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.