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!