a huge, fluffy belly. My hood is pulled up, and my red moto helmet is perched on top of that, so in the dim light I appear to have two heads. I'm walking up the hill, not on the track, but next to it in the knee high grasses, lifting my knees high and wide, placing my feet verrrry carefully. I'm muttering something along the lines of, "The grasses are less slip-y but significantly damper." Cue the belly-laughter from above. 

We make it home without incident, my last night in Kumbo. The next morning, I re-pack (it's always easier to re-pack than it is to pack the first time; you don't have to make any decisions, just shove everything in!). Shannon has just two more sights to show me before I leave. First, the grocery store stocked with cocoa powder. I can't find it in Bafoussam, so I buy a full kilo and weigh my travel bag down a bit more. Second, the home and workshop of Cameroonian artist Jean Samuels. His paintings are so beautiful, i want to buy all of them, but I'm afraid to ask the price because I know I can't afford it. Cringing, I do anyway. Because how often do I have the opportunity to meet the artist, buy Cameroonian paintings that I love? I buy two and clutch them all the way home - down the mountain to Ndop, up the mountain to the outskirts of Bamenda, down the mountain into the city, back up the other side, down into the West, all the way home. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Day in the PCVLife (Part II), in which we go on a scavenger hunt.

Do you ever have those days where you think of so many witty Facebook statuses but then remember that you are a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and you don't have an iPhone or a tablet or wifi or internet at all for that matter? Of course you don't. But that's why I'm here - to tell you what it's like and regale you with tales of the absurdity that is my life on the daily. 

A new day begins. 

It had only stopped raining two hours ago, but at 7am the world was already noisy. The market DJ was out and so were the piggies and my window was open to let in the light. So I got up. The first two hours of my day, as usual, were spent diddling about: doing little work-related tasks, eating oatmeal, drinking Nescafé laden with sweetened condensed milk (Is there any other way to drink it?), washing and dressing and brushing for the day, NOT forgetting my malaria prophylaxis and my daily vitamin. Around 8:30am I called the Censeur at the nearest high school to verify that we were in fact meeting at 9 as we planned the week before. Miracle of miracles, not only had he not forgotten but he was almost there already! 

I felt dubious about this "almost" - because that can mean, "I'm getting dressed now and almost ready to leave so I'll be there in an hour," or it can mean, "I'll show up when I'm done this beer or maybe the one after," or it can mean, "I see you from where I am standing and will be there in thirty seconds." So 15 minutes later I began wandering over. On the 15 minute walk I saw: innumerable chickens, 3 goats, 2 turkeys, and a man skinning a cane rat. So, a typical 15 minute walk to school. I happily observed that I am much more comfortable greeting every. single. person. on the way than I used to be when I began making this walk ten months ago. Progress! 

True to his word, Monsieur le Censeur was there when I arrived! I had to wait only 5 minutes before being allowed into his office and beginning our meeting with a discussion of summer break, vacations, families, life in general. Once we got all that out of the way, we could get down to business, and we spent about 40 minutes discussing A2Empowerment, Club FORTES, rising pregnancy rates, and orphans. It was all in all a very productive and satisfying meeting. Until it ended with: "One more thing. Has anyone told you how beautiful you are?" (Keep in mind that, while I thought I would wash my hair more with the new cut, that has turned out to be false.) I chucked good-naturedly and said "Yes" with a tone I have perfected, indicating that the conversation is closed. But he had to have the last word, him being a grand and all, and he insisted on it in more ways than one: "Let me be the last." Time to go.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

American Becky =/= Cameroonian Becky

When I was considering Peace Corps and talking to a lot of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), I heard pretty often that Peace Corps was life-changing, that one would come back to the same place and find oneself indelibly different. 

In the 11 (almost 12!) months I have been here, I have watched many changes occur in my PCV friends. Most people pick up Cameroonian habits - they begin to talk like Cameroonians ("C'est quoi ça?!" or "On va faire comment?"), or use gestures like Cameroonians (the clap followed by spread hands and raised eyebrows to indicate innocence or helplessness in a situation), or drink like Cameroonians ("Vin de palm at 9am? Well it is a Wednesday.")… 

Watching these changes in others, I realized I must be changing too. So, in honor of self-reflection and my new hair cut, I decided to compile a list with the help of my lovely postmate Danielle, and with inspiration from Sarah Mae's very entertaining blog post. 

The most obvious is my name:  In America, I am Becky. And that means I have the same name as a lot of white girls in rapper songs.  But in Cameroon, I am Rebecca. And that means I have the same name as a lot of people's grandmothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, etc, making me instantly part of the family. ("Ma grandmère! Tu es là? C'est comment, non?")

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adamawan Adventures!

After finishing my big camp project (which was stressful and time-consuming for months), getting strep throat and a cold and too much stress acne, I decided I needed a recovery adventure. So I declared July to be "treat yo self!" month and off I trundled!

First leg of the trip: Bansoa - Bafoussam - Yaoundé. Normally this trip isn't too bad, but one never knows how traveling will go here, and I got unlucky. There were extra checkpoints set up by the central government along the entire route, making my normal taxi ride into Bafoussam two hours instead of one. You see, these checkpoints charge 5000 CFA (a lot) if cars are "surchargé" (over-filled, which is all taxis in the West if not the country). So the taxi driver took the circuitous route through 4 different villages and rough dirt roads, only crossing the beautifully paved road we normally take, and slipping through mud as deep as the axles. At one point, we are spinning our wheels in the thick sludge, slipping sideways, and I am watching a large tree rapidly approach my window… But all the men got out of the car and pushed, so we made it through that tricky patch without incident. (This was one of the few times I was happy to be a woman here; I didn't need to get out and muck up my shoes and work up a sweat. #winning). It wasn't until I arrived in Bafoussam, irritated and thoroughly thumped around, that I realized if we could get around all the checkpoints, then I might draw the conclusion that unsavory individuals *cough Boko Haram cough cough* are equally capable of avoiding them. Oh well… The rest of the trip was uneventful, though prices were high because of the grand vacances (no summer here!) and the government's decision to end gas subsidies.

Once in Yaounde, Colleen and I made the long trip across town to pick up our train tickets. She had made the reservation earlier; though the trains are new, the system to buy tickets is painfully anachronistic.

The next day, July 2, we hung out and waited for 7pm Departure Time to roll around. An hour before departure, Colleen, Liz, Travis and I climbed into our wagon lit - a train car with 2 bunk beds and not much space elsewise. We began our slumber party by rocking out to Enya, which was being played over the loudspeakers by a mysterious someone. It would be a long trip, so we'd stocked up on cookies and snacks (and beer).

We finally arrived in Ngaoundéré around 10am on July 3, having traveled about half the length of Califonia(prompting my mother to ask: "What?! Is it a train pulled by horses?!"). Ngaoundéré is the capital of the Adamawa region, and is supposed to mean "belly button" - so named for the bizarre rock perched precariously on top of a mountain. These odd rocks stuck in weird places were all over town; I wish I had pictures, but unfortunately my camera was misbehaving.

Culturally, the Grand North (Adamawa, North, and Extreme North) is shockingly different from the Grand South (everywhere else). It is primarily Fulbe and Muslim; people look different, dress different, speak different. My first reaction to Ngaoundéré was: It's so quiet here! It was probably even more quiet because of Ramadan. There were few if any taxis, with motos being the main form of transportation. I even saw three boys racing horses down the street! They have lamidos rather than chefs, and rarely shout "les blancs!" at us. They eat tons of beef and sell beautiful leather products in the marketplace. I felt like I was in an entirely new country!

Cameroonian-style henna, called "sifa", on my footsies

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Gaggle of Giggling Girls

I remember vividly my days of summer camp. There were many. The art camps, the soccer camps, cross country camps and 4-H camp. Camps kept me out from under my mother's feet during the beautiful, blissful, sweaty summer days. Sleepover camps were the best. I made friends I would never forget, I drove counselors crazy, and I completely ignored lights out to whisper and giggle late into the night.

I loved camps, and it has been one of my greatest pleasures so far in Cameroon to bring summer camp to 26 lively girls here. Not that it was easy or quick... Danielle, Lara, our counterparts, and I started the grant process in late February. We wrote or updated two handbooks entirely in French. We found a location, someone to cook us three meals a day, we negotiated over mattresses and flip chart paper and paper for coloring. We sent out applications and consent forms and invitations to the final ceremony. We stressed and worried and fretted. Everything that could go wrong or could be harder than it needed to - was.

And yet - somehow - magically - miraculously, even - the camp went off virtually without a hitch.

The formatrices: Anne, me, Danielle, Lara, and Antonia (Allison missed the picture.)
The morning of June 16, still misty and damp from rain the night before, the 6 facilitators (me, Lara, Danielle, Antonia, Allison, and our good friend and counterpart Anne) and 21 participants appeared on the campus of elementary school Kinder's House at Banock. The girls came from Bafoussam, from Bansoa and Bassosia and Penka-Michel, and from Baleng. They were excited and nervous, carrying their belongings and wondering what exactly would be happening that day, every day. What would they learn? What would they eat? Would they make friends with the strangers from other places? Would they have time to nap?

After many introductions and energizers and ice breakers, the girls began to relax a little around us and around each other. They seemed to enjoy learning about life skills like communication, decision-making, and leadership. They laughed riotously when I forced them to shout "PENIS!" over and over, so that they wouldn't be ashamed of saying the word. They screamed and shook their heads when Lara handed them condoms blown up like balloons and stuffed with myths and facts about contraception; but by the end of camp they were all capable of demonstrating and explaining how to put a condom on a wooden penis.

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows (we did see one!). Sometimes those girls drove us nuts. Half of them stayed up all night, whispering and giggling about the things adolescent girls whisper and giggle about.  The other half got up at 4 am because - well, I have no idea why. They raced to get seconds at meals, pushing and shoving like starving beasts for the delicious food Laurentine prepared for us. But we got a glimpse into the feelings of our own former camp counselors, and if that's not karma I don't know what is.

We watched these girls grow, gain confidence, and find answers to all the questions they never felt able to ask before. Every time I teach, I have to hold in the laughter that bubbles up as I decipher the anonymous questions that seem so impenetrable and pressing. Can a pregnant woman have sex, and if so does she have to be on top or on bottom? What happens if a man urinates and ejaculates at the same time? Can you get pregnant from using the same towel that a boy already used? The list goes on and on... But we don't laugh, because we want these girls to feel safe and know there are no stupid questions.

At the end of the week, on a sunny Saturday morning, parents and officials started streaming in for the end-of-camp ceremony. The girls performed skits, songs, and poems that they had written themselves. Others showed artistic posters they had done. All demonstrated what they had learned and would, in turn, teach to others in their communities. They promised to be good role models and peer educators in a solemn oath, they received certificates and group photographs, and we took even more photographs. There were speeches. And then - as at any good Cameroonian fete - WE ATE.

This has been one of my most fulfilling projects and experiences in Cameroon. It was not just about the learning or peer educating, but also about building relationships with girls who have faced a lot of adversity already. It was learning their dreams and singing along to Justin Timberlake and Maitre Gims together and getting my hair done in cornrows. I felt like a part of things. And I forgot the cultural differences and remembered all the similarities: adolescent girls are adolescent girls the world over.

Cherry on top - one of the girls has already done a condom demonstration to about 30 youth in her quartier, hoping to help the prevent some early and unwanted pregnancies (a major problem in my village). I thought: we must have done something right.

Danielle leading an energizer on the first morning of camp.

Fun time in the evenings; a night of dancing sport, led by Lara & Danielle.

Me teaching a lesson about something to girls from Bafoussam & Bansoa.

Photo de famille / Group photo at Kinder's House de Banock. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Most Magical Place in Cameroon

Whenever I travel to Yaounde - for training or meetings or whatever business they call me in on - I feel as though I've stepped into a whole new world. It's nothing like life at post, in my village. It's a real city complete 2 million souls living, breathing, commuting, going about their daily lives. But it's not like America either; the bustling outdoor markets, the inhabitants who shout "la blanche!",  the hills dotted with palm trees, and the motorcycle-taxis just don't jive with my sense of America. But wouldn't it be boring if it felt like home? Here, I never know what's around the river bend. And it's always an adventure!

And Yaounde is a big playground. Located in the Center region, it is often sunny and steamy, though rain does come and go. It has universities, including Yaounde I and II where most of the college students in the country attend. It has museums and churches, restaurants and shopping. It has sprawling views both from its seven hills and from its sky scrapers - like the Hilton. And the Hilton has Hilton Happy Hour - Mojitos, Manhattans, and Margaritas, oh my! 
View from the Hilton at night {via}

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mo' Neighbors, Mo' Problems: Security in Cameroon

This isn't a particularly fun post, but - shout out to my International Relations homies - it matters. Now I'm not a journalist, I'm not sitting in on high level meetings, I have internets that aren't fast enough to allow me to do effective research, so I'm not an expert on the goings-on of Central Africa. But I do live here, and I read late editions of the Economist and Times and newspaper articles sent by my wonderful Grandma, and I guess that stuff counts for something. What I'm saying is - DISCLAIMER, don't take my word as gospel. 

Fact is, Cameroon is surrounded by countries with problems. It has six neighboring countries: Nigeria, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo (not Democratic Republic of), Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. Five of these have State Department Travel Warnings attached, and according to word of mouth, the last - Equatorial Guinea - refused to let several Peace Corps Volunteers cross the border into their country because they were American. 


Let's take a closer look at these neighbors… 

The Central African Republic (CAR), which borders Cameroon to the East, is host to an ongoing war between Muslims (primarily located in the northeast of the country) and Christians. In a recent(isn) book review, the Economist compared it to Congo as a one of the world's most ignored and obscure conflict-ridden countries. Muslim rebels, called Séléka, toppled the Central African government last fall and then continued to perpetrate violence. The violence continued even after their leader, Michel Djotodia, formally disbanded them in September 2013. In response, a Christian militia called antibalaka (anti-matchete in a local language) have begun exacting revenge - not only against Séléka members, but against Muslims in general. {Check out the March 3 Time article on the conflict, which has great pictures but is disappointingly short.} Over a fifth of the population has been displaced - and many have crossed the border into Cameroon, especially in two regions: eastern Adamawa and the East. 

Nigeria recently became the largest economy in Africa, overtaking South Africa by a significant leap - and this might be great for trade. However, it does not reflect the shoddy infrastructure, incredible difficulty of starting or running a business, or massive inequality which plague the country. Despite oil wealth, most of the population still lives in absolute poverty. Furthermore, the Nigerian government is plagued by Boko Haram, a primarily Muslim organization opposed to Western intervention in their country (especially in education and religion). I personally suspect that the existence of Boko Haram is testament to this massive inequality and dispossession felt by Northern Muslims far from economic and government centers. And the Nigerian government has failed to deal with this, first on a military level. An Economist article criticized Nigeria's army as "losing a brutal fight in the country's north against Boko Harm… failing to stem oil thievery on a gargantuan scale in the south. And its foreign peacekeeping… has been lackluster." And second, on a general public level - because how could the general public support an organization that shuts down their schools, kills their neighbors, kidnaps their children, threatens their daughters? Instead, they blame the Cameroonian government for letting Boko Haram members stage attacks across the border. To be fair, said border between Cameroon and Nigeria is amorphous in the (west) Adamawa, North, and Extreme North regions; BH members do move into and act in Cameroon. There have been at least two incidents of Westerners being kidnapped since I arrived.

{If you're interested in another Volunteer's post about the recent kidnapping of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, check out Allison's blog here

Chad, Congo, and Gabon have their own problems, which I don't know enough about to comment on; suffice it to say that we (Peace Corps Volunteers) are not allowed to travel there because of instability. 

And what does all this mean for Cameroon, and for PCVs here? We cannot meet each other with out discussing at least once the chance of the U.S. Government deciding to terminate Peace Corps presence in Cameroon - to "shut down" Cameroon, as we say - in the next 2-ish years. 

Before my staging group arrived, the Extreme North region was closed. This is unfortunate because it is the poorest and thus a PCV could potentially accomplish the most good there; also because it hosts the most impressive nature park in the country, Waza, where you can still see lions and awesome wildlife. But that's where kidnappings have happened, so it's a no-go. 

Since my Pre-Service Training (PST), they have closed posts in the eastern and western Adamawa. They are not permitting any new volunteers to be placed in the North, effectively allowing the region to close down as volunteers finish their service. They may have also shut down a major city in the North, Guider, affecting 3 PCVs (but I heard that via the rumor mill). There were temporary problems in the East due to refugees, and there was speculation that it would be closed - but that seems to have calmed down. All PCVs are forbidden from traveling north of Ngaoundere (the capital of Adamawa, where one can find wonders like an ice cream parlor), except those posted north of the city. 

Most recently I have heard a rumor that BH is also in the West region (where I am, although not where I am - about 3 hours away). But I don't know the truth of that statement, it's like a telephone rumor: so-and-so said that so-and-so said that so-and-so said that… 

So the question on all of our minds: Will they shut down Cameroon? I don't know, and I hate not knowing! How can I mentally prepare for the unknown? But as my Dad pointed out to me, that's life: uncertainty. If the country is closed to Peace Corps, volunteers will be given 2 options: go home early, or continue your service in another country of the administration's choosing. I don't know which I would pick - but happily, I don't have to decide yet! 

In the mean time, I wish reporting - and awareness - was better concerning African countries, both their conflicts and their successes. What can we do about that? 

Fight on for peace! 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Delicacies in the Rough, Episode 1: Escarole and Olive Pie

My Mom sent me this awesome cook book for my birthday, Williams-Sonoma Vegetable of the Day. She knew that I avoided buying meat in the market place (who knows how long that's been dead, in the sun, and buzzing with flies? It sure doesn't smell appetizing). So she sent me great vegetarian recipes with a side of mouth-watering photographs. 

Of course, availability of ingredients is not the same here as it is in the U.S. Produce actually has seasons, and those seasons are completely unrelated to American seasons. I mean, I can't even say "summer vacation" here without getting blank stares, because there is no summer. Besides which, super markets here are not comparable to supermarkets chez moi aux États-Unis. If I'm lucky, I can find things like raisins (many Lebanese immigrants) and soy sauce (many Chinese immigrants). Sometimes I can even find French-style cream cheese called Kiri or Gruyère, and for a small fortune it can be mine! But I definitely cannot find bacon or chicken broth or coriander or frozen puff pastry. Or anything frozen, for that matter. 

To make matters worse, my kitchen is actually a corner of the biggest room in my house. It includes: a long table with four cabinets, a water filtration system, a gas canister, a gas stove with 2 spots, and one lightbulb. Not exactly the dream kitchen… 

But that's what makes it such an adventure! So this feature of my blog, Cooking in the Rough, is all about my favorite obsession, food, and learning to make it with what I've got. It will feature some recipes from this cookbook, from the semi-official PC cookbook Chop Fayner, from my family cookbook, and from Cameroonian neighbors. 

Recipe 1: Escarole & Olive Pie
From: Williams-Sonoma Vegetable of the Day by Kate McMillan

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Day in the #PCVLife

I don't think that people were really meant to live by themselves, though to be fair some people love it. And in Cameroon at least, all Peace Corps Volunteers live alone in their own (rented) houses or apartments or compounds. Rumor has it we live alone because otherwise we would kill each other after coming home from high stress days to highly stressed roommates. Whatever the reason, we do live alone and we all deal with it differently. Some PCVs listen to music constantly, others watch seemingly infinite TV shows, others are addicted to podcasts, still others wander around talking to themselves. And me - I read and write. I write in my journal, I write blog posts, I write letters and emails and Facebook message (some of which I never send). As I approach the 8 month mark of this adventure (May 11), I have filled up my second journal and started on my third and the need to get all these thoughts out of my head and onto the page seems infinite.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Murals are for Men?

I just had the satisfaction of my first COMPLETED project: a mural at a local elementary school, including a map of world and simplified children's rights. The teachers are thrilled: there are virtually no maps in the school, except a map of Cameroon and a map of Africa in the geography books used by the oldest students, so they're excited about it as a teaching tool. The students seemed pretty happy too. 

I'm excited about it too, for a variety of reasons. First, I think it's important for everyone to understand geography and the world. Here, some kids can't distinguish between South America and Africa and Cameroon. I hope this makes a small difference. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Play Hard, Work Hard

Recently I realized that all I post about is food and parties and adventures. Maybe you're all thinking I'm here on an extended vacation on US taxpayers' money? NOT SO! Here is what I've been up to in the less-adventurous part of my life...

Kinder's House Banock
Run by an NGO called AFFAMIR, Kinder's House is a private bilingual maternal and primary school with about 400 students (slightly more girls than boys). They have an incredibly high exam pass rate and an incredibly low drop out rate, making this school a success story in the Cameroonian education system. Still, they could use some help...

  • I have taught sexual health and puberty classes to the oldest group of students, aged 11-13. Sex is a taboo subject in this country and most parents never discuss the changes of puberty or how to stay healthy to their kids, so it's important that they learn it in school. 
  • I am helping to organize their library and start arts & games classes. The mandatory curriculum demands memorization rather than encouraging critical or creative thinking, so teaching kids young to read, do art, and play games might encourage that spirit. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to get art supplies for kids or children's books in French.
  • I am going to paint a mural: a map of the world and a selection of the universal children's rights. Unlike in the US, children are free labor; they work in the fields, they sell at the market, they clean their own classrooms and schools at the end of the day. They should know that they have the right to food, to security, to clean water, to health - that they're not just petit workers. 
  • I'm helping the school administration to get more latrines built. They currently have 2 latrines for 400 kids, and as you can imagine, that doesn't end well! 
Lycée Bansoa-Mbri
This is a public high school right by my house in Bansoa Chefferie. They have about 1100 students, but many students drop out every year due to poverty, early pregnancy, and other problems. 
  • I'm running a girl's empowerment club called Club FORTES that teaches sexual health and life skills. We've talked about subjects like goal-setting, role models, decision-making, reproductive anatomy and pregnancy. It seems to be pretty popular; 60 girls showed up last week, and they fight to keep the boys out of the room! 
  • I'm continuing A2Empowerment, a girl's education scholarship program run by a returned peace corps volunteer and her friend. Many of the girls who applied have lost a parent and are struggling to pay for school fees, books, notebooks, the uniform, and other school supplies. This program tries to promote girls' empowerment by keeping the young ladies in school and educated! (If you're interested, you can donate here.)
Research Institute for Development 
Located in Baffoussam (the regional capital of the West) RIDEV is a local NGO that works to create strong youth, strong women, and strong communities.  
  • I'm helping the RIDEV employees like Anne to run an after-school program called Youth For Change. This program aims to encourage civic/community engagement in youth by giving them the knowledge (on leadership, health, environment, and issues facing youth) and the skills (public speaking, goal setting and planning, and self confidence) necessary to create change in their own communities. As part of the program, they actually pick one of the issues covered in class and then plan and implement a project to address it in some way. This is one of the programs I am most excited about, and next year I am hoping to expand it to other high schools in the area! (If you're interested in helping out, you can donate here.)
  • This summer, we will put on the second edition of Camp FORTES to train youth women as peer educators. It's a six day sleepover camp that brings together girls from different villages, some of whom would never have the opportunity leave their home towns. 
Peace Corps
Volunteers have a lot of opportunities to get involved in running Peace Corps programs in Cameroon! I just joined the Youth Development Steering Committee. We meet about 3 times a year in the capital Yaounde. We are currently improving the training program and resources for the next group of YD volunteers who will arrive at the end of May. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

International Women's Day: Party to Forget

Since I had been away from village, International Women's Day (IWD) started for me on Thursday, 6 March. Since I have never celebrated this particular holiday in the U.S. - or even heard of it, as far as I recall - I had no expectations. Since I have celebrated 2 other holidays Cameroonian-style, I had expectations. They were all met. 

That Thursday, the Soirée de l'Excellence, featured a Round Table and the equivalent of a grown-up talent show, though they called it a Socio-Cultural Event. All capitals. (Side note: I'm not sure why nothing is simply "cultural." Why is it always socio-cultural? What does socio-cultural even mean? Can something be non-sociologically cultural? But I digress). The round table was interesting, centered on this year's theme: Challenges and Realizations of the Millennium Development Goals for the Woman and the Girl Child. Topics covered indicators of the MDGs and Cameroon's progress in meeting them, the importance of girls' education, and the necessary role of men in the empowerment of women (given by a man! this alone could have made my night). Despite my interest in the subject and the relevance of the topic, observing five panelists actually read their papers and watching them literally turn page after page… Well, an hour and a half in, it was difficult to remain focused. Even the officials around me were muttering, They're talking too long! Far too long! Unfortunately and fortunately for me at that point, I was obligated to go home. So I missed the talent show, but I have been assured that it was absolutely fabulous… and lasted an additional 3.5 hours. As I said: expectations met.

Friday was the day of volunteering, by women for women. Many women, including my community host and work partner (and also the President of my arrondissement's Women's Network) Delphine, got together to sew kabaas out of official women's day pagne and hand them out to elderly or widowed women throughout the community. They spent all day working at this, and although Delphine was tired the next day, she seemed very satisfied with what they had accomplished. 

The Sous-Prefet's Wife, (lil ol me), President of the Women's Network - in our kabaas
Then the official day arrived: March 8th, huit mars, la journée internationale de la femme, 29th edition. I got up early and put on my own official women's day pagne dress on and marched outside, wondering how I was going to get from Bansoa Chefferie to Bansoa Ville - names which give a deceptive idea of their proximity. They're not close, not at all. But as usual, I got lucky, things just worked. I spied a van overflowing with women wearing the same pagne as me. I walked up, wished them all Bonne Fête, and climbed right in. When I met Delphine, she told me how beautiful I looked in my shapeless, oversized kabaa - a sentiment completely incomprehensible to me, but echoed by multiple Cameroonian ladies throughout the day. I always say, always take the compliment. So I did. And it was a good thing my dress was big and billowy, because I was fed not once - not twice - but SIX times before the day was through. It's very rude to turn down any invitation or offered food in this culture, so I ate every single time. And I don't think my marching in my very first parade counts as enough exercise to work that much food off… And all this was topped off by a Gala in the evening, offering my last meal and lots of dancing (I would never have guessed so many Cameroonians enjoyed salsa! Though I was informed by the young man who placed himself next to me that only old people like that dance. Maybe that makes me an old fart at heart!)

Madame la Présidente giving her speech
Karate performance during parade festivities
Doesn't this sound great? Women's cultural performances, women's empowerment, food, parades, dancing, new clothes! Excitement! Celebration!

But the real situation of women in Cameroon is not quite so festive.

On IWD, some men cook for their wives and some women go out to the bar, turning traditional gender roles on their heads for the day; but some women forget what the day means and take it as an excuse to get drunk and take off their kabaas (or so I'm told). If Cameroonian women cannot remember what the day stands for, how can they expect men to do so?

Then there are those who don't even know about the holiday or cannot celebrate it. Many women - especially rural and elderly women, those most in need of the development that IWD claims to promote - cannot afford to buy new pagne, or travel to celebrate, or even take the day off from housework and farming to march in a parade. 

One female delegate in Bafoussam is quoted as asking:
Les femmes camerounaises fêtent quoi ? Elles fêtent quel évolution ?
"What are Cameroonian women celebrating? What evolution?" I don't want to be depressing - but she has a point. In the Cameroonian constitution, the rights of women are recognized and discrimination against women is forbidden. However women are, for the most part, not equal or empowered or developed - they are marginalized. Although it is hard to generalize because of the incredible diversity of Cameroon, women here generally have a low status in almost every area of life, from government representation to legal protection to control of money to important family decisions. 

This is linked to high levels of gender-based violence. And that violence is breath-taking. Women marry young, give birth young, and are likely to die giving birth. Female genital mutation still exists in multiple areas of the country. Rape is common, misunderstood, even laughed at, and almost never punished. Marital rape is not acknowledged as existing, either legally or culturally; neither is battering of women by their husbands. Prostitution and human trafficking are widespread, especially in areas of the country populated by employees of foreign resource-exploiting companies. And some young girls at the onset of puberty are forced to undergo breast ironing: a process by which burning-hot stones or other objects are pressed against the chest in an attempt to flatten developing breasts. And it is usually the mothers who force this awful, painful mutilation on their daughters - to protect them from unwanted male attention and rape. When mothers are this desperate, there must be a problem. 

When another of my work partners, Théo, confronted someone in the Ministry of Health about this situation, she responded: Les OMDs ne sont QUE des objectifs. (The Millennium Development Goals are ONLY goals.) As in, we're not overly concerned with achieving them, we're not evaluating our progress, we're just touting them because it looks good. Théo was shocked. 

Of course, there IS hope. The education of girls is indeed improving, as the ratio of girls to boys in schools rises in some areas of the country. According to UNICEF, the literacy rate for female youth is nearly equal to that of their male compatriots (85.9% compared to 88.4%). UNICEF also points out that women live longer than men. And UN Women pointed out that the most recent national elections, held in October 2013, increased the proportion of women in the Cameroonian National Assembly to 31%, more than doubling the previous ratio. And that man on the round table argued passionately for more men to take part in empowering women. All evidence, I think, that there is something we can fête.

So while we American ladies are arguing about Leaning In or Leaning Out or Reclining or whatever catch phrase they will come up with next... at least we're at the table. Cameroonian women are still sitting in front of the cook fire, eyes burning from the smoke, hands so hardened that they can take the pot straight off the fire with no protection. 
"In too many instances, the march to globalization has also meant the marginalization of women and girls,
And that must change." - Hillary Clinton
And it is changing and it can change! So for those who do celebrate International Women's Day, let us resolve something for IWD 2015: to be thankful for what we have, remember those who have less, and act to make a difference. 
"The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world."
- Charles Malik
"Who run da world? Girls."
- Beyoncé Knowles
I'm right there with ya, Yoncé. As the Cameroonians say: Nous sommes ensembles. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

STORY TIME: History of the Bali People

... not to be confused with the Bapi people. 

This story starts with Kate, Colleen, and I walking down a road in Bamenda, feeling cooped up after a week and a half in the same hotel with the same people doing 8 hours a day of training. Even though it was a nice hotel with good food and hot, running water showers, we could only spend so much time sitting in one place without getting a bit stir-crazy. I suspect this is the case with most Peace Corps Volunteers. We see a bar marked MOONLIGHT HOTSPOT, so of course we wander right in. 

Kate & Colleen admiring the moonlight.
- Do you have cold drinks?
- Yes, we have all these drinks, very cold! replies the bartender, gesturing towards a wall lined with different beers and sodas.

Well sign us right up! We each got a beer and sat down on the bench outside. Well, Kate and Colleen sat on the bench and I sat on the table so I could see them while I talked to them, instead of staring at cars and motorcycles zipping by. After 40 minutes of sitting in a new place and chatting, a very tall, fit and well-dressed man walks up. 

- Do you know what my people believe?! he asked me while walking up the stairs into the bar.
- ...What? I asked cautiously, knowing this could well be something I don't want to hear.
- If you sit on the table you will not grow tall like me! 
- That's okay, I don't want to be any taller, I shrugged. 
- But in my culture, it is good to be very tall. Men should be very tall and strong!

And then he bought us all beers. Turns out, this man - this man in a sailor cap and navy blue suit jacket and sparkly white and silver tshirt and dapper black dress shoes - is a FON (the equivalent of a chief in the West or a lamido in the Grand North). His uncle (or maybe his wife Morine's uncle, family connections can be very confusing here) owns the bar and that white car is his and we should come see the Palace of the Fon in Bali.