My Visitors, Part I: Preparations

On Septmeber 12th, I was blessed by a visit from my lovely mother and lovely aunt. The trip was only ten short days, but the preparation was so, so much more. Excluding all the shots, visas, and various other paperwork, there was also packing and cultural preparations to be made. Here is the (barely edited) e-mail I sent my mom and aunt before visiting. If you are planning on visiting out fine country of Cameroon, take note! Another blog post about the visit will be posted soon. In the meantime, enjoy!

Hello ladies!

I can’t believe that you’ll be here in a little over a month! I thought I’d send a few travel tips and tricks your way to help you pack. Because it looks as though you’ve already started.

Clothing: It’s rainy season here and the temperatures probably range from the high 50s in the evenings and mornings to low 80s in the afternoons. It really doesn’t get too warm. Keep in mind culture differences-it’s best not to show too much leg, shoulders, or chest, and skirts are always considered more formal than pants. Cameroonians really take time to look nice every day. Therefore, I’m not recommending you bring a lot of sweats, t-shirts, etc. It will be more respectful if you’re “business casual” while we are around my village. So. Here are my recommendations for clothing:

-2 pairs pants or capris

-2 longish skirts

-1 pair sweatpants or windpants for hiking/lounging

-1 nice/professional dress in case we are invited to a funeral or a dinner (Below knee)

-3-4 nice blouses

-2 tee shirts

-1 heavy sweatshirt

-1 nice sweater to wear over dress/blouses

-Rain jacket or umbrella

-Pajamas

-Underwear/socks

-1 pair tennis shoes/good walking shoes

-1 pair nice shoes or sandals (NOT FLIP FLOPS, make sure they have a back strap or everyone will think they are “slippers” and therefore not formal)

-1 pair flip flops (these are called babooshes. You’ll wear them around the house or up to the carrefour or at the beach. Only for very informal occasions)

-Swimsuit

-Swimsuit cover-up

-Bring some inexpensive jewelry to dress up your outfits

-Sunglasses

We can do laundry at my house, or at the beach, so don’t worry too much about under packing clothing.

 

Toiletries: 

-Shampoo and conditioner

-Soap

-Towel

-Hand sanitizer

-Wet wipes

-Diarrhea medicine, headache pills, etc (Just a few, my med kit is fully stocked at the house, but hell, you never know when that stuff will hit)

-OTC sleeping meds (They’ll be good to get on some sort of schedule after the jet lag)

-Malaria prophylaxis

-A roll of toilet paper or a few small packs of tissues (public restrooms will not have it, you can also buy it here)

-Toothpaste/toothbrush/floss

-Sunscreen

 

Electronics, Paperwork, Other: 

-Camera, memory cards

-Headlamp or flashlight

-Multi-tool or Swiss Army knife could be useful

-Water bottle (doesn’t need a filter or anything fancy, I have a good one here)

I don’t really recommend you bring much else. If you want to listen to music, put some on your smart phone. I have my computer at the house that you can use to check e-mail or upload photos. If you guys would feel safer having a working cell phone here, we can buy you a SIM card or a cheap phone (20 dollars) that you can put pay-as-you go minutes on.

-Passport, along with 2 copies stored in your carry-on

-WHO Vaccine Card (2 copies also)

-ICE Contact Card

-US ID Card

Travel Tips and Tricks: 

Hand gestures:

-Count to five with a closed fist. An open palmed five is a gesture that means “This is the size of your mother’s vagina” like, “your mom is a whore.” It’s the Cameroonian equivalent of flipping the bird.

-Wave people over with your palm down. Palm up gesturing is reserved for animals and is considered disrespectful.

-To show respect, hold your elbow while shaking hands with someone.

-To greet a chief, bow, clap twice, form a fist and tap it to your lips. (I’ll show you how to do this, and also give you the heads up if we are meeting a chief)

Communication:  

-It would be great if you could learn some French greetings before arriving. “Hello” “How are you?” “I’m well” and “Thank you” will get you pretty far

-Most people in the village speak the local language, unless they are directing a comment at me. I’ll teach you how to say “Hello” in Batie when you get here. The people will love it!

-They are REALLY big on greetings here! Just shake hands and say hello to everyone you see, so we don’t offend people.

 How to avoid getting your stuff stolen: 

There isn’t a lot of violence here, but people will want your stuff. . This will mostly just be for when we are in Douala and Bafoussam.

-Don’t wear necklaces or long earrings. Thieves will sometimes rip them off of you.

-Wear a purse with a strong over the should strap, or a handbag under your arm. Carry it on the side not facing the road. (Bandits are known to come by on motos and snatch them form your shoulder)

-ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH YOUR PASSPORT. The gendarmes have many roadstops where they ID everyone. If you don’t have an ID, they shake you down for money. So to avoid that, BRING YOUR DOCUMENTS WITH YOU EVERYWHERE.

-Split up your money into several different bags so your money isn’t “all in one basket”

-Beware of taxi drivers asking you to scoot over if you are in the front seat. They may be trying to pick your pockets.

-When in doubt, walk quickly like you know what you are doing and don’t make eye contact.

Cultural Differences: 

-Age equals respect here. Many people will call you grand-mother or mother, and that’s a compliment.

-To be called little sister is a big insult.

-You’ll get “La blanche” and “whiteman” and other racial comments quite a bit. Don’t worry about them too much.

-Same with catcalls

-Hissing and kissing noises are an appropriate way to get someone’s attention

Transportation: 

-Never expect to take a bush taxi (taxi from village to village) with fewer than 7 full grown adults in it.

-Chickens, small goats, and children do not count as a “place” in a vehicle

-Gendarmes will stop cars and buses at checkpoints often. It isn’t a big deal, don’t be alarmed.

-There is no bus schedule. Buses leave when they are full. -Sometimes you gotta get a little pushy to get your spot on a bus.

-Your personal space just got a whole lot smaller. You’ll be surprised how little space your body can take up.

-The cars and buses are in various states of disrepair. Don’t accept AC or seatbelts

-We’ll be taking moto-taxis semi-regularly. I’ll get you helmets from the PC office.

-People drive crazily. We can always yell at them to slow down, but I still end up letting Jesus take the wheel fairly often.

-Don’t enter a taxi or bus until I have negotiated a price with the driver.

-Always try to have exact change, if possible.

 How I’ll be behaving: So you’ll probably think that I’ve become pretty heartless. You will probably see me yell at children to get away from my house, refuse to give children or beggars 50 cents, and argue over prices [These things have become necessary to protect property and save money]. My French is still far from ideal, but I will try to translate as much as I can. Transportation is also going to be rough, so just pay attention and follow my lead. You should also lower your hygiene standards considerably. We’ll be eating in places where it isn’t uncommon to see mice or roaches (including my kitchen). My house is fairly clean, but still not what you would expect from an American home. I have no running water, so you’ll have to bucket flush or use the latrine. PS latrine and pit toilets ARE NOT EQUAL. Latrines are simply a hole in the ground. No toilet seat. You just squat and hope you aimed well. Bring TP with ya to the latrine 🙂 NEVER drink water that is given to you by someone. We will use my water filter at the house or buy bottled water. Always thank people for food and tell them that it is delicious; it’s just polite.

Annnnd Gifts! I told my mom on our last phone call a little bit about gift culture. People love gifts, and they are expected. I used to think it was terribly rude, but now I have accepted it as part of the culture, and I actually really enjoy it! People will probably be giving you gifts, too. It’ll probably be something like a bag full of unwashed peanuts or an arm of plantains, but keep in mind that’s not a small sacrifice. And sometimes it’ll be a pineapple or avocados! Anyway, it’s a nice thing about Cameroon I’ve come to enjoy. SO. For the people here, I have constructed the following list:

Eliane and Family: Eliane has been my SAVIOR here in village. She has adopted me as part of her family and really helped me find work. For her, I would recommend a bottle of perfume or lotions (not expensive) and maybe a photo for their home. We’ll likely visit her mother, in which case another photo would be a nice idea.

Mme Emillienne: My community host. A photo or calendar would be nice.an inexpensive (Target, Wmart) necklace and earrings or perfume.

Sous-prefet, Mayor, Chef, Betrade (neighbor), Hortence (neighbor): Photo or calendar for each

Landlord: Baseball cap cologne

Boris and friend: These two will be taking us to and from the airport. Two baseball caps would be nice. Boris is especially interested in birds and fish (He raises them for sale) so if you find a fun photo or small book, bonus points!

Children: A bag of candy or cheap-o target toys. Art supplies are especially nice since art isn’t a priority here. Also, if you could bring a few children’s books (LOW LEVEL) in English (used is fine) that would be great. I’d like to have some teaching aids to use with the kids. Annnd that should do it on gifts. I would just try to buy a bunch of matted photos at Hobby Lobby for five bucks a pop to have in case we are invited somewhere. While these things are nice, we can always buy a box of wine or a watermelon if we forget someone! So don’t stress too much.

Alright! A lot of information here. I will e-mail you again because I am sure I forgot some things. E-mail me back with any questions! I. AM. SO. EXCITED. TO. SEE. YOU!

Love, Allison

My Part of the Family Meeting

A few weeks ago, I was out getting a drink with my friend Eliane (see: My Body Can’t Keep Up with Bamileke Funerals). We headed down to Tchomso, the main market area, and took a seat at one of the little bars.

“Tchomso is very calm this evening,” Eliane remarked. “There are many family meetings happening this weekend.”

“Family meetings?” I asked, confused.

Eliane tried to explain, but I wasn’t quite following. “Mine is next weekend. You can come with my to see.”

The next Saturday, Eliane’s brother picked me up to take me to their grandfather’s concession. When we arrived, I didn’t see Eliane. “Eliane is too busy preparing khoki.” Her mother explained to me. “She will meet us at my husband’s home later.” This meant Eliane was supposed to be present at her husband’s, father’s and grandfather’s meetings.

I know a large part of Eliane’s family at this point, so I felt perfectly comfortable being escorted around by her mother. I walked into the family concession with Serge, Eliane’s younger brother, and was taken aback by the sheer number of people present. “These are all members of your family?” I asked, awe-struck.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Families in the West are huge. Polygamy is legal in Cameroon, and in Batié, it is much more common than monogamy. The number of wives can vary. Eliane is one of four wives, and her mother is one of seven. Some of the chiefs have upwards of twenty. Women generally have several children, so you can see how families can expand quite quickly.

Based on the attendance at this meeting, Eliane’s gene pool isn’t in any danger of drying up. There were probably close to one-hundred people in the concession. Several old men were dressed in the traditional Bamileke pagne and wore elaborate beaded necklaces and peaked woven hats. I looked around and recognized several faces from around village and even from the regional capital. I had no idea all these people were related.

Eliane’s mother introduced me to the head of the household. “This is my father!” She said, introducing me to the man in the traditional blue-and-white woven vest. I was confused because he was clearly much younger than Eliane’s mother. “The real father has died. This is his successor.” She continued to explain that in Bamileke tradition, the successor is not automatically the first born male. The successor is chosen by the father, and is the child whose “personality pleases him [the father] most.”

I'm the one in the middle! To my left is Eliane's mother; to my right is the head of the household. The men on either end are other important family men.
I’m the one in the middle! To my left is Eliane’s mother; to my right is the head of the household. The men on either end are other important family men.

After some mingling, we moved into the large dining hall to prepare for dinner. Eliane’s mother quickly jumped up from her seat. She started singing a song in the local language while the other women clapped in sync. Soon many people were up singing and dancing with her. Eliane’s nephew turned to me “My grandmother is very animated.” Soon, dinner was finished and we were ready to move on to the next stop.

Before I could leave, Eliane’s brother, Adolf, gifted me a large sack of porc and plantains. I put the gift in my backpack and remembered how after a dinner party in the US someone might send you home with the leftover brownies. While I prefer the taste of brownies, I was touched by the significance of my grocery sack of meat. Meat is expensive and saved for special occasions. I would choose that sack of porc over leftover dessert any day.

When the car pulled into the next concession, I was greeted by approximately 20 small children shouting: “La blanche, la blanche!” (The white, the white). I got out and greeted them. Thankfully, Eliane was there at that point to help explain my presence. Then came more mingling.

During this time, I got into an interesting discussion with Serge about polygamy. I asked why Cameroonian women didn’t also take many husbands. First he laughed. Then he said it was not possible. He said that this was the way it had always be done. “Just because it’s the way things are doesn’t mean it’s the way things should be.” I said, doing my best to translate one of my favorite quotes into French.

He insisted that there were not enough men in Cameroon, and that is why men must take more wives. Serge is a fairly successful businessman in Douala, and happens to own a smart phone. Therefore, we turned to Wikipedia for the population breakdown of Cameroon in order to settle our argument. There we were: me, a 22-year-old white woman, and Serge, a 30-something Cameroonian man, sitting in his mother’s mud brick house squinting at his iPhone and debating the ethics and logistics of polygamy. It was a moment of cultural exchange I never would have dreamed of before becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer.

It turns out (based on the Wikipedia entry) that there are actually MORE men to every woman until about age 65, and then the ratio changes pretty dramatically. Changing Serge’s mind based on a few census statistics seemed unlikely, but I’d like to think I at least planted a seed.

While we were wrapping up our discussion, a young man came around telling us all the meeting was about to start. I walked into a large room with several benches and a table in the front. All of the small children were giggling and squirming as they squeezed onto the benches next to each other. Eliane used her stern voice: “Silence! Or I will hit you!”

The kids bit the lips together and covered their mouths while they held in more laughter. Eliane is a large woman, and she was not joking. I’m not sure how they still found the situation so funny. Slowly, adults started filling the remaining seats and five men sat down at the table in the front of the room. Then they started to… take attendance. Names were read and current addresses were give. It turns out Eliane has family not just from all over Cameroon, but also in several other African countries. Names of several family members were read because they had donated money to a general fund that helped others pay their transportation costs. Then, people around the room took turns standing up to share some general news about weddings, children, and deaths.

Five of the sons acting as Family meeting officers (President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, etc) Sorry for the bad quality! Shoddy electricity and no flash...
Five of the sons acting as Family meeting officers (President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, etc) Sorry for the bad quality! Shoddy electricity and no flash…

More names were being called, and Eliane explained that they were now giving money to another general fund for school supplies. The next day, the money would be distributed evenly among all the children to help pay for notebooks and pencils for the coming school year. Adolf turned and said something to me in Batié. Eliane translated it into French for me. “He wants to know if you are going to give your part,” she said teasingly.

I asked what my part was, and she told me 500 CFA. I handed a CFA coin to the treasurer. The family laughed and clapped, and the secretary asked how I spelled my name. “Alice Adams,” he repeated as he read from his notebook. Elaine smiled, “Now that you have given your part, you will be in the family book for next year.”

My Chubbiest Point in History

Mindy really does put it best... GIF Credit: http://media-cache-ec0.pinimg.com/originals/bc/4a/c4/bc4ac4283807bf83d553cd3020dad4cb.jpg
Mindy really does put it best…
GIF Credit: http://media-cache-ec0.pinimg.com/originals/bc/4a/c4/bc4ac4283807bf83d553cd3020dad4cb.jpg

There’s an old saying: if there is an elephant in the room, you should introduce it. So here it goes. Hi, I’m Allison, and here in Cameroon, I reached my chubbiest point in history.

If any of you reading are friends with me on Facebook, you may have noticed some changes in my appearance. Perhaps you have looked at my photos and thought “Something looks different about Allison…” or, more likely, “What is that large cow doing dressed up in an Allison suit?” These thoughts are not unwarranted. Since coming to Cameroon, I have gained weight.

Before I get too far into this post, I want to add a disclaimer. THIS IS NOT BODY HATING. I have, what I think is, a very positive body image. I credit most of this to my mother. I have never once heard her criticize her own appearance, much less mine. Not because I was ugly or she was insecure, but because it was simply an arbitrary standard that was of no importance. On top of this, I was the only girl in the family. Therefore, my dad thought I was perfect no matter what I was wearing or how I styled my hair. That left my two brothers to make any fat and/or ugly joke they could think of while we were growing up, which quickly left me desensitized to criticism. All together, I think it was the perfect storm for creating a healthy body image. Now I hope that you can rest assured that I am not heading towards an eating disorder or a fad diet, and I can continue telling you all about what it’s like to gain weight in Cameroon.

Before leaving for Cameroon, several people made statements along the lines of “Oh my gosh, I bet you’re going to lose so much weight living in Africa!” I am only now starting to realize how screwed up of a statement this is. Do we really all think that everyone on the entire continent is malnourished? It may be a stereotype, but I have to say, I bought into it as well. I thought, no dairy, no processed food, very little meat, lots of walking…I don’t see how I could possibly gain weight.

All of those parameters held true, but somehow I still managed to gain quite a bit of weight within the first few months. I think this is because I didn’t account for all of the forms of concentrated carbohydrates and oil. From my first day with homestay family, the menu consisted heavily of rice, potatoes, bread, tuber vegetables, palm oil, peanut oil, and…. baton de manioc. Baton de manioc is dried manioc that is ground into powder, rehydrated, and steamed in a banana leaf over a fire. I’m not sure how they do it, but I think they have somehow refined the root so that it contains approximately one-billion calories in an easy to consume stick form. The kicker is I didn’t even like these heavy Cameroonian dishes when I got here. I was gaining weight while eating terrible food.

I’m not sure how quickly the weight gain happened. I know during training my clothes started fitting a little bit tighter. Since we were washing our clothes by hand a hanging them on the line to dry, I knew I couldn’t attribute that to my pants going through the dryer. There was also no full length mirror at my homestay house, or in many Cameroonian houses for that matter. I could have hopped on the bathroom scale, but the only time I’ve seen one of those in country is when they are being carried around by a small child. You’re supposed to pay 100 CFA to find out your weight. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I was going to PAY for that information. So, the first time I really knew I had gained weight was when my host mom told me.

It was after what had been my hardest day in Cameroon at that point. The first person in our training group had decided she was going to early terminate her service. That is, go back to the US. She was fun and intelligent, and was supposed to be posted in my region. On top of this, we had our first big project due the next day; a fifteen minute presentation IN FRENCH on Cameroonian culture. Oh, and I had started my period.

After this emotionally draining day, I walked into my homestay house, sweaty from the humidity, lugging my heavy backpack, with mud caked on my shoes and pants. My host mom tried to tell me something in French, but I was sure I didn’t understand her correctly. She gave up and used her broken English: “I say ‘you have got too fat.'” The rest of the family burst out laughing as they saw the shocked look on my face.

“You think I should lose weight?” I asked, confused.

“No. You look healthy! I was only noticing.” She responded.

This didn’t help. I went into my room, shut the door, and immediately burst out in tears. Not graceful, dignified tears, but full-on, snot-coming out of my nose, sobbing. This had been the cherry on top of my crap sundae of a day. This was my first cry in country, and the embarrassing trigger had been because someone called me fat.

My host sister knocked on the door while I was still blubbering into my pillow. Dinner was ready. I went out to the dining room to eat my dinner: Pasta with palm oil.

It was a conspiracy.

Moving to village gave me a clean start. At least it did for a little while. But before I knew it, I was getting all sorts of comments from villagers. “You look well nourished!” “You must be happy here in Cameroon, you have taken weight.” “You must enjoy the food here.” Oh, the irony…

A horrifying point came while I was talking with my community host, Madame Emilliene. She started the same as everyone else. “You have gained weight. It is good.” No news there… but then she continued. “You have gained weight, but you will gain much more while your body becomes habituated to the climate. Don’t worry; before you leave you will be like me, a real African woman!” Standing outside Emilliene’s boutique, I saw my future. It was large and involved many cabbas.

The cabba, traditional Cameroonian garb of the West. Great for weight fluctuations or smuggling a 30" TV out of a Best Buy.
The cabba, traditional Cameroonian garb of the West. Great for weight fluctuations or smuggling a 30″ TV out of a Best Buy.

For us Americans, it seems rude for someone to comment on your body. It’s a different story here. When Cameroonians comment on weight gain, it is usually in a positive light. At the very least they are not trying to be offensive. At best it is an observation of happiness and good health, and at worst, it is just observing a fact, like “you have brown hair” or “you have blue eyes.” For these reasons, I tried to take most of the comments in stride.

As I’ve settled into my life at post, my weight is starting to equilibrate again. I was given some evidence that that was indeed true a few weeks ago. That is when the first Cameroonian ever (my friend Adolf) made a weight loss comment:

“Alice! You’ve lost weight!”

My heart fluttered. Yay! Finally! My body has adjusted and is no longer committed to being a fun-house mirror version of myself. Then he added:

“Are you sick? It’s not pretty.”

At that moment, the difference between how Cameroonians and Americans view weight and appearance met head on in my brain, resulting in a colossal culture clash. Unfortunately, my American value system won out. Adolf had implied that my weight loss was not a good thing, but I couldn’t help but feel gratified that I had lost weight and that someone had noticed. Despite the fact that I am living in a culture that appreciates larger women, I found I was happier to be called thin, sickly, and un-pretty, than I was to be called fat, happy, and healthy. And that’s pretty messed up.

I’m not sure what the next year and a half in Cameroon means for my body. Whatever happens, I hope I can become a little more Cameroonian with outlooks about my appearance. Weight is a characteristic just like anything else. After all, I do have brown hair, and blue eyes, and I don’t attach much significance to those qualities. Why should my weight be any different?

My First Round of Good-Byes

I hate good-byes. Saying good-bye to everyone in the United States before I came to Cameroon was a slow and painful process. It started months before my departure date. Before I had even looked at the Wikipedia page for Cameroon, I was already saying good-bye to friends at college. Since I have friends and family that are not conveniently located geographically, it wasn’t unusual to go months without seeing them. The problem is, if one is leaving the country in a few months to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, the “See you in a few months at Christmas!” becomes “See you… Oh, god! When WILL I see you again??”

And that is how my last few months in the US passed. Casual coffee dates became heartfelt farewells, group outings to the movies became filled with awkward well wishes and life advice, and each family event became a little more sentimental because it was the last birthday, grill-out, scrabble game*, etc., for two years.

I hated every second of it. Getting on the plane to come to Africa was difficult, but at least I was done with all those damn good-byes! I looked around the waiting area of the JFK Airport and thought: Ok. These are my new best friends for the next two years. My next round of good-byes will be with this group of people.

UGH I WAS SO WRONG. In Peace Corps Cameroon, there are approximately four separate groups of volunteers in country at any given time. For example, the Agriculture (me), Health, and Youth Development Volunteers all train together from September to November. The Education and Community Economic Development Volunteers train from June to August. Each year a new training group (stage) comes to replace the group rotating out. If you have any experience with the Gregorian calendar, you must realize this means there is currently a new stage training in Cameroon. That also means the oldest stage is leaving Cameroon.

Unfortunately, the good-byes in Cameroon are similarly long and tedious. The departure of a stage is unlike the arrival of a stage. When a stage enters Cameroon, every single volunteer is on the same plane, welcomed by the same veteran volunteers, and completes the same orientation and training. When a stage leaves Cameroon, the flights are staggered; each volunteer leaves their village at a different time, resulting in small groups of volunteers trickling out over several weeks.

Among the volunteers that left (or are about to leave) Cameroon were (are) many good people and even better friends. I was lucky that one of those amazing people lived in the same village as me. In November when the bush taxi pulled into the town center with all of my belongings in the trunk, I was greeted by Pamela, my postmate. Everything was new and weird and kind of scary, and I’m not sure I would have even been able to find my front doorstep if Pamela hadn’t of been there.

Luckily, Pamela was there to show me to my front doorstep. Unluckily, my house didn’t have a whole lot else to it. Don’t get me wrong, my house is fairly large, and I was lucky to have a stove, two beds, and a table already in the house. It’s just… There wasn’t anything to put on the stove, cover the beds, or set on the table. My house was not yet livable. So my first night in village, Pamela graciously let me stay at her house. She made pasta and let me use her internet key so I could send off a quick e-mail to my parents. I barely remember that first day because it was a stressed out, sleep deprived, slightly dehydrated blur (we had had our swearing in party the night before).

What I do remember vividly was walking back to the town center early the next morning. A truck of rowdy Cameroonian men was rambling up the dirt road. When they saw me and Pamela they started yelling, “Ma cherié! Ooh la la! Oooh la blanche!”

Pamela glared at them and turned to me: “I swear to god, if anyone messes with you here I will wring their necks.”

At that moment, I knew I had hit the postmate lottery.

No one messed with Pamela in Batié. Pamela had attended graduate school abroad, and spoke perfect French. She had already given business classes and started projects in the community. She also had the advantage of not being just another right-out-of-college, 20-something volunteer. She had extensive business experience in the US, and it showed in the way she organized her classes and projects. Because of all of these reasons, Pamela was known in Batié, and even in the regional capital, as “la grandmère” or “the grandmother.”

An important note here. Age is very important in Cameroonian culture. The older you are, the more respect you have earned. Occasionally, people will call me grandmother and it is a HUGE compliment. In fact, to be called “little sister” is considered very, very rude. So for Pamela to be called THE grandmother is a sign of just how highly respected she was here in Batié.

Naturally, I had to make sure I was at Pamela’s gonging out ceremony. “Gonging out” is a Peace Corps Cameroon tradition. Before PCVs can leave the country, they have to go to the national office in Yaoundé to complete medical tests and paperwork. Near the end of that week the group of exiting PCVs gathers at the office with PC staff and current volunteers. The staff gives an account of the volunteer’s work and a thank you, and then the floor is open for anyone else to say a few words. I stood up to say my thank yous to my friends that were leaving, and especially Pamela. She had looked out for me, helped me with projects, listened to me vent and complain, all while giving me enough space to live and learn the ways of Peace Corps life for myself. I got towards the end of my thank you, and my voice started wavering.

Time to sit down. Ugh. I hate good- byes.

After the gonging out ceremony we all went for drinks. I asked all of the outgoing PCVs to give one sentence of advice for those of us that still had quite a bit of time left to our Peace Corps services. This is was their advice:

“Take the opportunity to teach the new groups of volunteers because it will give you confidence and you’ll get to know everyone in country.”

“Invite yourself to everything. Seriously, if you think something in village sounds fun, ask to go. Or just show up.”

“Make your time away from your village count. Take time to travel the country and see the sights. Make sure you have purpose when you are leaving and don’t just hang out at the regional capital for days on end.”

“Learn Cameroonian culture while still holding on to your own. Make sure you aren’t so well integrated that you don’t share your American values with your village. That’s an important part of cultural exchange.”

After some insightful advice and a few Cameroonian beers, we headed back to the case (Peace Corps transit house in Yaoundé). Some people settled down for a movie, others hung out chatting on the patio, but slowly everyone found their way to a bed.

I woke up early the next morning to travel back to my village. Most of the other volunteers were still in asleep. Rather than wake anyone up to say another good-bye, I grabbed my bags and headed outside to catch a cab with my travel buddies.

That’s the type of good-byes I prefer. I prefer them because it’s not really a good-bye. Instead, it’s a “see you later” in lieu of “good-bye.” The casual exit renders tears, final words, or a last hug unnecessary. It shows faith in the idea that the state of good-bye is temporary, just until the next time you see each other.

Also, I’m a sissy. Did I mention I hate good-byes?

*I don’t think my family has ever played a game of scrabble together.

My New, Old Dog

Lately, my house has been a little more lively. And no, I am not referring to the several mice that vacation in my kitchen. I’m talking about my new roommate, guardian, and pal. My new, old dog, Gabbro.In March, one of my fellow West region PCVs was leaving the country and searching for a new home for her dog. Gabbro is a little over three years old, and I’m the third PCV to own him. He’s named after a type rock. The name Gabbro is really hard for Francophones to pronounce, so people in village usually just call him Gabriel. Or they make a random sound that is akin to a car turning over.

Since becoming a pet owner in Cameroon, I have received many questions from Americans, Cameroonians, and PCVs. In this blog post, I will try to answer some of those questions about owning a dog in Cameroon.

What do you feed him?

Gabbro is fed a mixture of rice, dried fish, and avocados each night. This is supplemented by whatever leftovers I have from the day and whatever he steals from my neighbor’s outdoor kitchen. They do sell dog food in the regional capital, but it’s pretty expensive. One ten-pound bag costs around $18 dollars. To put that in perspective, here are other things that I could buy for that same amount of money: 18 beers, 320 beignets, 800 bananas, approximately 50 text messages to the US, or 180 minutes of talk time in Cameroon. I could go out for drinks, buy snacks for the entire bar, and still drunk dial everyone in my phonebook for the price of a bag of dog food.

So, yeah. I make his food at home.

How do you exercise him?

I take Gabbro on walks several times a week. If we are off of the main road, I let him off his leash to run. I believe I own the only retractable leash in the country. When I was walking him once, a kid stopped to ask what was in my hand. I said “This is my phone, it plays music.” He shook his head and pointed to my other hand. “This is a cord for my dog.” I showed him how the buttons adjusted the length of the rope, and he smiled approvingly.

Is he going to eat me? (Mainly asked by Cameroonians)

No.

You’re sure?

Yes.

What is veterinary care like there?

It exists. Mainly in the larger cities or regional capitals. Gabbro has had one visit from the vet, and it was a house call. I paid the veterinarian to come to my village to give Gabbro his vaccinations. The vet tech arrived with a miniature cooler full of medicines and nothing else. Gabbro was a little wound up and was making the guy nervous. The vet tech said he was scared that Gabbro would bite him. I responded with “Sorry, it’s your job.” Together, with all of the neighbor kids watching, we put Gabbro on his leash and pulled it through the hinge of the gate so he was flush against the door. The vet pricked him once and it was over. The vet tech then handed the old needles and vaccination tubes to the neighbor children to throw down the abandoned well in my backyard.

How do villagers react to your dog?

Usually with fear. I am now receiving far fewer visits from the neighbor children. When we are on walks people give me a pretty wide birth, and if he is off his leash they will pick up a stick or a rock, ready to defend themselves.

Some people react with admiration. Not in a “he’s-so-cute-can-I-pet-him” but more in a “he’s-so-large-can-I-have-him-for-a-guard-dog” way. One man on our walking route has continuously asked me to “give him his part of the dog.” I thought he meant to eat (which wouldn’t be unheard of) but when I joked about which part he wanted he responded with, “No. I want a little dog.”

To which I said, “Oh. He’s a boy. And castrated. Sorry.”

Do other people own pets?

I wouldn’t call them pets. More like machines. Dogs are usually kept chained to one spot to “guard” homes. Cats aren’t fed and are kept around just to eat cockroaches and mice (don’t worry, they never go hungry).

What will you do with Gabbro when you leave Cameroon?

Good question. It IS possible to take pets back to the US, but the process is complicated and can cost upwards of one thousand dollars. So, I’m hoping to find another nearby PCV to adopt him when my service ends.

He loves avocados and fish too much to ever live in the states.

My Technology Bubble

Some of you may be wondering about my recent absence on my blog. Over the past few months, my technological infrastructure has begun to crumble. The pieces of technology I own have bitten the dust one after another since November. This generally hasn’t bothered me much because I have an amazing ineptitude when it comes to electronics. However, the last month’s losses have been particularly painful because they have limited my communication with friends and family. I didn’t join Peace Corps to be on the cutting edge of technology, but I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with the recent burst of my technology bubble.

Last September, I stepped off the plane in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with a head full of dreams and a suitcase full of gadgets. I had a camera, a tablet, a Nook, a laptop, a smartphone, an external hard drive, and several USB flashdrives. I bought a cell phone in country, and after arriving at post, I also bought a Camtel internet key so I could use my computer from home. We were warned before coming to country that the dust, humidity, and banditry were not conducive to long life spans of electronics. I thought my arsenal held considerable redundancies, and even with a few losses, I would be able to make it through my two years without major inconvenience. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. The dominoes started in November, with…

 

MY CAMERA: November 20th, 2013. A joyous occasion! Our swearing in ceremony was finally upon us! I had charged my three-year-old, Nokia camera the night before, and was ready to document our first day as real, live, Peace Corps Volunteers. The first photo opp came after we had changed into our swearing in pagne. I pressed down the power button to turn on my camera and take a picture of my sharp looking friends and… nothing. Took out the battery and… nothing. RIP camera. Then came the fall of…

MY EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE: All throughout our training, I had been building my collection of 100%-legally-obtained media. I had enough to read, watch, and listen to for the next 10 years of my life, easy. When I got to post in late November, I decided it was time to get started! Then I realized the computer wouldn’t register my external hard drive unless I held the chord in with my hand. Soon, even that method failed. It was going to be a quiet two years. RIP external hard drive. This loss was followed by what I can only assume was the suicide of…

MY SMARTPHONE: My Samsung Galaxy S3 wasn’t in great shape when I got to the country, but I thought I could get some use out of it. When I moved into my house, I had a fun situation with my electrical outlets. The only one in the house that worked was attached to the light in the bathroom. Therefore, I had to plug in my electrical regulator, a clunky, metal box, in the bathroom. I balanced it on the edge of the sink so I could charge my electronics. One day I heard a CRASHKKKKKBOOMCLUNK! I went to the bathroom, and there on the tile was my Galaxy S3, with a shattered screen and broken camera. Did she jump?? Was this just another accident?? What did I do wrong?? RIP Smartphone. The next death was a slow one…

MY NOOK: My Nook was one of the best things I brought to this country bar-none. I don’t leave my house after 7 PM, and, as a night owl, I had a lot of free time on my hands. The battery life on Nooks is AH-mazing. The electricity is often out, so I was doing a lot of reading by candle light, and really burning through my book list. At our IST in Bamenda, my Nook started behaving strangely. It was only functioning as a screen saver. I would swipe to unlock repeatedly, and the only thing that would change was which dead author was staring back at me. Despite the heckling of my peers, I commenced with a complicated surgical procedure. I took it apart and put it back together again. AND IT WORKED! I HAD SAVED ONE! However, the screen saver problem started to happen with increasing frequency, and the last time it happened, the surgery was useless. Maybe I can hang it on the wall as sort of a living portraits thing because as an e-reader, it’s garbage. RIP Nook. Then came the slow demise of…

MY COMPUTER: My five-year-old laptop wasn’t a looker, but she was sturdy and reliable. One evening, a storm rolled in. My laptop was connected to the aforementioned electrical regulator, so I was not concerned. Then, the lights dimmed to near darkness, held for a moment, and then burst back into full intensity. At this moment my computer let out a small “pop!” and went black. I stared, dumbfounded. I tried turning it back on… She was still alive! But the battery was completely fried. If the cord is unplugged for even a second, she dies. She’s on life support, if you will.

This was annoying, but the computer was still functioning normally. Until about a month ago, when the homerow on my keyboard stopped working. I in’t tin tt nyone wnte to re blo pot ie ti, o I ven’t been potin. Kudos if you can decode that! If I ever have to buy a vowel, I know a few that I have especially missed.

As you can see, my computer isn’t dead, but she is terminally ill. Very similar to…

MY SEVERAL USB FLASHDRIVES: I am lucky to have a small internet café in my village. I have gone there on a few occasions with documents to print off on their computer. I don’t like to generalize, so this is why I am not exaggerating at all when I say that every computer in Cameroon has a virus. Every single one. I went to get census data from a government official, and his first question was: “Do you have anti-virus?”

Now, two of my flashdrives have incurable viruses. I’ve reformatted them both, and the virus remains. I face daily stigmatization from the other PCVs, who won’t share data with me for fear of becoming infected as well. I continue to hold my head up high. De-stigmatization all the way! That’s one of the reasons we’re here!

Then, two weeks ago, the piece of technology I ACTUALLY can’t live without…

MY CELLPHONE: This came on very suddenly. I went make a phone call to my postmate and she couldn’t hear me. I don’t have great self phone reception, so I thought that may be the issue. But my next three phone calls were like that, too. My microphone was broken. When I say I can’t live without my cellphone, I mean that it would be a really bad idea. Peace Corps administration calls from time to time with important security information. In the case of a security incident, I think the response of complete and utter silence might send the wrong message.

And that is where I am now, folks! I did buy a cheap new cell phone, so try not to worry about me too much. And I can still CHECK my e-mail from home.That is, when my fickle internet key chooses to work. So for the time being, I’ll be writing to you from our regional office in Bafoussam!

My Two Villages: 10 things Batié, Cameroon has in Common with Red Oak, Iowa

I’ve recently found myself reading several articles in list form. Maybe it’s because I discovered Buzzfeed a few months ago when I arrived in Cameroon. Maybe it is because speaking  two to three languages  on a daily basis has fried my brain, and now I can only comprehend numbers under twenty. Regardless, I’ve found that I really like the format.

 Here is a short list of reasons I like reading things in list form:

  1. They are quick to read but physically look just as long. This makes me feel an undeserved sense of fulfillment.
  2. The organization is very simple.
  3. I can skip over topics I think are boring and know exactly what I’m missing.
  4. The topic changes quickly enough that my short attention span is not broken.

I’ve been able to find many similarities between my two villages because of this handy writing style (was that kind of a pun?). When I say two villages, I mean the village I am completing my Peace Corps service in, Batié, Cameroon, and my hometown, the village of Red Oak, Iowa.

Maybe I should have broadened this title to “My two regions: West vs. Midwest” or even “My two Countries: USA and Cameroon,” but I thought that would be unfair. I haven’t lived everywhere in Cameroon or the USA or theWest or Midwest. Maybe some of these things extend further than Red Oak and Batié, but these are the two places in my respective countries that I have had the most experience. Thus, the reason for the comparison. Now! I’ll quit with all of this boring paragraph-formed prose and get on to my list:

10     Things Batié, Cameroon, has in Common with Red Oak, Iowa

 

  1. Nothing brings out the town like a wedding

 

In Batié, a good wedding can nearly shut down the entire village. Store fronts will be closed, and the day after the celebration is quiet because everyone is sleeping in.

 

 In a similar vein, I can only feasibly go home one time, and that’s not even a sure thing. How will I decide? Well, I’m planning it around friends’ weddings, of course.

 

  1. Never a bad time for a beer

 

One of the first weeks I was in Batié, my language tutor took me to the market to show me around. After about 45 minutes we had finished our shopping. She turned to me and said, “We have worked hard. We should relax with a beer.” I looked at my watch. It wasn’t even 9 AM yet.

 

However, my hometown has beat this record as far as early morning beer timing goes. For example, one summer a group of my friends and I were on a canoe trip. The first night we stayed up late around a bonfire drinking beer and chatting. The next morning we broke down camp and hit the river as the sun was coming up. I was in the front of the canoe rowing when I heard the familiar hiss of a beer can being cracked.

 

“Dude, it’s not even 7:30!” I said looking back at my canoe partner.

 

  1. I LOVE this song! Repeat. Repeat? Repeat.

 

In Cameroon, I live right next to the town center. This means on weekends, I get to enjoy all the Cameroonian music I want from the comfort of my living room. There are some Cameroonian songs that I absolutely love. I’m sad when they’re over because I usually don’t know the title, or the artist, and sometimes I can’t even understand the lyrics enough to Google them. Luckily, I usually don’t have to wait more than an hour to hear the same song again.

 

We do it similarly in my home town. Maybe I shouldn’t lump all of Red Oak in on this one, it could just be my group of friends. Once a mix CD or a playlist is made by someone in our friendship group, you can rely on that being the soundtrack to your life for the next month. At least if that person has control of the radio or jukebox. I have personally watched my best friend from Red Oak pay the price equivalent of two US beers to hear Michelle Branch 5 times in a row at our local bar.

 

  1. Are you from here?

 

As you may have guessed, I stick out a little bit in my Cameroonian village, mostly because I’m white. But even if I were Cameroonian, the other people in the village would be able to tell if I were Batié or not.  They tend to have a sixth sense when strangers are in their midst, and they also have very strict rules for what makes this “your village.” I’ve met people who speak the local Patois perfectly, own stores, and have grown children that have been born, educated, and married in Batié. But when I ask if they are Batié, they say things like, “No. I’ve lived here for 20 years, but I was born in the Northwest” or “No, my parents are both from Baham. I am not Batié.”

 

In my southwest Iowa town, we frequently spot strangers from across the room and don’t approach until we know why they’re around.

 

Pshhh… They’re not from here, they’re from Stanton. That’s eight miles away. We have nothing in common…

 

Even being born and raised in my hometown is not enough to cement my status as a Red Oakian. After my first few months of college at Syracuse University, I came home for Thanksgiving break. When I mentioned how good it was to be home, my friend tried to break it to me gently: “Nah, you’re not from here. You’re a city slicker now!”

 

 Apparently 18 years and a birth certificate aren’t enough to guarantee you lifetime membership in the Hometown Club.

 

  1. We can always start our own dance party

 

Music is constantly blaring from one source or another in Batié. Bars, boutiques, megaphones on cars, cell phones… If you can fit a speaker on or in it, it’s playing music. If someone likes the music, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is or where you’re at. You can start dancing and someone will join you. While we were on vacation in Kribi, I was in the market with a friend when I heard a song by Pitbull start playing. I started bobbing my head to the music while I waited for the man selling me vegetables to give me my change. The women at the next booth looked at me, “You dance, you know this music!” Before I knew what was happening, there were seven or eight of us doing the dance of Kribi in the middle of a dirt road.

 

It’s about that easy to start a dance party in my hometown as well. On more than one occasion, I have been out with my friends when we decide we want to dance. If we’re in the woods, someone will drive their truck down and hook up an iPod and we can dance by the bonfire. If we’re out on the town, it doesn’t really matter if there are only two other people in the bar trying to quietly enjoy their beers. We will sing and dance and jump on tabletops.

 

 Because sometimes you just gotta dance.

 

  1. Bold hair choices

 

The women of Batié love getting their hair done, and they are not timid when it comes to new styles. I see a range of colors from blonde to orange being woven into braids. Sometimes, the women will buy colorful yarn instead of weave. They decorate with seashells, bright rubber bands, and beads. And those are just the braids! The other weaves come in all sorts of rainbow colors and range in texture from stick-strait asymmetrical bobs to tight curls falling down their back.

 

In Red Oak, the girls are always up to try the newest styles. Add some red streaks? Why not. Bleach blonde with brown underneath? Sounds good. Feathers? Sure. And using box dye? Might as well, we can always go to one of our stylist friends if we screw it up too badly. Although, one friend of mine burnt off several inches of her hair trying to bleach the under layers… “you know, so I could dye it purple and yellow, for The Lakers.”

 

 

  1. Workin’ hard

 

Man, do people in Batié work hard. I know because I can hear them starting their work outside my bedroom window at 5 am. The kids do chores for a few hours, then walk two or three miles to school, have class, come home, study, and do more chores until it’s time for bed. The women work the farms in the early mornings and the evenings, prepare meals over a fire for approximately 20 family members, and usually have some sort of day job, like running a boutique or teaching preschoolers on the side.

                I see this kind of work ethic in my hometown as well. Practically everyone I grew up with got a job at 14, works overtime, or takes on extra shifts. My family owns a landscaping business, and I’m convinced these guys are some of the hardest workers in the world. I often see them putting in 12 hour days hauling heavy equipment in 90 degree heat or waking up at 2 am to move snow in subzero temps and biting wind. And when I say I often see them doing this, I mean I often know they are doing this. I am usually sitting in the air-conditioned office playing Candy Crush or fast asleep in my warm bed.

 

  1. Would you like a side of carbs with your carbs?

 

In Batié, they love them some carbohydrates. I’m not even embarrassed to say that I sometimes eat spaghetti sandwiches here. When I say spaghetti sandwich, I mean a baguette cut in half filled with just the noodles and usually some spices. There is not a vitamin or mineral to be found in the dish. They are also huge fans of tuber vegetables here. Many of the staples foods, manioc, macabo, potates, potate sucre, nyam, and taro are just other words for “very, very starchy and similar to a potato.” These are usually made with some sort of sauce and then put over rice. When I order anything to eat in Batié, they insist I eat it with plantains, or baton de manioc, or boiled bananas.

 

This arrangement is not dissimilar to many favorites of my hometown in the US, including open-faced roast beef and chicken and dumplings. The first dish is composed of two slices of (usually) white bread topped with mashed potatoes, gravy, and beef. The second follows the same order, but instead of beef, it is topped with chicken, chicken gravy, and noodles. My parents have been married over 20 years, and to this day if my Southern born-and-raised mother serves a meal to my Midwestern born-and-raised father sans bread he will stare at his plate perplexed. When he realizes the bread is not coming, he will pout his way to the kitchen, put two pieces of sandwich bread in the toaster, and top it with margarine and garlic salt.

9. Saying hello to everyone is “just nice”

I’m sure most of you have seen Beauty and the Beast. You know the song “Belle”? Or, perhaps better known as the “bonjour song”? That is my life now. Each time I leave my house I have to greet anyone that is in eye-shot. I probably say “bonjour” 100 times a day. It’s then polite to ask about work, family, or the farm. If I do not make an effort to greet someone in the vicinity, they act like I have just spit in their baby’s face and flipped off their mother. “Alice (my new name now because Allison is too hard to pronounce)! Alice! You will not greet me? Why would you not greet me?  What have I done?” I like to think the villagers talk about me the same way the villagers in Beauty and the Beast talk about Belle:

[Group of Women]
Look there she goes that girl is strange no question.
Dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?

[Woman #1]
Never part of any crowd.

[Man #3]
Cuz her heads up on some cloud.

[Villagers]
No denying she’s a funny girl that Belle.

It’s a good thing I’m used to the idea of greeting strangers. My dad will often wave to people on the streets that he has no relation to. Once when I was little, I asked him if he knew those people. He said, “No. It’s just nice to wave.”

And he’s not alone. A friend of mine also waves to random trucks he passes on the highway. I asked him the same question. “No, it’s just a truck thing. You would probably get waved at more if you didn’t drive that foreign piece of shit,” he said, referring to my 1995 Volvo sedan. Annnnd enter the chorus!

[Women]
It’s a pity and a sin

[Men]
She doesn’t quite fit in 

[Townsfolk]
‘Cause she really is a funny girl 
She really is a funny girl
That Belle!

  1. HOMETOWN PRIDE

 

Most of all, Batié are PROUD to be Batié. I often run into people in the regional, and even national, capital that are from my village. I greet them in the local language and we feel an instant bond. We then talk about all the good things about Batié, and  end the conversation deciding it really is the best village in all of Cameroon.

 

Maybe our hometown(s) have faults, and we can acknowledge them. But you should get that straight. WE can acknowledge the faults (see item #4 to see if you are qualified to critique our hometown). If outsiders say anything about our hometown, then it better be a compliment. Because our hometown is the best. 

My Girls, Your Girls, Our Girls

I usually try to keep my blog topical and lighthearted. My theory is that that there are enough things in the world to be crying over, so when you can, you should choose to laugh instead. Unfortunately, today I’m going to write about a topic that I think we should all be crying over.

On April 14th, Boko Haram kidnapped over 200 girls from an all-girls school in northeastern Nigeria. That was over three weeks ago. Boko Haram is a terrorist organization. I’ve seen and heard the name “Boko Haram” translated a few ways, including: “Western Education is Sinful (or Evil)” and “Death to Western Education.” I’m not sure what is the most accurate translation is, but you can’t miss their point. Boko Haram does not like Western education.

On April 25th, I was in a friend’s village helping her with an anti-malaria campaign. A few other volunteers were also there, and we started talking about Boko Haram. Since Nigeria and Cameroon share a somewhat porous border, Cameroon has also fallen victim to terrorist attacks planned by Boko Haram. We talked about Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of two priests and a nun in early April here in Cameroon.

My friend was sharing other news she had read. Bombings. Recruitment. Murders. “And did you hear about the Nigerian school girls that got kidnapped?”

I hadn’t. News can be hard to come by here. In village, my main source of news is Twitter updates from CNN that I get sent to my cell phone. I didn’t get news of this tragedy from CNN for almost another week.

Now details are surfacing. Now I know that this wasn’t a mere rumor that made its way through the PCV ranks. I wish it was.

The girls have now gotten considerable news coverage, but time is precious if we hope to find them and get them home to their families.

I’ve been wondering why we didn’t start talking about these girls three weeks ago. I’ve read various articles with numerous opinions. I won’t bother trying to guess why it took so long for this story to get picked up. What matters now is that we take action to “Bring Back Our Girls.” What matters now is that we realize they are our girls.

Before coming to Cameroon, I don’t think I would have reacted to the story the same way I am now. I would have thought, how sad. How lucky I am to live in a country where I don’t have to worry about getting kidnapped when I go to school. How hard it must be to live in Nigeria, in Africa. They really have it rough over there.

Their girls.

Now, I think of the girls in my village. My girls.

I think about how my neighbor Gladice is the same age as the girls that were kidnapped in Nigeria. She goes to high school and runs the household seamlessly while her mother works long days at her boutique in the center of town. I think of her sister, Lyn, who hates every American food I have ever given her to try. She can tell a joke in perfect deadpan, and then a second later double over in laughter when she sees the confused look on someone’s face. I think of Mayava, who is quiet, hardworking, and shy. She surprises me by sweeping my porch when I leave my house, and I have to seek her out to give her money or candy for doing it. I think of Maco, who always wants to touch my hair and joins in on any dance she sees. She is the only person in the village that has been brave enough to pet my dog.

These are just a few of the girls in my village I have come to know. They love dancing, and make-up, and Rihanna. They study for exams while they cook dinner. They play soccer. They have after school jobs. They get dressed up for parties.

What if one of my girls had gotten kidnapped?

Of course, I don’t personally know any of the girls that were kidnapped from Chibok Girls School in Nigeria. They may hate Rihanna. They may lead very different lives from girls in the US. They may lead very different lives from girls in Cameroon. I can’t know.

However, I know they are girls with a myriad of experiences and unknown futures. I know they have beautiful and diverse personalities. I know some of them probably love animals, like Maco. I know some of them probably hate spiders, like me. I know we have a lot in common. I know we are all girls, we are all people. They are just like my girls. They are just like your girls. They are our girls.

One of my favorite sayings here in Cameroon is, “Nous sommes ensemble” or “We are together.” What happened to the girls in Nigeria was a crime against all of us. It is a tragedy for all of us.  So, when you see the hashtag and the news stories that read “Bring Back Our Girls,” focus on the “our.” Realize that the girls that got kidnapped are not a “they.” We are not so different. We are together.

Bring Back Our Girls. 

My Girls’ Night Challenges

Some things are universal. Like the fact that every Girls’ Night includes wine or a chick flick, and usually both. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities between a Girls’ Night in the United States and a Girls’ Night in Cameroon end.

My friend Danielle (she has made some guest appearances on my blog already) was giving a workshop in her village on how to make soy milk. The workshop was at 10 AM on Sunday. This, of course, gave us a great chance to collaborate on a project while getting in some quality gal time the night before. I finished up a meeting in my village with a local women’s group, and then packed a bag with sweat pants, chocolate, and Season 1 of Gilmore Girls. I hiked up the hill to the main intersection in my town and waited to hitch a ride.

I didn’t have to wait long. A small bus, or “coaster,” pulled up almost immediately. The coasters are nice because they cost 20 cents less, and they get stopped less by the gendarmes. The charger opened the door and hollered “Bafoussam?” I responded yes, and he pointed at what was essentially the center console. There were no more official seats left, so I sat in by the driver facing the back window. I didn’t have room for my knees, so I was sitting at an angle making awkward small talk with the five people I was facing that got legitimate seats. As it turns out, I was also sharing my make-shift seat with the charger. He squeezed in next to me and said, “It’s good?”

Also, this guy had an extra finger. With a finger nail and everything. Not really important to the story, but it paints a picture, right?

Luckily, halfway through the trip two people got out, and I was rewarded with a seat of my very own. I settled in and took a drink of my water. Hmm…That’s strange, I thoughtto myself, I put lime in my water this morning. No… I definitely did. Oh god. This isn’t my water. I just drank someone’s random bus water.

I nonchalantly put the water bottle back on the floor of the bus and hoped that the guy next to me hadn’t realized I had just sniped his water. We pulled up to the stop in Bafoussam and I exited quickly before anyone could ask questions. I hailed a cab and asked to go to a small market that I knew sold bottles of wine. This was right on the way. I was just going to make one quick stop, get some wine, and head to Danielle’s village, Bansoa. That went almost according to plan. I bought my goods and hailed another taxi to go to the intersection where I could wait for a car to Bansoa. We were almost there when I realized my bulky load was a little light. It was light the weight of exactly one Peace Corps issued motorcycle helmet.

I stopped the cab, crossed the street, and hailed another cab going opposite direction. I went back to the market and the woman immediately said, “Oh, you left your helmet.” Yup. That was me. I got my helmet, crossed the street, and hailed another cab going the opposite direction. Hopefully this was the last time.

And success! I got to the intersection and a man directed me towards a car going to Bansoa. I was the only person in the car, which, if you were in the US, may have been a good thing. It’s not a good thing in Cameroon. It meant I had to wait while the driver found another six people to fill the car before we could leave. The sixth person finally arrived and crammed herself into the driver’s seat, along with the driver. And we were off.

I arrived at the entrance to Bansoa about thirty minutes later. Now all I had to do was get a moto to Danielle’s house. Smooth sailing from here on out.  There were several moto-men waiting, so I described the route to Danielle’s house and negotiated a price with the first one I saw. We got about 100 yards on the dirt road before the moto slid sideways in the mud. We almost tumbled to the ground, but the moto-man stuck his leg out and corrected our balance. “Sorry,” he said. “You’ll have to continue on foot.”

Great.  Me and my 134 pounds of luggage will just hike to this unknown location that is Danielle’s house. I walked maybe half a mile before I decided I was reckless enough to try this moto thing again. I waved down another moto, and he agreed to take me. “But hurry! The rain is coming!” He pointed to the horizon, where there was indeed a dark wall of precipitation coming our way. I rearranged my bags and was determined to make it to my destination.

We got about 500 yards this time. Then the moto slid and got stuck in a mud pile. “Get down, get down,” the moto-man ordered. On my left there was a deep mud puddle and on my right there was a scalding-hot moto-exhaust pipe and a deep mud puddle. I chose the left. The mud sucked my shoe off my foot as I tried to make room for the moto-man to maneuver his bike.

It could be worse. At least it wasn’t raining! Oh, wait…

At about this time, that curtain of rain collided with us. The moto-man gestured to a nearby bar where we could wait out the rain. I took shelter while the locals giggled and told me interesting facts, like, “It’s raining!”

I called Danielle for help and to see how far I was from her house. Luckily, I was close. She came to my rescue with an umbrella and a poncho. We walked the remaining two-minute distance to her house without incident. I realized this was about the only uneventful part of travel there. It was now 5:30 PM. I left my village at 2:30 PM. According to Google Maps, Bansoa (Danielle) is 26.3 miles from Batié (Me). So, yeah… I didn’t make great time.

After washing off my feet and changing into my sweats we settled down for a meal of homemade fried rice. We ate our dinner in the relatively loud and dark space that is Danielle’s living room. It was loud because the rain was still pounding on the tin roof and dark because the electricity infrastructure in Danielle’s house has… personality. The amount of light Danielle’s light bulbs give off is inversely related to how loud the local bar is playing their music. The louder the music, the dimmer the lights.  The brightness is also shared among all active electric units. Therefore, if two lights are on simultaneously, they are half as bright as if one is on. We finished our supper in the waxing and waning late and queued up Gilmore Girls.

A quick note about why we chose Gilmore Girls: I received the complete serious in my Valentine’s Day care package from my parents. I had mentioned that I found Season Three of the show at our regional office, and so, naturally, my dad bought and shipped me the entire box set. I also mentioned I could use a rubber spatula, so my mom included six of all different varieties. My parents do not half-ass care packages. My care packages are 100%, full-assed.

Things were starting to look up. We had to watch the episodes with subtitles because the rain was so loud, but the GG dialogue was just as charming and witty when read as when it’s heard. We started on a bottle of wine, and I realized this was probably the first time I had opened a bottle of wine in country without event.

We usually don’t have an opener, so it comes down to improvisation. Sometimes it’s someone trying to use a knife as an impromptu corkscrew. We usually end up just destroying the cork, pushing it into the bottle, and enjoying our merlot with a little more texture than is typically desired in a red wine. We’ve also learned that pushing the cork in slowly with a Sharpie is the best method, and that the shoe trick they do on Modern Family is a complete fiction. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say we’re pioneers of science and technology.

After two glasses of cork-less wine, one episode of a smart, feminine, comedy series, and several Reese’s cups we were feeling pretty classy. I went to scratch my foot and felt a blister (WARNING: THE STORY IS ABOUT TO GET GROSS).

                “Do you care if I pop this?” I asked Danielle.

“Nope. Go ahead.” She responded.

I pinched at the blister, but it wasn’t budging. I went to get my pocket knife. I know, most people would probably just leave it, but I’m a picker. The blister was mostly on a callus so I didn’t feel a need to sterilize my knife. I gripped my pocket knife and made a short slit. A gritty, yellow pus gushed out of my foot.

“Ughhh…” I let out a guttural noise of disgust.

“What? Is it alive?” Danielle asked.

The tone of Danielle’s voice was very indicative to what our lives have become. Before Peace Corps, the idea of something living in my skin would have sent me into a spiral of tears, bordering on a mental breakdown. But when Danielle asked if a living creature had just emerged from the sole of my foot, she sounded mostly weary and only mildly disgusted. It was the same tone someone would use to say a sentence like, “Are you kidding? They’re making a Teen Mom 3?”

I didn’t really know what to say. “Um. No? I don’t think so. It’s just a lot…”

Danielle jumped into action. “Do you need antiseptic? A bucket of water?”

“Maybe just a tissue.” I answered.

She got brought me back antiseptic soap, a bucket of water, a roll of toilet paper, a prescription foot antiseptic, and shea butter and a pair of socks because “that antiseptic really dries your feet out.”

I continued to pinch and dig at my foot with my knife before I went to cleaning up the wound. “That was so weird! What do you think that was?” I pondered out loud while I stared at the pus on the spent toilet paper.

“Who knows? Probably just a parasite or something. There’s no winter to kill anything off here.” said Danielle.

“Ohhh my god… These are eggs. That was an egg sack. Gross! Grossgrossgrossgrosssssss!” I came to that realization and had, what I thought was, a pretty mild reaction.

We speculated about how something could have laid eggs in my foot. Danielle just kept reminding me that it’s really common. We can’t really know. That’s just the way things are. No, it doesn’t matter if you wear shoes all the time. No, it doesn’t matter if you clean your feet every night. No, it doesn’t matter if you add bleach to your bath water. That’s just how it is. Eventually, something is going to try to make your body its habitat.

Well. What’s done is done. We moved onto another episode of Gilmore Girls and the second bottle of wine.

The storm had knocked out the power, so we were doing all of this on candlelight and battery power. Eventually Danielle’s computer died, and we took that as our queue to go to sleep. I always like to read before I go to bed, even if it’s only a couple of pages. I perused Danielle’s bookshelf and asked if she had any suggestions.

“Oh, I just read this! It’s really cute. It’s very subtly smart, too. It even has a Peace Corps reference” She handed me a book entitled, Princess: You Know Who You Are.

I crawled into bed and began reading by way of headlamp. The book was really about knowing what you like and knowing you deserve it. Still, during the first chapter the book suggested that a princess should have weekly “breakfast in bed, aromatherapy, mani/pedi, shopping, and tantrum.” I read that and wondered how my life had changed from one where I occasionally indulged in these treatments, to a life where my body was being used as a tool for a parasite’s reproductive process.

The next morning we sat in a small outdoor kitchen and showed a few local women how to make the ultimate hipster staple item, soy milk. Shortly after that, I caught a moto to begin the journey back to Batié. On my way I saw a family hanging a giant, fleece, Confederate flag blanket out on the line to dry. Oh, Cameroon. You are a land of constant contradictions.

(Note: Please forgive grammatical/spelling errors. The electricity cut out six times while I tried to post this, so I decided to throw in the towel and leave it as-is.)

My Body Can’t Keep up with Bamileke Funerals

  Ain’t no party like a Bamileke Funeral because Bamileke Funerals don’t stop!

                Really. That’s barely an exaggeration. Here in the West region, the Bamileke are the primary ethnic group. Celebrating the lives and deaths of friends and family is very important to the culture. Therefore, from November to March is “funeral season.” Funerals can fall into one of two categories, d’ois (no idea how to spell this) and funerailles. A d’ois happens at the moment of death (closer to what we consider funerals in the US) and funerailles, or funerals, are events that take place 10, 15, or however many years the family chooses, after the person’s death. In this sense, funerals are kind of like death anniversaries. They’re advertised months in advance with banners and invitations, and people travel from all over Cameroon (and sometimes the world) to attend. Oh, and also, they’re awesome.

 

                Since I’ve been in village I’ve gone to three or four funerals. The usual format is food, drinks, and dancing. The dancing includes unstructured club-like dancing to current music the night before or after, but the main event is the traditional dancing that takes place around the time of a huge meal. The traditional fabric of the Bamileke decorates the venue, as well as pictures of the deceased. The family and close friends all have dresses and pantsuits made from the same fabric and are the first ones to lead the dancing.

Image

Traditional fabric on left

                This weekend, my language tutor, Eliane, invited me to a funeral for one of her family members. I wish I could be more specific on how she was related to the person, but the polygamist family structure quickly complicates family trees. This, in conjunction with my poor grasp of French, led me to just accept that they were somehow related and move on. The funeral was taking place in Bafoussam, the region’s capital, and we were staying the night at a hotel. This meant the funeral was sure to be a doozey!

                On Friday morning I met my tutor, and we crammed ourselves in a taxi with five other full-grown adults travelling to Bafoussam. We had a little trouble finding the hotel, but after we arrived we dropped our bags off and headed next door to the domicile to help with food preparation. We set off towards the outdoor cooking fire where the men were slaughtering the animals.

                I stuck out my hand to the first man we met in an effort to introduce myself. He offered me a wrist, which is custom in Cameroon if your hands are full or dirty. I cautiously shook his wrist while I stared uneasily at his blood-covered hands. “You’re scared of blood?” he asked me. “No, not really.” That sure as hell doesn’t mean I want to touch it, I thought to myself. Eliane and I continued on past goats, pigs, and giant pots of animal innards. A couple of men hauled a squealing pig over to the chopping block. This clearly wasn’t my scene. I quickened my pace towards the place where the women were preparing vegetables.

                Once I was in an area of food preparation where I was more experienced, I set out on another set of introductions using my knowledge of the local Batie language, which is mostly non-existent. I managed to say hello, how are you, and tell them my name. The women took this to mean that they could speak Patoi (Batie) at me for the rest of the day, even though I insisted I understood nothing. I chopped carrots while they spouted off streams of random consonants. I would stare blankly at them in response. This didn’t deter the enthusiastic women, who were more than happy to tell me how to respond appropriately. In Patoi, of course.

                Not long after I posted up at the vegetable chopping station, offers of food and drink began to come my way. I was offered beer, then pop, then fried fish and plantains, then more beer, then more beer. Finally, I asked for a bottle of water.

                Between the smoke from the roasting animals and the mental marathon my brain was running trying to keep up with conversation, I was about ready for a break. I sneaked behind the house to read my latest Nook Book, which happens to be on the history of US anti-terrorism policy. That should tell you how badly I needed a break. Soon Eliane found me and told me to go relax before the party that evening.

                Soon enough, it was time for the party to get officially started. There were big outdoor tents covering the seating area and people nearby cooking meat to serve to the tables. Maybe some of those animals had been alive a few hours ago. I’m not sure. “Eat fresh, eat local” never felt quite so real. I was offered more beer, then beef brochettes, then some beef intestines, then some beans and beignets. Cameroonians will never let you go hungry. I ate everything… except for the intestines. Which I did try. They taste exactly what you would expect a digestive organ to taste like. I gave them away.

                The DJ was playing the latest Cameroonian music as Eliane started introducing me to her family. I had quite a few names to remember because, as mentioned before, Eliane’s father is polygamist. He has six wives. I sat down next to her oldest brother (same mother and father) and he began to show me pictures and quiz me on people’s names. I asked how many sibling he had. His brow furrowed in thought and then he said, “Fifty-four. No. Fifty-three.” Hm…I thought Eliane had told me it was somewhere in the thirties… But you get the point. It’s a big family.

                Her older brother was extremely nice. He repeated throughout the night “We are your new family!” and complimented me on my Patoi. “You speak Batie already!” he exclaimed. This was an extremely generous way to describe my 20 word vocabulary of the local language.

                After making the rounds, I realized I needed to go to bed. I hadn’t slept much the night before, and it was starting to really hit me. I went to our room where two of Eliane’s kids were asleep in the bed. Next to the bed were two buckets, actual buckets, of fried fish and plantains. It is tradition for the hosts to keep the guests continuously fed. Therefore, if someone could ever become hungry, that person could come to Eliane’s room to get a meal between meals. I sprawled out on the couch to read a few paragraphs about US aid to Afghanistan during the Cold War, and was unconscious and drooling before you could say KGB three times fast.

              I was deliriously tired, but a few things about our sleeping arrangements that night stuck out in my head. One was that the overhead lights stayed on all night. Two was that people were coming in and out all night. Three was that every time I looked over at the bed a different combination of people were lying in it. It seems that sleeping was happening in an unintended shift schedule. At one o’clock, someone would feel like dancing or eating and head back out to the party for a couple of hours. Without any communication, another person would come in for a power nap before his or her second (or third or fourth) round of partying. This worked well because the music played literally all night, only decreasing slightly in volume between 4 am-6 am.

                Around 8 o’clock, I gave up on the idea of further sleep. I had already proven to be much more of a bum than the rest of the family, many of whom were already up preparing for the funeral. Eliane brought me breakfast, which was bread and what looked like more animal organs. I passed it off and ate a banana. I sat and passed the time with people until snack time, which was a sandwich and coke. Beers were also readily available. Then, it was time for the dancing!

                We headed out to the street where the men formed a small circle with their drums. The beat started and the family joined in dancing in circles around the drummers. Some carried large photos of the deceased while others waved prayer plant. Some shook noise makers in the air while others had them tied around their feet. Then, all the other guests joined the dance. I moved in and made a few trips around the circle stomping my feet to the rhythm. After the dance, the family formed a single file line and paraded down the hill. That signaled the end of the ceremony. It was time to eat and drink again.

Image

About to start the dance

Image

Parade of the family

                The feast was laid out on two buffets with beef, goat, pork, chicken, vegetables, rice, watermelon, plantains… the list goes on. On the tables were several beers and bottles of wine. Eliane was busy hosting, but came over to check on me. “You are finished drinking already, Allison? Drink more! We will relax again before going back to Batie.”

                Well. Ok. If you insist. I poured a glass of wine and tried to keep pace with the other members at my table. They were very concerned that I was drinking my wine without adding Coca-Cola to it. They said it really made it much better, but I decided to stick with what I knew. Three glasses later, I was ready to “relax” again. I went into our room where a new set of children were sleeping on the bed. I took up my usual spot on the couch.

                I woke up in an hour just in time to see one of the little kids down a Pepsi in under ten seconds. Dear Lord, please let his sugar high crash before I have to get in the same car as him, I thought. It wasn’t long after that that we fit six adults and four little boys into a sedan, and all four of the little sugar fiends were out cold. It must have been a slow day for requests. Every time we swerved or hit the brakes, which happens about every 12 seconds since we are in Cameroon, their heads would bounce off of each other like coconuts.  We pulled into Batie about an hour later, and it took all my remaining strength to walk to my house and unlock the door.

                If I keep up this lifestyle, the Bamileke are going to have another funeral to celebrate soon.  Except this time they’ll be dancing around with pictures of me. At least then I’ll be getting some good sleep.