Sunday, September 21, 2008

Just another market day

Some mornings my life doesn’t seem so different from anything in the United States. I wake up, put on the exact same blouses and pants I used to wear in DC, and I ride my bike to an office, just like DC real-job days.

Some afternoons, however, get more interesting.

Today was market day here in Mokolo. Just when I think I am starting to learn my way around, buy food without ripping myself off, and not make a nincompoop of myself… well… I prove myself wrong.

One of the best strategies for buying food here is to say how much you’d like to pay for it, then the vendor dishes out the appropriate amount. Donnez-moi cent francs de haricots et cent francs de beignets. One hundred francs of beans and 100 of beignets please. This gets trickier when a) you realize you forgot how to count in Fulfulde and b) you don’t even know the name of the food you want to buy. Mokolo is one of the only towns that produces a foodstuff closely akin to tofu (yes!) It’s hard to find this delicacy outside of market days, so I’d been hoping I could find it again today. While putzing around the market (mind you, Mokolo’s market takes up the space of about 5 city blocks and throbs with people,) I spot a lady selling what I can only hope is my Cameroonian tofu. Most of the villagers who come in on market day don’t speak French. As for my Fulfulde vocab, I’ve got “100 francs” and “50 francs” down, but I was gonna pull out the big cash on the tofu today, 200 francs worth (whopping 40 US cents.) So I point to the orangey blob, hand her 200 francs since I don’t even know how to say it, and… she leaves. I’m a little confused so I stand around like the blanc beacon that I am waiting for her to come back, not quite knowing what else to do. I see a nearby woman break off a bit of the tofu and eat it. So at least I know it’s edible, and not shoe polish. My lady comes back, plastic bags in hand, and carves off a blob of tofu the size of my head. No way is alllll this for me, I’m thinking! Oh it’s my lucky day, and instead of walking away with the fistful of tofu I’d hoped for and anticipated, I’ve got a funny-smelling bag that’s so big it won’t fit in my backpack. Bon.

I make a few other purchases and finally meet up with Brooke for my lunch treat. Boy am I excited to get into that tofu. …If only it were tofu. After I plop my trophy on the table, we break off little pieces of the mystery glob. And pucker. And make faces like “what were you thinking?!?!” It’s kind of berry-esque with a twinge of cleaning product. Brooke takes it outside and asks somebody what it is. Apparently, yes, it’s a berry whose name doesn’t even exist in French, crushed up, and made into a blob for your market-day pleasure! We then fend off a drunkard who comes to us recounting some ill-defined agricultural project he’d like us to finance. Maybe I should have given him Berry Delight to make him go away.

By this time it’s mid afternoon and I am ravished for some protein, so I drag Brooke to a set of huts where I’d earlier spotted beans for sale. And nevermind that 3pm meeting we have scheduled with the Prefet today. I’d already tried unsuccessfully to leave my berry mass in a store, but a small child came chasing after me with the bag, plus my raclette. I should mention that all day long I’d been carrying around one of my earlier purchases, a Cameroonian contraption of a cleaning product—a mix between a mop and a rake, used for cleaning tile floors, (or as a walking stick, or for beating anyone who crosses my path wrong.) Fortunately, we found a small child, the kid of the bean lady at whose hut we’re dining, who was happy to dive into the berry gook. The bean lady mama looked at us like we were crazy. Who would possibly carry around so much of that stuff with them?? C’est un cadeau!” we explain. It’s a present! Everybody loves presents. Berry mess was promptly disseminated among all small children and devoured, and that was one happy happy bean mama. She laughed and told us we were, in fact, crazy. I was so relieved to be rid of it.

After the joyful bean-berry exchange, Brooke and I arrive, slightly late, to a meeting with the new Prefet. A prefet is somewhere between a state governor and a city mayor—a kinda big deal. And I am carrying a raclette. As we sit waiting for Monsieur le Prefet, I feel like that famous picture of the somber farmer posing with his wife and pitchfork. (I had also carried said raclette into the electricity company earlier that afternoon when they menaced to shut off Brooke’s electricity and we had to storm in there, looking as though we would use raclette for the aforementioned beating function.)

My crowning achievement however, and a true feeling of integration, came when it was time to bike home. I’ve learned well from the Cameroonians, as they carry huge sacs, their parents, pipes, bundles of grass, all of the above while riding a bike. So, I craftily put the raclette’s handle through my book-bag straps, with the head sticking out on my right and the long handle jutting out on my left. I may not know how to buy market food yet, but I can officially sport the Cameroonian 5 ft.-wide-load-on-a-bike look. Ca, c’est bien integrée. And as I rode home, raclette-wobbly, I laughed at how I’d thought that just this morning life seemed similar to the DC days.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Which Way?

Today was a TIA moment, as some of my fellow volunteers like to call it. This is Africa.

I live in a calm neighborhood on the edge of a cornfield, about a twenty minute walk from town. I often feel too far-removed from everything, so I spent much of this morning checking out houses for rent that are more conveniently located, closer to town. I have a feeling that that when the 120 degree hot season arrives, if I live more than 5 minutes from urban civilization, I’ll go home after work and stay home. Or fry my skin off. If I live close to town, it’s easy to be that much more involved in my community.

And then my afternoon walk made me think again…

Independently of house hunting, I decided to do some exploring this afternoon. I took off from my house in the opposite direction of town. I’d never gone this way before and had no idea what lay beyond the corn fields. About fifteen minutes into my walk, I realized, there is NOTHING out here. It was vividly beautiful. I walked straight west, toward Nigeria, with the 4 pm sun in my face, setting over the mountains. We’re near the end of the rainy season, and thus the mountains are a rare vibrant green rising from the sandy Sahel.

Occasionally I pass a group of huts. Little children scream “Nassarrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaa!” (whiteyyyyyyyyyyyyy!) after me as though their lives depended on it. They straggle after me for about fifty feet and then lose interest in keeping my power-walk pace. I’m following a dirt path that’s not wide enough to be deemed a road. The path forges a stream, where women somehow are managing to bathe with their clothes on. Skills. They hardly notice my passing, which is just fine with me. If I were to continue in this direction for fifteen miles, I’d arrive in friendly Nigeria. I’m astounded by how different the scenery is in this direction, only twenty minutes from my house. I keep on walking through the fields.

Then I hear the drums. And singing. A rhythmic hollering. Where am I??! And can I get in on this drum circle? I can’t tell exactly where they are coming from, but it’s through the trees to my right—north—invisible in the distance. I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if I strolled up to the gathering. I even hear what sounds like the rara horns of Haiti, long thin horns that bwat out a sole note. I can’t believe I’m twenty minutes from my house, in a totally foreign and perplexing place. Twenty minutes in the opposite direction would have taken me into the center of bustling commercial activity. I’m terribly excited to hear the drums. So often when I’d envisioned living in Africa, I couldn’t help but imagine drums, how much I like them, want to learn to play them, to dance to them, to be hypnotized late at night by them. And I’d almost given up on hearing them at all, they seemed to be only for sale to tourists in the capital.

Just this morning, I’d been house-hunting in town, oblivious of the fields now stretching before me. As I walked back towards home, sun on my back, distant drumming still in the air, I couldn’t help but ask myself, is that convenience of nearby-civilization what I really want? I did come to Africa for something different…

I’m not sure yet where I’ll land, but I’m excited to be discovering and I know today’s won’t be my last trip out into the drum fields.

Friday, September 12, 2008

First Week(ish) at Post

So I’ve been in my new town now for about a week and a half and I don’t even know where to start!

First of all, I’ll say I’m very fortunate because Brooke, my current post mate until December, has been super duper. She introduces me to people, helps me find things I need, and has great dresses that I am going to take to the tailor and have copied! Plus, she made me enchiladas my second night in town when I had no stove and no way to cook for myself. We had a real Peace-Corps moment together when we tried to go for a run up a dirt mountain road the other day. The bridge we needed to cross was washed over. Being ingenuitive as we are, we decided to go dig up a series of large rocks to throw across the water and use as stepping stones. An old OLD wrinkly man, who looked as though he weighed about 80 pounds, and spoke only Fulfulde, decided to help us nassaras in our endeavor! He seemed so frail I thought he’d just break when I handed him the first large stone. Wading in the mini-river up to his calves, he helped us place all the stones. Then he held our hands so we wouldn’t fall as we stepped gingerly across. (Brooke fell anyway :) The crowd gathered by this point thought it was pretty funny.

I started going into work at the Mutuel Communautaire de Croissance, my host institution. (I work at an MCC again?! This one is referred to as the MC2, though!) My first week there I read the procedures manual. Fabulous times. Actually, I’d written the procedures manual at Fonkoze regarding financial reporting, so I like this stuff. Today, I even had my first day of feeling like I’d made a useful contribution! Although deathly boring to the majority of the population, I worked with my counterpart to convert the income statement and balance sheet into an automated excel format. It’s simple stuff, but I feel like if they can get automated systems in place to calculate these things, that can make a lasting contribution towards efficient operations.

My plan is to work at the MC2 in the mornings. During the afternoons I run around and do all kinds of things (secondary projects!) Here is where Brooke is fabulous. She introduces me to movers and shakers in the town. I’ve met one guy whose NGO does such amazing work that the US Ambassador is coming to visit it this month. Sounds like a great partner in the community, and he wants me to help him with his budget. Again, basic basic stuff but necessary! Another woman we met today could play a key role in a project that Brooke and my processor have worked to establish, the creation of a youth rec. center and library. One of the things I like so much about these meetings is that they can take place in a house, an office, or just as easily in a thatched-roof bar, where we’re drinking boxed wine, mixed with coke and getting eaten alive by flies! (Coke + boxed red wine. Who knew?!)

On a non-work level, I met a French girl with the Volunteer Service Organization, or the UK’s answer to the Peace Corps (except they accept people from all over.) Her name is Fleur (How you like that, teamed up with my Fleurange?!) She’s also lovely, and spending time with her is a great cultural in between—I’m not reverting to Americana, but at the same time, we can compare notes on queer Cameroonianisms. Also, a Cameroonian friend of Brooke’s is about the biggest athlete in town, so I’ve been out playing volleyball with him. I should be able to get in a local women’s soccer league as well. Either my Peace Corps boss knew what he was doing when he placed me here, or I got exquisitely lucky that this is one of the most athletic towns in the province!!

That’s the update for now. My love to all!