Friday, July 25, 2008

Cross country, Cameroon style

My Site Visit

Team Extreme North and I survived the three-day trip (each way!) to visit our new posts. Seriously, if there is anything that will serve as a bonding experience it is three days of seeing me in the same kabba (African style moo-moo dress) in the backs of hot, smelly buses! My travel companions, the four other business volunteers posted in the northern provinces, are great, and they helped make the long trip so much more pleasant. Plus, if you’re going to have to sit on people in sticky-hot buses, you might as well know them! Not only did I wear the same dress for three straight days on the trip up, I also wore it out to the one club in my new town, the night I arrived. Way to make an entrance they won’t forget.

I desperately tried to upload a few photos for your entertainment; Cameroonian internet wasn't having any of it! Instead, travel highlights:

The train! We saw beautiful scenery on the 16-hour night train. On the trip up, the moon was almost full, and you could see the outlines of palm trees and tons of other foliage. You really feel that you are traveling through a jungle and can't help but wonder what explorers of 100 years ago must have felt like as they cut through this territory for their first time. I liked to stick my head out the train window into the breeze puppy-dog style… but that’s done at your own risk of getting fwacked by a branch!

Coming home again. If you can get the sleeper cars on the train, it’s frankly pretty plush. (Some friends were less lucky, and sat for 16 hours next to an explosive-smelling toilet.) Although watch out for the cabins whose doors don’t lock. Laura and I spent a solid 30 minutes between about 11 and 11:30pm groping in the dark to try to tie our cabin door closed with first my towel, then her cardigan, then my dress shirt. It was a veritable booby trap. We’d heard too many horror stories of people’s stuff getting stolen in the night to not try and secure our mal-functioning door. Well, the door won, we lost, and it kinda flapped open in the night. Good news: All our goods remained intact. Bad news: I probably flashed a lot of Cameroonians, showing too much whitey leg, while I blissfully slept in my same little moo-moo dress the next morning with the cabin door happily open. Hope they enjoyed it—that’s what they get for non-functioning door locks!

Lowlight: (Is that a word? You get the idea.)
Only halfway through the trip up, after the all-night train ride we waited for seven. and. a. half. hours. for a bus that was supposedly coming tout de suite… right away. I straight-up don’t believe anything these travel agents tell me.

First impressions of my post: it’s hot, blazingly sunny, and there is a lot of sand. OK, my whole front yard is sand! Bienvenue au desert! Sand castles are fun.

My town is medium-sized, with several little bars and restaurants. I went to six of them in the less-than-48-hours I spent at post!! My hostess was the PC volunteer I am replacing. She has also worked in the small business development program, and finishes her two years of service this month. She did a fabulous job of showing me around, providing tips, and introducing me to the local cast of characters in what is to be the Cameroonian tele-drama of my life! I’m very grateful for her.

One great thing about Peace Corps is that you are assigned a host institution, (the microfinance org. I’ll work with,) but the world is your Oyster in terms of side projects. In my town, I found several high schools, a women’s health center, a youth/cultural center, and apparently, the mayor and one of the local tribal chiefs are very open to working with me. A local government official already runs a girls’ handball league. I know jack about handball and am not coordinated enough for it anyway, BUT it’s an encouraging prospect to see girls playing sports! I gotta find me some soccer balls… :) I’m excited about the possibilities, and it’s this independence to create my own side projects that I find so appealing about Peace Corps.

I had my first glimpse of my host microfinance institution (MFI), and met my Cameroonian counterpart, the secretary/treasurer of the MFI. His name is Bouba; he seems hard-working and trustworthy. The girl I am replacing hand-selected Bouba for this job, and I’m looking forward to working with him. With his help, I’ll spend my first weeks at post getting to know the ins and outs of our MFI’s functioning.

We now have one month left of training, before we officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers! I’m impatient to get back to my post, meet more people, and start work at my MFI!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cameroonian Yankee – At 10 degrees latitude

Guess what?!?!

I’m going North! Think—the Maine of the United States! Not just Maine, but Maine with moose and run-away Canadians! (Except here it is camels and Chadian refugees!) My new home is a province literally called “l’Extrême Nord.” I am getting my money’s worth (or lack of moneys) out of this Peace Corps experience!!

It’s funny how a couple of months ago, Cameroon was a big odd-shaped mystery on a map. Now, I know it well enough to have preferences of where I want to spend my next two years. I know every region, regional capital, climate, you name it. Three cheers for Peace Corps cross-cultural training.

Still, I was a bit hesitant to express to my PC bosses any strong preferences on where I wanted to be posted. I figured, “They have my resume, they know my skills, and they know the posts. They’ll put me where it’s the best match. Besides, if I get what I request and then don’t like it, I’ll have no room to complain.” I’d also previously told my PC boss here, “I like to be around people—good for my mental health. Also, having worked for a large donor organization in the past, I’m curious to be in a decent-sized city, see what work is going on, and be able to liaise with other NGO’s and government organizations.” Such were my preferences.

The thing about Cameroon is it is about as diverse as possible, more so than many other African countries. This is based on the cultures, business practices of different tribes, climates, etc. Which means that my PC experience would be entirely different if I were sent to the South, the Center, the East… Another volunteer stated, “Waiting to find out our posts wouldn’t be such a big deal if we were in Senegal, and 60% of the population is Wolof.” Or maybe Mali, where about 80% of the population speaks Bambara. But Cameroon and all its variety keeps us on our toes.

As I’ve learned more about Cameroon, I’ve learned that the North is viewed as much more of “traditional West Africa.” Down in the south where we are now for training, nobody even wears boo-boos. (Although Boo-boo is one of my mom’s many nicknames for me, it is also the traditional, long, flowing garment worn by the men in much of West Africa. Very sexy. I encourage all my American PC male friends to invest in one. Or two.) The south of Cameroon is largely Christian and French-speaking—so nothing shockingly unfamiliar, except eating the occasional fish-head for dinner. (No sweat, I even kinda like it in the peanut sauce my Ma makes.) True, there is rainy-season-red-mud EVERYwhere to remind me that I’m not in DC anymore, but really, my surroundings don’t feel very foreign here. Based on the three weeks I’d spent in Mali last August for work, I have an undeniable soft spot for a traditional West Africa.

So I added to my list of PC posting preferences that I’d like to be in a more traditional culture. I view Peace Corps, among other things, as my two years to live in a way more wildly different than I ever have before. The north of Cameroon has a higher concentration of Islam, more illiteracy, an incredible density of varying tribes and languages, and… hot… sandy… desert!!! Sweet. At the same time, overall population density of the Extreme North province is relatively high, and there are several other PC volunteers and international organizations working there. Americans who have been there have given glowing reviews, describing a warm culture and community life.

And it’s only three days’ travel from the major cities in the south.

So last weekend, I got up my guts to tell my bosses that I want to go North. The morning we received postings, about half of us looked like nervous zombies who hadn’t slept the previous night!

So weehooo!! I got what I wanted. Rock on in the North. Come visit my hut! :)

I actually do leave on a lonnnng trip to the North tomorrow. We do an initial site visit of just a couple days. It’s a chance to get to see where we will live, to meet our new co-workers, and to learn a little more about our host institutions. I’m also replacing a volunteer who is about to finish her two years at this post. So I will grill her with a LOT of questions. Then after our appetites are whet, it’s back to the south for the last month of training!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

All in the family

On a coupé l’eau, Ma tells me. They cut off the water.

That makes five days now without the water. Which means you won’t be flushing that fancy ceramic toilet either. Mmmmm. Some days in my Cameroonian family feel a little more Cinderella step-childish than others.

But in an effort to do what I can as a member of my host family, I was determined to volunteer my able-bodied cleaning services. It’s Sunday, and I have a little break from the training-on-training-with-a-side-of-training schedule. Ma promptly had me on bathroom-scrub duty. Specifically, that fancy ceramic un-flushing toilet. Mmmmmm. No problem. But it’s always a little trickier when you’re cleaning somebody else’s toilet with their unfamiliar cleaning implements, according to their standards… and no running water. I like the home-stay environment, but it has its challenges. (Hallelujah after initially drafting this I discovered there is a well in the neighborhood and I am now happily hauling buckets of water down the street!)

Among the homestay challenges though, is my odd undefined role as that goofy large albino child. Par example, I was fixing my eggs for breakfast this morning, when Ma takes the knife from me in mid-stroke, and proceeds to show me how cut a tomato. “Ma,” I piped up like the kid who never could keep her mouth shut, “there’s more than one way to cut a tomato.” She acquiesced with “OK, Kata, coupe la comme aux Etats-Unis.” “OK, Kata, (add it to my list of nicknames here.) Cut it the American way.”

Since, (believe it or not, Older Sisters!), I am an adult, I do actually know how to fight off starvation (Cook food and eat it.) and disease (Maintain basic hygiene.) In our home-stays, though, we’re in an interesting spot between a child, with much still to learn, and an honored adult guest, who is served first at meals. On the days that I am a child, I learn how to cut the tomato, and I do the smelly toilet chores. My family laughs when I tell them I don’t know how to kill a chicken, or how to wash my clothes in a bucket. I am friendly… but ignorant.

On the days that I am an honored adult guest, I explain that chickens in the United States are sold in uniformly pre-wrapped containers in supermarkets, and that I wash my clothes with the push of a few buttons. Or I gently tell Ma that I have in fact lived on my own (and am still living to prove it was not a disaster), preparing my own food, for eight years now. It’s not that I don’t know how to cook eggs, or beans, or vegetables damn it, but I just don’t want to blow up her stove or make a mess in her kitchen! As tasty as her eggs are, I tell her, I like to cook my eggs without that gratuitous cup of oil. (…making that many less butt squeezie exercises I’ll have to do later!)

So as with everything in Peace Corps and life, it’s a balance: kid vs. adult, doing chores vs. finishing my Peace Corps homework. As part of that balance, now that I’ve cleaned that toilet, you better believe I don’t want to use it til the water comes back on, (and with it, flush-ability)! Good thing there’s a field not too far from home which I’m headed off to now…!!! :)