Saturday, September 19, 2015

Bulls and old stuff at Butrint, Albania

We get up early to escape the heat. Though it's mid September; though the crowds of Kosovar, Polish, German and Russian tourists are gone; though all the locals tell us that the summer is gone and the season is over; the heat is evident even at seven am. By ten, we will be dripping sweat, white rivulets of the salty liquid and sunscreen running into our eyes and pooling on our upper lips. That makes for excellent beach weather but not excellent hiking around a hill weather, so early we went. By 8:30 we were on the 5 kilometer strip of road connecting Ksamil to Butrint, and before nine we had purchased entry tickets. I was excited to see a place that is featured in Virgil's Aenid and various other paintings, novels, and poems-it feels like walking right into art. There were few other adventurers around, and for the most part I felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Immediately upon entry, I see: two Roman columns to the left, a Venetian tower in front, and a Venetian triangular fort and an Ottoman palace to the right. This mish mash of ages, origins, and styles is indicative of the site - and of this whole egion, where empires and invaders have risen and fallen like the tides of the Ionian sea on its beaches.

The story recounts that, fleeing the fall of Troy, its founders sacrificed a wounded bull that washed ashore. This was taken to be a good omen and so the place was called Buthrotum meaning wounded ox, and this also became the symbol of the city. Like on the glorified door frame which shows a lion eating an ox head. Because it's not weird at all to have a foreign animal devouring the symbol of your city placed prominently on one of its gates. Besides which, where and home that bull floated in is a mystery-but not as much of a mystery as why it dying on the shore made someone think, "Yes! The gods want me to live here with a carcass that just floated in!" This becomes even more confusing hen the museum also tells that originally, this place was all land, then the seas rose and made it an island and caused general chaos and confusion...

Whatever its origins, Butram became a major trading post in the 8th century BC and was governed by the Romans, Ottomans, and Venetians in turn.  As the brochure says, "What you see today is an amalgam of monuments representing a span of over 2000 years from the Hellenistic temple buildings of the 4th century BC to the Ottoman defenses created in the early 19th century." This little bubble of land has perhaps seen more human history than our American middle school textbooks cover.

It's a delightful place to wander, surrounded not only by the glories of the past but by the beauty of the present. Walking through some dead rich guy's dining room, I glance up to find a picturesque strait peeking between the low scrubby trees and grasses. The sun is bouncing off the water in all its golden morning radiance, an ugly bird as big as my forearm hops along the tree branch, a fish jumps in the water, a faded fishing boat floats on the far shore. A farm house stands more solidly than these flooded marble blocks, abandoned as the water table continued to rise and the Roman dude came home one too many times to a flooded foyer.

I could go back among the path and follow the prescribed tour route ("deviate at your own peril!" They warn). But instead I continue under the trees, along an old wall. I suppose it's just old and falling apart, but it is beautiful in its decay and more so against the steady water, with its glaring highlights and deep shadows, riven by massive it dead tree roots. I assume those trees were cut to prevent them from destroying these "precious" stones any further. In some places, the stone wall is being shored up by a wood plank wall. And I wonder, why do we work so hard to protect old stuff, to keep ruins in a permanent state of picturesque ruin but not too ruiny? Was it worth the death of that twisty, gnarly, beautiful old tree to keep some rocks stacked for another decade?

I round the end of the island, where the wall climbs up away from the shore and the castle tower juts brilliantly against the sky over deeply shadowed green leaves. From the other side of the inlet ringing sounds drift across, perhaps a flock of sheep wearing mismatched bells or a particularly cacophonous wind chime. With this backdrop, it's so easy to lapse into wonder at the world and the futility of our behaviors. At this archaeological sight, one of the most extensive and lovely I've seen, it seems that we are fighting against destruction by nature, combating the passage of time, prohibiting the replacement of old with new. Why? What is the purpose? Perhaps, by guaranteeing another century's immortality, we are seeking to assure our own. In the face of fleeting lives and certain death, do we seek assurance that we will not be forgotten? That our accomplishments will live on in stone, in spite of wind and sand and tide and time? In spite of humanity's wars and carelessness and ambition and destruction?

I duck under a low carved lintel (yes, the lion-eating-city-symbol one) and climb broad, lazy stairs up to the castle. Every few steps, I stop and look back to admire the water, the woods, the white stones, drinking in a view that seems only to get more beautiful with familiarity. I follow the sign to the Muze and walk back down more stairs into the oddly basement-like museum, still pondering ponderous things.

As you may or may not have experienced yourself, nothing puts an end to philosophical musings and brings you solidly back to earth quite as quickly as the smell of latrine. I think they took the old toilet pit of the castle and thought, "Ah yes, what a perfect place for a museum." Then they scattered bits of statues, old coins, and explanatory posters around and patted each other on the back for a job completed.

Needless to say, we didn't hang about too long. Nevertheless, it was still a delightful visit to Butrint. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Putting away the maps in Ohrid, Macedonia

If you want to see Ohrid before the crowds of elderly tourists come shuffling through, get up when the housewives are still drinking their first cups of coffee and the fishermen are still sitting quietly in their chairs on the sturdy stone docks. Maybe you're imagining dawn, or the early rays of sunshine - but we're in the Balkans, so I'm talking about 8 am. The world is still sleeping, the tourists haven't left their guest houses yet, the children aren't even at school yet, and the world is peaceful.

And while you're at it, leave the guide books and the maps and the seven must see lists at home. Sometimes you need to just wander, or you'll only ever find the places that everyone else has found.

With no destination in mind, I set my course for up. Up narrow cobbled paths, with creamy three story buildings framed in dark painted wood leaning in from both sides. Up broad stone stairs, made to ease the hikes of the tottering, compression-socked crowds, to the level of balconies where yesterday's laundry and beautiful scarlet peppers hang in the low morning sun to dry. Past the red tiled roofs, up through a wooded park to the level of Gorna Porta, the old wooden door in the thick stone wall, solid defenses from a time forgotten everywhere but here, this region where our 200 year history is but the blink of an eye.

Up past the castle of Samuil, a man who was also a king, whether of accomplishments magnificent or despotic or unworthy of such a label, I couldn't tell you. I see him only in what he built, still standing 12 centuries later and evoking wonder and feelings of invincibility from those who climb up to its ramparts. That wonder is somewhat diminished by the souvenir tables the friendly hawkers are just setting up out front. I muse idly if the architecture students haven't figured something out that I haven't, striving to build and in this way to leave their mark on history.

I've reached the peak, and cannot climb any higher, so I enter the woods of Palosçik and start to wander. I don't follow the way to Kaneo, though I intend to end up there, because I have already taken that direct path. Instead I turn off the stone path to gravel, off the gravel to pine needles and dirt. I revel in the tranquility, shared only with birds and one black squirrel.

What do we search for when we travel? Do we look for others who are like us or different? Do we look for some magic escape or for a chance to be someone else that we don't find in our own homes? Do we look for a life that feels more "real"? Do we look for places where God still exists? Do we look for history, or for peace?  I wish I knew the answer for myself, because if I knew what I was looking for then I might stand a chance of finding it. But as it is, I am just wandering and enjoying.

 Descending through the deep green pines and dappled sunlight, I see something that might be mistaken for a path, dropping down uncomfortably steeply. Naturally, I take it. I think, it might be safer to run than to try to go slowly - but I don't indulge that illogical impulse. One foot in front of the other, breathing in the smell of Christmas trees, listening to the fledgling birds still screaming for breakfast. Startling a tortoise back into his grayish brownish shell, I pass through some ivy and back onto a real, gray gravel path - and in front of me, through some golden grasses hinting of approaching Autumn, the cliff drops to the azure and turquoise beauty of Lake Ohrid. No tourists, no sunbathers, just seagulls and loons and placid waters stretching away to the far distant shore. Nothing can capture the color of those waters, not a camera and not paints. The water is so clear that I can watch a sleek black bird dive right to the bottom on its fish chase then bob back up without losing sight of it once.

I climb all the way down to the rocky shore to wash my face in the water, and I have a vague impression that I am performing some type of ritual ablution, though I can't explain this feeling to myself any more than I can to you. Soon I will hike back up, admire the church and peer down into the waters at Kaneo with no one but the caretaker for distraction, climb back up past the cascading red tile roofs. Soon I will again pass through the Upper Gate, dodging my way through no fewer than three tour groups with eyes for nothing but their own feet. But for this moment, I will stand on the gray stone shores of this giant, deep lake and I will absorb as much of its tranquility as I can contain in this fragile and ephemeral skin. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Leaving - For Good

There’s this song that’s been stuck in my head lately. 

“I’ve heard it said people come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn and we are led to those who help us most to grow - if we let them. And we help them in return. Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you…”

(Can you name that song?)

My departure is looming, less than three months away - and some days, I simply cannot wait to get out. But other days, or even other moments in those same days, it really does feel as dark and dramatic as that. And it’s not because I’ll miss the food (no more macabo rapé or nkwi? oh darn.) and it’s not because I’ll miss parts of the culture (I’m less than you because I’m a woman? cool.). It’s because of the people who have adopted me as their own, loved me, appreciated me - and yes, even those who have taken me for granted. 

It’s because of my awesome counterparts who commiserated about the parts of Cameroon I couldn’t stand, enjoyed the things I loved, and celebrated all our successes big and small. Anne and Delphine, two women without whom I wouldn’t have made it through these two years. 

It’s because of all the other PCVs who went rode the same roller coaster. Though we may have screamed and covered our eyes or screamed and kept our hands up in the air, we all screamed together.

It’s because of this little boy - no, young man - Borel Faustin. This boy who came running to me, the definition of “grinning ear to ear” to show me his school report card when he passed at the end of the year. This boy who came running to me in tears when he had a splinter. I gave him one of my favorite t-shirts that I found in the market - a Zara boys t that says “Welcome to Hollywood!” - because I thought that was the best possible thing I could do with one of my favorite t-shirts. And he rewarded me with another one of those Hollywood grins. 

It’s because of these two little girls, Samira Paschale and Lauren Fabienne. These kids who drove me absolutely nuts, throwing my shoes onto the roof and ripping my baby sunflowers out by the roots. These kids who perched one on each hip, baby heads resting on either shoulder, and slept. Who reached their arms up to me with faces screwed up in screams and let themselves be conforted. Who learned to say thank you (we’re still working on please) and learned to make fish lips from me. 

It’s because of the 200 elementary school students who I watched transform from timid copy cats into creative and excited artists in art class.

It’s because of the 70 or so high school girls - and three boys - who I watched blossom into confident young adults during our after-school club. 

It’s because of the 46 young women trained as peer educators during our summer camp who said, now I can talk to my parents, now I am not afraid to speak in front of my class, now I know so much more - who looked us in the eyes and told us, Because of you, I’ve been changed for good.

No one can tell me these two years were a waste of my time, even in my darkest and most miserable hours, because I have touched the lives of all these individuals - as they have touched mine.

At the end of two years, it’s these people and relationships more than anything else that I will carry with me as I move on to my next adventure. Most of what I’m feeling, I don’t know how to express in either English or French, and I’m forced to turn back to this song that plays on repeat in my head. “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” I hope that I can come back in a few years and see how my friends and family here have changed and grown. But even if we never meet again, I know I will carry all these people in my heart no matter where life takes me. Most mornings lately, I wake up and I open my door and walk out into the sunshine and my chest feels ready to burst with all the love I feel for Bansoa and by extension the world. 

Fight on for love. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

East of the Sun Trip Part 5 : in which I conclude that the world is in fact magical

East of the Sun Trip Part 5 : in which I conclude that the world is in fact magical and get new bruises on my butt

Our fourth sunrise in Lobéké. We rise, significantly less shinily than the sun, and start for the savanna. Valentin calls after us: “Today, you will see a gorilla!” 

“Promise?” I grump back. 

“You’ll see,” he responds, with his ever-present grin. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

East of the Sun Trip Part 4

East of the Sun Trip Part 4 : In which we continue to take for granted the natural beauty around us to wonder miserably if we will actually leave without seeing any gorillas

One of the "mirador" or observation towers we spend hours in
After a disappointing morning at Petit Savanne, we start the 10k hike to Djangui. On the hike, we see several Colobus monkeys (the originator of moto-engine-revving-noise) and some elephant tracks (I don’t understand how such big animals can pass through the forest so quietly) but not too much else of interest. 

Look at his cute little bearded face! 
Despite the lack of animals, Valentin repeatedly brought wide grins to all of our faces. Valentin is Baka, but at six-foot-something he’s definitely not a pygmie, and he grew up in and out of the forest. He is so obviously at ease here, drinking crystal clear creek water from a folded leaf cup or lounging his large frame on handy vines, roots, or saplings. He makes me feel like a clomping clutz the way he moved with such ease and confidence. When we stop to rest, he drops our bags and goes gleefully traipsing off into the forest, returning with elephant poop or a half-eaten rabbit (he’d scared off the eagle) or a rotted turtle or a bird nest complete with three lil’ babies peeping inside (and yes, he hangs it back up afterwards where the momma bird could find it again). Once he leads us all through thick undergrowth the show us gorilla beds and gleefully—no other adverb does him justice—gleefully recount how a gorilla sleeps with its butt here and its head here and just sleeps like this and it SNORES (giggle) and he knows all this because one time he snuck up on a big male gorilla and scared it out of its nest. Casual, Valentin, messing with 500 pound animals strong enough to rip a man’s arm right off, probably with a ten year old boy’s exuberance and delight. 
Beautiful bird's nest.
"And this is where he puts his butt..."
During our hours in the observation tower at Djangui, we finally see some wildlife! Five water buffalo with their funny birdy friends, a bunch of birds including a teal sun catcher and a great blue Turaco. But, no gorillas. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

East of the Sun Trip Part 3 : In which we remember that excellent travel buddies make all the difference

After a few fleeting hours of sleep, we face a second day of travel much like the first. We were unlucky: we were at the travel agency before it even opened, we didn’t manage to get tickets on the first and only scheduled bus to Maloundoun. We were lucky: they ran a second bus and we were on it. Not that we were feeling particularly lucky to be back on a prison bus only a few hours after escaping the last one. 

Kid selling hard boiled eggs at the travel agency - and rocking an Obama Change shirt.
I won’t bore you with more of the same details about travel, except to note that it was clearly evident that our surroundings were becoming less “developed” and more jungly. We saw more Baka (pygmie tribe) houses, more children with sad distended bellies, and more logging trucks contributing to the stripping of this old-growth forest somewhere just out of sight. It put me in the mindset of Fern Gully, except the scary machines are winning. But for all the sad or heart wrenching views, there were others intriguing or lovely. We saw beautiful blue butterflies, we saw trees so big that Kate, Joe, and I couldn’t hug around the base of their trunks, and FINALLY around 4 pm we saw our destination: Mambele.

In life, stuff goes wrong.
But that only adds to the adventure. 

Beautiful, beautiful Mambele. A tourist attraction in its own right. Wide boulevards, interesting architecture, and welcoming inhabitants. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

East of the Sun Trip Part 2 : In which we find ourselves on a prison bus

Now modern transportation is a wonderful thing. Wheels, awesome. Engines, even better. Jet plans, fantasy come true. However, of the 293 kilometers between Bertoua and Yokaduma, I’m guessing 20km are paved. So of all the modes of transportation for this trip, I’d rank them by preference in this order:

1. My own big 4x4 air conditioned SUV
2. Someone else’s big 4x4 air conditioned SUV
3. Horse
4. Sway backed donkey
5. Big horned african cow
6. My own two feet
7. Prison bus

So did we take our big SUV? Against Peace Corps regulations, and I wish I was that fancy. Perhaps we galloped along through the wilderness, just us and our horses, channelling John Grady? Against Peace Corps regulations, and I don’t know how to ride a horse. No, we were the lucky folks crammed like sardines in option number seven! 

What, you might ask, is a prison bus? Good question! It is rather the size of a minivan, but instead of plush seats, it is filled with four rows of benches in the back. These benches may or may not be padded. To enable people to climb in and out of the front rows, the benches are broken up by one folding-backed seat in each row. This seat is probably not level with the bench to either side of it, and probably doesn’t leave enough room for a 5’6” individual to put their knees straight in front of them. (I would know, as that is my height and had the pleasure of a middle seat.) The driver is separated from his two (or three or four or…) front passengers by the hump of the engine which conveniently heats the whole bus and may need water poured in regularly to cool it; he’s separated from his back passengers by an intimidating metal grate. Thus the name prison bus. Not only does it feel like punishment, but passengers have the impression that they’re top-security-barred-in to protect the driver - and he probably needs the protection after a few hours in that contraption! It is made to seat twenty in the back, but as many as three more may stand in the back, and others might hang off the back on climb onto the roof with our copious quantities of luggage. 
According to the writing, things that are forbidden include: speaking to the driver, throwing glass bottles
out the windows, or vomiting.

Monday, July 27, 2015

East of the Sun Trip Part 1 : In which we plan a trip before a Trip

Before I start this story, I want to add a note... I had written this out as a five part story so that it wouldn't drag on and on and on in one blog post. But, T.I.A., internet and power are unreliable and when one's available the other isn't (yeah I don't understand either how there's enough power for the wifi box but not to charge my computer.) So I'm uploading what I can now, and the rest will have to wait! Fight on :) /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/>>

As I approach the end of my two year Peace Corps service, it’s not all about wrapping up projects, selling/packing/gifting my impressive quantity of accumulated stuff, and saying tearful goodbyes. That’s the hard side.

The fun side is the Close Of Service or “COS” trip that Kate and I have been planning for months now. We’re constantly whatsapp-ing each other Lonely Planet articles and book suggestions, building our pinterest board, or day dreaming. 

It’s a lovely pastime, trip planning - but it was still a ways off. Six months out, you can only discuss the winery options in Bulgaria and Macedonia so many times, or speculate about Hungarian baths and paprika-laden cuisine, or… 

So we planned a trip before The Trip. 

I wanted to visit the my last (open aka safe-isn) region of Cameroon, the East, and both of us wanted to see some exotic wildlife. To cross these items of our Peace Corps fuckit - ah, excuse me, bucket - lists, we planned a trip to Lobéké Wildlife Reserve. Lobeke is a nature preserve spanning three countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Congo) and run by the WWF. It is also one of the last places where visitors have the opportunity to see wildlife like Western Lowland Gorillas, forest elephants, various monkeys, and a plethora of birds without the menace of Boko Haram. We can’t visit Rumsiki or Waza, so we decided to do whatever it took to get to Lobeke.
Kate's butcher friend, Abubacar, who just smashed a cow head to pieces and
is now showing us the bits of teeth left.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Summertime Funness : Camp Fortes 2015

It was just March, and now May’s gone, and June has almost run its course as well. I keep thinking, time to update my blog! But I sit down at my computer and the words just don’t come. How to say all these rushing thoughts, feelings, insights, and impressions - they are here one moment, gone the next, like a movie you’ve never seen before playing on fast forward. Nevertheless, here I am, again, writing.

In fewer than two months I will no longer be in Cameroon, no longer be in Peace Corps. That’s good, and that’s bad. Happy & sad. Salt & pepper. Bitter & sweet.

One last big accomplishment: Camp Fortes 2015 was a great success!

(Excuse me for a moment while I go check out what my neighbor, friend, and big sister Carine is cooking downstairs. Smells tempting.)

Okay back to the keyboard. (It was ripe banana beignets, mmm.) Camp! Yay!

It was indeed a great success - not without challenges popping up, not without the normal drama between a bunch of pubescent girls - but a success nonetheless, and one that wouldn’t have been possible without YOU, friends and family who donated to RIDEV and made it happen. I cannot say thank you enough, RIDEV cannot say thank you enough, and the girls cannot say thank you enough. Still - THANK YOU!!!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Artsy Fartsy Time

Peace Corps: The hardest job you’ll ever love.

That’s what they say. Sometimes it just feels like the hardest job ever.

But in moments when you’re least expecting it, it feels so incredibly worthwhile and rewarding.

Tuesday is art day. Danielle and I teach four art classes to elementary school students at Kinders House de Banock. The classes can be as big as 54 students, and two of them are directly following recess periods - so the kiddos can get a little crazy. It’s exhausting and sometimes I don’t enjoy it very much especially when it feels like they’re ungrateful little brats. Madame, give me this! Madame, I want that!

But other times… Today, working with the oldest class, we just handed out water colors and paint brushes, scissors and construction paper. And we let them go crazy - in the best way. In the ensuing near-silent thirty minutes, they painted flowers and soccer fields and circles and stripes, they cut out lions and birds and footballers, and they created some beautiful things. This might not sound impressive, but considering that they’ve never had an art class or touched watercolors before this school year, it was pretty wonderful.
So many colors! So much fun!
These kids have come so far in terms of behavior and creativity. They used to just stare at blank paper and ask, Madame what should I do? Draw what? Where? How big? Or they just copied their neighbors, who just copied us. Now they fill pages with their own colorful ideas. Every class used to be a fight, a battle of wills. Now Danielle and I are barely necessary - and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Look at that smile.
The art classes have also brought us so much laughter from the antics of children given freedom and safe spaces to express themselves. Since day one, we have said over and over - “There are no mistakes in art. We do not criticize in art class. There is no right or wrong.” That has been the best decision. Late in the school year, we decided to introduce them to poetry. With the younger classes, we hung up poems around the room and told them to copy one and draw a picture about what the poem means to them. One of them copied a poem about a stream and then drew a picture of a lion colored in like the Cameroonian flag. If that poem says to them “Cameroon flag lion,” who am I to say otherwise? With the older classes, we started them off writing their own acrostic poems with their names to say something about themselves Nino wrote my favorite: 

Nigeria                                               Nigeria
Immeuble                                           Apartment building
Nous                                                  We
Oignon                                               Onion (spelled wrong)

Their teacher came up to me after my last class and told me: “Du courage. I want to thank you for what you’re doing. The parents see what their kids are doing. These kids are great artists. You might not have been able to give this school everything it needs, but you are so willing. You give all of yourself. Thank you.”

Between those kids, those laughs, and those words - so worth it. 

Showing off our beautiful watercolor collages at school.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Help me and my community!

Hi friends, family, readers, and strangers who happen to be stalking my blog! I'm writing today not to tell you about how I'm counting down until my COS date (12 weeks) or about my trip home (it was awesome), but to ask a favor.

I'm planning a girl's summer camp with two other PCVs - Danielle and Lara - as well as our host organization RIDEV and an elementary school that D and I work at. This will be its third year in existence, and the last two have been great successes. During the camp, we train 20 to 25 high school girls in sexual reproductive health, general health, and life skills (decision making, goal setting, communication, etc.) and in how to be peer educators. The goal is for them to take what they learn and teach it to their high school and neighborhood friends, helping reduce HIV and STI transmission as well as the early pregnancy rate - which is way too high.

The problem is that this year, we were told that PEPFAR would no longer fund the camp, as it was not intended to be an annual funding source. So we're still struggling to put together the money to make this camp happen.

If you want to read more about last year's camp, check out this blog post that I wrote last July. It was a fantastic experience, definitely my favorite project that I have done in country. Not because its a big undertaking and thus was so satisfying, but because the participants loved it and thought they learned so much from it. Maybe all teachers will identify with this, but I live for the moment a class-clown student tells me that I have totally changed her outlook on learning and her ability to communicate with others. #girlsempowerment #whoruntheworld? #girls

If you've got more than you know what to do with or just more than you need and would like to make a Cameroonian girl's day, we would love it if you helped us out by donating. The camp costs about $1500.00 and every bit helps! If you want to know more about the camp or where the money goes, feel free to leave a comment here to email me. And if, miracle of miracles, we raise more than we need, it will go into RIDEV's account for next year's event. To donate, you can scroll to the bottom of this blog post, where there is a widget into which you can input your information and donate directly from there. Thank you in advance :)

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. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Write Me Off

Meet Jonathan -
Meet him today, and you see a teacher
dressed in an ill-fitting button down and slacks
with more children than he can handle
and his five or six year old students can't even write their own names. 
It would be so easy to judge him.

But meet Jonathan at six years old - 
If it was up to his parents, he would have stayed home not gone to school
But in elementary school he was always first in his class and he wanted to continue.
So he found ways to pay for his own books, notebooks, fees to go on to the next grade
he tried working at the market, in the town center, 
but no one would pay him.
They said: you are weak, I will not pay you, you cannot do this work. 
He learned to weave baskets instead.
They were so cheap, he made so little, and what he made had to feed him and buy all these things
but what choice did he have?
First year, he passed his class but couldn't pay fee to go to next level - by only 2 dollars.
Second year, he passed but couldn't pay the fee - by only 2 dollars.
During summer vacation, he bought two chicks;
during the school year, the chicks grew into roosters;
by the end of the year, he managed to sell one rooster 
for 2 dollars 
so he could go on to the next class.

Everything was like this, a struggle.

He had a lamp so that at night he could see to do his homework and study,
but no petrol for the lamp 
so it was useless.
First thing after school, he studied - 
he studied fast so he could learn everything before darkness fell.
Later, they put in some electric lamps in the center of town
and he and his friend would go study in the street, under these new electric lights
(mosquitos and all)
until they got tired of being bitten.

His mom died when he was sixteen
and his dad died soon after
and though they weren't very helpful in his education
it only made his life harder.

But he kept working.
He managed,
and he became an elementary school teacher.

Meet Christophe -
He'll introduce himself as "Christopher, like Columbus
The one who discovered America!"
Meet him today and look at a map with him
And he will ask,
"So these things you call 'islands'
They are surrounded by water?
And these things you call volcanos,
They spit fire?"
It would be so easy to judge him.

But meet Christophe-
Six years old, the student of Monsieur Jonathan.
If it was up to his parents, he would have stayed home not gone to school
but in elementary school he was always first in his class and he wanted to continue
he was discouraged
but M. Jonathan saw his struggle and told his own story
he said: if you work in the market, in the center of town, small jobs
you can pay for what you need
you can do it. 

So Christophe worked, even in the third grade,
so that he could go to school
satisfy his curiosity
answer the questions he always had.

Eventually, his mom died
his dad died
his grandfather died
his grandmother died.
He could not continue the schooling he fought so hard for.

But he still had those questions. 

So he worked - and he saved.
When he had a little bit saved, he said:
"I've heard of our capital, Yaounde.
I want to go.
I don't know anyone there
I don't know where it is
But I want to go."
And he did. 
He met new people and had them show him around the city
He paid their transport and he bought them drinks and he said thank you
And he learned.

But he still had those questions. 

So he worked - and he saved.
When he had a little bit saved, he said:
"I've heard of pygmies, small people who live in the East.
I want to meet them.
I don't know anywhere there,
I don't know where the 'east' is.
But I want to go." 
And he did. 
He met new people and he lived with the pygmies for a year.
He learned their language so he could ask his questions
And he learned. 

But he still has those questions. 

He went to Douala, and Kribi, and Ideo. 
He would go to other countries too
Except he can't afford a passport. 

He still has those questions. 

It's too easy to say:
Africans are lazy.
They don't know how to work or how to save.
Africans are only waiting for handouts, 
from their governments or from USAID.

Meet Jonathan, meet Christophe -
Men who have fought their whole lives

For the things that are handed to us. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Living In Transition

I have been thinking about this a lot recently because the Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) of Cameroon put out another newsletter, this one titled "Transitions." Now I'm probably one of about 10 people who reads it (not counting the proud parents) because I am a weird nerd. (I have embraced this about myself.) But anyway, I did read it and it's been on my mind since...

Transitions: the time in-between, neither the "then" nor the "now," the movement sandwiched by the beginning point and the end point, where you are temporarily while  trying to get somewhere else.

Peace Corps was a rough transition from school. No assignments, no one grading me or checking for completion, no set objectives to tell me if I'm on the right path or rubrics to tell me if I'm doing an A+ job. And Cameroon was a transition from America, where I needed to adjust to being the permanent minority and the gift-demanding culture and the slow pace and the descriptive Cam-fran-glais style of communication and a million other things. It wasn't an easy transition. I missed the comfort of home, the support of being surrounded by friends and family, the ease of moving through a culture you know inside and out because you grew up in it. I spent a lot of time feeling dazed, lost, and confused. I also wondered if I had made the right decision.

I shifted to Bafia, where I had a strict daily routine and lived with homestay family who I loved. Then I left that and all my new friends and moved on to Bansoa, where I knew almost no one and had no structure at all. Both places, everything felt so foreign.

During that time, everything felt so different and exotic. Then, almost everything...

"Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories." - Ray Bradbury