Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Grand Finish

Well. I'm back in the United States? It already seems impossible that I left Cameroon only 6 days ago. But, more on that later.

I purposely chose not to blog my last month of service, so for anyone who anxiously awaits new installments 1) I applaud your dedication and 2) I apologize. That last month was exhausting in ways I couldn't have prepared myself for. Every day was a new goodbye to someone or to something. Every day was filled with feelings of "ugh, I really should ______." Every day got a little more emotional. I wanted to really spend this last month out and about, present in the community in a way I couldn't have been if I'd taken the moment to glance back at America. This last month was difficult, but it was the culmination of service that made me realize just what a fulfilling experience it's been. Many thanks to all of my technology for frying/disappearing during this time period and making it doubly possible for me to actually live in the moment--my phone was robbed, my electricity regulator experienced a long painful death, electricity in my house got blown out during a storm, and my computer cord fried...for the second time during my service. La vie c'est comme ca.

During the last month of service, I feel like I accomplished a lot of the personal and professional wrap-up experiences that I needed in order to feel okay about leaving the community. The East region volunteers completed another HIV/AIDS education mural, leading to positive accolades from Peace Corps leadership and to other volunteers in other areas of the country expressing interest in copying the project. We had Feast of the Sacrifice, complete with sifa (Muslim-style Henna), multiple meals of sheep, and lots of good time with friends. I taught Life Skills classes, had a birthday party, and went out to Kentzou/Ndelele to do monitor how the our women's rights groups had been working over the last few months. A few volunteers came out to visit, I went to visit the Sacred Rock for the last time, celebrated Halloween, had a going away party, and packed up my house. I closed my bank account, did all my medical exams, finished all my Peace Corps paperwork, and officially transitioned to being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. The time passed by quickly.

Now that I'm here, people keep asking a handful of the same questions. How was Peace Corps? What did you do there? Are you glad to be home? Did you have a good time?

I get the feeling that my answers have been disappointingly short. But, how can you boil down two years of your life into responses of those four very, very generic questions? I've traveled, but I've not been a tourist. I haven't seen elephants or giraffes or hippos. I've worked "over there," but I haven't lived like an expatriate. I've made best friends that have gotten me through the worst of times, and the majority of them aren't Americans. I've lived in less than glamorous conditions, but certainly not in poverty. I've eaten, and usually really enjoyed Cameroonian food. I've had lots of good times, but I've also had the most personally challenging experiences I've ever experienced. After two years, I'm glad to be back, but I'm not glad to be gone. These are things you can't really talk about, because they're not what people want to hear.

So, instead: Peace Corps was a great experience. I worked with youth and did some work on nutrition. I'm glad to be home. And, yes, I did have a good time. Please pass the salad.

I don't mean to sound pompous or dramatic, but I think, unfortunately, a lot of that tends to come with the territory of being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. People ask questions because they care, and I'm trying to remember this as I navigate through the various semi-true responses to these questions. But, at least I'm lucky enough to have friends and family on both sides of the ocean ready to support me and give me a few much needed reality checks. These next few months will be challenging. They're challenging already, but in a very different way from Peace Corps. Loss of independence, personal relationships, bananas, hot weather, and easy personal transportation. These next few months are about finding the new normal. As it turns out, going to bed at 8:30 isn't quite acceptable before the age of retirees, and there's no longer sunlight dancing through my curtains in the early morning. Changes are in store, but at least if Peace Corps prepares you for one thing: it's change, equipping you with the patience, bull-headedness, and flexibility to get through to...somewhere. Where that somewhere is, however, only time will tell.

Dora (Youth Development Assistant Director), Geoff, myself, Shane, Jacky (PC Cameroon Country Director), Maureen (Health Assistant), and Sylvie (Health Director): Thanks, Peace Corps Admin, for being so supportive in the we three volunteers' last week of country!


Friday, October 11, 2013

Month 25

5 October 2013

Month 25: I'll be back to America in just over one month. I move out of my home in almost exactly one month. I've started trying to clean out the mounds of random stuff that have accumulated and trying to find new homes for the more useful of the items, spurring all kind of memories and thoughts of all the things I still have yet to accomplish. I've got a pile of America-bound things stacked on top of the luggage in my laundry room. And yet, somehow it still doesn't seem real that it's coming to an end. I know I can't stay longer, but somehow, it just doesn't feel like this much time has passed. I know it must have, as evidenced by the mountains of things and all of the stories each item tells.

It's amazing how little a person can get by on--as I look at what remains around here, it's definitely hitting me that I had more stuff crammed into a single dorm room in college than I do in my entire house here. Just like college, though, my house is crammed with old notebooks from training classes, pencils, pens, and books to study with. My house is collaged in photos and letters from friends and family. And, just like college, it's all starting to come to an end before I really feel like I'm ready.

Before we arrived in Cameroon, we were given a couple of books on cultural adjustment, the Peace Corps experience, what to expect on our job-sites, etc. I found all of them today, just after running into all of my old notebooks from Training in Bafia. It's a trip down memory lane seeing everything I struggled with written down on paper: short days, weather, food, struggling with speaking, lack of routine, loneliness, finding out how to feel like yourself in the new culture, etc. When we met up in Philadelphia...or rather, once I finally arrived after my flight delay drama...Peace Corps staff asked us to make a list of our anxieties and aspirations. Looking back, my aspirations for service were pretty low: carrying out conversation, completing service, being able to complete simple tasks, understanding my community, helping create a successful Youth Development program. My anxieties were numerous, and all of them were fulfilled during service: getting ill, security situations, trouble with French, home-stay, missing out on family emergencies, losing touch with friends, getting understood. I underestimated what was possible, what I was capable of, and most importantly, what my community would be capable of.

It's true that a lot of this experience has been about me and my struggles, successes, and constantly changing perceptions, but so much of this experience has been about everyone else: my community's challenges and strengths, culture, and attempts to find ways to develop without sacrificing their ideals and culture in an overtly corrupt environment. It's been these themes that have defined my last two years. Had I been placed in Mongolia or Suriname or even just a different region of this country, it's certain that'd I would have had an entirely different experience. But I wasn't: I was placed in bush meat, gold, timber, and tobacco country. These aspects have defined my experience, but they've defined my community even more. I'm leaving in a month, but the friends, colleagues, and acquaintances I've made will still be here working for the betterment of the country. My benefits have outweighed the challenges in service despite all odds, but my community is still struggling to find it's place and trying to deal with all the issues that the exploitation trades have left it with. Two years may have passed, but it somehow still doesn't feel quite long enough when you consider just how much is still left to do. I clearly am still struggling to find the meaning and depth of understanding about this experience, my place in the community, and how to integrate all of this into life in America. But, it'll get there. In the mean time, I'll be here cleaning, sorting, and remembering.

On the note of house cleaning, I've been trying to take care of my house since it appears to be trying to fall apart around my feet now that the real brutality of rainy season has begun. Outside of making my house spring new leaks and making my pipes overflow with dirty sewage in my bathroom/spare bedroom, the rains have lately knocked out the road to a couple of major villages in the department by carrying away two separate bridges. I can only imagine what this is going to mean for crops a few months down the line. But, at least at the moment it hasn't destroyed the fish farm (yet.)

I can't imagine a better time to be leaving Cameroon. Food is plentiful, and there are even red peppers at the market! The night skies are stunningly clear with sunsets that any National Geographic photographer would salivate over. The trees are a beautiful, crisp green and all of the flowers are in bloom. Even though we're still not having normal electricity, it's at least improved in that we're getting it almost every day with at least a small handful of the hours happening in daylight (the rest all tend to be post-midnight.) Work is continuing to go on, but I feel like I have a good handle on all of it and don't need to stress about preparation or learning the French necessary to teach effectively. Having my phone "misplaced" (ie: stolen or lost by a child,) has turned out to be a blessing in disguise since now only people I really want to have my number have it; it would be a complete understatement to say that I'm living much more tranquilly now. All in all, things are a breath of fresh air right now. The difficulties of adjustment to this country are over, now it just comes down to learning how to say goodbye.

Other news:

-Cameroon has just finished Mayoral and Deputy elections. The RDPC (Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounaises) has unofficially won every seat in Batouri again, which is a surprise to no one considering corruption levels (the President [member of the RDPC, of course] has been in power now over 30 years.)

-Eid al Tabaski/Fete de Mutton/Feast of the Sacrifice is in less than 2 weeks (coincidentally, it should happen to fall on my birthday this year.) I'm planning on getting African-style braids, henna, and I have a crazy new outfit at the tailor waiting for me now.

-We're currently working on our second installment of the HIV/AIDS education murals in the East. This one is taking place in Mandjou, a village outside of the regional capital. Most of the villagers are either Muslim Fulbes or refugees from the Central African Republic.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Beginning of the End

9 September 2013

Things are wrapping up. Everything that took so long to create, is taking so little time to come to conclusion. At the beginning, I had so much free time to spend shooting the breeze, hopping from meeting to meeting in hopes of creating something from nothing, attempting to converse in a rather paltry patchwork of grammatically incorrect French, and trying day after day to create a livable house for myself. It was stressful trying to figure out what to do with myself day in and day out because it felt inappropriate to take me-time when I hadn't spent any time doing anything constructive for the community. The comparison between then and now is dramatic. Yet, even now when I'm in such a different situation than I was two years ago, I find myself again with more free time than I know what to do with; efficiency and productivity have turned out to be a double-edged sword now that I know I can't start anything new.

The projects I'd spent so long trying to devise take practically no effort to step away from now since they stand on their own already. Things like the market that used to be such an exhausting effort have become a simple, almost boring routine. I don't have to explain to people what I do here anymore, because I can quite succintly state "I've lived and worked here for two years, but I'm moving home soon." I'm not struggling to create friendships anymore, instead, I'm often struggling to avoid making them since I know that I'm leaving here in only a few months time. No more meetings struggling to create something or to meet somebody important. My house is comfortable; the months of sitting eating alone in my furniture-less living room are a laughable memory. And so now, here I am, sitting on the squeaky bamboo bed in my living room, thinking about what the next chapter has to hold.

For anyone that's reading this from the "other side," this next bit may not hold much meaning--it's hard to find value in the common-place items in life sometimes. But, as my motorcycle-riding, marriage proposal-denying lifestyle in Batouri has lost it's flash and glamour, bizarre aspects of the American lifestyle have become unsuspecting glittering gems in my future. In a way I've never craved it before, I'm looking forward to predictability, to order, to a schedule, and to obligations. I'm ready to have free access to Public Libraries and all the glories they behold. I'm thrilled to have coffee shops and hiking trails in my life again, and to know that whenever something goes wrong with my house, there's always some technician (pest exterminator/plumber/electrician, etc.) I can call and reliably expect to show up and fix my problem. I look forward to winter: cold weather, flannel pajama pants, boots, snow-topped trees, and sweaters. I'm excited to live in a country again where house pets are seen as a positive, and public urination as a negative. I'm looking forward to being able to wake up in the morning and look at the weather report so that I can plan my day accordingly. Most of all? Having clothes that aren't stretched out two sizes too big from repeated handwashing.

I remember hearing during training that, at some point near the end, we'd finally feel competent in both cultures. It's been a long time coming, but I think I'm finally there. I know what to do, I know what's expected of me, and I know how things work. While it never seemed like it at the beginning, I realize just how big of an accomplishment it's been to make it through two whole years. Two years of feeding myself, communicating in a language I didn't understand, finding clothing, staying reasonably healthy (incha'allah); doing all that and staying happy, however, is a whole different story...a story of flourishing.

With these last two months, it's sure that there's a lot of change and challenges still ahead. It's difficult watching this coming to an end and knowing that there will be someone else right after me who'll know this place in a whole different way than I have, but ultimately, that's ideal because stagnancy holds no hope of positive development. And, more and more, I'm growing okay with the fact that I won't be able to see this. Batouri can change and grow, but I'm going to be content hearing about it from behind a computer screen from the comfort of my couch. After all...

Seulement les montagnes ne se crossent pas, les hommes se crossent toujours.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

On va faire comment?

10 August 2013

There are so many things running through my mind right now, and so I'm not entirely sure what direction this blog post is going to go in. On va faire comment?

With electricity being out again (we've had a total of maybe 24 hours of light combined in the past 6 days,) I'm not entirely sure how long my computer battery is going to last. Supposedly by 2015 my whole region can expect to have electricity 24 hours a day, which'll definitely allow more room for stability, reliability, and development, but for me personally, I'm glad to have lived somewhere where part of the challenge of survival meant having to be adaptable. So, as we speak, I'm typing by the light of one single candle and weighing the benefits of washing my dishes tonight versus the morning (avoiding the ants and mice V. having dishes be clean because I'll be able to actually see them while I wash.) Luckily, this should hopefully not be a problem anymore since I think I've knicked my mouse problem thanks to the packets of scary Chinese rat poison, which was surprisingly difficult to find considering that the men that sell it are possibly the most obnoxious in town: they walk around the market with dead mice on strings, blowing whistles, and talking on megaphones.

The time remaining for me in Cameroon is winding down, but I am trying to refuse to talk about that. It's getting too hard to have the constant conversation of "don't leave, renew your contract, stay and marry a Cameroonian man, we'll miss you too much!" everyday. I am being pulled in two very separate directions, and even though I am positive that I'm leaving in November, it's still difficult to know that my choice means leaving the family and friends I've created for myself here. Beyond all odds, it means leaving the comfort I've come to find here in the unpredictability, the slow pace of life, and the rawness of the Cameroonian culture. I've started to sell off my goods, and I've started a pile of things in my spare room that are definitely returning to America with me. My job research has begun. In a week and a half, I'll have my official end of service date. It's the beginning of the end. Weird.

On a completely lighter note, Ramadan has finished! This past Thursday was the holiday marking the end, and I was lucky enough to have another PCV in town visiting, so it was interesting to get to see the whole Ramadan experience through the eyes of someone in a very, very Christian community. Ramadan is different from Christian holidays since the Islamic calendar is shorter and based on the moon. Whereas Christmas is ALWAYS December 25, Ramadan could fall in any month depending on the year. Likewise, the holiday could happen between 28-31 days after the fast began depending on what day the moon returns (the season starts and ends based on the new moon.) This time around the moon was sighted on the 7th at 9pm in Fouman, a town in the West region, but because my friend forgot to call and let me know, I woke up unsure whether or not to get ready for the celebration or not--definitely a huge difference from any holiday I'd grown up with. After texting around to figure out what was going on, I ended up getting dressed in the new clothes I got made for the celebration, went to the morning prayers, and then started the long day of 6 meals. Fete de Ramadan is a marathan, not a sprint; imagine Thanksgiving, but taking place in multiple different houses and over a 10 hour time period. Beef, rice, spagetti, chicken, eggs, cabbage dishes, beignets, soda, tea, etc. To borrow a Pidgin English phrase: my belly done flop.

I've written intermittently about the pisciculture project, and it's crazy that that's already coming to a close. We've gotten the ponds all built and the first two species of fish installed; the other two species should be installed next month. Things have gone super smoothly so far, minus a minor conflict with a police officer neighbor who raises ducks as poultry but refuses to keep them caged or "corraled" on his property since he doesn't believe that ducks eat fish. But, I think we've finally gotten that problem resolved by putting the children on fish guardian/duck scaring duty when they're not going around town searching for the types of refuse that fish love to eat (ask for more details if you'd like, but know that the answer isn't a pretty one.) Right now, we're working on planting a garden of Moringa, watermelon, squash, okra, basil, plantains, bananas, and manioc around the ponds so that we'll have more food to sell in the market and food available on premises to feed the fish with. Next month, we'll start teaching classes to the kids on HIV/AIDS, STDs, prevention methods, and "life skills," but in the moment we're just starting to figure out what exactly these lessons are going to entail.

The last big thing I've been working on is preparation for the HIV/AIDS education murals that we'll be painting at the end of the month. A big group of volunteers from the region are going to come out and help paint, so between COS conference the 3rd week of August and the mural the 4th week, these next few weeks of life are going to be Petite Amerique (Little America.)

On that note, take care everyone!

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Rama-Diary

Day 1:

After a bout of food poisoning and a false-start of fasting (one ethnic group, the Bamouns, apparently frequently starts fasting a day before everyone else,) Ramadan finally started for real today. It's 3pm, and to distract myself from the fact that I still have a few hours to go before I can eat dinner and guzzle down some water, I've decided to start writing my Ramadan Diary. I'm going to fast for this whole first week, incha'allah, and add at least 15 minutes onto my fast each morning until I hit the point of starting my fast at 5am like the rest of Batouri. I've decided that this is a week of no morning coffee, no work-outs, and probably also a lot of moto-taxis--I want to avoid anything that's going to dehydrate me any more than necessary.

Today, I started my fast at 7:30am...a cheater's start, but I don't want to start too hard at the beginning and end my week in the hospital with dehydration. After two eggs and a full 1.5L of water at 7am, my fast was on. We were lucky that it poured rain this morning so that the heat and sun weren't too overwhelming. Still, I am exhausted--food poisoning just before Ramadan was definitely not ideal, and I can already tell that I'm going to be doing some serious napping all week long. I now understand why last year the pace of work during Ramadan was SO SLOW and why every shop-keeper seemed to be constantly asleep: fasting is fatiguing. Tonight, though, this exhaustion is going to be sent away in style, as my post-mates and I are breaking the fast with our friend, Ali, at a restaurant in town (Melissa is also fasting for the week with me.)

So, how are people responding to the bizarre news that the two American girls are fasting? Reactions have been one of two extremes--shock and excitement or confusion. Luckily, the Muslims that are fasting all think it's cool that we want to share the experience and plenty of our Muslim friends are inviting us over to break the fast at the end of the day. The Christians, however, are all confused. I've now committed the most heinous crime in Cameroon about 5 different times today: I've turned down both food and drink. The response of "I'm fasting for this week of Ramadan" is doing nothing but furthering the confusion. I'm hoping that'll get easier as the week moves along.

Day 2:
Well, there's two days down already. I added another 30 minutes onto the fast today, and I'm a little shocked: today was significantly easier than the day before. Thank God. The fatigue, however, is going to be a killer. Town is already slowing down dramatically as all of the Muslims (and us weirdos who're doing Ramadan for the fun of it) adjust into energy-conservation mode. Pretty sure by the last day, it may be a miracle if I peel myself out of my bed.

Today, I broke the fast in a more "traditional" fashion, ie: bouillie and beignets. Bouillie is a traditional breakfast food throughout Cameroon--it's a thick, white drink made of flour, water, and flavoring (sugar, cinnamin, rice, lemon, vanilla, etc.) Holy moly, I love me some bouillie. And beignets dipped in bouillie? Wow.

I broke the fast with my friend Muhammad at his house, and his wife made the most fabulous spread. As Melissa and I slurped down the food in fast-forward, the family prayed as the littlest one called out the response of "allahu akbar" ("God is Great") and the father called out the prayer. There's a joke around here that it's a great thing that prayer Islam-style is so involved (standing, bending, prostrating, repeat x5+) because otherwise, nobody would be doing any activity during Ramadan and everyone would be gaining massive amounts of weight. And, it's probably true: that much food eaten at rapid speed in such a short period of time is creating a gigantic rock in my stomach. Bloat, bloat, bloat, bloat. Luckily, this week, there's all the time in the world to sit, digest, and reflect.

Day 3:
If this week is indicative of anything, it's that I might just have a future in competitive eating. Always good to have a back-up life plan, right?

Ignoring the fatigue, the week is getting easier and easier--I never actually thought that I'd be able to make it through the full week, but I've already shaved a full hour off my start time (clearly the competitive spirit remains alive and well.) We've been lucky that it's stayed cool and hasn't been too sunny this week; apparently when Ramadan falls during dry season, a couple of people pass away per year from dehydration. All thing's said, for me, so far it's been a much needed week of re-centering and self-focus. With only four months remaining, I'll take whatever moments I can get to try and process this life here.

Tonight, Mike, Melissa, and I went out for chicken to celebrate the fact that our fish-farming project has begun and is moving along quickly! Since regaining our original technician and re-working our budget a bit at the beginning of the week, we've finally got a plan that we all feel comfortable in. The land has already been cleared, and we're currently in the process of digging the ponds. ("we're" in this case excluding myself, although as soon as Ramadan's over I plan to head over and start actually lending a hand in the work.) But, more on this project in a later blog. Anyhow, as soon as dawn hit today, I ripped open a yogurt, downed a banana, and drowned myself in water...followed by a Coke, chicken, rice, and pineapple. Competitive food eating: I'm winning at it.

Day 4:
The pronounciation of the French word for sleepiness is exactly the same as the Fulfulde word for the fast. The pronounciation for the French words to fast and to annoy/irritate are also the same. Coincidences? Definitely not.

The crying baby in the neighbor's side of the duplex. The fact that the new family of the neighbor STILL haven't bothered to introduce themselves after moving in last month. The fact that the neighbors start blasting their TV around 6:15 every morning. The rain that blocked us from going out and cooking on the rocks to break the fast. The fridge light that won't turn off. The sink that won't stop dripping. Having to cook without taste testing along the way. It seems like there's nothing that isn't bothering me today, but in a way that shows me that I may have too completely adopted the mentality of "ca va aller."

The post-mates, myself, and our friend Zack were supposed to go out to the rocks tonight and break the fast at sunset over a gigantic vat of chili, but, alas, there was rain. Instead, we cooked and ate at my house instead after a long and distacting game of Canasta. Since Zack's family is currently out of town, for the time being, we're all the family each other has, which is weirdly comforting. Between the gigantic bowl of American chili, a card game I grew up on, and the family I've pieced together for myself here,the day ended on a really nice note. As tiring and frustrating as this week has been, I'm glad that I decided to do it: how better to learn to appreciate the hand I've been dealt here?

Days 5 and 6:
Sundays are always slow here in Batouri, so I've skipped day 5 of the Rama-Diary. Nothing terribly interesting happened, and no fabulous new revelations have passed. I do have a significantly cleaner yard to show for it, though, and a whole other pineapple to work through that I bought at the market, so the day was far from a waste.

Here, on the sixth day, I've added a total of two hours onto my fast since the start of the week. To the great shock of anyone who's ever had the pleasure of having to deal with me in the morning, I got up and was functional(ish) without coffee at 5am. Even I am shocked by that one. It seems that I've lost a whole piece of my identity in this country: that of being an incurable, raging anti-morning person. I'm willing to admit that that's probably a positive change.

Ramadan's gotten easier and easier, and the word has spread through town that I've been trying--a number of people have come up to wish me good luck on the fast. Turns out, much to my surprise, village kongossa (gossip) CAN work in positive ways; I've been strengthened in my conviction to finish out the week with every person who stops to ask me about my experiences with Ramadan and why I've chosen to do the fast.Even though I am looking forward to being done, I've learned a lot about Ramadan and how to survive the fast, but I think I've also gained a lot of willpower this week. Even more so, through the exhaustion, I've been able to keep a close eye on the fish farming operation (which is now one week old!!!) Still, I plan to invoke two different clauses from the Qur'an for why I won't finish out Ramadan: the physical labor of farming while I'm in Batouri, and the clause regarding travels for while I'm out and about.

Day 7/Afterward:
I did it. It's done. Today is what would have been day 8 and I'm curled on my couch with a big mug of tea, something I've missed furiously this whole past week. I didn't have to set an alarm for 4:30 today, and when I did finally wake up, I didn't have to force myself to drink unthinkable amounts of water. I won't need to take motos everywhere, and I won't need to avoid that god-awful lunch hour in town. Still, it's been a great experience...and I think I might just do a few more days at the end for Fete de Ramadan. A girl'll do crazy things in the name of integration.

Things ended on the perfect note: dinner at my friend Abdoulaye's house. Abdoulaye's been possibly the most supportive person through the fast, and he's also the most intense person I know when it comes to fasting: he doesn't eat breakfast in the morning so that there's only one meal a day, and he still plays sports on weekends. I am NOT on that level, and I am perfectly okay with that. Over a delicious meal of bouillie and beignets, a cucumber salad, a potato-and-egg dish, and watermelon, we broke the fast. We watched women's soccer and talked about projects we've got planned. Is there a more perfect way to end a day than that? I don't think so.

Now that the fast is over, I've got a few big plans for before I leave on vacation to visit my friend Charla in the Adamaoua region. 1) Exterminate the mouse who seems to be taking refuge in my house. 2) Get a boubou (traditional West African clothing) made for Fete de Ramadan 3) Resolve some financial issues with the fish farming project 4) Try and convince the electrical company to give me my 4+-month late bill. All big things.

Take care, all!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


29 June 2013

The level of misunderstanding in this country is astounding. Some of it's harmless, but much of it has led to hatred, distrust, and inequity. To some degree, it's understandable--most people don't finish their education here, and the major source of information in this country is the village kongossa (gossip.) Still though, much of this misunderstanding is willful and propogated as a way to justify wrongdoings or to keep a level of power/privilege, like choosing to believe that if a woman has taken off her shoes, she's consented to sex. I'm beginning to wonder if I've lost my ability to be shocked by what people have to say, but I'm hoping that the world won't take that as a challenge to throw some new offensive curveball my way. Not so sure what I'm talking about? All of the statements below are things I've heard come out of my mouth in serious conversation, and I know a number of them are comments that volunteers across the country have to reiterate frequently.
"Michael Jackson is really dead, his death certificate wasn't faked, and he didn't move to an island secretly to avoid the paparazzi."
"Mangoes don't give you Malaria."
"Women CAN play soccer."
"No, really. There's poverty in America, too. It's not just people in Africa that suffer. People die of hunger in America, too, just not as often."
"AIDS wasn't an illness genetically engineered in America and sent over in condoms as a method of population control in Africa."
"Rape is still rape even if you aren't wearing shoes."
"President Obama may be black, but he is an American."
"Americans don't love to kill people, and there are a lot of Americans that don't love war."
"There are Muslims in American. There are Christians in America. Not everyone is religion-less."
"A 13 year-old female is still a child, not a woman."

In my last blog entry, I mentioned that I was about to head out to the West region to help another volunteer with her girls' camp. Well, that came and went. We trained 20 girls age 13-17 to serve as peer educators in their communities on healthy relationships, communication, puberty, and sexual health topics. For a week, we listened to every worry and misdirected rumor these girls had heard. Like American summer camps, the girls complained about cleaning latrines and limited cell-phone/electricity usage, counselors didn't get to sleep because the girls were chatting all night long, and the week concluded with girls presenting sketches that they'd created themselves. Unlike America, though, we ran out of water because girls were showering 3-4 times a day and the counselors were grumpily awakened at 5am to girls energetically running around the bunks to do each others hair and to find a place to privately shower outdoors (we had to restrict the shower facility after the girls trashed it with muddy shoes and clogged the drain.) All that said, it was amazing to see the growth in the girls--they left more confident in themselves as well as in their ability to stand up for their beliefs and rights. As for me, I left believing a little more strongly that Cameroon had a chance of development since parent after grandparent after administrator expressed their appreciation for training the girls, their desire to see the project continue, and their hope that the girls will positively use the information in their own lives.

It was in that climate that I came home to a friend of mine telling me that he was pursuing not just one 13 year-old girl, but two 13 year-old girls for marriage, one of whom would be ripped out of her family in Nigeria. This particular individual has a child older than the girls he's seeking for marriage. This desire to marry a child can't be blamed on social status or on education--he's a speaker at one of the local mosques, runs a fairly profitable business, has a university degree, and speaks 3 of the world's most predominant languages (English, Arabic, and French) as well as a number of local and regional languages. If there's anything more disheartening than this, I never want to hear it.

I'm trying to remind myself that change is coming and that more and more people are chosing marriages based on love and mutual consideration. Although it's been slow to hit West and Central Africa, feminism is coming and it will be a force to be reckoned with if the girls from the camp are any sign of the future. Normally in French I'd end that statement with "incha'allah" or "si Dieu permit" (God willing/If God permits, respectively,) but this isn't a question of God: this is a clear issue of human and social rights. There should be no question about God's will, government's role in creating a better world for women, or man's role in evening out the playing field.

Weighty subject? Yes. Important? Absolutely.

Lighter Notes:
  • Grant money is in and the work is commencing! We got back our original technician (Ebba Oundi) who I'd worked with last year on the soy and moringa field and now the two technicians will be splitting up the work and combining their expertise. I'm now more confident that this project will finish on time and with less drama (our other technician, Franklin, is in love with my post-mate.) There will be photos soon of the project as we get work going! Let the hole digging, brick making, and HIV teaching begin!!!
  • President Obama donated $7 BILLION DOLLARS to develop better electrical networks in Sub-Saharan Africa. Needless to say, this is huge. Villages that rely on generators may finally have access to actual electricity. Power outages will be less frequent: students will have better chance at success because they can study even if power's out, patients being treated in hospitals will be more likely to survive,etc. Positive opinions of America are SKYROCKETING as a result of this donation.
  • I met a Cameroonian on a bus recently who works for a religious group that deals with handicapped populations. He's passing me his personal research, gave me new resources to help me figure out better ways to intervene with the kids, and gave me the numbers of a couple of groups in Yaounde that I'd been trying to figure out how to contact.
  • I got to see a couple of close volunteer-friends recently and make some CRAZY GOOD American(ish) meals! Broccoli Alfredo? Yes please. And, found an awesome bakery in the country capital with real sandwiches!
  • My pantry back in Batouri is officially restocked with American goodies that are impossible to find in my region: peanut butter, Nutella, brown sugar, ground ginger. Life is good.
  • My fridge no longer closes without being tied shut, and it appears my ceiling has sprung a huge leak. But, at least there haven't been any unwanted animal visitors recently!
  • Ramadan should be starting this coming Monday or Tuesday. Check back soon for details about my adventures in trying to do a week of the fast! For anyone who's details about Ramadan are a little unclear: a required month of fasting for healthy individuals (no water/food from sun-up to sun-down) to purify and show devotion to God, ends in a day-long party of meal after meal after meal (here it's called Fete de Ramadan.)

  • Take care, everyone!

    Friday, June 14, 2013

    Bats, Blogs, Burns, and Byes

    Behind every blog post I attempt to write is about 12 failed attempts. This entry alone is the third serious attempt to make a blog post happen. I start writing, and then power goes out for so long that the entry isn't relevant. I start writing, and then I get a phone call and need to run off to a meeting. I finish writing, and then I realize that the entry doesn't have a point, isn't interesting, or that I have a significantly better idea of what somebody might maybe want to read. I start writing, and I get bored and walk away. Now you all know the truth: I'm not just a bad blogger, but an undedicated one.

    While I was trying to think about what I wanted to write, I looked at the blog's statistics--y'all are a sick bunch: the most popular entries have all been the ones with negative titles. What that tells me is that A) I have written more depressing blog entries than I realized (I love this country, I promise!) and B) I should probably start writing positive blogs with mis-leading titles like "Murderer on Main Street Kills 87 HIV+ Children Suffering from Dysentary!" in hopes of getting people to read it. Actually, scratch all of that, here's a better solution: tell me what you want to read about for the last five months of my service. What burning questions do you have about Batouri, about Cameroonian culture, how to deal with the electricity company when they stop giving you bills for four months? What's the one subject you feel I've left out consistently?
    With that said, let's move right along....

    If you're looking for action and adventure in this blog post, then look no further! Things that have happened this month in Batouri:
    • 35% of the market burned down, making for a loss in over 2.000.000FCFA (about $4.000) in merchandise and cash that people had stored in their stands for "safe keeping" (few people believe in the reliability of banks in Cameroon since so many have failed Great Depression-style.) No progress has been made at rebuilding the market, so right now it's like a scavenger hunt to try and find your favorite market mommas. It's believed that the fire was caused by someone who failed to put out the fire they'd made to cook beans on for dinner. The fire began around 3am, and was stymied by a huge rainstorm that incidentally also flooded my living room. When I passed the market 12 hours later, there were still flames and smoke. Needless to say, Batouri does not have a fire department or fire insurance.
    • I had a fruit bat in my house! His name was Matt. Sadly, he was bludgeoned to death by a particularly vengeful neighbor bearing my broom. Rest in peace, little buddy, you were a good two-day pet. As for the Green Mambas, no new ones recently! My new gardener has tamed the rainforest in my front yard, and I'm no longer the gossip of the neighborhood. Halleluiah.
    • My friend's sheep had babies! They're adorable. Have I spent afternoons chasing them around the center of town attempting to hold them? Maybe.
    Two weeks ago two friends of mine from training came out to visit, which was incredible! We went out to the Sacred Rocks with a picnic of tacos and boxed wine, and stayed out a few hours to stargaze. If you've ever heard stories about the night skies in Africa: they're not exaggerations. The skies look like they go on forever, stars look close enough to touch, and the shooting stars almost look like the might just crash into your little finger. So bizarre! Thanks again for the cookies, magazines, and visits, friends!!!!

    I'm headed out to the West to help a volunteer with her girls' camp in her village this coming week. After four years of camp counseling girls in America, I'm really excited to see the differences in how these kids respond to being away from their families for a week. One thing is for certain: there won't be children at this camp sobbing about being forced to use a latrine or the limited access to electricity.  Or, maybe I'll be eating my words this time on Monday. Details to come. By the time I get back, our money should be arrived to start the work on our pisciculture project. But, in the mean time, I am sustained with the news that 65% of the primary school students in the handicapped youth association passed their grades in school and are moving up! In a society where it's considered totally normal that everyone fails at least one grade in their life, this is a huge success for us!!

    In addition to fish farming, we've been doing some work to plan a series of HIV education murals throughout the region. Stop #1 for the project is Batouri. My post-mates and I have been scoping out locations, costs, and ways to transmit the messages. Some volunteers are bringing us old brushes and materials from America so that we'll be able to do the projects at as little cost as possible (meaning paint, tint, and some soap.) I'll keep you posted as we get the details arranged!

    As a country, we're starting to say our Good-Byes to the training group before mine--mind-blowing! The two girls who met us in Bertoua during our site visits and showed us around are both on their ways out over the next month. Congratulations on finishing out your services, Michelle, Justine, and Andy!!!!

    I think that's it for the moment. Keep me posted on what you want to hear, and I'll do my best to make it happen!