Monday, October 27, 2008

Goals 2 and 3

Neighborly integration at the expense of my gastro-intestinal system

Hallelujah I’ve finally met the neighbors! I’ve been here over a month and been craving a little more neighborly interaction.

Normally in the US I’m not timid or self-conscious. That’s a whole ‘nother ball game here. I’m constantly asking myself “Am I being offensive? Or Stupid? Is this showing too much upper arm!?” Questions like that get in the way of the most basic marching to the compound behind mine and introducing myself. I also have no idea if my neighbors speak French or not, and whether I’ll be greeted with blank stares and foreign gurglings.

At night I can hear the neighbors speaking in I-have-no-clue-what language, and laughing. Families laughing seem kind of rare here, which makes me doubly curious to meet them. A little wall separates our two compounds, and sometimes I peer over the wall from my front porch to get a peek at the other side. Literally, my bed must be 20 feet from their kitchen. During Ramadan when they would wake early to prepare the pre-dawn meal, I’d inevitably wake up to the 4am clanging of pots and women’s voices.

Today, a Wednesday, I just did not want to go to work at the MC2. I can only take so much of watching people foible through Excel spreadsheets and not having enough time to answer my questions, before I want to bang my head into a wall. So I decided that instead, I was going to stay home and work on goals 2 and 3 of the Peace Corps, aka, neighborly integration. The three goals of the Peace Corps go something like this:

1—Share technical skills and competencies

2—Learn about Cameroonians and help other Americans learn about Cameroonians

3—Help Cameroonians learn about Americans

So any time not spent constructively imparting Excel knowledge, or otherwise revolutionizing the country, I can chalk up to Goals 2 and 3. It makes me feel a little better about being here when the going is slow on Goal 1.

I was determined to see who the family is that is probably hearing me snore! I walked out of the compound and plopped down on a pile of rocks. I share my compound with a wrinkled old lady affectionately referred to as Grandmere, and a teenage girl, Martine. Martine and Grandmere were sitting outside on the rocks as well, and a gaggle of ladies was sitting across the street. I started asking Martine names. There are more snotty-nosed and naked-bottomed kids running around than I will ever be able to remember.

It turns out the Grandmere is a real hoot. I hear a lot of laughing from their part of the compound at night, too. Martine says it’s cause people come over just to listen to the Grandmere and her commentaries. Grandmere speaks strictly no French, limited Fulfulde, and has about four functional teeth. Her native language is Mafa, one of the local languages with lots of guttural mushakahrashaka sounds. Grandmere informs me that she must be 150 years old. Martine’s mom is roughly 50 years old. I see why Grandmere is so amusing. It’s market day again and a constant stream of people are passing by, from which Grandmere buys some guavas. She doles out guavas to the five congregated kids and me. No way has this little citrus seen the Peace-Corps-recommended contents of a Clorox solution. I will certainly be hosting an all-night amoeba dance party in my stomach.

Martine invites me to go see a friend of hers in the neighborhood. Martine’s dad, who lives in another village, says he doesn’t have the money to send Martine to school. So she doesn’t have much to do during the day but hang out with Grandmere and some of her friends. Martine is 19 and I think she’d be in the equivalent of about freshman year of high school.

Arriving at Martine’s friend’s house, we somehow start talking about marriage. Martine has already said no to a couple of marriage proposals—she’d rather finish school first. One was from our neighbor across the street, a crazy old man with a long beard who already has two wives and kids of all ages. She said that when he last came over to her house she had hid inside while Grandmere told him she wasn’t there. Universally functional strategy. Apparently, he wants to marry me too, and Martine reports that he’s inquired with Grandmere about my availability. I plan to tell him that I already have a couple of husbands. Dad, what do you think?

Additionally, Martine doesn’t want to get married because she says in her village men beat the women too much. After drinking bilbil, (the local millet beer) they come home and start knocking the women around. “Ma mere a trop souffert,” she tells me. “My mom suffered too much.” What can I say? She’s surprised when I tell her that people go to prison in the US for beating their wives.

Martine’s friend’s brother is about 6 years old. During the course of the wife-beating conversation, he’s been dancing and hiding behind a wall, intermittently poking his head out, making a growly face complete with eyes rolled back in his head, and holding up claw hands. I tell him he looks like a dinosaur. Realizing it’s way too complicated to explain what a dinosaur is, I decide to go with “a large hungry lizard.” The Hungry Lizard takes a break from dancing around the room to run outside and steal some green beans from a neighbor’s plot. When his older sister scolds him he giggles, dances, munches on the green beans and says, “They can send me to prison! I’m going to steal some more green beans!” and he giggles back out the door.

After we leave the friend’s, another friendly old grandma in the neighborhood calls us in to drink bilbil. This is the stuff of Peace Corps Medical Office nightmares. Who knows what fillers gets added to the bilbil, and what critters are living in that water. Today it’s my stomach, as opposed to the lower right leg, that is gonna take the hit in the name of integration. At least my moto burn is almost totally healed by now!

The ubiquitous bilbil shack—a traditional mud hut with a thatched roof—is the Extreme North’s answer to America’s Starbucks. Martine and I sit on a log on the ground and sip bilbil out of calabashes that the grandma doles out. A skinny old man wearing the teal high school uniform decides to take a break from the bilbil and do a little dance for us. “Fifty CFA!” he says, “I’m not dancing for nothing!” We laugh (although I don’t even understand what’s going on at this point) and he jigs his way out the door. No dancing old men in Starbucks last time I checked. After we finish and exit, Teal-Uniform Dancer is still outside, and upon seeing me, breaks into another little jig. I respond with a little tap-dance of my own. The neighborhood cheers.

We get back to our compound, and I decide to pull out my Fulfulde flashcards while Martine sits in the shade, and Grandmere takes a nap. I think I’m going to offer them some of my next creation from the kitchen. I’ve been getting pretty good at banana bread. I just hope it doesn’t scare them off permanently.

So I’m encouraged at the progress on goals 2 and 3 today. Let’s just hope my stomach shares that sentiment, in the name of integration!

Thursday, October 16, 2008


What do you eat?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this! My gourmand South Louisiana family in particular seems to be scoping out the Cameroonian culinary options, so this one is for you guys.

Technically, I should split this category into two: What do Cameroonians eat? … and then, what do I eat in Cameroon!

Cameroonians: Blobs really do seem to be a recurring theme in Cameroonian cuisine, mostly consumed in the form of couscous. That means take any grain, mash it up, then cook with water. Corn for example. The other day I heard a repetitive thunking sound outside my window. I looked outside and I saw my neighbors, three women, gathered around a huge version of a mortar. Each woman was holding what looked like an oversized pestle. The women were going around the circle, taking turns thrusting the giant pestles into the container to mash the corn. I actually have a wall hanging that shows this exact scene, but I had never seen it before myself! Sorry I didn’t get the real-life version, but here is the wall hanging, which will have to suffice for now.

Once your grain of choice is mashed it’s cooked with water and molded into the blobs. That’s couscous! So corn couscous = grits. I’ve eaten couscous of rice, millet, and manioc, a fabulously flavorless root vegetable, which also has the disgusting quality of being “gluant.” The best way to translate that is—rubber cement. I haven’t met an American yet who likes it. One of my sisters (although unnamed, Family, I think you can guess which one!) likes to eat with her hands. Well she will love it in Cameroon. The Cameroonians go at the couscous, and most other solid foods, with their bare hands. Couscous is typically served with a sauce. You tear off chunks of the couscous blob, dip it in the sauce, and enjoy. The first time I, in my American rationale of “it all ends up in my stomach anyway”, mixed together couscous and sauce in one plate, with a fork, the Cameroonian I was with was disgusted. I’d obviously just arrived. He told me that he knows Cameroonians who would get up and walk away from the table if I did that. So remember: keep couscous and condiments separate.

There are a variety of sauces to go with those couscous-es. Think mix and match! Tomato-y meat sauces, tasty green sauces made with leaves I don’t recognize, delicious spicy peanut sauces. My neighbors spend huge amounts of time plucking the leaves off of plants, which they then dry in the sun to form the base of the sauce. For a protein-plus variation, throw in a few beans with your leaves. But at all costs avoid gumbo sauce. Gumbo is Cameroonian French for okra, not to be confused with the delicious brown Louisiana soupy substance. Gumbo is slimy as hell. The absolute worst is couscous de manioc with gumbo sauce—it is Sticky coated with Slimy and guaranteed to make you not as hungry as you thought you were.

Okra drying in the sun for gumbo sauce. Steer clear.

Red millet drying against my house. They also make a local beer out of millet, called bilbil. Not bad.

Beans and beignets are the breakfast of local champions. Just on my way in to work, there are about five different women selling B&B on the side of the road—amazing motivation to get out of bed! Beef, broth, and beignets are also a basic breakfast. In the category of “things you never knew you could put in your omelet,” … add spaghetti. Spaghetti omelets seem to be all over the country. I was so skeptical at first but they are incredibly satisfying!!

Here's a typical kitchen in my area: source of all the above described goodness. Outdoors, with a traditional three-stone fire. The pot sits on stones and wood burns underneath. (This is my neighbors' place, with whom I share my compound.)

That's corn dangling in front of the door, hanging out to dry.

A few other ‘Roonian basics: since the Fulani people are herders, we’ve got cows! The beef here is good! Peanuts abound. I can get fresh nuts, fresh-smooshed peanut butter sold in handy one-serving plastic sacks, or another concoction that is the Cameroonian version of a Power Bar. It’s a dried up, pencil-shaped stick made of peanut paste. It feels like sheer protein and costs next to nothing. Lastly, only in Mokolo it seems, we have tofu! I finally found the non-berry-blob version of it. It’s called awaara, and I think I am going to eat it for lunch every day for the next two years.

Lastly, somehow in spite of the abundance of cows, the closest thing we have here to cheese is called the “La Vache qui Rit.” The Laughing Cow. Just why is she laughing?! It’s some semblance of dairy, wrapped in aluminum packets, with a cartoon girly cow on the front of the package. That stuff has scared me ever since I first saw it for sale on the sidewalks of Haiti. If it can survive the tropic sun, it’s not cheese, and I see why that cow is laughing!

And then, there is what I eat, your typical Peace Corps Volunteer. All that corn mashing and pounding? No thank you, I just make popcorn, with salt and sugar on it. That’s a trick I learned while in training, and who knew how amazing it is! Wood burning stoves? I’m lucky to have gas and a burner. I’m getting good at making breads: banana, peanut butter, rosemary, sweet potato. Recently, I delved into soups: tomato, potato, eggplant. Why anyone would eat hot soup in the middle of the desert is beyond me. I do it anyway. It’s true that every thing takes longer to prepare here—there are no shortcuts, but I get by just fine. So, now you have the added bonus of knowing you won’t starve if you come to visit me! And to those of you with a culinary inclination, feel free to send any good and simple recipes my way!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Embarrassing Confessions

I can’t believe I came to Cameroon and have totally fallen for an American TV show. When we left training, I had thirty-six new movies on my external hard drive, courtesy of swaps with other trainees. However, I made a vow to myself of no movie-watching during my first three months at post. That’s because I have plenty of work-relevant materials I should be reading… not to mention that whole cultural-exchange/get-out-in-the-community objective of Peace Corps….

Yet, I was at Brooke’s house recently, and happened upon some other PCVs watching episodes of the NBC show, The Office. I’d heard of it, but didn’t know what the big deal was. Out of solidarity, I joined. I was painfully hooked in about three episodes. (I do a lot of things out of solidarity, don’t I?!)

I subsequently obtained from Brooke seasons 2 - 4 and watched a solid eight episodes, lasting til four in the morning on a recent Saturday night, just so I could get to the finale of season 3! I think about the characters’ love lives more than my own. Something is wrong with this picture. When Brooke and I go out for our jogs, I’m analyzing the play-by-play of the episodes I’ve most recently finished. Cameroon is a bilingual French/English country… maybe I can find some local English speakers/fellow viewers, and disguise my obsession as part of a cultural exchange...

I’ve never even owned a TV in the states! What am I doing here?! Embarrassing. That show is hilarious though, and it reminds me a little of the tedium of my first job out of school at the Census Bureau. Except I never worked with quite such… characters.

What a relief—I’m done with all the episodes now, and can get back to Cameroonian reality. My neighbors will no longer have to wonder why the nassara is laughing so loud, all by herself, at weird hours of the night.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Happy End of Ramadan!

Tuesday was Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in which Muslims abstain from food, drink, and sex during daylight hours. In Mokolo, it means you see a lot of people lying around under trees during the day because they are so sapped of energy. In true PC fashion, I’d joined in a little solidarity during Ramadan and had fasted… once… it was a Friday. It felt like my Islamicized version of Lent.

So although I had by no means shared in the trials of Ramadan, I still got to enjoy the fête! No one went to work Tuesday, and Brooke and I started the day by walking out to a huge field outside of town. The field is only used once a year for the prayers on this particular day. I’ve never spectated at another religion’s holy days. I realized that as many different variations of Christian retreats I’d attended with various middle school friends, I’d never been to a religious event where I was completely outside the realm of participation. I remember going to mass at Sacre Coeur cathedral in Paris and being irritated at tourists who trouped through in the middle of the mass.

So I wasn’t quite sure how to ogle the proceedings. Fortunately, some of the local non-Muslims were also gathered to watch. As hundreds of Muslims lined up in the field to pray, we stayed atop a little ridge on the side of the road. There must have been a few thousand assembled. All the men and boys lined up in the front and made up the majority of those present. The men all had on their best boubous for the occasion, the long flowing garments, and little round caps. The boubous came in a plethora of blues and whites, a few seafoam greens, salmon, even a couple of bright turquoise and one lucky dude in hot pink. I had to hand it to a seven year old boy who really took the cake for the best boubou award. His was purple, dyed with pink polka dots. His little skull cap was teal, and a set of yellow flip-flops completed the ensemble. His mama will not lose him in a crowd.

The women and girls lined up in rows in the field behind the men. Their pagne was brighter, in more of the traditional prints. Even with the babies strapped on their backs they knelt down in the same prayers. I think a baby would fall off my back kersplat into the sand.

The faithful were packed in neatly and close together. When the formal prayer calls began, it was beautiful to watch the up and down movements of thousands in unison. When everyone was bent over, head on the sand in mid-prayer, it was a vast sea of color. The rows on rows of textiles reminded me of an endless outdoor fabric store, dotted with only a few trees at the far edges.

When the prayer finished, kids streamed from the field, running excitedly across the street, sand still pressed onto their foreheads. The dirty foreheads reminded me vaguely of Ash Wednesday in South Louisiana… but on speed. I had no idea what was going on, but then realized there were yogurt and juice vendors set up across the street, and the month of fasting was now officially over.

From there, Brooke and I proceeded to get our fête on. We’d been invited to four different houses to break the fast. After only the first house, we were lying on her friend Aboubakar’s bed, holding our bellies and digesting. One down, three to go! Fortunately, the second destination was only light snacks. Number three was a full-blown feast, with more proteins than my body knew what to do with. Finally, I got a reprieve when one of my co-workers who’d invited me over for feast #4 was still out making his own rounds. Like Thanksgiving times four. As if there weren’t already enough food in circulation, kids go from door to door to collect candy. Like Halloween, but everyone wears the same costume: boubous. I caught a picture of these little goblins in the mini—bous when they came by our friend’s place.

Lastly, to commemorate my first Ramadan, I got my first Cameroonian tattoo. Cameroonian ladies all put on their nicest pagne dresses at Ramadan. I am always wearing pants, to keep the flashing-on-a-bicycle down to a minimum. But for the big day, I’d pulled out one of body-loving tight tailored Cameroonian skirts. Here’s the only pictures I have of me in my get-up. (Note: Scaring small children is not typically a part of Ramadan festivities.)

In the beauty of my full ensemble, I tried to mount a motorcycle, somewhere between feasts number 2 and 3. Try being the operative word. After take one didn’t work, I hiked up the skirt even more and jumped on, sizzling my leg on the tailpipe in the process. I promise this would never have happened in my practical pants! Peace Corps Medical Office had warned us that a huge percentage of us get these burns over the course of our two years here, cause we take so many motorcycles to get around. So for Ramadan, I got branded, my first official second-degree burn, taking up a cute chunk of my lower right leg. This is the price I pay for integration. Happy fête de Ramadan! :)