Saturday, August 23, 2008

In the Peace Corps now

It’s official--I'm a PCV! They haven't kicked any of us out yet :)
Pictures from our swearing in ceremony.

We pre-celebrated with a brunch of French toast and “mimosas.” Mimosas in Cameroon = champagne + a local powdered orange drink mix. Tastes like Tang and supposedly has vitamin C in it?!?! Here’s most of our girls from the Small Enterprise Development program.

With some of the girls from the Education program—crafting young ‘Roonian minds.

Our boys: On a drunken bet, they decided to embark on a month-long process to all grow mustaches for the big day of swearing-in. The girls’ role was to always remind them of how awful they looked. And voilà le résultat: reminiscent 1973.

My host family! Ma and my bro Stephan. They’ve been so good to me, and sent me away last night with popcorn, beignets and cake for the long trip up to post! That is love :)

My friend Brandi here is from Opelousas, LA, all of 45 minutes away from chez mom and dad. Her Cameroonian family bestowed on her a fine set of fake flowers in honor of swearing in. We though it an appropriate occasion to take a Sadie Hawkins-style picture.

A last look on leaving Bangangté.

A couple of last funny things--what was the first thing I and two of the girls did upon swearing in? Snuck out of the ceremony, ran through some corn fields, and found some "facilities." (Read: take a pee in a corn field, just hoping not to get caught!) This is how we do it in Cameroon! Also, our training group voted on some superlatives. Some of the categories up for grabs: Most likely to run off with the pygmies and never be seen again, Most likely to be polygamous, Most likely to spend all their money on beer, Most likely to adopt a Cameroonian baby. Yours truly ended up with Most likely to extend service for a third year, and Girl you'd most want as your post mate. Thanks amigos! :)

I'm en route now, off to post to start my two years of service! No garantees of internet where I am going, alors so long for now!

Pics from training

Pictures! For your viewing enjoyment:

My homestay pad in Bangangté.
A post-game pic from our local soccer league, ages 4 – 27.

My little cousins who stayed with us, Ingrid and Sereu. They’re from the Anglophone provinces where they speak a pidgin-y English I can hardly understand.

Ingrid always greeted me with big smiles, hugs around my knees, and “Aunty Katy, Good morning!”

Looking like a biker pro as we tool around Bangangté.

Biking in Bangangté

This wonder of Cameroonian fashion just had to make the blog: Allen, our GQ centerfold here, is sporting the tye-dye boubou and knickerbockers combination.

So, If you’d like to come visit me, here’s a little photo documentary of the travels north. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the bus that is coming tout de suite

Train ride!

More to come...! :)

What's new

A little update on exciting times! I feel right now like I’ve just finished finals my senior year of college and am kicking back, waiting to graduate! Today, our trainee group returned from a few nights in the capital city Yaoundé, where we took care of last administrative stuffs. It was business during the day… but civilization-starved kids gone wild at night… chinese food, pizzas, and even… a happy hour at the local Hilton?!?! Until our 7pm curfew that is! It was three nights of 36-person slumber party.

Our twelve weeks of training are done! No more curfew, no more living in a home-stay family—we’re about to be legit and independent again! We swear in as for-real volunteers in less than 48 hours. At the ceremony, all of us will be wearing matching pagne (the traditional African fabric). It’s what folks do around here for any exciting occasion—weddings, conferences, national holidays. Kinda like a rewind to when my sister and I wore matching red dresses at ages 6 and 9… only times 36 of us!

But really, bigger than all wearing matching outfits is the fact that on Saturday we all leave to go to our posts scattered across this big diverse country. I should arrive by about Tuesday… People have told us that the first three months will be the hardest, as we try to navigate the new town, in a foreign language, and settle in to our host institutions. On top of that, I’ll be figuring out how to cook with new foods, minus an oven and a fridge. I’ve been eating Ma’s fabulous cooking for the last three months during training (as previously noted!) Obviously, I won’t have a lot of friends being the new kid in town, so feel free to send me letters, e-mails, and your favorite baked goods wrapped in love :) One of the hardest parts of the coming months will be all the free time…alone. This is a sharp contrast to the past 12 weeks of training, where we always move en masse as one big pale posse. It hasn’t hit me yet how alone I am going to be.

Actually, I am accompanied by about 16 books. Also, a new guitar that I just bought off a friend (I’m going to name it Ingrid after her), and more movies and music than I’ve ever owned in my life. (We’ve swapped huge amounts of digital media among trainees since we arrived. This is so not Peace Corps of 1961.) So I’ll have things to do to stay occupied. But life will sure be different.

My to-do/learn list for the next few months:
-Delve into technical financial reading I brought
-Polish off last French grammar questions and get cracking on Fulfulde
-Spend quality time with Ingrid the guitar
-Learn how to do a handstand push-up
-Spend quality time with the Peace Corps cookbook. I am really excited about this one. I just bought it. It’s compiled by past Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) and is chock full of recipes with powdered milk, local green leafy things, and all the substitutions we’ll ever need when there is no sour cream within a day’s travel. (Whipping cream + vinegar works. Apparently, green papayas can also be made to taste like pumpkin pie.) Hopefully I’ll come back to the states having learned how to not embarrass myself in a kitchen!

When I arrive up north, there will be one other PCV in my town, who will finish her two years in December. She’s a great girl, working in the health program, and I’m super glad to have her there during my first three months. There are other folks who don’t have another volunteer within a days travel, so I’m pretty lucky. In December, she leaves, and her replacement will arrive. Also in December, my current group of 36 trainees will reconvene for one last week of conference/training. (On a beach. Tough.) I love having something to look forward to!

A bientot…
KF :)

Chez le Chef

I had an encounter with some real traditions today. Parts of it made me say “What?!” and parts were fun. Today the Peace Corps trainees went to visit the local chief. He is technically a king. He lives in a sacred forest, and has a cadre of body guards and servants. Yes, the forest is sacred. (It has a bunch of spirits in it, and it’s where all kings’ initiation rights are performed.) When greeting the king, one must stand up, clap twice, make a little bow, and say “Belon.” It shows respect. I have to try not to giggle.

I got into an argument with one of our Cameroonian trainers. Although a nice guy, this trainer is definitely on the more conservative end of the spectrum. I asked him what the chief actually does. What is he responsible for? He responded with, “Well, what does George Bush do? He doesn’t really do anything.” Whether we like it or not, George Bush is not an inactive figure. Presidents help make policy, but let’s get back to the chief.

So the chief, or one of his representatives must be present at burials. Otherwise the person isn’t dead? Or it doesn’t count? It’s illegal if he is not there? None of this was clear to me. And the conversation was even in English.

My skepticism mounted higher when we got to have a question and answer session with the chief. One of us asked how many wives he has. “About 20.” I’ve swallowed polygamy already, but about 20?! You don’t even know how many wives you have? I’d really like to be about somebody’s wife.

My nerves were calmed some when the approximately 20 wives then served us a fabulous meal. It can be hard to hold it against someone when they feed you so well.

After our visit concluded and we were pulling away through the sacred forest, I noticed the wives + children (of which there are approximately 60). Remember, these are a king’s kids. Oddly, they resembled any other children. Their bottoms were dirty in the same way any other childrens’ bottoms would be dirty. They ran half-clothed around the outdoor cooking fires as children anywhere might. But noticing the chief’s families, I couldn’t help but ask one of our trainers, “How does the king support all these wives and children?”

And here, the answers get interesting. The trainer told me that the community provides money, when asked, to finance the king, his children, his travels, his forest. “So he has no set income? He has a diploma as an agricultural engineer. He doesn’t work, but lives off the community? What happens if people don’t give money?” That apparently is not an option. It’s just not questioned that one would not support the king. Interesting. At least the dirty-bottomed children reassure me that the king is not visibly squandering the citizens’ donations on excesses and luxury.

I pry a little further at dinner that night with Ma. “Ma, how does the king support all those wives and kids? Where does he get his money?” According to Ma, the government gives him a salary. Interesting.

So I’m quite unclear on how it works, but it’s one of the greatest cultural differences I’ve seen thus far. Coming from the American culture of meritocracy, it’s hard to understand how someone would receive special privileges and authority, based not on any level of achievement, and in order to make no clear contributions to society. A last bit of clarification came from my Ma. A woman, of course, can not be the ruler. That is because a woman leader can not make 60 babies, as a king could. It makes sense in the context of 100 years ago that each tribe would want to be as powerful and numerous as possible. But today, it simply means a ruler has to divide has land, a limited resource, among that many more heirs.

Bienvenue au Cameroun.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

My tailor loves my body

My tailor loves my body. Really. We have an odd relationship. I’ve been to the same tailor about five times now for all kinds of various Cameroonian wear. This odd relationship started the very first time I went. I had my arms outstretched so she could take my measurements. As she’s measuring away, she decides she’d like to take this opportunity to hug me. I wasn’t sure if this was a part of the standard measuring routine, but I went along with it. Yet another time when I went to see her, she asked me (like my Ma) “Tu portes un bustier?” Are you wearing a bra/undershirt? And she takes a grab of my chest to find out for herself! What is it with Cameroonian women and my chest?!?!

Yesterday was an all-around winning day at the tailors. I tried on the newest shirt she’d finished for me. It was comfortably loose and roomy. As my fellow trainee Siobhan says, “It’s like pulling teeth to try to get tight clothes around here!” Shiobhan had gone to our tailor about 4 times to take in one of her dresses. It was still too loose. Huge floaty moo-moos are the permanent fashion of most Cameroonian women.

Somehow I am an exemption from the no-tight-clothing rule. When I picked up the shirt yesterday, I was happy with its large floaty size. Not my tailor! She says “Take that off, I’m going to take it in. I’m going to make you look très sexy, Fleurange!” As I walked up the hill to the training house today, my new shirt was so tight I could hardly breathe. I could literally feel the side seams stretching as I am gasping/trying not to die on that hill. Thanks, tailor! At least I supposedly look good while I wheeze. (Wheezing is sexy?)

So here’s the corset. I mean, shirt.

I went to the tailors with a friend who was making her first trip there, so she was getting her measurements taken. The tailor jokingly asked me if she should take my measurements again. I laughed and said, “You better, I think I’m getting fatter!” The tailor takes a good look at me and proclaims, “Ahh nonnn, Fleurange!” But now I’m curious, and I get her to take my measurements anyway. So as she measures, she flips back in her book to where she has my initial sizes from a month and a half ago. She looks at the tape measurer around my tush. She looks at her book. She looks back at the tape measurer. Then she starts giggling. “Trois centimetres de plus!” Three centimeters more! And all of her employees, dutifully sewing away on their machines, look up and start laughing at me! The tailor knows my Ma, and tells me, “Your Ma feeds you well!” Yes, she does!

Well, I can take comfort in this fact however, because apparently, I am three centimeters closer to Respect as a woman in Cameroon. Bon. Allow me to rewind. About a month ago, during my site visit up to my new town, I was chatting with my predecessor and a couple of her Cameroonian friends. They recounted a story I found startling. Apparently, when my predecessor first arrived in my town, she was rail thin. The Cameroonians did not like this. They thought she looked like a little girl. Specifically, an 18 year old. “Who is this little girl you sent us?” they asked! “How are we supposed to take her or anything she says seriously?!”

They described another American woman who worked in a nearby village. She was tall, broad, and buxom. And apparently, that alone is a huge step towards being respected around here. “Now that is a real woman,” the Cameroonians said. She was in fact, a project manager, and by her physique alone, a commanding presence. When she entered a room people would notice. Therefore, the Cameroonians gently recommended… that I eat up. For my own good.

Unnerving? Of course. Just as women are encouraged to be skinnier than is necessarily healthy in my country, women here are seemingly encouraged to be fattier than is necessary or healthy. Bon.

So I’ve adopted a no worries attitude. If I’m three centimeters more of tush now, I’ll take care of that once I get to my site. And until then, I’ll just revel in a little not-so-merited respect. :) My tailor says it looks good.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Flowers and Bees

Mrs. Godshall was my English teacher my junior year of high school. She’s still giving me descriptive writing assignments. But better yet, I’m still doing them. :)

This one’s for her. If you don’t like flowery imagery go to the next blog! But feel free to let me know what you DO want to know about in my Cameroon!

July 28, 2008

As I’m walking down the hill, the sky is alight like on a post card. Never mind the fact that I have yet to see a post card for sale in Cameroon. The hard red dirt zig-zags in rivets and bumps under my thin shoes, and my legs brace themselves so as not to just glisse on down the hill. When it rains in Bangangté, it pours, and the mud becomes too wet to even be sticky. Any time after the rains, we walk into our training house with mud ringed around our feet, looking like red snow shoes. We’re supposed to pry the mud off before going inside, so mounds and mounds of scraped off goop sit forlornly rejected at the entrance of the house. Today though, the earth is dry, so I’m not carrying too much souvenir sludge on my shoes.
*(glisse = slide)

My very first impressions of our current town, Bangangté? Christmas. Red and green. On a beautiful day like today, it’s red earth, roads, and roofs; green fields; blue sky; and even yellow is lit up from somewhere inside the tall corn-stalks and grasses. Bangangté is a seemingly endless, spread-out village. Fields and houses are interspersed, and repeat themselves in red and green pattern as far as I can see over the hilltops. As I walk down the hill on the way home from town, my concentration on the dirt and colors is distracted by boys’ yelps.

A crowd of boys is gathered in front of one of the houses. Two of them do a hopping dance around each other as though they’re about to start boxing. I can’t help but to slow down, smile, and watch the action. They catch me looking, and they giggle. The two boxers, each probably about 10 years old, start to take little hits and squeal and dodge each other. The eight or so spectators are also shrieking in delight. Walking past this same house yesterday morning, I had been taken off guard as a boy zinged out of a corn field, across the road in front of me, ran into this same front yard, catapulted himself off a two-foot ledge I previously hadn’t noticed, and cut a front flip! I’d had to clap, secretly pretty envious I was wearing a skirt and couldn’t even do a cartwheel in solidarity! So this house is definitely the neighborhood hot-bed for hyperactivity.

Beautiful days and smiley kids make me happy, and I was doubly content because I was on my way back from going into town to discover a new bar/bakery with a couple of amigas. I get bored easily in any one place, so I’m always excited to just plop myself in new surroundings, if only to kill time and a dollar on weird pineapple-flavored soda. The girls and I had indulged our munchies at a local bakery with a loaf of warm chocolate-swirl bread. We’d found a bar with accommodating outdoor plastic tables and chairs, and settled in. My chair had only been partially rickety, and the table-top wasn’t filthy, always good. I had a view of the street, the main road through town, and the constant bustle of passers-by. A woman sold beans and beignets nearby from a make-shift stall on the side of the road. I never knew I liked deep-fry until I tried some of these Cameroonian beans and beignets. It’s a national staple, and that is just fine with my taste buds (yet-to-be-determined effects on my derriere.) The girls and I whipped out my fab-Africa-map book (reference previous blog) and talked about the places we want to travel post Peace Corps. As our first loaf of bread vanished, one of us hopped up without delay to retrieve another from the bakery around the corner.

As I walked home from town, belly-full of bread and contented with the afternoon, I thought about how much fun it was to get Mrs. Godshall’s e-mail with blog writing assignment. Duly, I reminded myself to look up, look around, soak in, and notice the colors and boy squeals that have slipped by me almost every other day.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Where’s Mali?!

What the &%$*?

I can’t believe I am reading a book that forgot an entire country in its “AFRICA: 2005” map. No kidding!

I went to Barnes and Noble before I left for Cameroon, in order to buy the fattest “History of Africa” book I could find. I was counting on such a purchase to keep me oriented on this continent and history-savvy for the next 2+ years! So I thought I’d done the trick when I came home with Martin Meredith’s Fate of Africa, all 688 indexed post-independence pages worth of it. Not so!

Fast forward to last night, sitting on my bed in Banganté, Cameroon. I was getting my usual about-to-start-a-new-book giddy excitement, perusing the forward of Fate of Africa, when I lingered over the map section. I love maps. But as I’m looking at the map, I think, hmmm, fishy, Mauritania is not that big! Wait, where is Mali?!?!?!

If this book hadn’t received gushy reviews from the Financial Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, and Wall Street Journal, I would have just assumed, “Maaaaaaaan, I got duped!! Sucker for spending $20 on a book that can’t even get its maps right!” But I really can’t believe that ANYONE could leave an entire country off the continental map, that such a book could arrive to press, and then actually sell under any guise of credibility!! How am I supposed to trust anything this book says? You better believe nobody leaves your generic European country off a map without getting blasted for it by all types of media.

The I’m-not-lying proof. Yep, Mali typically falls between Senegal and Niger. Sadly, looks like Mauritania subsumed it/ate it for dinner.

And that, my friends, was your African geography lesson of the day!


Kate Fleurange