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.