My parents and Eileen came to Cameroon! They were wonderful sports, and while I could tell you about their trip, I think they could do a better job. Stay tuned for a guest-written blog by the visitors, where you can hear all about the adventures and misadventures we shared over a two week tour of the ‘Roon.
I find myself alone in my house, having cleaned up the aftermath of the speakeasy opening/Colleenaween party (copyright, Elijah Haines), willing time away so that I can return to the land of cheese-products and democracy. In the meantime, I have a few distractions: teaching my girls’ health classes, finishing a project with my counterpart, helping out with soy demonstrations, and adventuring to Yaoundé to attend the Marine Ball for a weekend. Nonetheless, (too) much time remains for me to reflect on the things I am most excited for at home, and what I just may end up missing while in the US for over a month.
Seeing family and friends and eating all the vegetables and cheese products in the land certainly top my list of things I’m excited about in America. If I’ve spoken with you, you know that much is obvious, as I’ve been counting down for months now to see your lovely faces. Less obviously, I am also particularly excited for the following:
As one of two white people in Meiganga, and as an expat in a country with a pretty low number of foreigners and expats overall, I don’t particularly blend in in Cameroon. Not so in the US: there, no one will immediately assume I am a rich outsider. No one will scream NASSARA! Or LA BLANCHE! Or WHITEMAN! at me in passing 20-50 times a day. Children will *probably not* start screaming and crying at the sight of me (though we can’t be sure). Though the recent viral video of street harassment in New York reminded me I will not be escaping that when I arrive in America, I think it is safe to assume it will happen less often than it does here. In any case, I will probably not be receiving daily marriage proposals and I am a-okay with that.
I’ve reached a point where I consider sharing the front seat of a car with another volunteer to be deluxe travel accommodations. For $5.00, I can sit on the armrest for the 3.5 hour drive to my banking city of Ngaoundere. On this ride, I can look forward to the driver killing the engine on every downhill in order to “save gas,” stopping for prayer for 30 minutes to 1 hour, or even being abandoned at a roadside hut in a place that is called Bellel-Dibi, but is less of a village than a single thatch hut with a pot of beans for sale inside of it. For the same price, I just booked a MegaBus ticket from New York to DC. I am told that I will “have my own seat” on this “heated” bus, and while I know from experience that MegaBus can run just as late as Narral Voyages, I look forward to running late while not having one leg and half my butt fall asleep during the journey. Don’t even get me started about how I feel about driving with my dad and sister from Chicago to New York. Just the thought brings tears of joy to my eyes.
I haven’t felt this sensation in about 18 months, except for air conditioned rooms in Yaoundé and Douala. Counting down for layers, sweaters, boots, and winter scarves, none of which I have here with me. Given this fact, I shall deplane in Chicago in flip flops and a summer dress and proceed to freak out (in a fun way). Note to my sisterly readership: please return any clothes “borrowed” from my closet in my absence. Note to my parental readership: please bring me warm things to the airport! I shall need them.
Following lies a list I’m mostly forcing myself to compile to remind myself that I probably should return to Peace Corps after my 35-day vacation. I think I will most miss the people here. I have some wonderful friends, and it will be strange not stopping by Hadidja’s house every day to eat coki and check on the antics of her adorable kids, or seeing any of my counterparts for our meetings where we nerd out about feminism. Friends aside (again, a bit obvious), I will also probably miss the following:
Having a Sense of Purpose
Here, I (at least nominally) possess a job and am (theoretically) expected to do work. In the States, all my friends and family will head to class or work during the day, whereas I’ll find myself without things to do. I’m planning to stay busy with informational interviews, school visits, and book-reading to allay this, but nonetheless I suspect I’ll miss having projects of my own to dash off to daily.
Retreating to my Yellow Mud-Brick House
Cameroon has made me a bit of an introvert (gasp!). As I tell my Cameroonian friends, living alone leads one to do strange things: lots of walking around naked, dancing/singing like an idiot, eating popcorn as a meal, and telling jokes to yourself. Having a whole house to myself has spoiled me, and it will be different traveling from friend’s couch to friend’s couch to my family’s home, without the freedom to dance like an idiot to Lorde in my living room.
Meanwhile, twenty-two days from now I will be somewhere between flying over the Sahara and rejoicing at the Brussels airport Starbucks. The countdown is on! See you soon, America!
…because lord knows there weren’t already enough opportunities to drink in this country, I decided to turn a spare room in my house into a speakeasy. A fateful combination of free time, boredom, and an excess of Cameroonian pesos resulted in this project, and I must say this is probably the only time in the next 15 or so years I’ll be able to have something silly like this chez moi.
My speakeasy is named The Entertainment and is literature themed. We’ve been pondering drink specials (“The Tequila Sun Also Rises”; “Fifty Shades Darker and Stormy”), though some possibilities are precluded by an absence of tequila and other such fine products in this country. Additional book-pun cocktail names are most welcome.
Wonderful artist-person Emily Hardy (with the assistance of other delightful artist-person Will Godfrey) is in the midst of painting some book-themed art on the walls (for Bolano’s 2666 as well as The Poisonwood Bible). The speakeasy password will change regularly, but will always be an author or otherwise book-related.
I also made this room double as a guest room for visitors, and hid the bed away behind a curtain. It gives things a bit of a brothel-y vibe, but maybe that is more authentic (or something)? Though, I’m unsure about the merits of authenticity in a speakeasy in Cameroon, where beer is not only allowed, it is subsidized by the government.
I painted the room lilac, with the space above the bar painted in chalkboard paint. This was done much to the astonishment of my neighbors and the employees of Meiganga’s version of Home Depot. “Women can paint?” “White people do work?” “You know how to do manual labor?” Mais oui.
I had some bar stools and a bar commissioned from a local carpenter. The room used to only be accessible via my veranda, but my landlord obliged me in sending masons to hack a hole in the wall and install a door so that it is now also accessible via the house (more specifically, my closet-room, which I find quite fitting). The construction process included hitting the wall with machetes, putting a door in place, and then securing the door with a bunch of sand (and a bit of cement). Re-painting over the sand mixture remains to be done.
The soft opening begins NOW, and the grand opening is slated for the end of the month. Should you decide to trek halfway across the world for a drink, YOU are invited! The first password is the author of the book from which the speakeasy name is taken. See ya there 🙂
…sounds ominous, no? My home was recently taken over by small, unknown critters, who lived in my mattresses and couches and generally bit all people they came in contact with. Sleepless, itchy nights and skin resembling that of an 8-year-old with chicken pox soon resulted. It is unclear if they were bedbugs, mites or something more insidious yet, but my Cameroonian friends told me some fulfulde name for them, and generally called them “petits vampires.” So we might as well operate under the assumption that my house was inhabited by small vampires.
Two days ago, my friend Hadidja took me to the market to purchase various bug-killing powders and liquids. One incredibly ominous looking dark yellow spray had a giant skull and crossbones emblazoned on its front and promised to kill “all critters: spiders, cockroaches, and mice.” It then told me it was a-okay to spray everywhere- mattresses, sheets, etc. Somehow the notion of spraying the skull-and-crossbones liquid on my sleeping space seemed a bit dubious, but I decided that this off-brand Nigerian insecticide seemed trustworthy (enough).
Hadidja plotted our game plan with fire in her eyes. “We will spray these everywhere,” she said, pretty menacingly for a normally sweet and cheery fulfulde woman, “They will smell their death and flee.” In other words, we weren’t fucking around. This was war.
Yesterday was the day. I brought my bed and couch mattresses outside, along with all my pillows, sheets, and blankets and sprayed them down with the liquid-of-death. I washed all my plastic mats and my floors with bleach. I went a bit over-the-top in the Rambo Insecticide powder department, resulting in a film of white powder that covered every surface in my house, like a messy bakery, or the hideout of a cocaine trafficker. Hadidja came over and made sure each crack of my bed and couch were covered in white powder. “If they try to escape, they will find NOTHING BUT DEATH,” she assured. I cheered at this prospect, and then promptly vacated the premises to sleep at my friend Emily’s in neighboring Meidougou, due to slight misgivings about the liquid-of-death on the bedding. Tonight will tell if my insect-killing antics paid off, and if my trust of the Nigerian insecticide was valid. Keep your fingers crossed for me. If nothing else, my house has undergone an intense cleaning, and I even re-arranged my Rambo-dusted living room (having moved all of the furniture out to clean and spray it, it was now or never).
I’ve prepared excuses explaining how rarely I’ve posted these days. I was sick! I’ve been preoccupied with building a speakeasy in my house! I’ve been busy with work! All excuses come with caveats, some of which are more interesting than others. I was indeed sick, and am indeed cured (some boring stomach illness, still no malaria street cred for me). I have been preoccupied with building a speakeasy in my home (after the grand opening, I will have a thrilling post all about it with details). I’ve been busy with work! I’ve completed two large projects in the past month and a half, and here I am to tell you about them.
My first project, completed right before my friend Lauren’s visit in late August, was the culmination of my girl’s empowerment and sports summer camp with an “end of camp celebration.” My summer camp ran for two months, two days each week, and I worked with around 40 girls and several (amazing) counterparts. Leadership trainings, self-esteem building activities, reproductive health lessons, and a whole lot of volleyball, dancing, softball, and singing were led by myself, my counterparts and several other lovely volunteers who came and leant a hand. (Tragically, for anyone who has ever heard me sing, it was indeed I who led the singing. You can imagine how that went.)
It was a fun summer, and culminated in a celebration for the girls, their families, and the town “grands,” or rather, important people. We brought everyone together one dreary morning in late-August for volleyball and softball playing, a performance of R. Kelly’s “World’s Greatest,” accompanied by the wonderful Emily Hardy on guitar, and a dance routine to Beyonce’s “Grown Woman” (courtesy of choreographers-extraordinaire Halima Freudberg and Carly Kane). I was able to blast my music over a loudspeaker during the volleyball match and watch small boys who were in the audience sing along to Beyonce’s “Run the World” (very amusing). I had fundraised about 100,000 cfa in donations ($200 USD) from the local community to pay for school supplies for each girl, and we distributed certificates, school supplies, and prizes at the end of the ceremony. Fun was had by all, and the rain held off until the very minute the photos were done.
Large project number two concluded this week. My friend from a nearby village, Will, and I co-planned a conference on food security in Meiganga. When I say “co-planned,” I mean that Will did all the technical work, and I organized logistics and co-facilitated a session on facilitation skills (meta, I know). Aside from logistics and running amok, I can’t say I possess too much savvy wisdom to contribute to the masses regarding soy cultivation. Fortunately, Will does! And he organized a lot of wonderful sessions with our community members about soy and how it is a good way to combat malnutrition. 24 community members from Meiganga and 5 surrounding villages attended, and the exciting next step is for the community members to bring home what they’ve learned and conduct their own sensitizations in their communities. My Meiganga contingent was a great group, and I’m looking forward to continuing working with them over the next few months!
Living a wifi-less life, bribing gendarmes to get my car out of being impounded, and bopping about Yaoundé’s happy hours are normally not activities I would mention on this blog– in fact, you may have noticed my recent decrease in blog posts, suggesting I find few day-to-day events worthy of commenting on here. When I first arrived in Cameroon, everything was new, different, and startling. After nearly a year in country, I’ve become almost blasée about my daily goings-on: five children packed on one moto? Shrug. I’ve seen seven. Marriage proposal from a random guy in a bar? Third of the day. A two-hour car ride takes four hours plus a 45-minute stop for prayer? A cause for complaint, but not particularly interesting, for me or you.
My mindset completely shifted the other week, as I hosted my visiting friend Lauren Greubel for five days around Cameroon. Lauren spent her summer consulting in Mozambique with a youth development NGO, and was kind enough to swing through Cameroon (which, kudos to her, is really not a convenient stopover from anywhere) on her way back stateside. Showing her around the country proved an interesting way to see the country from a newcomers’ eyes, and brought me back to where I was mentally just about a year ago. Lauren has traveled extensively throughout Africa, so hearing her take on the conditions here proved most interesting. Less academically, we also had a charming few days catching up, oversharing, and overindulging in seafood and boxed wine.
Our itinerary was rather packed. Five days wasn’t quite enough time to bring Lauren to Meiganga, so I settled for the larger, touristy sites for her visit: Douala, Buea, Kribi, and Yaoundé. I met her at the airport in Douala after convincing the airport security man that she was a very important UN official who spoke no French and who I was responsible for (aside: it is shocking what a typed letter with a red stamp does for one’s credibility in this country). Our brief stay in Douala consisted of a welcome meal of tasty seafood, much music video-watching, and a quick breakfast at the hotel– then we were off to Buea!The town of Buea is the capital of the Southwest Region and the home of Mount Cameroon, the largest mountain in West Africa. It is only an hour and a half from Douala, and hosts several Peace Corps Volunteers, so Lauren and I dashed off in a bush taxi to visit a volunteer (also named Lauren) for the day. We had grand intentions of walking up towards the base of Mount Cameroon: however, the weather proved uncooperative and grim. Volunteer Lauren suggested we go grab lunch in the beach town of Limbe, a mere 30-minute, $2 cab ride away, and indeed we did. Further seafood indulgences ensued. Afterwards, Lauren (the volunteer) prepared a lovely taco-salad dinner for us, and Lauren (the visitor) was regaled with tales of Peace Corps life and misadventures over boxed wine. I think she was surprised to hear about our varied living conditions (Lauren lives in a walk-up apartment with running water; I live in a house made of mud bricks), as well as the flexibility of our schedules in Peace Corps. After showing Lauren a brief glimpse of Peace Corps life (in three words: chatting; eating; wine-in-a-box), it was time to move on to the touristy side of things, and we embarked for the beach town of Kribi.
Traveling from Buea to Kribi the following day took…a while. I’m fairly used to transportation being terrible in this country, but Lauren was less habituated. Granted, parts of the trip surprised us both. Our car from Buea to Douala was pulled over, and we sat on the side of the road for thirty minutes while the driver debated with the police. They said his papers were out of date and wanted to confiscate his car. In a shocking turn of events, they were unwilling to take a monetary bribe to let us go on our way (“Not everyone in Cameroon is corrupt,” a fellow passenger told me, as I raised my eyebrows in disbelief). These non-corrupt police WERE, however, willing to take my email address in exchange for letting us go. After (stupidly) providing my real email address (and thus setting myself up for all sorts of fun sexual harassment later via email), our car continued on its way. In Douala, we waited a few hours on an empty bus before departing on a slow, 60-kilometer-per-hour drive to Kribi in the rain.
Kribi proved to be a nice distraction, filled with sun, seafood and fancy wine (courtesy of Lauren, and Johannesburg Duty Free). After a rainy welcome on our first day, the weather on day two proved to be perfect. Originally the palest people in all of Kribi, Lauren and I swiftly became the pinkest people around after walking and laying about for just a few hours. I attempted to swim, but rainy season had caused the waves to become so overwhelming that they surmounted a barrier wall and flooded our hotel’s dining room floor. My swimming attempts, predictably, did not go as anticipated and instead resulted in me being repeatedly knocked over in the (like, pathetically one foot deep) surf, clutching my bikini top for dear life as sand, waves and the ubiquitous sea foam attacked. I’m fairly certain our fellow Portuguese hotel guests got a glimpse of my lady-parts in my ensuing battle with nature. I escaped as quickly as I could, my swimsuit intact (if not my dignity).The hotel was supposed to have wifi, but (surprise!) it wasn’t working. I was not surprised– anyone who has skyped with me has probably seen the room go dark behind me due to power outages at one point or another. Lauren, however, had some work calls to make and her productive plans were dashed by Cameroon’s across-the-board lack of technological advancement (a theme that recurred throughout the trip). Work temporarily put on hold, we resolved to adventure. We hiked to the nearby Chutes de la Lobe, one of the few places in the world where waterfalls fall directly into the ocean. “Nearby” in this sentence is relative: everyone we met on the walk there swore that they were only “1 kilometer” away. The hotel staff said the waterfalls were 1km away from the hotel. The construction workers 20 minutes later said the waterfalls were 1km away from their site. Another ten minutes down the road, the man operating a roadside shack promised we were but a kilometer away. In the end, the man in the shack knew what was up, and we arrived to see waterfalls and indulge in many a photo opp.
The last segment of our trip together was spent in Yaoundé, where we indulged in a night at the Hilton Hotel. I think American readers do not fully appreciate the joys that the Hilton brings Peace Corps volunteers. It is the only western hotel in this country. It is in possession of a rooftop bar that makes fancy cocktails, which are gloriously half price during their daily happy hour. It has real beds that are not made of foam. It has this crazy, seemingly unknown concept of customer service. It is, in a word, paradise. Lauren, having roughed it for a few days of bush taxis; slow, overcrowded coaster-buses; and sleeping on couches and foam mattresses was also ready to indulge in the gloriousness that is the Hilton. Our time in Yaoundé was spent spa-ing, happy hour-ing, and CNN-watching at the Hilton….with occasional excursions to the outside world. A fancy dinner out on the town, lunch at my favorite cafe, and an shopping trip to the artisanal market rounded out our time together. After some (blissfully functional!) internet at the Hilton, Lauren headed off to catch her flight to America-land.
On the whole, I suspect the amount of (long and complicated) travel made our vacation less relaxing than we would have anticipated. Nonetheless, it was a lovely (if whirlwind) tour of Cameroon’s biggest cities and beach towns, and I had a lot of fun sharing the idiosyncrasies of Cameroonian life with my very first visitor. Lauren was a delightful guest as she learned about the country, attempted to speak various French phrases, and caught me up on all the American goings-ons I’ve missed over the past year. Now, I just have two and a half months until roles are reversed and I will be a visitor in America, where I will be utterly bewildered by cultural phenomena such as iPhone apps, and private cars.
Barka da sahlaa! I recently celebrated Eid al-Fitr and it was, without question, the most enjoyable holiday I’ve encountered in Cameroon. As I mentioned before, I decided to fast for the last twelve or so days of Ramadan. I did this because of peer pressure/ due to the logistical difficulties in eating out during the day in a mostly Muslim town. More sincerely, I also fasted as a show of solidarity with my many Muslim friends and co-workers.
Anecdotally, my feelings of solidarity can be summed up as follows:
- Earlier in the month, my counterpart Franc would sit down after our girls’ sports camp and cry “Ah!! The vertigo is getting me!”. Later in the month, Franc and I would both collapse after sports camp and cry “Ahhh! Vertigo!” Fasting has the tendency to make your head spin.
- When I ran into my friend Will’s handsome moto driver amongst the Meiganga moto pool, he asked me “Are you helping us??”, implying “Are you also fasting?”. YES! I declared. He grinned his dashing grin. All was well in the world.
- I felt utterly justified in treating myself to lovely henna to celebrate the end of Ramadan and spent a charming (if sleepy) afternoon with Hadidja, her adorable daughters, and about 15 other children and women awaiting henna of their very own.
- My friend and fellow-volunteer Aly visited me to help me with my camp, and as he is Muslim, he was also fasting. We cooked a fancy taco meal to break fast, and then enjoyed glamorous steak-frites in Ngaoundere to break fast the next day. Steak-frites never tasted so good.
On a more personal level, I learned that even my profound love of food cannot motivate me to wake up at 4:00 am to eat before sunrise, and also that I structure most of my social interactions around eating and not having that option is confusing. I also enjoyed the opportunity to think more critically and intentionally about the food I ate (as that was pretty much all I pondered beginning at 11:00 am daily).
Ramadan technically ended on Monday July 28th, and all the men in town plus many of the women embarked to a field near the high school to pray together, because it was the only space that accommodates everyone. I spent my day helping friends prep food for the feast, baking three cakes for my friend Hadidja, and dining at my friend Ahmadou’s house.
The fun truly began on Tuesday, when I headed to the Bello’s to photograph the girls getting ready for the fete. They had all received gifts of new outfits, shoes, and purses with innumerable articles of bling within (as well as, arbitrarily, a pair of reading glasses that everyone was really enthused about). I was truly amazed as the girls managed to put literally ever barrette, headband, and scrunchie they received onto their heads at one time. Friends arrived, food was eaten, and photos were taken in abundance.
I convinced my cluster-mate Brian and his wonderful visitor Martine to join me at the next fete, which was at our friends Hadidja and Saliyou’s house down the street. We brought the cakes and proceeded to nap on the couches until the feast was ready, complete with spaghetti and meat balls, chicken, rice, fried carbohydrates, and chai. During Ramadan, I frequently broke fast with Hadidja, Saliyou and the family and they very much took me under their wing. Hadidja even surprised me with a lovely Cameroonian pagne ensemble to wear for the fete. It was delightful to celebrate with them and to photograph everyone looking satiated during the daytime for a change.
Hanging out in Meiganga, I have recently embarked on two new adventures. First, I have started fasting for the last 12 days of Ramadan, because peer pressure is real, and because none of the cool kids eat during the day anymore so I have also decided to stop eating (until 6:30 each night). And also, because I’m in favor of showing solidarity with my neighborhood. I shall reward myself with very exciting henna for Eid on the 28th, and all of the food in the land. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, I have also begun studying for the GRE, which I plan to take in October. And, since my mother requested more “day-in-the-life-of” style photos on this blog, I hereby offer you snapshots of a few days in photos, explained with the help of GRE vocab words.
After my morning run, Misra and I stroll down this bucolic path into the brousse, to visit Franc and Elise at their field. Their ebullient natures seem somewhat diminished after working for a few hours under the hot sun while fasting, but they are still all smiles for the camera.
As I walk home, I am harangued by this mischievous group of children. They stalk me daily in a sedulous manner, always crying “COLLIE” or “PAULINE” or some other incorrect version of my name in my direction (in any case, it is better than nassara). Annette, far left, is their diabolical ringleader. Enervated from my morning in the field and from corralling the youth, I relax for a bit with The New Yorker chez moi (thanks, Sophie!).
Mid-afternoon, I visit Marie and her family to see their new home. Her mercurial baby smiles at first, but later becomes recalcitrant as she realizes that I am not at all her momma. Meanwhile, Marie feeds her pet monkey plantains and feeds me plantains and spaghetti, whilst her daughter practices posing for what would surely be a highly acclaimed version of Cameroon’s Next Top Model if it existed (Tyra, get on it).
I soon walk to nearby Hadidja’s house, where everyone is breaking fast for Ramadan. I listen to her husband’s garrulous tirade about the state of corruption in Cameroon, and then observe while 1.5 year old Hamza wreaks destruction upon the house. Hadidja calls Hamza a bother; the GRE might call him irascible; I call him the Destroyer of Worlds.
My forgetful neighbor handed me our $6 electric bill two weeks late, so I head to SONEL, the electricity company to pay the bill. I wait for 30 minutes to no avail, pining for my halcyon days in America where bills were paid via iPhone app. I inquire with the boss when I should return to pay, and he demurs, saying the employee is on her way back from the hospital *this very instant*. I take this to mean I should come back in 2 hours, and head to the market.
A funny chat with one of my favorite Market Mommas leaves me with sanguine hopes for today’s market prospects. I am not let down: the advent of rainy season has heralded a concomitant rise in tasty produce available for consumption. I purchase all of the things.
Two hours was not, in fact, long enough to wait…three hours later, and I succeed in paying the nettlesome electricity bill. While in the neighborhood, I visit my landlord Iya. He tells me about CamWater’s reticence and how its district employees occlude all of our sedulous attempts to acquire running water in my home. I remain chary of getting my hopes up for such a prospect. I stroll through his charming neighborhood en route to meet other volunteers in town: if I could live anywhere in Meiganga and my impecunious “volunteer” status was not a issue, I would live in Rue 24.
Welcome to Meiganga, travelers! I greet my visitors Charlotte and Shannon, along with cluster-mates Rachel and Brian, at the central (read: only) restaurant in town. After a quick meal of beeftek and plantains, my intrepid comrades Rachel and Brian head out, managing to fit Rachel’s new villageois mattress dubiously on the moto between them.
Stateside, you’ll often find me waxing lyrical about the death of the American Dream. I adore documentaries about failed cities (for some fun ones, see Detropia or The Pruitt-Igoe Myth). Lately I’ve been raving about how True Detective is a breathtaking tableau of failed America. Blame it on Jonathan Franzen novels, childhood in the Midwest, too many history books, or all of the above: I tend to see the States in its decline, and I perversely find signs of this decline beautiful.
It’s been said that Peace Corps is the government’s way of turning hippies into patriots. I may not have been a hippie (I leave that role to my sister Megan), but my perspective on the States has certainly shifted since moving to Cameroon. Try telling a country with a youth unemployment rate above 30% that it is hard to find a job in the States. The necessities of networking for good jobs in America pale in comparison to the blatant nepotism that reigns in Cameroon. Compound the problems with rampant sexism and agism that prioritizes old rich men at the expense of all other demographics, and you find yourself in a society with a strictly limited window of opportunity for young people.
From this perspective, consider the USA. A country where you don’t need to bribe every government worker you encounter to convince them to do their job. A country where you can get an entry-level position with an organization in the hopes of moving up the ladder, regardless of how many gifts you give to the boss. A country where teachers are paid every year, and salaries have actually risen slightly over the past quarter century. A country where you can ask to transfer to another office and not anticipate paying a 300,000 CFA bribe to be taken seriously. Frankly, after living in Cameroon for nine months, I’m beginning to buy into the amazing feats ascribed to the US by those around me. Occasionally, with patriotic fervor, I find myself even going above and beyond “buying into”, and entering a territory we shall call “accidentally promoting blatant falsehoods.”
“In America, anyone who is qualified can get a job!,” I attest, forgetting my two months of self-pity and Ben&Jerry’s binging while I job-searched after college.
“Public transit is so reliable and timely in the US!”, I recall wistfully, DC’s Red Line conveniently obscuring itself from my memory.
“In the States, women are recognized as equal to men!” I proselytize, leaving out various political efforts to infringe on women’s reproductive rights.
I’m at a loss for which cliché to employ here : The grass is always greener on the other side? We always want what we can’t have? Absence makes the heart grow fonder? One thing is sure: homesickness has hit. Nine months into my service, and I’m undeniably missing all aspects of American life, likely including you, dear reader. Simultaneously, here I am, hanging out for another five months before my vacation to your magical land of human rights and dairy products, asking myself what work I can possibly do to address these problems I’ve stumbled upon in my daily life in Cameroon.
Corruption, bribery, unfair hiring practices…what on earth could I do to ameliorate any of this? Not much! Pretty much zero things. But, being the biased Youth Development volunteer that I am, all of my possible hopes for Cameroon’s future inevitably return to “the youth”! That douchey middle-aged guy on the bus may never respect my silly little lady-self; however, the boys in my life skills class talk about how they want to make sure they and their sisters do equal amounts of chores around the house . Each end-of-semester ceremony includes my 11-year-old students performing adorable skits after which the screech the theme: “We say NO to corruption!” I have many female friends that, despite the obstacles they face, are killing it and working hard to excel at their jobs. These are the things that cheer me up and give me hope. They don’t solve everything, but they are a start. And while I continue to live and work in Cameroon, I’ll have to hold on to that….and maybe read some post-post-modernist lit from time to time to keep my views on the States from becoming unreasonably idealist. After the Fourth, that is. (#MERICA)
It happened at last– Boko Haram has made the local news in the States. A terrorist group kidnapping around 200 young girls in Nigeria and selling them into marriage for $12 each does have a certain headline quality to it. The international community is, justifiably, outraged. Meanwhile, myself and my fellow volunteers found the development unsurprising – Boko Haram’s influence is strongly felt here in Cameroon, and is discussed often by volunteers and locals alike.
Boko Haram is, simply put, a despicable organization. For years now, they have been kidnapping both foreigners and Cameroonians for ransom in Cameroon’s Extreme North region. Just last week, ten Chinese workers were kidnapped in Waza, Extreme North. Meanwhile, in Nigerian cities, Boko Haram is suspected of detonating several bombs that have killed civilians by the dozens.
I’ll leave analyzing Boko Haram’s effect in Nigeria to your preferred local news network. What few outlets are discussing, however, is the impact that Boko Haram has on neighboring nations. Terrorist cells operate outside of national boundaries, and this terrorist group has an increasingly expanding reach into Cameroon. According to my landlord, who is a well-informed and influential guy (if a sort of corrupt gent), Cameroonians perceived to be wealthy or powerful have been kidnapped in the Extreme North and held ransom by Boko Haram throughout the past several years. My landlord says that these kidnappings have been played down and/or denied by the government– no one wants it to seem that the Cameroonian Government is incapable of protecting its citizens.
Meanwhile, rumors have flown in locations as far-ranging as Guider (North Region), to Bellel (Adamawa), to Bafang (West), that Boko Haram is present and working within Cameroon. Whether they plan to kidnap additional individuals, shoot or bomb marketplaces, or simply lurk around on motos is a matter of public debate. The Cameroonian people, generally speaking, condemn Boko Haram and their actions. The organization’s militaristic approach and violent acts contradict the Cameroonian way of life, which prides itself on being a country of peace and tranquility.
What does Boko Haram mean for Peace Corps? Generally speaking, post closures and a Mad-Eye-Moody-esque insistence on “constant vigilance!”. Following the kidnapping of a French family over a year ago near Waza National Park, the Peace Corps closed down all posts in the Extreme North. As subsequent kidnappings took place, additional posts were closed near the North/Extreme North border. At this point, our Northern region is on “Standfast” status, with limited travel allowed, and the Adamawa region (where I live) is on Alert. All posts in the West Adamawa were closed several months ago, after rumors of Boko Haram in the area were confirmed. Local governments in the Adamawa and North regions are tasked with compiling lists of all foreigners in the area– a “White Person List”, if you will, that will help them identify who we are, should we be unceremoniously snatched away by the bad guys.
The West Adamawa and Extreme North regions (now closed to volunteers) seem, according to news sources, to be where some of the kidnapped girls may have been moved to following their “marriages”. While I commend the international community’s desire to return the girls to their families, I’m a bit skeptical on how planned rescue operations may work. I hear that the US is assisting with fly-overs that are searching for the girls– but at this point, the girls are separated, likely living in family compounds (known as “concessions”). They are probably restricted to their concessions and cannot leave– but the same is true for a large portion of women living in the Extreme North, who need their husbands’ permission just to leave the house. Ethnic groups in Cameroon are mixed and diverse, and so a Nigerian girl likely wouldn’t stand out much to the naked eye. Unless these girls are spelling out SOS in rocks on their thatched roofs, I’m not quite sure how they will be identified.
I suspect that the girls could be found through on-the-ground, in-person searches, inquiring about the most recent village gossip and asking about newcomers. But this solution would also need to address the culture of fear that surrounds Boko Haram– what would happen to someone, and their family, if they implicated a newcomer as a Boko Haram member? Frankly, all options have their own shortcomings, complications, and problems.
Of course, I think that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign brings important attention to a serious issue. I think that Boko Haram needs to be stopped, and I would love nothing more than for the girls to be found and returned to their families. My concern, however, is that this trending hashtag is just that– an ephemeral concern that will pass long before any progress is made on finding the girls, or on stopping Boko Haram’s terrorism. A short-lived media frenzy does not stop the bad guys– as Joseph Kony’s continued existence attests. So what can we do? How can we move forward in a meaningful way?
I’ve written before about the state of girls and women in Cameroon. Women are disenfranchised and repressed every day, throughout this country and throughout the region. A patriarchal, often misogynistic culture and entrenched traditions permit the perpetuation of high rates of spousal abuse, rape, and gender-based violence, in addition to more mundane forms of repression like limited schooling for girls. In my region, girls in their early teens are often removed from school to be married off, a family-sanctioned version of what has happened to the girls in Nigeria. The actualities may be grim, but we (development workers; progressive Cameroonians; etc.) hold out hope that change will come. Through parental sensitizations, men-as-partners sessions, gender-based-violence prevention campaigns, and girls’ empowerment projects, I think that little by little, we can chip away at the established order that permits the repression and abuse of girls and women. Such work may not “Bring Back Our Girls,” but it will help create a new society that condemns forced marriage and values the girl child, not as $12, but as an equal contributor to society.
Many organizations do excellent work in girls’ and women’s empowerment. I’m personally familiar with the work of RENATA, UNHCR, and the International Medical Corps, and recommend you check them out if you are interested in learning more.