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.