Thursday, November 26, 2009

Operation Mom Comes to Africa: Success!!

At my request, and after healing from all the joys Africa had to offer, Mom graciously wrote a bit for my blog. :) So, la voilà and Thanks, Mom!


I went to Africa for two reasons: to see my daughter, Fleurange, whom I had not seen since June 4, 2008, and to get a better idea of the challenges that she faces every day as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV).

Both goals were met, and then some! I had a great visit with Fleurange, but such travel is not for the faint-hearted! Life in her world, as far is creature comforts go, is a bit like what we Louisianians would call ‘hurricane mode’ (few creature comforts as the storm passes and in the aftermath when services are out).

The people were very welcoming. Being ‘the Mama who has come from the United States’ made me an instant celebrity! Of course, I know that was in large part because people there—her neighbors, her local professional associates, her bosses, her fellow PVCs—like and respect her. Now there is no bias here, of course, but I am very proud of Fleurange, and indeed, the six or seven other PVCs that I met and had occasion to visit with about their duties. They give up a lot, and put up with a lot, and I am sure, grow a lot in their jobs.

We were invited into numerous homes and dined with several families. It was obvious to me that they were intent on honoring us, and it was a humbling experience for me.

The climate in Cameroon is varied, and I am told that Cameroon is considered to be Africa in miniature, with the dry grasslands semi-desert in the north, high country in the middle, and the tropical area in the south. In the north, where Fleurange lives, it is dry most of the year, except for a several-months’-long rainy season. Dust is everywhere. And regardless of what people say about ‘dry heat’ being less uncomfortable, when it is 95 degrees, and you are walking in the sun, it is hot! The Cameroonians did not seem to be as bothered by heat as the white people I saw; perhaps they are more acclimated, much as we Southerners in the US can handle the heat better than folks from MN or NH. And the heat was not as much of a problem for me as a few other things…. The principal crops in the north are peanuts, soy, cotton, and millet. Many families have small patches of millet at the back door.

Transportation is one of the areas that shocks the average American. I grew up in the country on a gravel road in the late 50’s and early 60’s, before we got blacktop. I remember the dust. Most of the roads, in Mokolo, and even many in the bigger towns, are not gravel, but dirt and rocks or stones or boulders!! One has a jarring experience on most bus rides, and the moto (motorcycles for hire) drivers have my greatest respect for the way they avoid so many big rocks and potholes, while keeping passengers from landing on the street! You have not lived until you have survived a one-hour-plus ride on the back of a moto, to view the sights at the western border near Nigeria! I figured that if I had osteoporosis, the crumbling of my spinal column would have begun on this trip. I also got used to the crowded unairconditioned buses which are standard when traveling from one town to another. When one is lucky, a fellow passenger gets off early and one can spread out a bit. Fleurange and I have a great story to tell about the perils of trying to spend money and take the rich American route cross-country, via domestic airline, instead of the usual 3-day train-and-bus trip, but it is too long for here. Suffice it to say that money does not fix all problems, and bureaucracy and corruption in government are alive and well in Cameroon.

Sanitation (or lack thereof) was a significant area of concern for me. It is true that I grew up in the country in the days before AC, microwaves, internet, and cell phones, and if we lost power, we were also without water because the pump for the well was electric. But in Cameroon, indoor plumbing was somewhat rare, and I came to cherish those ceramic wonders in the places that had them. I did worry about what critters I might be ingesting in the food and drink offered to me by our many gracious hosts/hostesses, and I wondered how the whole eating process could possibly be safe when we shook many hands, and then washed hands in a communal washing bowl, before dining. When I was uncertain about the food, I ate little. When I felt more secure, I pigged out. I cannot say at this point whether I brought home any little friends with me, but found myself praying, ‘Lord, if I have an immune system, let it go into overdrive now!!’ There was also the matter of ‘street food’ some of which was very tasty, but again, the health department in any city or town in the US would have shut these folks down long ago. But what is one to do?

The food was interesting. A principal dish is the couscous, different from the Americanized version one buys here in a box. It is sort of like a firm mush (thick grits for Southerners), which can be made from rice, corn, or millet. This is served with flavorful sauces made from peanut oil, leaves, various seasonings. The procedure is to use your fingers, grab a chunk of couscous, dip in the sauce, and eat. Another popular dish is beans and beignets (street food), tasty, but then again, look at all the (clean?) hands that prepared it. The beignets (fried bread, sometimes yeast-raised) were somewhat familiar to me, reminiscent of the sweet beignet that is popular in New Orleans, and the beans were somewhat like our local red-beans-and-rice. This was food in the north of Cameroon. In the south, there appears to be more variety, with fried plantains, bananas, pineapples, citrus fruits, papaya. On the street, one could also find grilled (whole) fish; omelets made from eggs, spaghetti, and onions; roasted plantains.

There is much more I could tell, but we would be here all day. The sights, sounds, smells were of a different world. To be there was an amazing experience! (Yet I do not plan a repeat trip unless the Peace Corps calls me and says ‘Get over here; your daughter is in trouble’, in which case I would be on a plane within 24 hours!) For one considering such a trip to Africa as I had, one should think of it as a UN fact-finding trip, or something like that—not 100% as vacation or recreational travel! Cameroon—not for the faint-hearted!


So, that’s it from my Mama… and a few last observations and pictures of my own…

Age wins: I can’t wait to have my birthday next month!! Why? Cause it is COOL to be OLD in Africa! As she mentioned, Mom was treated with such reverence and respect (yeah little nassara me doesn’t get all that!) The hospitality was monumental. I was certain I fattened up thanks to all the delicious sauces we were served by my friends, neighbors, and colleagues. In addition to the Age = Mucho Respect Phenomenon, I think people really appreciated seeing where I came from (literally.) As perceived by our communities, I think we PCVs seem to exist in a bubble—a little piece of whitey dropped from the sky—no family, no connections, just floating through Africa. For my friends to meet my Mom seems to somehow give me more credibility—I really do have a family and a history.

Mom makes an entrance: I can’t help but crack a smile every time I think of Mom’s first contact with Mokolo. We had survived the entire long trip North to my post unscathed (although not without snafus a plenty!!) We were taking motos to my house from the bus station, with all our luggage. Finally, in the instant it’s time to dismount the moto, I’m deciding between which to do first: pay my moto driver, pay Mom’s moto driver, greet the mass of my neighbors who are running up to greet us, pull luggage off the moto, or help Mom undo her moto helmet. Mom makes the decision easy for me as slowly she goes Ploppppp! descending not so gracefully onto her bottom on the dirt road next to her moto. We’d come so far! It was only the dismount that was left!! Balancing on two legs can be tricky! I don’t think my neighbors knew how to react—the reverence for Mama Fleurange! might have been cancelled out by seeing her sprawled on the dirt road! Mom’s a great sport, brushed herself off (with some help from her daughter to take off that moto helmet) and got up to promptly greet everyone. The neighbors loved her instantly!

Nursing home preview: As Mom likes to say, this is what it’ll be like when I’m old and infirm! It’s always a fun role reversal when you get to take care of your parents. I was constantly talking, translating French/English, generally instructing, clarifying… I think my favorite image is of “How to ride a moto 101.” (Obviously, not enough time was spent on the sub-lesson, “How to dismount a moto!”) The first time we got on motorcycles, I had to remember this is not a standard and all-encompassing form of transportation in the US, as it is here. I had to put Mom’s feet on the right pedals, show her where to hold on, and yes, lovingly attach her helmet on her head. I ended up attaching Mom’s helmet every time we took motos. Maybe it’s a small recompense for all those dirty diapers she changed.

Afro-Caribbean connections: A favorite last memory is Mom’s ever-keen observations as she soaks up all of Africa’s cultural wonders: the arts, the music, the people.... We’re out at a sidewalk bar one of her last nights here, sharing a local beer. (I never even liked beer before I came to Africa, and Mom also says that she thinks she has added one more to her short list of times she likes beer—after haggling in an African artisan market.) So the music is, as always, loud on the bar’s loudspeakers. Philosophically, Mom comments on what seems to be the local music,

“Now those drums are reminiscent of the Caribbean.”

“Mom. That’s Bob Marley.”


(I told Mom she was allowed to make as much fun of me as she wanted in her write-up of Cameroon! Obviously, her tact and diplomacy are something I am still working on… :) “Not nice,” as she would say, or, referring to raising me, “I tried. I REALLY tried!!”

Lovely Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon, below us.

A cool roadside shot Mom got from the bus.

I’m telling my co-workers at the MC2 that when Americans take pictures, we smile, and could they please pleaaaase smile? (This is apparently funny.)

I’d asked Mom to bring over marshmallows—cultural exchange at its finest. I’m demonstrating how to roast the marshmallow that is speared on my spoon, while Bouba examines the marshmallow bag.

Mom practices being a grandmother with Bouba’s baby girl, Aïcha. N.B. It’s over 80 degrees at the time of that photo. Wrap that baby up tight!!

Chez my neighbors, American propaganda fest? Ouuiiiiiiiii, pourquoi pas?!

With Aissatou, my favorite neighbor, who fed us a lovely meal.

Mom was always good at making friends! (And yes, every one is wearing Mardi Gras beads that Mom brought over. What a hit. The neighbors are still wearing them!)

Friend Yves has us over for dinner and I plan to steal a baby :) His wives made us delicious chicken.

More food: here’s tasty couscous and sauce! Break it, dip it, love it! This couscous is made from red millet, with a sesame seed sauce. (Dad, just wait til I make you some of that!! Mmmmm :)

Mom communes with/is in awe of nature when I make her go hiking in Rumsiki. (She is seriously a good sport!!)

While in Rumsiki, we visited the Crab Sorcerer to learn about the future. He translates our questions to his crab, who then responds by moving little shards of clay in a pot to indicate certain answers. We learned that Paul Biya is going to “win” another Cameroonian presidential election in 2011 (quel surprise!) and that Cameroon will fight valiantly, but will not win the World Cup. I will also make three babies.

Here’s the omniscient Crabby himself. Photographable for 500 F. Clever boogar.

(Before tourists came, the Crab Sorcerer and his crab predicted the annual harvest, a tradition passed on from his father, and grandfather before him.)

Crab Sorcerer takes a liking to my Mother. Mom is sufficiently reverent.

I agree with the Crab Sorcerer that it sure was wonderful to have her here. I’ll attach her helmet any day. Hopefully this Mama-fix will last me until I get back to the states next August!

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Occasionally, someone passes through our lives in a way that we hope not only we will never forget, but that we will one day be able to duplicate. Such is the case of my Great Aunt Lois, a woman of singular character and fortitude. She married into my family at a time when my great-grandfather told a story of some pitiable neighbor, “A man who had no children… poor Mr. Gerstrom, no children. Only five daughters,” and yet she stayed. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and desegregation in the Deep South, and near the end… I was lucky enough to be one of her “practice grand-children.”

When I went to Haiti, not only did she seek out to read the classic Mountains Beyond Mountains, she told my mother she should read it, too. (and Mom listened!) When I came to Africa, Lois picked up the biggest book on the subject, and slogged through Fate of Africa with me. We compared notes via e-mail, she with the unique perspective of still thinking of the Democratic Republic of Congo as “Zaire.” She amazed me with her curiosity and her drive to always continue learning. She was in her eighties, but learned to become more computer savvy than many, even maintaining her own “virtual bookshelf” and keeping up with all the adventures of myself and my cousins.

She was deeply religious, as are many in my family. When she sent out an e-mail to say God was calling her back, I nearly lost it in the local cyber café, reduced to a snotty and teary ball. Such emotion is a concept hard for the average Cameroonian to grasp. Here, life comes and goes. Another in the ground, another in the womb, and we plod on. Cameroonians don’t seem to understand our grief and outrage at a loss that is only so natural.

But as I trudged into town, trying to hide my tears, I thought about the message Lois had sent us, and the impact it had on me. One woman had changed my perception, given me e-mails to look forward to, and made me feel understood and appreciated. She motivated me to always continue learning, to never say die on developing as an individual, until it’s that time that God calls you back, and then you go gracefully and thankfully for the good life you’ve led.

In the day to day here, I often get caught up in my own ego, wondering who is right in some senseless misunderstanding based on cultural differences, and too much of my own pride. When I read the note Lois left us, I felt a strong tug of desire that I, too, would be able to say such things, express such gratitude of the life and opportunities I have been given, on my way out. Her life leaves me with the desire to let go a little more. Let go of trying to control or have things my way, and instead to appreciate, to serve. If I could make a few small impacts, show kindness, and invest in others in the way she has so profoundly loved me, I will be happy.

For Lois, I think the words of Emerson say it best:
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

My Mama comes to Africa + fun in a market bag

My MOTHER is arriving on the African continent TOMORROW!! I am more than excited.
Our grand ambitions include looking at rocks (some cool formations near me), eating tasty millet and leaf sauce with our fingers, playing with some wildlife, and mostly just hanging out around my town, meeting friends and co-workers, getting a taste of life au village. That's about it! I've told everyone she's coming and she doesn't even know yet I've already had matching outfits tailored for us... :)

In other fine news I'd just like to report that I have found one of my most successful Halloween costumes EVER. The African market bag. Although originally designed to transport produce around town, it doubles as a roomy and comfortable costume (although of questionable aesthetic appeal...) I don't think I've ever danced so much in my life--no one can see what a bad dancer you are if it's all under an enormous SACK! Yeahhhh :)

And of course, here is a real African market mama in action. Don't stop her now.

(Not quite sure what the Cameroonians at this party had to make of all this... They don't exactly celebrate Halloween...)

Lots of love to everyone back home, and stay tuned for some more adventures with my favorite veille blanche!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I become an action word. Pretty cool.

My postmate Thea told me a story recently that really cracked me up. I’ll try to retell it as best I can. Keep in mind that Thea is a much nicer, calmer, and generally more patient person than I am, thus my amusement.


Thea: Seriously, the other day I think I did a “Fleurange.”

(side note: that's what people call me here, my middle name...)

Me: Oh no, what’s that mean?!! I didn’t realize I’d turned into an verb!! I’m scared.

Thea: I was riding Mokolo Express (one of the local bus companies) the other day to Maroua. You know I hate those trips cause they always drive so fast. I was sitting all the way in the back of the van. We were flying!! Every time we would go around those curves, everyone would grab onto the seat in front of us and we’d all be leaning and swerving. Even the old Cameroonian men. And the car was so loaded down with stuff on top that we were really top-heavy, I mean, really unstable!!

We were just bombing along the road. And you know there’s always little kids just playing right alongside of the road. We’re going so fast, that there’s a group of goats crossing the road. And the driver can’t stop fast enough. So bam, we knock out about three goats. And they just go rolling away under the car. The driver doesn’t even stop or anything to see if they’re alright.

After a little while longer, I asked the old man next to me if it was bothering him—the speed. And he said, 'Yes, they are going fast!' So I said, 'Could you say something? You’re a man. They’ll listen to you. You’re Cameroonian.' And he said 'Say something?' Agggghhhhhh!! So of course the Cameroonians won’t say anything. I really wished you’d been there so you could have said something.

My interjection: Yeah, I've gotten a bit of a reputation here for telling people what I think when they make me cranky, or especially if they’re full of bullshit. (Which parent did I get that from? ;) The following must be doing a Fleurange. But I’d say Thea did pretty damn well herself. Back to Thea’s narration:

Thea: So finally I say, “Chauffeur! We’re going really fast, aren’t we? Can you slow down?” And he makes some bullshit response like, “We have to get to Maroua, non?” So by this time I’m so mad, I’m practically standing, and I’m yelling at him from the back of the van, “CHAUFFEUR, this isn’t safe!! We already hit the goats, what’s next, children?! Us?!” And the Chauffeur says, “Time is money!” I just screamed, “WHAT?!!!! SINCE WHEN ARE CAMEROONIANS IN A HURRY?!!”

At this point I, Fleurange, was dying laughing, picturing all this going down in the dilapidated and overcrowded van, flying and swerving down the road. Shouldn’t have been funny, but it’s just so outrageous, and I’ve never seen Thea lose her cool, (that role is usually reserved for me!) What a great—and unexpected—line from that chauffeur. Seriously, you can wait here ALL day for anything and NOBODY cares, and there's no consequences, but then you can’t slow down 5 MPH for the safety of human lives? Or even adopt a bit of customer-service?! It’s in the interest of your business not to kill your customers! Back to Thea:

So not only did the chauffeur not slow down, I think we went faster. I’ve never gotten to Maroua so fast. My knuckles were white the entire time. I’m going to bring a complaint to the local delegate of transport.

End of story. Thank you for taking your valuable time to read it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ramadan: en couleur

On the morning of the fête de Ramadan, the air was so cool that still lying in my bed, I had to clutch my sheet up around my neck. It felt like Christmas morning, that latent anticipation for a big day you’re on the verge of beginning. Last year the excitement was not knowing what to expect, in a new and foreign tradition. This year, I was excited for the fête itself that marks the end of Ramadan. I couldn’t help but realize that I have no idea when, if ever again, I’ll be celebrating the fête de Ramadan, an idea that gave me pause and made me appreciate the day that much more. But I was pulled from my warm bed before 7am, as the first of my neighbors came by bearing croquettes, and enthusiastic wishes of Barka Desala!! Barka Desala!! Happy End of Ramadan! I stood on my doorstep exuberantly shaking hands in my pajamas and poofy bed-hair.

The main event of the day is the gathering of all the faithful to pray. They assemble in droves in a huge field while nassaras and non-believers hang out and watch. I arrived early at the field, and perched myself on a rock under some trees, from which I watched the passers-by. Dark clouds were sweeping across Mokolo. Falling through the trees, small drops of rain slowly darkened my green pagne, and made me wonder why I’d bothered to slather myself in sunscreen. Floating in from somewhere far across the field, a hypnotic voice chanted Alllahhhhh al-ahkbarrrr, Alllahhhhh al ahkbarrrr, Godddd is greeeaaat, God is greeeaaat, soothingly and rhythmically.

Before the prayers, people roam the streets, greet friends, take pictures with the local nassaras Thanks to Thea and Fleur, who took many of the pictures below! These are my neighbors: Garga, Issoufa, and some little piece of bubble gum I don’t know who jumped in the picture.

A Cameroonian boy band, or the inverse of a harem? You decide. I’d never even met them before!

No Ramadan fête is complete without a pair of designer sunglasses.

I think little guy on the right might be jealous of little boy on the left’s turban!

Hey Sisters, remember when Mom used to dress us up in those little matching red dresses?!

The prayers, solemn and timeless, mark the official end of a month of fasting during daylight hours. That fast includes not drinking any beverages, even water. I found my Muslim co-workers loved to ask me “How’s the fast going?” when I’d pull out my water bottle to take a few glugs in front of them. So finally, in attempted solidarity, I tried to fast a few times. On about the third day, I finally got it right (I still drink water though. I figure, Allah, Mohammed, and all those other guys can cut me a bit of slack as I’m new to all this.) This means you get up at about 4:30 to have breakfast before dawn. I got up and pulled out my cooking pans to heat up some leftovers. Through the dark, it was comforting to hear the clangs of my neighbors doing the same thing, as a reminder that I am not, in fact, crazy. Fleur however, smart girl that she is, had bouie (the typical breakfast beverage) in a thermos and a couple of beignets on her bedside table. At 4:30am, she sat up in bed, swallowed it down, and plopped back down to sleep. Why didn’t I think of that?! When I asked my counterpart Bouba about fasting, he told me that it’s done for three main reasons:

1) To feel hunger, and know what hunger feels like for those who are too poor to eat their fill.

2) It’s good for the body to fast, to clean it out from time to time.

3) To practice discipline and think of Allah.

And so, after a month of fasting, they gather to pray.

I always think of Easter dresses when I see the men’s beautiful flowing boubous! I wish American men could show up at Easter morning service in a boubou :)

This fête de Ramadan, however, reminded me, the non-believer, of Mardi Gras. (Is that irreverent?!) The excesses of food and the fasting, the parade of vehicles across town to visit the traditional chiefs, hoards of sociable people ambling in the streets.

Once the prayers were done the road through town was packed!

You can go on a truck,

On a moto, (there’s room for at least two more on there!)

Or if that’s how you like to roll, on a horse.

The excitement was palpable. A caravan formed to cross town, to visit a traditional chief. It must have included every van in Mokolo! Fleur, Thea and I ended up running across a field to try and catch up with it, chasing the cars as though running after floats in a parade, frantically looking for beads! (We just wanted pictures.) Here, instead of wearing tacky plastic beads you think are cool, you dress up in full pagne (I think it’s flattering, but I’ve been gone from the States for a while… you judge!) and you paint your hands funny colors!

The men are decked out in their best boubous, complete with the gondora, a huge sail of fabric they loop over their shoulders on top of the boubou. Thea and I found our friend Ibrahim. I was marveling at the sheer quantity of fabric that Ibrahim was wearing and I think our conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey Ibrahim, can I do bat wings with your boubou??!! Come onnnn, it’ll be fun!

Ibrahim: Hmmm, Not so sure about that, weird little American girl.

Ibrahim: Alrighhhhht.

Me: See, this is so cool!! You look like a big blue bat!!

Ibrahim: Yeahhh, I am pretty cool.

Me: Told you!

Ibrahim: OK, give me back my boubou now, that’s enough. OK, give me back my boubou!!

Then we ran into Bouba, my counterpart at the MC2. He was a little more willing to indulge my Batman fetish.

In between terrorizing my friends in boubous, I’m fond of contemplating my hands. The henna is supposed to render them black, but I’m too impatient and didn’t want to walk around with henna and plastic bags on my hands for hours while it dried, so I came out with a semi-ridiculous carrot look. Woops :) What’s a couple months of orange fingers?!

We proceeded to shuffle all over town, eating loads and greeting people. Instead of the excesses of King Cake, I happily dined on endless croquettes, sweet fried dough balls that I like far too much. The visits are my favorite part of Ramadan, what I look forward to the most. I honestly can’t think of an American equivalent. If we attempted the same thing, would it just lead to traffic jams, and twitchy kids sitting in cars trying to behave? Here, we walk, eat, walk, eat, amble about some more. No one is really rushed, and it seems that somehow no one really has an agenda, but they always seem to know when to find their friends at home.

I stopped by my neighbor Aïssatou’s house. She’s my accomplice in the henna hands, which many of the neighborhood women did in preparation for the fête. Since Cameroonians refuse to smile for a posed photo, it was so hard to get this picture! I had to beg Aïssatou and her husband for one photo, American style, with a smile. At least the begging apparently amused them, which led to the desired result!

In an interesting turn of events, all the Protestants were likewise having a huge celebration, a joint service of all the different denominations at the local stadium marking the beginning of the school year. On top of that, the Catholic bishop was in town, performing Confirmations. Only the Atheists weren’t celebrating. (They/we just ran around crashing everybody else’s parties.) I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrasts between the faiths as Thea, Fleur, and I paused at the Protestant gathering. Whereas the Muslim prayers require strict male-female segregation, the Protestants mingled freely. The Muslim prayer was neat, orderly, efficient, with something reverent and sacred about it. The Christians sang and clapped in excitement, rambling on in informal and uncalculated prayers. Half-naked children romped through the Christian crowd. While the Muslims were dressed in their best pastel-colored boubous on men, and full pagne on women, the Christians were comfortably clad in t-shirts, pants, occasional sprinklings of pagne. The Muslim prayer reminded me of what old-school Catholicism must have resembled—steeped in unquestionable tradition and inaccessibility, yet beautiful, a bit magical, and surreal.

I think celebrating another’s most sacred holiday has helped me better appreciate the celebrations chez moi. It’s true I’ve remarked at times past that I’ve thought the U.S. has no culture—what do we do that’s original, or unique? When recently thinking about the importance of the fête de Ramadan here, I thought the best equivalent aux Etats-Unis is Christmas. And the first image of Christmas that popped into my mind was from a David Sedaris book I recently read, where he described working as one of “Santa’s elves” at Macy’s, shuffling children and families through the lines in “Santa-land,” that led to taking a photo on Santa’s knee, surrounded in décor of red and green pinwheels. And I think that my observation of times past is untrue. We do have a culture in the United States. Yes, it is largely influenced by consumerism and profit. At the fête de Ramadan, I’m sure those who sell flour and eggs make a buck off of all the croquettes I eat. But otherwise, the fête is based around people and traditions, and no commerce stands to win or lose. People may kill the goats they’ve raised in their yards but that doesn’t create a surge in commerce, or profits for anyone (particularly the goat!) So celebrations in America are more multi-layered and complex, colored with the distractions of consumerism. Yet I can still take back the appreciation for the layers I do like in American holidays—the camaraderie of my family, and creating the time and space to visit each other, even if we do it efficient-American style, all in one place. I am looking forward to celebrating holidays in the States in less than a year. :)

Alas, my fête de Ramadan finally ended as I headed to my house to rest and digest. Here’s a view of Mokolo late in the afternoon, in all its festive glory. (My house is in a neighborhood to the left side of the photo; the mountains are my view from the kitchen window.)

Overall, a satisfying fête de Ramadan, just the way I like them. :) Til, next time amigos, say your prayers, and until I’m back in the States to fête with you personally, know that I am thinking of you!

Friday, September 11, 2009

*Ndiam DON!!!

As I write this, the rain is pounding so thunderously on my tin roof that it drowns out all other sound, with the sole exception of a deep grumbly thunder. Life is stopped, and I imagine in town now, people are packed under inadequate tin overhangs, watching the water course through the by now well-formed rivulets in the dirt roads.

Welcome to rainy season, amigos! And yes, when it rains, it pours.

After nine months in Mokolo of the most blissful dryness, the rains have come and brought a gripping humidity that reminds me so dearly (and sweating-ly) of every other place I’ve ever lived. Normally the Sahel climate of the Extreme North province will dry our newly-washed clothes within an hour, or produce sun-dried tomatoes in an afternoon! So now, we see the other extreme of what this province has to offer.

The most basic premise of life here is that when the rains begin, every other activity comes to a grinding, debilitating halt. And you wait. I’ve waited, marooned under inadequate overhangs, pressed against thirty other dripping people who, like me, weren’t fast enough to reach shelter in time. You wait in stores, in bars, hair salons, or stranded in awkward conversation in the offices of government officials. (In the case of the latter, I advise just getting wet. My personal preference for shelter, you might readily guess, is a well-stocked bar.) You wait because when folks go home here, there is no hot shower to jump into, microwaved cup of hot chocolate to snuggle up with, or efficient dryer to throw those drenched clothes into. In the case of fleeing those government offices, it took my dripping-wet pants seven hours to dry! (Fortunately, however, I next arrived at my preferred, aforementioned shelter…) But generally, you find yourself waiting, sharing shelter with a random slice of humanity with whom you have one thing in common—you do not want to get wet!

I was in town last Wednesday for market day. As I made my way towards my favorite Bean Mama for lunch, the skies, which had been growing increasingly dark, opened with a crackle and treated us to a pelting rain, of that stinging, put-you-hand-over-your-eyes type. Instantly, folks flipped into the highest speeds possible on this continent, and scattered in every direction. I almost knocked over a dear old man in my rush to reach Bean Mama’s stand.

I hunker down on one of Bean Mama’s benches. Above me is a make-shift tarp of stitched-together grain sacks. Although effective at providing shade, grain sacks are not, I tell you, waterproof! Being much more aware of this fact than I was, Bean Mama dispatches one of her children to run over and give me an umbrella, which I gratefully accept. Also sharing the benches with me, seated across a low table, are two young women. They have a piece of clear plastic, which they drape over them, and one woman whips out a breast to start nursing her infant, so small I hadn’t even noticed it. Crouched across from me is a young boy, about 8. He has no plastic or umbrella, but sits obediently and patiently under our drippy pseudo-tarp, declining my offer to share the umbrella. When I realize he has a thermos of hot tea, I buy myself a cup to sip while we wait this out. But the ferocity of the rains only increases. The winds lift the tarp, rain shoots in from all sides, and Plop goes my umbrella, collapsing in on my face. Mmm, wet, clammy, nylon. I peel my way out from under the umbrella, and give my little tea-boy friend a wide-eyed smile. His smile is shy but, in spite of himself, wide. He’s not supposed to be amused at debbo nassara’s misfortunes, but we still snicker under the leaky grain-sack tarp, knowing at times like this there is nothing you can do but surrender to forces greater than you. On est ensemble, as the Cameroonians say, the rains bring together those that might hardly notice each other in the daily passing of life. Cool winds whip through, and the overwhelming sound of the rain beating on every available surface makes conversation impossible, and unnecessary. Tea-boy and I both have goosebumps on our arms, and for me, it’s the first time in months I’ve felt a shiver. I see the tingle of excitement and cool air reflected in his wide eyes, and it takes me back to my childhood, to pre-hurricane moments in a South Louisiana September, when all the neighborhood kids gathered with excitement in the street, the winds picked up speed, the sky took on a ghoulish green tint, and we wondered what Mother Nature had in store for us. Our parents sipped Hurricanes and chatted in the cul-de-sac. We were giddy with excitement, having no idea what to expect, and hoping school would be cancelled! Here in Cameroon, everyone knows that when the rains start, all previous plans are cancelled… and we really don’t know when life will get taken back off of hold.

As I grow increasingly soaked under Bean Mama’s “tarp,” I realize I’d never even noticed when it rains in the States. Do we even have rainy seasons? Rain seemed random and unpredictable aux Etats-Unis. I never made plans with weather patterns in mind. Here, there are certain places where you just cannot travel during the rainy season. Rivers spring up where before there were none, blocking roads. Other roads morph into impassable swamps. Just arriving at the Peace Corps house in Maroua is an affair that involves a lot of screeching, rolling of pants legs, and hiking of skirts, to traverse the nasty-soup puddle that is halfway to our knees: Lake Schisto*. Unlike in the agriculture-based society of Cameroon, rain in the U.S. doesn’t directly influence the livelihood and well-being of the vast majority of citizens for an entire year. Here, there’s probably not a child who couldn’t tell you the basic calendar of climatic patterns. The next time we talked on the phone, I actually had to ask Mom, “So when does it rain in Louisiana?”

I made it out from Bean Mama’s eventually that day, but not after darting under a few other overhangs on the way home, and becoming thoroughly, hopelessly soaked. I think when I go back to the states I’ll have a whole new appreciation for, dryers, and rain in general, namely of the non-debilitating, happy sprinkles sort. Til then, ndiam DON!!

*Literally translated: water IS!! Or, in American English, It’s ****ing POURING!

**Schisto = schistosomiasis: fun disease borne in stagnant water, where a parasite breeds in snails, is just itching to jump into your waiting open wounds, and then involves some type of exploding of the brain. Reference Tropical Disease Bingo.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tourou part TWO

Tourou is one of my favorite Cameroonian towns, like a little Swiss mountain spa resort (but minus the running water, electricity, cell phone network…) It’s peaceful and beautifully tucked in the mountains, and one of the closest towns to me. The two PCVs posted there are also, fortunately for me, really cool. Matthieu works in Agroforestry and Cara in Community Health. (That’s a link to Cara’s blog over there on the right, “The Cameroonian Caper.”) I really enjoy collaborating with both of them. I went to Tourou earlier this week supposedly to work with some women’s business groups, but also to watch a meteor shower, and eat sushi. :)

(That’s millet, the grain of choice here, growing around the huts.)

The road up to Tourou snakes along the Nigerian border. In case you weren’t sure which country you’re in:

I also got this text (in English!!) from MTN, the major cell phone provider, “MTN wishes you a safe and productive stay in Nigeria.” I love illicit international border crossings! :)

Kids, as always, are plentiful and cute. Upon arriving, I was first greeted by these little guys, Matt’s neighbors.

The kiddie on the right is sporting the jersey of Cameroon’s national soccer team, the Indomitable Lions. He is an adorable little bugar that loves to dance and sing more so than play soccer.

Being in Tourou reminded me of visiting my grandparents’ houses in the country. There is lots of space for frolicking, and Matt was working in his garden. He’s getting hard-core with some kind of grain press here, crushing soybeans to feed the livestock.

Cara supervises. (She’s good at that.)

Animals (and animal’s noise) abound.

Matt keeps bunnies. It's very manly.

And Cara keeps goats. She named them Bean and Beignet.

Since Tourou is the country/America circa 1884, we decided to make our own guava juice. The process is actually really simple. First, Cara picks guavas from the tree in her back yard. Then, we slice them up, throw them in water and boil them for half an hour. Finally, we mush it through a strainer to gets out the really crunchy seeds.

Cara au travail:

Add water and sugar and tadaaaaaaa! Your finished product:

Tip: guava juice: good with whiskey sachets! It was so tasty I want to try this with other fruits.

In case you weren’t sure you are in the country, here’s a little reminder/reality check. The first time I ever went to Cara’s latrine, I couldn’t find it. The whole in the ground that serves as your Tourou toilet is covered with that pot lid. At least the lid keeps you from falling in. You also get the added bonus of having Cara’s pervy goats stare you down as you try to do your business. Thanks, goats. Hope you liked that.

Just in case you were wondering, this is my toilet. I ♥ ceramic!

(I’m one of the slim minority of volunteers in the Extreme North who has running water in my house, so it’s like my birthday, every day!)

Cara’s mom is notorious (in a good way… as long as Cara shares) for sending overwhelming care packages. I can’t complain, cause living not far from Cara, I often get to reap a few benefits. This time around, her mom had shipped the makings for sushi and tempura. It was FABULOUS. But since we’re only so skilled at performing the Japanese culinary arts by candlelight, the sushi rolls turned out more like burritos. Sushitos, we christened them. Here’s our gang enjoying the Japacan/Mexanese feast. (And that’s my postmate Thea, making her trademark I-lived-in-Japan peace sign!)

The next day was Thursday, Tourou’s market day. Tourou is unique in that it’s remained cut-off enough that some folks still practice local animist ways. For years, the road to Tourou was so bad that a moto up from Mokolo (my town) took almost 3 hours. The population is equally cut-off linguistically. The language in Tourou is Hdi, spoken by only about 40,000 people along the Cameroonian-Nigerian border. In all of Tourou, there are about three women who speak French, and a few more guys who speak it—mainly the elite of businessmen, teachers, and government employees. The road to Tourou is smoother now, only about an hour on a moto from Mokolo, and a truck makes the trip up once a week, on market day. But traditional ways remain intact. For the women, this means that your little calabash hat (not proper anthropological term) indicates your marital status. A metal spike through your lip or nose indicates which number wife you are in a polygamous family. On market day, the calabash ladies are out in force, sporting their shiny red helmets. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see the metal spike through this lady's nose.

Everyone here is gathered around a calabash of milk. Milk is new to the Tourou market.

Over to the left of the photo below, you can see the lady dressed in yellow and pink fabric. She’s go the baby on the back, calabash on head, and a package on top of the calabash!

One clever woman we’ve worked with isn’t animist, but she knows how to make a profit selling these calabashes to the trickle of tourists that comes through Tourou. She shines them up with oil so they gleam in the sun, ensnaring the innocent tourist.

Yes, Cara, that’s a good look for you.

You too, Abdu. (Matt’s counterpart.)

Once upon a time, I used to wear this outfit to work in DC. (Neck down. minus the chacos.)

Elsewhere in the market, you’ll find piles of millet.

Piles of beans.

And more cute/dirty kids.

Cara negotiates for her favorite leaves. She makes a mean leaf sauce, which I am always happy to eat.

Thea thought this was neat—you get to pick your haircut like you’d pick your dish in a Korean restaurant. To the untrained eye, I recognize that these styles all look, well, wildly similar. Don’t you worry though, that is exactly why Peace Corps gave us three months of training.

Thea has a degree in Fine Arts and also likes to photograph chickens.

So, can you tell I just replaced my old dead camera and got a little snap-happy? Hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of another of the Extreme North’s finest! Remember, for your next spa resort vacation… And thanks to Matt and Cara, my generous hosts and Leaf Sauce Delight chefs!