Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tropical Disease BINGO!

And other illnesses, maladies, and afflictions that befall a Cameroon PCV.

This little game was made by one of my fellow volunteers Thryn, to help wile away those long lonely nights. I think she’s a computer/design genius!! And yes, if you are creative enough, you figure out how to play bingo all by yourself!

As far as a Bingo player, I am a loser. I’ve only had three! I’ll let you guess which ones. :) On the health spectrum though, I’m one pretty lucky volunteer, relatively. I think the winning volunteer has had SEVENTEEN of these. Wow. You can have that gold medal, friend.

Thryn's Disclaimer: Your medical information is confidential! Share it if you wish, but the designer of this card holds no responsibility for any consequences from your individual decision to share information about your medical history. Remember, BINGO is all fun and games, but tropical diseases are no laughing matter.

Be nicer.

The mid-service resolution.

My mid-service conference felt a little like New Years—time to get philosophical and take a look at what I want out of Peace Corps. Am I getting it? And what should I do differently in the second half of my time here? (note: “philosophical” means this is going to be an exciting blog entry. Promise. :)

Returned PCVs had said to me, yeah you don’t even really hit your stride until after your first year. I’ve been busy in year one (except whenever the power goes out) with a nearly constant hodge-podge of activities. On the work front, I like the way things are going. One thing that I would like to do differently, though, is completely outside of work, on a personal level. Here, I think the voice of that RPCV rings true—you hit your stride one year in.

Dealing with people here sometimes really tires me. Your typical example: my friend Michelle and I got out the train the other night to walk around when we were stuck, broke down in some lost part of the jungle in the middle of the night. Three different guys came up to us in 10 minutes, each equally intent on having a conversation with us. Why? Only cause we’re different. Sometimes I just don’t want to deal with it. I want to talk to Michelle, not some rando. Finding a way to nicely get out of it every time requires creativity and patience (which I don’t always have enough of, especially in the middle of the night.)

In general here, I like to operate on my time, my schedule, and am not Miss Spontaneous or loving of surprises.

Yet, somewhere in June’s travels all around the country, and through talking with other PCVs at my mid-service conference, I was reminded of something I said before I ever set foot in Cameroon. If I can have a couple of close Cameroonian friendships, I would feel successful. I did come here to learn about Cameroonian people.

But being friendly, up to the African standard, requires DAILY Conscious Effort, and I normally even consider myself a pretty nice, sociable person. It’s the endless amount of shaking hands with strangers and friends alike, and the string of greetings you’re supposed to say everytime you see someone. (I have to ask “Noy saaré,” “How is your house?” again?? We haven’t had any hurricanes to knock it down since I asked you at this time yesterday!!) If an unsuspecting Cameroonian landed in New York City, he would be floored by our relative unfriendliness. The American pace, our lack of greetings and idle chit-chat, or our lack of that African generosity—it’s all so different. (The generosity thing: like sharing one’s food with anyone in the vicinity, strangers included! I’ve eaten a lot of random people’s food here, when offered on those long bus rides! If only the New York subway worked like that…) I don’t think even friendly South Louisiana could keep up the Cameroonian standard of greeting the **** out of everyone!

I’ve got my handful of good Cameroonian friends, but it’s true that the conversations we have sometimes are so wildly different from my American-friend conversations, that it can require some patience on my part. For example, one day I’d spent nearly the entire day stewing about and researching grad schools. That night, I was out with some Cameroonian friends. We spent hours over drinks, just shooting the shit. I mentioned at one point that I was considering continuing my studies. “It’s good to continue your studies. It’s good to go to school,” one girl responded. That was all, end of discussion. Next topic. I could have talked about that for HOURS! So no, I don’t get to talk about everything I want to here, but I did come to Africa for something different, didn’t I?

So my mid-service resolution is to ratchet it up a notch. Be nicer. Greet people more. Be more available, and not need to have everything on my terms. I was speaking with a volunteer who told me he couldn’t go to the market in his village in less than an hour. Not because of distance, but because he has to greet everyone. But as he said, “I like to put myself in the place of opportunity.” Being constantly friendly and available is exhausting, but it’s those volunteers who learn the most while they are here. I only have one year left. And I get to sleep as much as I want to in this country. So I might as well get what I came for and exhaust myself.

Today was an example of what I’m looking for. When I arrived home at my compound, my neighbor is standing outside under a tree. Instead of getting off my bike and hauling it in for the day, I take a minute to park the bike and greet him. As we’re chatting, (he’s telling me how many kids I should have) one of his wives, Aïssatou, calls to me from inside her house that she needs me. She sits me down, feeds me a cup of bouie, a soupy beverage made out of millet, and goes back to pounding something. Being the twitchy, ADD 27-yr. old that I am, I leave my assigned seat to wander over and see what she’s up to.

She’s pounding away with a pestle that is up to her shoulders, into a mortar the size of which could hold a small child. I tell her I want to pound the leaves. I am not nearly as good as she is, although her arms have about half the muscle on them as mine. She takes back the pestle to show me how it’s done while I lean back against the wall of the narrow entryway where we are. She gets her rhythm going, as I watch. It’s entrancing. Then she starts a combination of click noises coming from somewhere in her throat, accompanying the rhythm of her pounding. In between pounds and clicks she tosses the pestle, claps her hands, keeps pounding, never missing a beat. She keeps the rhythm, adding additional taps to the side of the mortar into the routine. It’s downright musical. Click, tap, POUND, clap, click, POUND. A green dust rises up from the crushed leaves, giving a swirly surreal effect to the whole scene. “C’est comme ça que les Fulbé le font,” she tells me with a smile. This is how the Fulbé do it. I try to make the click noises and she only laughs at me—the one grown woman making mouth noises laughs at the other grown woman unsuccessfully trying to make mouth noises. The neighbor kids are watching too. Honestly, it’s for silly little moments like this that I joined the Peace Corps—all of which happen when I take the extra minute to be nicer.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dermatological dysfunctions, travels, and lots of projects

My face

I’d like to first take a moment to describe the interesting artwork/dermatological dysfunction currently decorating my upper right cheek. I think a blister beetle shat on my face while I was sleeping the other night. It was at another PCVs house, stuff like this doesn’t happen chez moi, I swear! The freaky little blisters it left are oddly arranged in a shape that resembles none other than a paw print. I think it’s the ghost of Thomas Clemson, or whatever his name was that founded my university, exacting revenge for my distinct lack of school spirit by branding my face with my school’s logo while I live in Africa and nobody here even gives a shit about school spirit anyway. (I did once skip a college football game to watch a Chinese movie with subtitles instead, all by myself.) Hopefully I won’t have a scar for life. But if I do, it would at least be a good conversation starter. And then I’d never give money to Clemson! Maybe more unnerving though, is that since this swollen red mass is directly under my right eye, I can see it out the corner of my eye. I’ll be talking to someone, then get distracted by it, and end up staring at my own cheek in a mildly stupid cross-eyed manner. As if they don’t think nassaras are odd enough already!

Note: I’ve just been informed (since there is no lack of commentary on the explosion on my face) that the French word for the blister beetle is the bombardier, the bomber. Now isn’t that poetic?


Other than nefarious bomber beetles stamping pawprints on me, I’ve been having lots of fun. I’ve been on the move, all over Cameroon, and returned only yesterday from weeks on the road.

Congratulations to me, almost a month ago now, was the Camerooniversary—one year in country! I went down to Yaoundé for our mid-service conference, which basically consists of lots of poop-in-a-cup activities. The guys in my group really got a kick out of this, lining up their little fecal samples on a prominently displayed shelf in the Peace Corps house in Yaoundé. There are some things about my friends that I just did not want to know. Since apparently, fecal matter seems to quickly be coming a theme of this blog entry, I should also mention that these samples had to be transported by share taxi to the lab across town in Yaoundé. Cameroonians, if you see a heard of young white folks carrying mysterious and oddly-smelling little brown paper bags around your capital city and desperately trying to get a taxi, just keep on driving.

It was great to see old friends one year in. I can’t believe I’ve got only one year left and I’m very optimistic about it. Right before leaving Mokolo, I was up to my ears teaching the business classes, and stuck in a mini-funk of my first bout of homesickness (and finding no comfort from the added threat of a stolen vagina.) But basically, the hot season here was kicking my ass. Fortunately, seeing my fellow volunteers in Yaoundé recharged my batteries, gave me some good ideas for projects, and forced me to remember the reality that I only get to do this for one more year before whatever form of Americana and reality hits. Plus, the heat is pretty much gone now (yippee!) so I have no more excuses.


After mid-service, I went to the gorgeous Northwest province of the country to do some research at another branch of MC2, my host microfinance institution. When I told my mom that I was doing research, she said, “Ohhh! Are you looking at bugs?!!” No. Since when do I know anything about Science, Mom? “Research” just sounds a lot better and is more concise than saying, “I’m going to ask a lot of questions and follow some bank employees around for a few days to see if the donor-financed programs they have at their branch are profitable and can be replicated at my MC2, minus the outside donor funding.” So, my “research” was very informative and hopefully can be useful to my branch. It can be hard to break through the bureaucracy of my MC2 to implement a new idea. The President of our Board of Directors is shameful, has never even set foot inside our office because he’s a high-level government employee who lives in Yaoundé. (So much for grass-roots level development!) I hope to work more closely with my counterpart Bouba, the bank’s Secretary-Treasurer. (This is typical: people love to assign a big-wig or a family member to run a project, even if he doesn’t have the qualifications or motivation required. It’s a main reason why many volunteers have left their MC2s to work independently in the community, outside of the formal institutions, and are doing excellent work there.) I haven’t given up on the MC2 though, so we’ll see where this project goes—wish me luck!

After the research and before heading back to Mokolo, was the Extreme North’s provincial meeting, auspiciously placed on the 4th of July. :) The meeting attracted nearly all the PCVs from the EN and North provinces alike, with satisfactorily inebriated results. I was very happy to have a fête organized for the 4th because at this time of year my family engages in the noble triumvirate of croquet, card-playing, and feasting, all to excess. Simple pleasures that I miss sorely when I am not there to partake. But apparently, I lead our team in the national anthem, tackled a fellow volunteer, and practically got in a fight with a plant, all of which I minimally remember, to commemorate our great nation’s birth. And I played volleyball for so many hours that my wrist is all bruised greenish blue now, four days later. God bless America.

As fun as the travels were, it’s good to be back home in Mokolo. Thea and I are organizing a girls’ camp next week where we’ll do lots of fun kumbaya activities around leadership, peer pressure, sexual health, and I’ll throw in a budgeting activity or two cause I am a SED volunteer (Small Enterprise Development.) It’s very different from most of the work I do here, but truly, these issues are so rarely addressed or discussed in schools or any other venue that I hope it can be eye-opening for the participants. I had the idea for the camp during the week that the power was out, in between cutting my hair out of boredom and maniacally pacing around my house in the dark. Wish us luck as spend some quality time with Cameroon’s youth!

Me, a teacher? hehehe.

Yes, friends, it’s true. But first…

Updates on the Penis Snatcher

Well, they are still snatching away up here in the Extreme North Province. Be glad, all you folks who are sittin pretty in the US of A, your treasures intact. Locals have still been getting stopped, detained, and beaten for these accusations. The scary development, especially for me, is that vagina snatching is now a reality! I do not make this stuff up. I’m not that creative. “Young-woman” parts are stolen away, then apparently re-sold for some 10,000 Nigerian naira! Yep, my hoohaw is worth $67. 71. And the young woman is supposedly given the parts of an old lady instead!!!!!

On to a less exciting (and less disgusting) subject: my work

Recently I started teaching business classes, and my final class of the session is tomorrow. (Note: I wrote this entry way back in June, just now getting to posting it.) My star student is actually a pastor at the local church, named Something-African-I-can’t-Pronounce Fidèle Castro. He said he tried to go to the United States once. They wouldn’t let him in.

Teaching has been fun and challenging. We talk about planning, marketing, costumer service, some basic book-keeping …gripping stuff like that. The educational system in Cameroon is so different, that I have to recognize that or I think I would be floored by all the blank stares I get sometimes. Both books and teachers are in short supply here. My PCV friends who are teachers here have told me it’s not uncommon for five or more kids to gather around the desk of the one kid who can afford the textbook. A typical classroom can have 50 – 120 students in it. Teachers write on the board, students copy it into their notebooks, (which constitutes the closest thing they’ll have to a textbook), and then they memorize it. With such large class sizes, there is no further discussion, no analysis. Just the back-and-forth process of regurgitating memorized information. So my arm-waving, question-asking, participatory style of teaching is pretty different to them, and earns me some funny looks (or blank stares). At least it keeps them awake... for the most part. The class recently gave presentations, a re-cap of some of the subjects we’d covered. Some of the students, although in their thirties and forties, said it was the first time they’d ever made a presentation in front of a group in their life.

It’s been fun to have such personal contact with folks. Some of them are really endearing, especially the old men. One is a real character who seems to forget his glasses every time, then has to run home to get them! So I have to check at the beginning of every class, “Vous avez les lunettes cette fois?” I do hate prepping for the classes, though; it’s quite time-consuming. I think I have a new-found respect for teachers. You’re always asking yourself, “Is this useful? Is this relevant in this context and is anyone actually going to apply what I am suggesting?” All my examples are geared to small-scale entrepreneurs, which make up the bulk of the economy here. Some guys in the class are interested in opening a second internet café in town, others a fertilizer store. Another woman sells koki (a food made with bean paste and spices) from a bucket on her head, while she walks around town. Talking with her about how much profit she makes is interesting because she’s never before even calculated her expenses. Star-student Pastor Fidèle says he’s taking the class because he wants to learn “to better manage the enterprise of my Father.” So round one has been promising, and I hope to do some more teaching in future months.

In other news: I’ve been in Cameroon for over a year!! If success can be measured by the holey-ness of your underwear, or the depth of your farmer’s tan, then I am bound for glory.

Til next time folks, take care, and try not to miss me too much! ;)