Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hanes in Effigy

List of little things that just don’t happen aux Etats-Unis Part 2: Burning my Underwear.

In the US, when my undies get a little tattered, it’s not a problem to take out my trusty needle and thread. More commonly, however, I just ditch ‘em in the garbage.

Here, however, even the heartiest Hanes can’t seem to stand up to the beating that is hand-washing all your clothes. Scrub, scrub, pound it on a rock. Normally, I would deposit said undies in the garbage, and readily obtain a new pair at local store of choice. Not so here.

Here, garbage is burned. Or at least for the pyrotechnically inclined. (…and then you pray your mama will send you some new sous-vêtements in the next care package!) The first few times I tried to burn my garbage, I ended up with a face-full of smoke, a wasted box of matches, and a minimally smoldering pile of rubbish gracefully adorning my front yard. No candidate for Better Homes and Gardens “Yard of the Year” award here. It seems some people in my family got all the pyrotechnical advantages. (Camille?)

It also seems my neighbor, the Grandmere took pity on me. That or she just likes to sift through my garbage. More recently, my garbage has started disappearing. Lucky me! Seems like a win-win situation. I can now enter the Cameroonian Yard of the Year competition, and Grandmere, who actually knows how to make things burn, gets my garbage.

Except when it comes to holey undies. There are some things that are just not meant to be shared with your neighbors. So, my weekend project… involves sitting over a pair of smoldering underpants. Let’s see how many hours this labor of love will consume. Ahhh, Cameroon!!

PS--Happy Thanksgiving everyone!! :)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tough Spot, Bright Spot.

Recently I’ve been working with a local NGO that coordinates all kinds of development projects. The director had asked me if I would accompany him to visit a nearby village in need of a school. I’m always up for a free moto ride so I agreed.

For whatever reasons, the villagers thought I was the Ambassador of the United States, and one of the village leaders stood up and read a four-page handwritten letter to me (or rather, the Ambassador) asking for my financial help in any way possible… to fund a school, a well, a granary. It was of course horribly awkward, and I had to explain to them that I was not in fact, the US Ambassador, (do Ambassadors wear Tevas?) and I was not a source of financing. In these situations what I do say is “I’m located in the MC2 in Mokolo, and you can come to me any time if you have questions about opening a bank account, getting a loan, or developing any projects you have, as small or large as they might be, even if it’s just buying a couple of goats.”

The only thing that makes these situations slightly less painful is that the US Embassy does have what it calls the Self-Help fund. After I asked the villagers assembled a lot of questions to get a feel for their town, its resources, etc., I told the folks that if they want to apply for a grant from the Self-Help fund, I’d be happy to read over their proposal.

These situations are so humbling to me. Twenty kids are stuffed in a hut, sitting on rocks on the ground, in tattered clothes without a book or a notebook to be found. One chalkboard at the front of the room is the only sign that this is a school. At the same time, I’m angered. I told the NGO director and the village leader that they also needed to be petitioning their own commune and mayor—my government cannot be the band-aid for what your government should be doing. Every time I see certain unnamed Cameroonian government officials on TV, in their lavish presidential palaces living large off this country’s oil revenues, it makes me sick. I have to go do a prison workout to calm myself down. (Ref previous blog.) On the moto ride back, the images I couldn’t help but have flash through my head were of the high-tech Clemson computer labs, the Clemson library, the sparkling new Clemson student center (if you hadn’t guessed it, I went to Clemson University.) I told Brooke yesterday afternoon that living here, the meaning of “life is not fair” has become so very real to me. There are times when I think “man, I’d love to have gone to that fancy expensive liberal arts school, or geez, if I could manage to get into and afford grad school there…” I told her if she ever hears me complain about my educational options, to just smack me.

Bright Spot.

Whew. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are days when I feel useful, effective, motivated. Today, one of Brooke’s Cameroonian colleagues asked me if I could help him better organize his finances and accounting for a huge agro-alimentary endeavor he’s undertaking. This man has an advanced engineering degree in “agro zoo-technologie” from one of the universities in the south of the country (as there are literally no universities in Northern Cameroon.) He’s in the process of constructing a HUGE facility to raise egg-laying chickens. He’s completely spotted a need that he can fill: the north of Cameroon gets its eggs from the southern provinces, which requires three days’ travel in largely unsanitary conditions. Naturally, the eggs here cost at least 75 CFA and are of poor quality, in comparison to the 50 CFA eggs you’ll find in most places in the southern or western provinces.

He took me to the facility he’s constructing today. He’s already invested in an ample amount of land so that he can allow this business to expand, eventually moving into raising meat-chickens. (Sorry, I don’t know the more technical word in English!) So, could we have a more win-win situation? My amigo here is going to make bank in a huge way. I, and all the other protein-hungry folks in Northern Cameroon, are going to get higher-quality eggs at 2/3 the current cost. My friend knows the technology necessary to keep his costs low, and he’s thinking long term. I just hope I can give him the best possible advice regarding his finances. I’m duly impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit. Recently, people like him have been motivating me more and more to consider tacking an MBA on to my studies when I get home. There is so much room for growth in this country, but I think is going to be led by private industry, as the jury is still out on the public sector.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Prison Workout meets Dustbowl.

Add it to the little list of things that just don’t happen aux Etats-Unis (in the United States!)—rolling around in the dust trying to get a workout. (This sounds oddly porcine.)

So when I was in Haiti, I perfected my prison workout routine, seeing that I really couldn’t just go jaunting around the neighborhood (kidnappings hmmmmm). The prison workout isn’t a security-based necessity in the same way here in Cameroon, but it sure helps keep my mental health in balance when I’m feeling a little blobby and don’t want to go running outside.

Recently, however, the phenomenon of the Cameroonian dustbowl has been getting in the way of the prison workout, which I should clarify involves lots of rolling around on the floor, sit ups, pushups etc., anything that can be done within the confines of a small indoor space, ie: a prison cell. When it is so dusty your hands are slipping, or leaving handprints on the ground… that can be a problem. Also to demonstrate the dustiness: I was leaving my MC2 today. It was only about noon, and the motorcycle of my counterpart, Bouba, was parked out front. It was already so covered in dust that I couldn’t resist writing “Hi Bouba!” with a smiley face on the moto’s seat. When our guard looked at me funny, I had to explain to him that this is what 8-yr. olds in the United States do to their parents’ dirty cars.

So now I have to suck it up and start sweeping out my house about once every two days if I want to be able to roll around on the floor in any level of comfort!! Sweeping is tiring! I’ll chalk it up as the Cameroonian aerobic addition to the classic prison routine.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Beans, Beignets, and Barack

Wednesday morning was my most memorable breakfast yet in Cameroon. I’ve never before intermittently thrown my hands in the air and yelled out the name of my new President-elect at 6:45am while sitting on the sidewalk waiting for my beignets to fry. And I wasn’t alone.

I was in the capital city of Yaoundé during elections. About 28 of us Peace Corps Volunteers were assembled there for various meetings. At the PC transit house, we had access to a television, cable, and thus CNN in English!! Pretty monumental. Even the US Embassy’s deputy chief of mission had donated popcorn and a microwave for our election watching festivities.

For better or for worse, the PCVs that night were gathered in unanimity. Not a soul of a McCain voter to be found. Don’t get me wrong, I respect McCain and this blog is not the place for me to get into why I voted for Obama (making that absentee ballot work!) but every single PCV present was rooting for Obama last Tuesday.

Pre-dawn election suspense at the PC house in Yaoundé

The enthusiasm was contagious. We literally stayed up all night until Obama gave his acceptance speech at 6:30am Cameroon time. I feel lucky to have been able to watch history… from Cameroon.

At this point, we couldn’t help but hit the streets, exuberant and semi-delirious from fatigue. The sun had risen during Obama’s acceptance speech, and the news was already on the awakening streets of Yaoundé. About eight of us went for breakfast to the bean and beignet stand on the nearest street corner, and cheered and greeted all the passers by, who seemed equally enthused and amused by our antics. Many of them shared these nassaras’ excitement, with big grins and salutations of “OBAMAAAAAA!!!!”

As a few days have passed, I’ve thought a bit more about the significance of that Wednesday morning celebration.

This hits particularly forcefully as I write from a country that has had the same leader in power since roughly the year I was born. No Cameroonian my age has ever seen a democratic change of power. In fact, no Cameroonian has ever seen a democratic change of power since this country’s independence in 1960. Only two presidents have held office, the second of whom assumed power without the benefit of an election and has held onto that power through some seriously questionable means throughout the last 26 years. (Cameroon does not rank number 141 out of 180 on Transparency International’s worldwide ranking for nothing.)

My neighbor Martine came by tonight and I told her about our elections… “My country just elected a new president, his father is actually from Africa…!” She was clueless, unaware. It was the blank look on her face that really made it hit home: the concept of elections, a word that has a very different meaning here in Cameroon, where my friends believe doors are closed, and old men in suits negotiate to divvy up the seats of their representative bodies.

So whether you are for Obama or McCain, (and being from Louisiana, I know my fair share of loved ones might well be for the latter...!) I ask only that you share in my excitement in our ability to change. And if this is not the result you had hoped for, maybe in four more years you can have a beans, beignets, and candidate-of-your-choice breakfast. I don’t say that to sound snarky, but because as Americans we are able to act without fear or intimidation, to cast ballots that mean something. Meanwhile millions and millions of others watch us, our sidewalk celebrations or our disappointment, and can only wish for such options.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Of course you want to come to sweaty Cameroon!

Several of you (…ok, a few of you) have asked about coming to visit me. I say, bring it on!! While I can’t guarantee you a visit free of sweat, potholes, or friendly leering, I’ll do everything in my power to be the cheery tour guide you’ve always wanted. I’ll even wear a Hawaiian shirt.

PC admin. put together a long and boring list of recommendations for visitors. I’ve tried to shorten it and make it more relevant. Hope this can be useful, and ultimately convince you that there is nowhere you would rather be on your next vacay than the Far North of Cameroon!

1. Visa, Cameroon. To apply for a visa to Cameroon, complete two application forms. I have a copy of the form that I can e-mail you, or you can download it here. Send them to the embassy, 2349 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008, with your passport, two passport photos, W.H.O. records showing the required yellow fever shot (see below), the application fee, a copy of either your tickets or your detailed flight itinerary, and a bank statement. Details about the application fee are included at the above link. Basically, it is $99 for your tourist visa, payable by Money Order or Certified check ONLY to the Embassy of Cameroon. You need to enter Cameroon within 90 days of obtaining the visa, so in your eagerness to visit me, please do not apply for your visa 6 months in advance!

(And they tell me it is hard for Cameroonians to get to the States?!) On my end, I will work with PC admin to obtain a standard PC letter to include with your application materials, which usually speeds up the application process. You’ll need to e-mail me a copy of your confirmed flight itinerary, your passport number, and its date and place of issue.

It is PC’s understanding that the Embassy will not return your passport to you unless you send a pre-paid express mail envelope. If you are in the D.C. area, you can pick it up at the embassy. Separate visas are required for almost all African countries you may plan to visit, except for intermediate stops where you will not go outside the terminal while en route to or from Cameroon. Each embassy requires that you send your passport with the visa application, so you can only apply for one visa at a time.

Visa, Chad. Due to my extremely strategic (?) location in the Extreme North Province, you may want to opt to travel through Chad to see me. This is the preferred method of many of our visitors to the Extreme North and an attractive option because the international airport at N’Djamena is roughly 5 hours from my house, thus you avoid the long sweaty bus trip otherwise required when flying through Yaoundé.

The Chadian government will be delighted to take your money; visa requirements listed here. Consider it your own personal contribution to international development. Here is the required visa form for Chad.

You will need your passport to apply for each visa, so I recommend you start early. You can also consolidate and expedite the visa applications if necessary by going through a private company, such as Travisa, which handles it for you for an additional fee of approximately $30 per visa.

2. Health. A yellow fever vaccination is required. This immunization must be logged in a World Health Organization (W. H. O.) International Certificate of Vaccination.

You should plan to take anti-malarial prophylactic drugs prior to departure from the US and during your stay in Cameroon. Usually you need to start popping these pills a couple of weeks before your departure. You can get mefloquine, my drug of choice complete with psychedelic dreams, in most pharmacies. Another option is doxycycline.

While in Cameroon, precautions must be taken with food preparation and water treatment. Drink only bottled water in sealed bottles or water that has been filtered and chlorinated or boiled. (I have a fabulous water filter you may use free of charge.) Vegetables should be soaked in chlorine if they are not being cooked or peeled.

Here is a site that gives other useful Cameroon health info.

There are health risks, and the medical facilities in Cameroon are not comparable to facilities in the United States. Peace Corps medical Staff cannot provide care for family members or friends who require medical attention while in Cameroon. We strongly suggest that you consider extra insurance with emergency evacuation coverage from a company such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. (P.O. Box 11568, Philadelphia, PA 19116, 1-800-523-8930 or 215-244-1500 in PA).

3. Money. The currency used in Cameroon is the franc CFA. (One USD is approximately 500 CFA.) Travelers’ checks are safe, but incur exceedingly high commission rates and other charges (up to 25%). Travelers’ checks in dollars have also become increasingly difficult to change. You may want to take at least some travelers checks in Euros, since switching dollars to CFA in Yaoundé is usually more expensive than switching dollars to Euros in U.S. and then Euros to CFA in Yaoundé. Some of the big (and expensive) hotels in Yaoundé will accept an American Express or Visa credit card.

ATMs on the “Plus” system are increasingly available around the country. My personal recommendation is to come with your ATM card. ATMs are available in Maroua, the closest large city to me, and I have had no problem using them, the few times I have done so. However, you should call your bank prior to your departure to let them know that you will be using the card in Cameroon, so that they don’t put a block on your account, thinking crazies have made off with your belongings to …Cameroon.

4. Baggage. Have all your suitcases locked. I recommend you call your airline directly to find out what the baggage and weight limits are. You can typically check your baggage all the way to your final destination. Be sure the baggage ticket has all appropriate code letters for the trip; the code for the airport in Douala is DLA, Yaoundé airport is NSI, N’Djamena is NDJ, and the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is CDG.

5. Flight Check-In. If you fly through Paris, arrive at the check-in counter for your connecting flight two hours before take off. They start checking passengers in then and you cannot get a seat assignment until this check-in. The check-in process goes very slowly, so plan to stand in line a long time. They will not allow large carry-on bags.

6. Arrival in Douala / Yaoundé. You must have both your passport and W.H.O. card for immigration when arriving at the airports in Cameroon. French and some English are spoken at these airports (yay bilingual country!) You will have to open all bags for inspection. Try to keep all your bags in sight once they come into the baggage area. There will be men vying to carry your bags for payment. Carry your bags yourself if you can. If not, negotiate a price with one person before allowing anyone to take your bags (about 1$ per bag.)

7. Alternatively, Arrival in N’Djamena, Chad. The volunteers who have previously flown through Chad or sent their families through Chad have established a reputable contact for the purpose of fetching you and bringing you to Cameroon. This is my recommendation. The border crossing between the two countries closes at roughly 5pm; your flight would arrive at roughly 10pm, thus you’ll need to cozy up in an N’Djamenan hotel for a night. I can provide hotel recommendations and approximate prices.

8. Photos. Picture taking is fine, in general, but you should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph. Although I am unsure of the aesthetic interest of the interior of an airport, photos are never allowed at the airport or any military installation, so please keep your camera concealed when near these locations.

9. Identification. During the course of your stay in Cameroon, you will likely have to show your passport to the police several times. It’s preferable to carry a certified copy of your passport for this purpose. I’ll help you obtain this after your arrival in Cameroon.

10. Departure. Presently, you must pay a departure tax of 10,000 CFA at the Douala or Yaoundé airport before boarding. Check ahead of time, as this tax needs to be paid in local currency, and most likely you would need the exact amount. There is no separate departure tax when flying out of Chad.

Bon voyage!