21 November 2006

District BAD

28 Sept 2006

The only way to describe my life, I think, is in particular anecdotes.Take yesterday.
(at this writing, have not slept in about 40 some-odd hours. take note)
Got up around 6:30 with the neighbors chopping wood (ususally it's at 6, so this was a bonus). Had a leisurely breakfast with the cat for company. Got dressed in my 'brousse' clothes (there are a lot of clothes relegated to that status, now) and set off to "work" with my hoe in hand. (Not the machete, this jeudi propre). For the next 2 hours, along with tall the hospital personnel - nurses, lab techs, the doctor, etc - I helped to clear the field we're using as a soy demonstration plot. As the lowest skilled membre of the team (when it comes to farm work), I got to clear brush for most of the time, though I did end up tilling with my trusty hoe. After two hours, thoroughly covered in dirt (which actually shows on me), I went home to shower and really get ready for "work." Work consisted of a few hours of action planning with the doctor, on STIs/AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Water and Hygiene....etc. As he said to me about a week ago, "Mvangan has been declared a district BAD!" "But what did we DO?"
BAD = Banque Africaine du Developpement, and they're funding us, apparently, specifically to do formations/in-services on topics related to family planning.

So all week we've been working on very detailed action plans on every possible topic in the district. Most with objectives of "by December 2007..." funny, cause, that's when I leave. Sortof like i'm writing out my own legacy, or my plans for one. And if we even do half of what we've set out to do, it will be pretty wonderful.

So, the power's been out in Mvangan for the past month. The action plan needs to be typed for BAD. We wrote everything by hand, with the plan to take our computer to the Catholic Mission hospital, Bimengue, 7 km away - they have a generator and it's on every night.
Sunday. We did this. And forgot to take our power strip which adapts to all plugs. Well apparently (we hadn't realized) we have an American plug monitor. And Bimengue, funded by Italians, has Italian plugs.
So, no dice.
Every subsequent night it was raining too hard to drive over there - and - the road is quite a walk from the hospital, with a computer...
Doc knew I was leaving Friday morning and we had to finish. So he proposed we go over THursday around 4 pm, ask them to turn the generator on early (it's usally at 6 pm), and work until we finished. We did go then, and luckily, because it was the only time all day that it wasn't raining. (In case it's not yet clear, it's rainy season now).

At the hospital, we found Desiree, one of the volunteer nurses at the District Hospital - in labor with her 5th child. She'd been in labor since early that morning, and it wasn't progressing very fast. Her husband is a nurse at Bimengue. As the Doc examined her, I entertained their 3-year-old daughter, Brenda...until he power returned and I tried to distract her with the very Western game of "draw me a picture." No dice.

At any rate, power comes on at 6:30, Doc and I set up the computer and begin to work on our 35 page (now) plan, while he periodically checks on Desi. The action plan, in very complicated tables I've only learned how to format here, details reproductive health, maternal and infant health, maternity at lower risk, vaccination programs, STIs/AIDS, family planning, primary care, malaria, tuberculosis, nutrition, water and hygiene, and pharmacy management. If we actually do half of this, this year....anyway.

We worked until 10, me enertaining Brenda/writing, the Doc checking on Desi/writing and brainstorming with me (we'd already written a draft of the plan, longhand), the other nurses running around...and labor not progressing. The child, by estimates, looked to be over 10 lbs.
Around 10 pm, the head nurse of Bimengue brought dinner for he "night crew" assembled. I didn't know it at the time, but we got special provisions of extra generator time due to the impending delivery (it usually goes off at 9).

So, 11 pm, Doc decides it's time to do an emergency C-section. The nurses are assembled and scrub in. And I...leaving my typing duties to my medical curiosity...follow, put on scrubs, and stand, fascinated, as the procedure is readied. Desi's husband also scrubbed in...able to work? On hand, anyway.

I'd been warned before...real-life, movies...that this was a fast procedure.
And yes, it was fast.

But the baby had already descended pretty far down in the birth canal, so it was work to bring him back up. Fast. Handed over to two other nurses, ready for reanimation.
One minute. Two minutes. Shaking him, suctioning his nostrils, doing mouth-to-mouth, shaking him upside down...
In the third minute, he cried.
And I started breathing again.
As the long, complicated closing procedure began, I followed the nurses with the infant. They weighed him, washed him, clothed him, and then, completely unsterile, I walked the floor with him in my arms. I tried to introduce him to his big sister, but she wasn't impressed.

The operation was finished at 1:15 am, with the action plan duly (almost) finished. Doc and I demounted the compuer, packed it in the car, and drove back to Mvangan. 1:45. We woke up the pharmacist to write a command for HIV tests for me to take to Ebolowa the next day, in preparation of AIDS week (Oct 16-21). 2 am, I'm home, finished packing. 2:30, the car arrives, and I leave for Ebolowa. ...to then go to Yaounde, arrive after running errands all morning in Ebolowa, and get straight to work preparing for the arrival of 30 new trainees.
The next evening, back at the airport. 365 days later, waiting for a new group.
African time.

As this is almost a month old, now, more to come soon.

21 August 2006

Not going anywhere for awhile?

le 27 juillet

(grab a Snickers). American marketing is truly amazing. As are American pens (just went to my writing utensils bag to discover it...almost empty? Is this a quasi-veiled plug "please send me pens"? Yes).
I cannot count the number ot times that slogan has flashed across my eyes. Waiting for a bus, waiting on the side of the road for a bus to be fixed, waiting for a meeting to start...waiting. My IPOD has enlivened such times, as have the less-modern books and magazines, but I've gotten amazingly good at staring into space, thinking of nothing, and making the hours *fly* by.
And I've gained an appreciation for Snickers, rare as they are. Nothing like a cold Snickers and a cold COca Light from Deli in Ebolowa...oh, this letter will NOT be solely a product placement. But I do miss products.
Today...I grabbed a banana. This was during a water source/soy bean growing (longer story) meeting in Zoebefam. The meeting had erupted into a 30 minute long high-pitched brawl in Bulu, over the creation of subcommittees within the main committee. (which I mostly understood! victory!)
I wrote the silent scream in red pen on my banana peeel. (For those unfamiliar with my away messages of years past, the silent scream is a -silent- expression of utter frustration during which I channel Munch's painting of same title). I wish you could frama banana peels.
This is when I started yelling at the villagers. "The ONLY IMPORTANT THING is getting potable water for the entire village; the rest is just DETAILS!" Everyone agreed with me, but. Cameroon's culture (damn colonizers? maybe) is thoroughly entrenched in bureaucracy. You can't have a club, a meeting without officers and *titles* for everone else. People like title. THey collect them, like....like away messages on banana peels (I wish). And often, the title is just as empty as the banana's torn skin. In Mvangan, one person (I've been particularly angry with him lately) has been president of the local AIDS committee, community relay for malaria, community impregnator of mosquito nets, and now president of the COSA (health committee, made of community members, runs the hospital). What has he done? Absolutely nothing. NO need to rant now on how I *don't* understand the culture/mentality of continually appointing/electing people to positions when they have shown no evidence of work yet lots of stealing money. (Will PC shut me down for this? Hmm. Dev, please post a disclaimer "does not represent the views of the US Peace Corps." thanks ;) Oh, "not" being a government employee.
The meeting ended amicably with me responding to requests I stay for palm wine with "ma wo'en!" (I'm tired). Left the house at 1:30 pm, left Zoe at...6. The letter Paul had sent informing people of the meeting had only reached some, so we spent 2 hours visiting every house in the village, while he also gave me a deeper look at village social politics. (Have I mentioned he's my erstwhile counterpart- for this and other - and is the head of the lab at the District Hospital of Mvangan? Ok). (It's his village).
Still haven't written in the post book- dammit. Maybe I'll print these for the PCV in Mvangan 07-09. Oy.

Today was also jeudi propre (see previous), so by 7:30 I was at the hospital with me (dirty) hoe. An hour and a half. ANd only 3 of us working.
Today is also July 27, which marks one year since I got my letter of placement from Peace COrps. One year since I started thinking about Cameroon, talking about it, wearing it on T-shirts...and now, and now, it's truly home.

A word on "motivation." In French, it's an exact cognate with the English word. In fact, the word is Franch. In Cameroon...it means money. APparently staff didn't receive "motivation" the last jeudi propre, from the Doc's own pocket, as he's done other times (we're talking 300 F CFA here - 60 cents - to buy beignets). So, most people were en grève today. ANd I'm currently baking banan bread because there have already been complaints that my formation on nutrition/malnutrition (in-service - tomorrow, was going to be today) included no "motivation" or "pause café" (coffee and pastries...which I'll admit was a highlight of those early days of PC in Yaoundé. STILL).
Apple Foster's Clark is amazing, ps. The more "cosmopolitan" PCVs had treied this long ago, but I just found it in Mvangan. (product placement! I can't hide the country of my rearing)
The formation wasn't today because Laure, one of my favorite district nurses, from Nselang, showed up with a case of PFA - paralysie Flaxe aigue, or, in short, suspected polio. In national (and WHO) policy, one case equals an epidemic, in terms of response. (At the time of this writing...well I thought I'd know but I don't know yet. So). I'm not revealing anything the govts of Cameroon, France, Congo, and WHO don't already know - stool samples were rushed to the Centre Pasteur in Yaounde Friday for confirmation, then to Brazzaville, then Paris. THe Doc hurriedly explained all this to me this morning as he waited for the child (23 months) to arrive. Everyone was busy, and my medical curiosity got me - I wanted to see the exam (and I did). Nigeria doesn't vaccinate for polio, at least in some states, and thus endangers all of West and Central Africa. It's *almost* eradicated here. But there have been cases, often of transmission by way of Nigeria. ANd this - well. I've seen a lot of adult/teenage polio victims, but since they started every child campaigns...
Nutrition. Reading through myriad textbooks, I realize I've SEEN pellagra (vit B3/niacin deficiency), rickets (vit D/calcium deficiency), vit A deficiency, kwashiorkor...this in the rainforest where food grows to fulfill every need and children should not be suffering diseases cause by insufficient sunlight (rickets). There is a meeting of all the traditional chiefs of the arrondissementon Saturday. The Chef (mine, of Mvangan village) has asked me to attend, to take pictures (*3 things I'm not - English teacher, computer teafcher, photographer, oh wait...) I'm hoping to use the opportunity to talk about health - all the services at the hospital and especially those that are free.

...finally, I'm doing something that feels like *something*...maybe.

The cat is boycotting dinner. There's something to be said for turning into your mother (eep, father, in this instance). Yelling at a feline "I don'"t CARE if you'd rather have Friskies, tonight is sardines! That's what's for dinner and you're going to eat it!" Well, she can go hunt, unlike myself at a young age.
NO snakes or other reptiles of note, indoors. Though in the last bush taxi I took, there was apparently a live viper among someone's luggage...the chargeurs put a swift, machete end to that, mid-voyage.

...and for this installment, that's all she wrote.

18 July 2006


e 1 juillet 2006

And for once I write this real-time. As you're reading, France may
have claimed victory over Brazil...or not...I don't care, I'm still
riding high on Tuesday's beautiful match against Spain. Nationalisic

(**edit, 16 July 2006 - so France lost to Italy in penalty kicks, and Zizou lost control of his head (literally). I'm still exuberantly proud of the matches vs. Spain, Brazil, and Portugal. Vive la France!)

Months march on without regard to days. Travel could be a part of
that. And...no more snakes.
Last week was a PC collaboration in Makak (yes). The PCV there
held a sports camp for 35 kids, ages 10-18ish, and the South, ever
eager for work, went to help. It's a curriculum, Sports for Life,
that uses soccer (*real* football) o teach about HIV/AIDS -
transmission, prevention, goal-setting, stigmatisation, etc, etc.
Then every afternoon there was a match. ..The week was good, hard, exhausting, frustrating, and rewarding. And I will write more but I've completely lost that train of thought.

Le 14 juillet 2006

Afternoon of indulgence and one froisséd piece of paper. Three errands – strike 2 – and enough deranging to make me want to start elbowing the men who touch me. Basta.

Off to the salon de thé (dit "la France") where I bought Skittles (but there are NO M&Ms in this country), Trix, cat food, and pears. Now for lemonade (1500) and a crèpe (vive la France!) On my own national holiday – in honor of which I decided to go register to vote – I forgot that the Embassy would, of course, be closed.

Middle American family one table over – mom, dad, 3 kids – missionaries?

Yaoundé needs to be more than grocery stores and DVDs. A lot of work accomplished ce matin, though – starting at 7:30 am. Yesterday, 6:30.

The waitresses here are dressed much like they would be at Sonic (took me 15 minutes to remember the name).
Waiters are wearing bow ties and black vests. Amazing fresh lemonade. Everything fresh here – we made hummus, tabouleh, salsa, and tortillas last night.
In the States, will I go back to buying tortillas, pita, salsa, guacamole, hummus…well, it's cheaper. Here I can get a few avocadoes for 100F (20 cents).
There – well. People tell me sodas are better here – real cane sugar, as opposed to high fructose corn syrup – but I don't remember.

Anecdote, appropriate. A PCV friend recently went to Paris (where she incidentally saw my aunt). In a nice restaurant, she ate fish with her hands (it makes so much more sense! Can't go back) and spit the bones on the floor.

PCVs aren't uncouth, we're just…integrated.

This family could be at Denny's. It's weird.

Saw the new PCTs yesterday. So young (ok most older than me, but young in Cameroon terms), fresh, enthusiastic. And
clean. They are also Ed/SED, or PCVs with "jobs."

This might be the best club I've ever joined (PC, then RPCVs).

A list of observations, as I'm not
pose enough to write linear narrative.


gas here is the equivalent price in USD. Now compare average Cameroonian salary to average US salary.
Now imagine gas costing $20, $25 /gallon. Taximen turn the engine off when doing downhill.

World Cup/Olympics should be in a developing country. This was discussed last night, and I think it's intriguing.
Outside sponsors would be needed. But it would force corrupt governments to improve (create?) infrastructure, roads, electricity, water, etc. It would help the economy and boost tourism.
And make the 3rd world more part of the world. And Cameroon has mountains, rivers, ocean..

South Africa is hosting the 2010 World Cup (to which I was invited by one of my neighbors) but we here in PC Cam mockingly refer to South Africa as "the Western world."
There is Peace – harder – Corps than this. But not by very much.

Need to buy a phone card sometime. It gets tiring to be contactable.

The 15-year-old daughter of a family I know well is pregnant. I found out a month ago from a list of absences/pregnancies posted outside the lycée—I was afraid to go see her to confirm it.
And it's true, it's true. I don't know how she managed to –not- show in her tight jeans and shirts (she's beautiful and she knows it. This is something I've feared happening for awhile.
In the States would I hate myself for assuming that someone's appearance could cast aspersions on their behavior? Maybe. But here, there seems to be more truth to that.
And the consequences are a hell of a lot more dire). She's huge now. Her mom – a colleague of mine at the hospital, said she's taught her to calculate her cycle.
She brings home condoms and has taught her how to use them. And yet.

She – the daughter – is smart, dynamic, and eloquent. She recited a poem about SIDA (AIDS) at the fête de la jeunesse, in February (was she pregnant even then? Maybe).

I just got undercharged by 1500 for the first time in my life here (undercharged). Happy Bastille Day, indeed. The manager/owner – Greek guy – just came over and asked me for suggestions, how I liked the place, what he could change, do better, etc. Did he come talk to me because I'm young, white, and female (and alone)? Yes. Did he reduce the price? Wondering. Ahh…Greeks in Cameroon. There are a lot, for some reason.

17 July 2006

Jenny in the News

Jenny sent a link to an article about Cameroon in the Baltimore Sun: Monkey meat and its hazards. She mentions some highlights:

  • (well, i'm in it, oh, and credited) [in the slideshow/gallery]
  • old man sitting in bed is the chief of akam
  • man holding goat, about to slaughter it, is my house guardian, joel
  • house pictured with boots in front - that's my friends marthe and joel's house
  • church, other shots of village - that's all akam (and literally, that's about *all* of akam)
  • truck overloaded with cocoa on the road? that was on the way back to mvangan; we got delayed about half an hour there
  • (turn the captions on for the slideshow; it helps)
  • pangolin on the tree? good stuff.
  • mat (lebreton) "trekking through the forest"? that's about 20 feet behind the project house

Check it out!

15 July 2006


Waaaaaay down South

(It’s true; there’s only one PCV in country who’s further south than I am)

*an article I just wrote for our environmental education newsletter. And keep in mind that these are the rantings of a *former* vegetarian...*

Mvangan is a village of 2000 people in the South province, about 50 km from the natural border with Gabon. It’s both the seat of the arrondissement and the seat of the health district (I’m based at the district hospital), but being in the South province, there are few people, little infrastructure, and few income-generating projects going on. The main economic activities are cocoa farming and bush meat hunting.
So….what’s in the South…besides the beautiful equatorial rainforest, the childhood home of Paul Biya, the Bulu, several land/animal reserves, KRIBI, and Ebolowa, provincial capital and “gem of the South”? Well, there’s a lot of bush meat. And I know bush meat used to be the buzzword (and only word…) of EE, but it’s true – bushmeat and manioc are the staple foods in the South province. And that in itself provides a lot of Health/EE opportunities, but for now…I’ll focus on bush meat…and its new, lovely, photogenic alternative – the cane rat.
And it tastes like chicken. (awww)(….dinner!)
Through a partnership with Heifer International, Peace Corps is funding cane rat training for farmers in several provinces. Two planters from my village are attending two weeks of cane rat training this month, with training and progenitors (one male and three females – rodent polygamy). As I recently completed two hours of cane rat training [with the (currently) sole raiser of cane rats in the South province], I consider myself an unqualified expert who can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about cane rats but never thought to ask.
First, why cane rats? (besides that they taste like chicken)
Cane rats are also called aulacodes or herissons in French. Similar to guinea pigs (calico-colored, overgrown hamsters? Yep, they’re good food too), they look like a cross between rats, rabbits, and hedgehogs. One cane rat can fetch as much as 15.000 F CFA at the current market rate – this meat is pretty special. Cane rats are easy to domesticate, are relatively cheap to feed (grass, anyone? Little bit o’ manioc and corn?) and being polygamous, reproduce at a fantastic (for the breeder) and alarming (for the mother) rate. One female cane rat, after a gestation of 5 months, can have a litter of 2 – 15 furry little drumsticks…
And that’s probably more than you ever wanted to know.
But. Introducing and promoting alternative sources of protein to bush meat (and this can also include plants like soy and moringa) can a) help reduce hunting pressure on wild species 2) add protein to the diet by having more consistent sources available (yay health!) and 3) provide an excellent income-generating activity for your community. And this will hopefully tie into future/in-the-planning nutrition animations in the community. The Bulu are traditionally hunters, and meat = pride. Introducing non-animal forms of protein is an uphill battle, but worth the challenge.

12 June 2006

*Nods knowingly* Oh, la Sorcellerie.

Le 10/06/06

(apologizes for using action brackets in the title. Couldn’t be helped).

Background note – Mus (or Musica, Musser, Mustifer, or Lazy Cat) is my cat. Clingy, neurotic African cat.

I had an argument with the chef. Too long of a story to explain…essentially, rather than seeing me and wanting money, he has seen me and wanted a Project. This is closer to a PCV’s job, yes, but the particular project has turned into a territorial/family dispute. And has lately made me Angry. (the project is not going to happen). After some harshly spoken loud words with him and with Mama Regine on the subject…I went home. End of story.

That night, lying in bed, I start to hear strange noises. I’ve gotten used to living alone in my house. Used to the noises chickens make beneath my windows, noises my neighbors in back make, noises of mangoes and birds falling on the roof. I’m even used to the (somewhat rare) noise of Mus devouring a mouse or a little gecko.

This was different than all those.

To convince myself that it was not, in fact, a human intruder in my house, I turned on my bedside lamp.

The fuse blew and the lamp exploded.

Ok, I know where my flashlight is at all times. It helps when electricity is uncertain.

I get out of bed, slightly shaken, and walk to the living room. It’s dark, but the light switch is on the other side of the room.

In the middle of the floor is Mus.

Wrestling with a long black snake.

I panic. Don’t scream. Somehow have the presence of mind to back away to the kitchen to get my butcher knife.

I stand there, shaking, knife in hand. Mus is fighting valiantly. I reason that – since she seems okay – the snake must not be poisonous. This doesn’t help so much. Standing there, shaking, with the knife. Had I my machete (on the other side of the room, next to the light switch, would entail stepping over the snake) I think I would have hacked at it. But the knife…handle too short, I have to get too close to the snake, if I don’t hit hard enough the first time and it reacts up at me…no.

The snake is tightly curled on the floor. There’s some snake blood on my cement…is it dead? Maybe. I wait. I go get my raclette (squeegee like broom for mopping the floor). I will just push it out the front door…it starts to uncurl. Slowly. As calmly as I possibly can, I push it toward the door. Forceful. Step around it to unlock the door, open, push it as far as I can out into the yard. Mus follows (but she can get back in through the window). Shut the door. Lock it again. Turn on all the lights in the house. Go back to my bedroom, shaking…as I realize there is enough room under my door for a snake to crawl, I push a suitcase against it. There. Fine.

Somehow, I manage to sleep.

In the morning, I get up, remove the obstruction at my door, go back into the living room.

There, lying stretched across my books, is a dead black snake.

The same one.

Mus didn’t eat it…it’s completely intact…but she killed it somehow. And she’s sitting on her usual chair, purring, now meowing at me for breakfast.

Shaking…again…I pick it up with the same raclette and fling it into the side yard. Truly, truly dead.

Then I look at my doors. Front door – no way in hell a snake could have gotten under. …same with the back door.

Window? How could a snake climb several feet up the cement wall? And why?

Mus is notorious for brining in the mice and geckos to eat inside. And leave the heads for me to find. But…the snake was bigger than her. And she didn’t want to eat it. She would have had to jump through the window, struggling with it…and why.

And it almost six months I have never seen a snake in Mvangan.

Snakes are traditionally connected with sorcery. They’re warnings, say, to make you pay attention or change your ways or whatever.

I don’t believe in sorcery.

But if I did….

I have no idea how the snake got inside.

Mus, my hero.

I think.

She got Friskies (dry, found now in Ebolowa, her new favorite) for her efforts, and the next day, an avocado.

30 May 2006

Paging Dr. Jenny

le 8 mai 2006

Uhhh…what-now ?

Saturday afternoon, leaving my house to walk to Mvangan centre to try
to retrieve a letter for the 4th time, I was intercepted by one of the
nurses. Essola walks toward me. "Jenny!" (keep in mind that the
following dialogue took place in Cameroonian French). "Yes?" "There's
a mother here with a malnourished child. I just sent her to your
house. I'll call her back so you can consult with her."
*deep breath* *I can pretend that I'm competent enough to counsel a
mother worried about her 20-month old daughter who has stopped eating
and is currently presenting with malnutrition, while the other child
(they're twins) is fine....*
Thus went my first patient consult. Trying to ask thoughtful,
meaningful questions, and to give decent answers and advice. Yes.
Looking at my resource books later, I did a decent job. Considering.
This all came about because at our last staff meeting, we were
discussing the month's cases and came upon a child with kwashiorkor
(severe malnutrition). The Doc decided that I (an expert on
nutrition? I've mentioned to him that I'm very interested in the
subject, but...) would plan an in-service on nutrition for all the
nurses and come up with a meal plan to give to mothers of malnourished
children. With preparation and planning and research, fine. But
spur-of-the-moment is what PC Cam is all about. So there you have it.
First patient consult, check. (how many years till I start med
In the middle of said staff meeting, a high school girl I know pretty
well came in. "Jennifer, on a besoin de toi." Curious, I go outside,
and run into the first arrival for the Jazz Fete de Mvangan 2006,
fresh off several hours on a moto, from Sangmelima. (**free weekend
for volunteers of same province. Still, names of the Innocent
withheld**). I was expecting him to arrive with the bread truck the
next day, so this was a surprise. Few hours later, the next three
arrive (from a bush taxi (van) filled with 22 people. They counted.
And chickens. All par for the course) ... and the greatest spectacle
Mvangan has seen in awhile was walking around town. Five Ntangens.
Pretty amazing. (Though more amazing is that in the course of the
weekend, I got my table! Almost four months later and much smaller
than I was envisioning. More of a desk. Now for work on table number
2...). PCVs can be pretty creative. Meaning, in this instance, that
we can try our best to make Western food with Cameroonian ingredients
and a marmite oven. Over the weekend, there was pizza, falafel,
hummus, and pita. All made from scratch (except the falafel). What
else. Saturday afternoon we walked down to the Nlobo (river), watched
kids jumping in and did resist the urge to jump in after them and
quickly contract Schisto. Umm, for now. (what, it's treatable...and
besides which is a great word to say....SCHISTO!) We ran into a cocoa
(and L'Oreal) importer/exporter, neighbor of [another PCV]. Having
lived in NYC at 46th St and 8th Ave for 10 years, working for Grayline
as a tour guide, R.C. regaled us with tales of how he is a "f*cking
smart guy, man" and how not to pick up transvestites in Brooklyn and
take them to XXX clubs. (If I had our entire conversation on tape, it
would be a perfect SNL skit. Except. It was real. I'm not going to
try, won't come close enough).

Quick and lovely ride back up to Ebolowa in a hired car (as none of
the agence cars went, Sunday, because it had rained that morning).
The five of us and two drivers in the same size car in which I once
traveled to Ebolowa with 13 others. Pas mal. Lovely evening
culminating in drinks with a bunch of French volunteers who had
congregated for a similar Fete. DCC....D Catholic C something.
Anyway. Two differences between them and PCVs: they are professionals
(nurses, businesspeople, teachers, and the like) and they live in more
urban areas. Translated, they got mad skillz (that we don't got) but
they're not roughing it en brousse. (Though neither are all PCVs.
And some do have skillz, even mad onez.)
Their French was...difficile à suivre. Fast. French French. And I
realized exactly *how* Cameroonian I sound now, though compared to
Cameroonians I sound very French. Odd to have trouble understanding
your first language.
And dancing! West African drumming and dancing! (at the bar in
Ebolowa). Different than Cameroonian dance, which is more like placid
walking around in a circle. Cameroonian dance is a lot more about the
song. And West African dance...is about flying. African dancing, in
Africa. A good, rare moment to remember "Oh yeah, I live in Africa."
It's month 8 now.

As I said to Kim at IST, Mvangan is a curious mix of "there's nothing
to do" and "AHH!!! I'm overwhelmed!!!" This morning I was working on
3 rather large-scale projects, thinking of a 4th, and planning time to
go work with an infirmier en brousse (Amvom, about halfway between
here and Akam. He, Sylvain, was going to get a PCV (like a TV
gameshow gift!) if there were enough, but alas). He wants to do a
major program on malnutrition, regrouping villages and talking to
women's groups, etc, developing a treatment plan. He also wants to do
youth sensibilisations in the summer, when the kids of the area are
regrouped together for soccer tournaments and weeks of cultural
events. This is Brilliant. And something a PCV is *made* to do (if
that can be said about anything). And the practice we had doing
animations at soccer games in Bandjoun every week could actually come
in handy. And he's the counterpart of my dreams....as in, has ideas,
has time and energy to put toward them, and really wants to work with
me. And is 30 km away, at least 2 hours on a moto, and 3000. To plan
for a trip to Akam, or on the way back from Akam. The days pass very,
very slowly here...but the months are flying. *soudain* I'll be 23
and a half in a few weeks. That's halfway through a year spent
entirely in Cameroon. What is time like, state-side? I don't

Two years is short. To try to accomplish something? Anything?
Minuscule. When you add in banking trips, free weekends, having 3
posts, vacations, meetings....

Third post, Zoebefam. I don't live at that one, contrary to Mvangan
and Akam. ...yet. When we actually start work on the sources (*it's
going to happen! It's going to happen!* says Tinkerbell), I'll live
there for the two weeks, at least, the work takes. (And there's
another month gone, basically. Likely, August. IFF PC gets British
High Commission funding and the village gets materials together and I
get the grant done and it's accepted. ) I was there last Sunday and
I'll be there again in a week, to establish a work calendar and get
people moving to gather sand, rocks, wood, planks, etc, etc. And get
work groups established to actually défriche the sources and work on
them when the time comes. It feels homey, now...I know my way around
and I'm getting to know people there. The nurse, Paulette, is
wonderful. "We're going to go house to house to get contributions.
If people won't give money, they'll give materials. And if they won't
give materials, they'll work. And if they won't work I'll come into
their kitchen and take a marmite and sell it to get the money!"
And that's how you get sh*t done.
There might not be anything big. But if at the end of two years,
there are enough little-to-medium things that feel like they existed,
it'll be okay. Two years. So, so, short.

Off to try to get mosquito nets put on my windows. I haven't been so
motivated to do this (neither are the carpenters...) because there are
no mosquitoes around my house. As in, the only mosquito bites I get
are while traveling and in other villages. Worst? Yaoundé, PC
compound, the Case, computer room.

Over and out.

10 April 2006

Oh, Cameroun

("Oh, Cameroun" is the greeting message on my cell phone, programmed around 6 am on a bush taxi. And what we say. A Lot.)

I took a machete to work the other day. Not only was that not strange or incarceration-worthy, I was expected to do it. The last Thursday of the month is "jeudi propre" at the hospital, and we défriche the surroundings – cut grass, weeds, trees, etc (trees can be weeds, here), rake, hoe, machete. Burn leaves. All the personnel do it, and that means me, no? And me wielding a machete – my own, mind you – is about the funniest thing any Cameroonian has ever seen. Repeatedly. I'm glad to provide the entertainment. And my technique is improving. (anyone who has ever felt that cutting grass with a lawnmower, in the sun, was hard work – try doing it with a machete).

Life in a small village in Africa also means my colleague (a nurse at the hospital) came over at 7 – and woke me up – to borrow my hoe. I've tried to explain that I am not a morning person, that people shouldn't come over that early for their own good. It hasn't worked, so far. But at least I'm comfortable enough here, now, to groan and yell at people that early (though they won't go away and stand there, talking, singing, until I come to the door). It helps. Work hours for the government (and hospital) here are 7:30 to 3:30 – but being a PCV 24/7, and not *actually* having a job, I feel justified in coming in by 8.

Kids take machetes to school, too, including primary school kids. Défrichage (translation? It's hard because it's not really something you can do, besides in the tropics. Rainforest) of school grounds – they have "manual labor" as part of PE (don't worry, they get to play soccer and handball, too). No fears of school violence, here.

I had a discussion about gun-carrying – especially in Texas – here, today. (Here = Akam, village of 100 people in the Mengame Gorilla reserve, 7 km from Gabon. See previous). They think such an adamant stance over – what? The right to bear arms? - is insane. I agree. Interesting what news permeates, and where.

Today – April first, incidentally, but the following is real – I started off the morning by tracking down the guy who's supposedly been making me a table and chairs for 2 months (he's hiding from me. I gave him an ultimatum last week), arguing with my moto chauffeur over money (to take me to Akam from Mvangan), and finding confirmation that he was way overcharging me from my erstwhile counterpart, Pascal, who is awesome (and Anglophone) but now lives in Yaoundé. Finally, we left.
14 km later, we stopped in Zoebefam, a village where I'm doing a water project. (We stop a lot so my chauffeur, Essono, can chat with people. Everybody knows everybody). But here – I felt Cameroonian – because I also had to stop and greet friends/acquaintances. Essono got annoyed. Ohwell. He just wanted to get back fast so he could make up what he'd thought I would pay.

We arrived in 3 hours, and I had the whole, huge project house to myself. For about 10 minutes. Then people started coming by (everyone knew within seconds that I was here). First the school director's wife, who I think is going to be a good friends but I still don't know her first name – that's embarrassing. Then Seraphim, who often translates in meetings for the Hopkins folks (and me) and serves as a guide. Then off to the corps de garde – sort of town square, open air building with bamboo beds, chairs, an elephant skull, songo (mancala) etc, where everyone (the men) generally hangs out. There I greeted the chef, who doesn't speak French (nkou'kouma a ndji kabo fulassi) but I managed to get a few things across in Bulu. He sent someone back to his house to get us lunch – a luscious avocado, plantain pilé (mashed plantain, sortof), and nfia ndo'o – mangue sauvage sauce. After a few more visits, a few hours of chatting in kitchens, I went home and picked a perfectly ripe papaya from my tree.

Idyllic? Could be.

Africa is poor. Yes.

But here, a poor man – any man – (and I specifically say man, not person) can get a bit of land (ask and ye shall receive, from the chef), build his own house at very little monetary cost, make his own fields – grow food, and sell the extra for money – or even just find food en brousse (in the bush/rainforest). He probably doesn't have potable water (depends on the village). His children are probably malnourished and probably have worms, and he probably can't afford to send them to school. Or to send them past primary school, if they're even so inclined. (This isn't even just a question of money/motivation. To take the exam at the end of primary school - which is necessary to enter 6eme, or the beginning of secondary school, the children of Akam have to walk about 30 km to the testing site).

But, what is poor?

(As to the women, Cameroonian women have few-to-no rights, in practice, at least. There are, of course, exceptions. Mayors (the mayor of Mvangan is a woman). Congressional reps (again, Mvangan). But at a dinner in her home, Honorable – the Rep – served men below her in political rank. Had to. But I digress. The farther out en brousse you go, the more true this is. In Akam, many women don't speak French (because they had little or no schooling). Last time I was here, a 14-yr-old gave birth. That's pretty average. Etc).

There is drumming from nearby, in the corps de garde. But for now I'm content to sit here – with my other half papaya – and write.

If there is anything I could most convey for goal 3 (this, and you, dear readers are goal 3 – see peacecorps.gov) it is the utter normalcy of my life here –and of people, everywhere. I make it sound exotic – by giving facts, yes, but it's all very matter-of-fact to me now. Today marks 6 months in Africa. Six months since I set foot on the continent I'd dreamed of for 16 years. Six months in Cameroon. (And 6 months ago today I was wondering – WTF is my luggage? I'M HUNGRY – and who are these people???).

Six months ago tonight I was worrying over forgetting to use bottled water to brush my teeth – I didn't, but almost, and my roommate did, panicked, and threw out her toothbrush.

Today I drank village water (from a clean source, good well. And only a little bit...) My new friend (the school director's wife... Marthe! Ha!) just came by with the porcupine she prepared ( I watched her scrape the quills off. I kept one). And I'm perfectly comfortable living au village, en super-brousse, with no electricity and water I carried in earlier today.

Six months. That's two trimesters of a baby. Neural development? Heart? I should know. (and on that note, just bit into some porcupine organ. Oh well.) To say everything has changed in both an understatement and an overstatement. I've gotten my head clearer about a lot of things, being here. Growing up? Not quite. It's like having a growth spurt – over the last 2 and a half years, say – and finally buying clothes to fit. And stopping hitting your head on things – knowing exactly when and where to duck.

I needed that.

And here's to another 20 months, or 21.

Dear gods, it's hard some days. But at the same time breathless and spellbinding and achingly beautiful and heart-to-overflowing. The truest thing about Peace Corps - pour moi - is that it's an emotional rollercoaster, from waiting to go to going to being here. And it doesn't stop. Not yet, anyway.

Six months. I've learned to not stress about things (it's true !), be boundlessly flexible, and never anticipate anything – because there are always, always surprises. (Meeting happening? Surprise! Meeting not happening? Surprise...)

I'm no longer afraid of lighting gas stoves. Or of motos. Or malaria or parasites or dysentery. Everything to do on a daily basis that seemed so overwhelming when the PCMOs first told us – even setting up a water filter ! – has become easy. Routine. I'm good at killing lots of time by staring into space (or sitting on a moto). Good at waiting patiently, let's say.

It's good to be home. I have so many. Anyplace I have attachment to people, things. Any place I have things that are mine to come back to. Any place familiar. I leave pieces of myself everywhere – were I Bulu, I'd leave babies. This is home is 2° 20' N, 11° E, thanks to my sat phone GPS. I just spoke to my parents, sitting on a log under my papaya tree. They worry. I forget there are reasons to. This is my very normal life. And it's Daylight Savings Time, again, in America. That's twice now, since leaving. We don't change. 2° above the equator, there's no reason to.

6 months ago – this morning –I began to realize what it would look like to be white in Africa. At the airport in Paris. A long line of Cameroonians, and all of us (then) PCTs. Now, in village, at least, it feels odd when (very rarely) I see another blanc. (There's an Italian priest and an Italian doctor at the Catholic mission 6 km from Mvangan. I go there on occasion – good food, company, and to remind myself that there are other white people in the world, I don't just look weird or have some sort of skin disease). I've been sunburned once in 6 months, and that was sitting for hours at a state funeral (in Mvangan). One minor jellyfish sting. Cumulative bug bites in the thousand range (no hyperbole).

I wish I could record the drumming right now. I'm leaving now, to join the village kids in dancing. It's Saturday night.

There are times when I'm perfectly zen.

This is one of them.

23 March 2006

Stung by a Jellyfish in the night-equatorial-Atlantic (but it wasn't so bad)

I was going to write about youth day, but time has passed and other things feel more iminent now. Maybe later.

I just spent a week (and a bit) at the beach, courtesy of US govt tax dollars - Peace Corps In-Service Training. This is a conference that occurs three months into service. It's supposed to be a milestone; we're not allowed to travel out of province or take vacation in the first three months, we're not supposed to start major projects, etc. When we separated in Bandjoun, after living together for 11 weeks, 3 months stretched long. And after living 3 months without any form of communication with the outside world (while at post), for the longest stretch, almost a month - it wasn't actually hard. Not that part. Now work will really commence. Maybe.

I've had questions about what life is like. Life, to me, is no longer exotic. During IST we watched Globetrekker in Cameroon and I realized, again, that my life here is very colorful and interesting and very different than anything I could have imagined from the States.

So, the topography of my life. Since arriving at post: absolute low - seeing my friend's sister dying of AIDS (feb 14). The only thing I could do - and what I did do - was take pictures. It's customary here to take pictures of dead loved ones, lain out on a bed in funeral attire. Being the funeral photographer felt like being the worst kind of paparazzi, but it was appreciated, and in another sense - being there - and being a part of the funeral - showed me how much i have become integrated into my community, how much it mattered to them to have me there, and how important it was for me to be there.

Highs - many. No matter how frustrating, shitty, aggravating a day might be, something wonderful happens every day. Without exception. And if it hasn't happened yet, I know where to go... to my friends in Mvangan village, like the chef, Mama Regine. (Incidentally, it was her sister who died).

* learning traditional cooking and wowing the villagers with my *prowess* (i'm slowly getting better...) at making batons de manioc (ebubolo in Bulu). This is manioc (cassava) that's been peeled, soaked in water for three days, mortar and pestled into a consistent mush (and that is HARD work. Mortar and pestling - is there a better word? The action is 'piler' here - is now my upper arm workout. Women here are incredibly, incredibly strong. And i'm not talking about a little mortar and pestle you put on a countertop. I'm talking about a huge wooden container you hold between your knees and a pestle longer and much thicker than a walking cane), then rolled into banana leaves, tied with cords (that come from the trunk of a banana tree), and cooked in a marmite. This is a major staple in the south - the basic
meal is batons and bush meat.

* going to the fields and doing slash and burn farming. (Yes, I'm slash and burning in the equatorial rainforest). Clearing brush is fun - and hard! I'm a big fan of manual labor and getting dirty. Also planting corn, manioc, etc.

* holding a water source meeting in Zoebefam (village 14 km past Mvangan, where I'm working on 2 or 3 springboxes. Whatever we can get funding for. The water in the natural springs is black. Literally, black. Animals drink there, so feces, mud, all kinds of bacteria...and this is what people drink. Because it's all there is). I co-ran the meeting with M. Paul, the head lab tech from the hospital in Mvangan. It's his village, and his idea. He translated everything I was saying into Bulu, which was wonderful. We also did water sanitation sensibilisation - talked about different ways to purify water. Had the community fill out a baseline survey about their water sources and associated problems (health issues). Made a community map. Walked around with them to visit all the water sources and wells. And then, leaving, they gave me a regime of plantains as a token of appreciation. It was really wonderful. Apparently they had also wanted to get me a bird (from the bush, to eat), but the hunters hadnt found anything for me when they went hunting.

04 February 2006

Tapeworm - nope, it's not mine.

le 31 Jan. 06

I’ve forgotten the use of weekends. Not for sleeping in - Saturday, marché at 6:30 am - if I’m actually motivated enough to go - and Sunday, up early for laundry and then making the rounds of the churches to meet the community. Slowly. I don’t go to the hospital as early on the weekend. But Friday night, Saturday night are the same as any other night - in by 6:30, BBC for the news and World Have your Say, dishes, making dinner, reading, writing a few letters. Maybe some home improvement work - I’m a big fan of my hammer. Fighting with the light fixture in my bedroom - the light stays on for 5 to 30 minutes, max. Then turns off. I’ve tried everything - changed the fixture, changed the bulb, cut, reworked, and reattached and tightened the wires; reshaped the metal attachment with pliers. And lots and lots of duct tape. Only once have I electrocuted myself in the weeks of working on it - I consider this a stroke of genius. Nothing seems to be a permanent fix. This is where having electricity is more of a hassle than a blessing. The living room light, at least, was permanently (so far) fixed by my duct tape concoction.
My clingy, neurotic cat, whose favorite food is avocado (and brownies seem to be a close second), has tape worms. Luckily, according to Where there is no doctor, this is not transmissible, person to person or cat to person. Good. But since I don’t have (and perhaps there isn’t yet one) Where there is no vet, I’ll wait till I get to the city to get her medicine in a proper dose. Also a new rabies vaccine. Might as well de-worm myself while I’m at it - it’s never a bad idea, living in the tropics. (as in, the Equatorial Rainforest).
Funny how the thing I absolutely did NOT want to come to Africa to do…teach English…well. The lycée (high school) vice principal approached me a few weeks ago about teaching English (as in, in a classroom). Actually he first asked the chef of Mvangan village -he is wonderful and is basically my grandfather here -whom I visit often. The chef was part of the founding committee for the lycée, about 10 years ago. (Before, students had to go - and walk, sometimes - hundreds of kilometres to go to the lycée in Ebolowa. Now there is one in Mvangan, which serves the students who are REALLY "en brousse" (in the bush), all the way to the Gabon border). The chef thought it was a fantastic idea and perfect solution for me to teach English. (There hasn’t been an English teacher for 5 years. English is one of the subjects on the national exams taken in 9th, 11th, and 12th grades, where a passing grade in every subject is required to move on to the next year of schooling. You do the math). Considering my innate aversion to teaching English in formerly colonized countries, my work at the hospital, in the community, in the health district of mvangan (13 healh centers), and in Akam with Hopkins (and in 9 other villages there), and the fact that Peace Corps highly discourages us becoming English teachers who are depended upon in the community - well. I refused. Teach how many classes of 30 - 60 kids, mostly unmotivated, write lesson plans and tests and…NO. But. Several students approached me, on their own, about their worries and desires to work more in English. Solution? English club. That way the lycée’s happy, the chef’s happy, the kids are happy, and I’m happy because it’s only the motivated ones, I figure, who will come. And it’s my own, my very own to do what I want with, whereas my girls’ group…is a little different than that. So yesterday I went to the lycée to meet with the current English dept - a German prof, French prof, Spanish prof - who are teaching the English classes but have no training in English (They do speak it. Partly. But apparently it’s very new that there are foreign language teachers, at all. Subjects also compulsory for the national exams). We went into all the classrooms to announce a planning meeting, then I sat in on a class. So I’m expecting 10s to 100s at the first meeting, which will dwindle sharply when we actually start having the club. Good. The class was … interesting. First, the times were mixed up so the prof and I waited an hour. Then the students were 15 mins to half an hour late. The vocabulary lesson was on the computer. This seems highly incongruous. Now, there is electricity in Mvangan, has been for about 4 years. There are 3 computers in town - at the hospital, where I’m currently typing, at the Sous-Prefet’s office, and in the Mayor’s office. There are computers and internet in Ebolowa, of course, but internet even there is fairly new - and it’s expensive - and how often do these kids go there? The high school does not have electricity - and honestly, it’s not very necessary, when you have windows and it’s sunny during the day and there aren’t night activities. Yet, yet, the knew "modem." Mouse. Etc. There are computer science classes, too, but as there are no computers, everything is theoretical. This is the same with the science classes, as there is no lab equipment. Teaching English - even peripherally, like I’m going to be doing - feels much better in Cameroun than it might elsewhere in the developing world. I think. Cameroun is, as a nation, bilingual. Of the 10 provinces, 2 are Anglophone - colonized by the British - and incorporated into the rest of Francophone Cameroun shortly after independence. The lingua franca in the Anglophone provinces, though, is not English but pidgin. All government activities are conducted in French. There’s a lot of animosity and political rivalry between Anglophone and Francophone provinces. At the universities, though, there are both Anglophone and Francophone professors - so some classes are taught in English, some in French. And if you don’t know both languages - well - you’re kinda screwed. Friday is National Bilingualism day. Bilingual has a very strict definition here - it means French/English. I am bilingual. Every Cameroonian (except those in the far out villages, far far in the bush, where many only speak their patois - local language) is bilingual. Everyone speaks a local language, then most speak French or English (or pidgin) on top of that. There is no recognition that pushing people to be fluent in both English and French makes them trilingual. Local languages are not valorised, not at the national level. There are about 250 of them in Cameroun, which means that for Cameroun to be a country, even, they have to keep and use colonialist languages. It’s the only common ground. In the South - where I am - everyone speaks Bulu, and that, all the time. Much more than they speak French. Hence my motivation and necessity to learn it, and quickly. Ma zu aye’e kabo bulu- I will learn to speak Bulu.
And I am, learning. I can usually pick up at least a little bit of what people are saying, now, grasping at the words I know (and blessed, blessed context clues and gestures). My main "teacher" is my friend Régine, a planter and truly amazing woman in Mvangan village. She does everything. Our "lessons" are when I go over to visit, sitting around her kitchen and helping/watching her cook. Kitchens, here - very, very important. And I’m talking about traditional kitchens. In Akam (more on that later), people live in their kitchens - or the cooking fire is in the one-room house. Here -a separate building from the house, bigger kitchen seems to indicate more traditional/villageois lifestyle. Wood, mud bricks. A fire in the middle, with stones on which to put the marmite (cooking pot. And these are pots as such I’ve never SEEN the size of , anywhere else. Many could be used to wash a medium-sized child. And they are, they are). Cane/bamboo beds placed around the fire, to sit on and also where people often sleep. Hanging baskets to dry meat, hold piment (hot peppers), dry peanuts, wild mango pits (used for cooking)…anything else that happens to be in season. The kitchen is where people are often congregated and is often the best place to hang out. The chef’s kitchen, just across from Régine’s, is always a flurry of activity. It’s close to the size of my house (and my house is pretty big. For me, anyway). His wife, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, always busy, always making something. I’ve helped several times there. They always give me food as a leave, especially when they’re making something that I haven’t tried yet. I brought banana bread the other day - which I knew was a favorite of the chef’s, and it’s pretty easy to make here. Now his daughters want me to teach them. Banana bread - is it really that American? has now been popularised in France and in Cameroun. Most Western food doesn’t go over well here, so I’m a bit hesitant about other things. I have a PC cookbook, though, and I’m working through as much of it as I can (it’s also a good evening activity. BBC, cook. And you really *don’t* need an oven to bake - Dutch oven (marmite, on the gas stove) works just as well. So many things I’m learning and re-learning. And all of that’s "work" too - it’s PC goal 2. (and this is goal 3! So many things accomplished!) Goal 1 - transfer of capacities, sustainable development, etc, etc is also going. Slowly.
Akam. Ahh. Village of about 100 people, 7 km from the border with Gabon. And that’s REALLY "en brousse." Right behind the houses begins the Mengame Gorilla Reserve, presided over by the Jane Goodall society. I was there for a week with the Hopkins team, doing meetings on bush meat and virus transmission (and ways to guard against it). Monkey meat is quite the delicacy in the South (nope, haven’t eaten any, and don’t plan to. Porcupine, yes. Antelope, yes. Pangolin, yes). When we got to Akam, everyone was eating elephant meat - a small one had been killed a few weeks earlier and it was still feeding the whole village! People in the rainforest hate elephants because they destroy their fields (plantations) and move the traps that hunters set. I haven’t yet seen any of these animals live. Saw lots of elephant meat, skin, an elephant skull in the village hangout/resting place/plaza (they use it as a seat). Saw a dead monkey just taken from the forest, a few antelopes, and other smaller animals. Next time (I go about once a month, or every two months) one of the hunters is going to take me for a walk in the rainforest. Akam is about 60 km from Mvangan, but it took 4 hours on a moto to get there. The road is too bad for all but the best of 4x4, off-roading, safari-type vehicles (aka, the Hopkins car. And even with that we got stuck in the mud on the way back for a few hours).
Next week is la fete de la jeunesse - national youth day. February 11. There are events every day - the students doing manual labor around town, clearing field, soccer tournaments, and soirées culturelles every night - the lycée, the technical school, the primary school, and my girls' group. Dancing - traditional and less so, singing, skits, etc. I'm excited - night life in Mvangan! EVERY night! Wednesday afternoon were the tryouts/preselection at the lycée. Since I live next to the lycée (quite literally), they were doing tryouts on the lawn, and I'm getting to be friends with several of the lycée kids, I went to watch. These kids can DANCE. Everything from Cameroonian dancing (bikutsi, makossa, plus the very popular ivoirien "coupé/décalé) to currently popular music, more traditional dances, and guys doing Michael Jackson-like moonwalking (incredible) to Usher. (I would love to see them do Thriller!) Even the teachers got in on the act. Sitting on the grass, talking, laughing (French and Bulu), kids coming over to sit with me, say hi, making fun of/cheering on their classmates... I have arrived.

17 January 2006

"vin blanc"

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a description of the "trip from hell" - 12 hours travel time between Boston and Dallas (1800 miles, usually a 3-4 hour flight). This trip included many hours of waiting in various airports, crammed uncomfortably in small planes, etc. And the only thing I could find to eat in the airport, one of them, was an apple and maybe some bread. And I had to fight to be allowed to fly that night at all, rather than being bumped to the next day (victory of calling on your cell phone to the 1800 number while standing in a shoving, angry line with your fellow passengers!) But to stay an extra week in Boston with my dear ones – all worth it.

My perspective has changed.

Allow me to describe a not atypical (but nothing is "typical" here – I've become very "laissez-faire") Cameroonian voyage, 2 weeks ago, en
route from Mvangan to Ebolowa for New Year's. Usually, there is an "agence de voyage" with vans that travel between Mvangan and the provincial capital (Ebolowa). That day, the vans were broken, so the passengers were transferred to a "klando" (non-registered, or personal) car. Toyota, early 90s, station wagon – but the back part was used for bags, so the interior is about the size of a Toyota Corolla. Twelve people inside (to be fair, including a few children). Two on top. Dirt road, 60 miles. How long did the trip take? Six and a half hours. We had two flat tires, the second one about 20 miles from Ebolowa and close to dark. The driver hopped on a passing moto to go get a new tire "in the nearest town" – where, a friendly neighbor woman told us, there were no tires. He would have to travel to Ebolowa and back.

Meanwhile, in a not atypical show of Cameroonian hospital, the neighbor took me and another woman from the car (by the by, a member of the President's personal guard) where we chatted for awhile and then were served dinner. Bringing out the plates: bush meat, plantain pilé, and "vin blanc". The woman asked me if I knew what "vin blanc" was here. Since this is often the name for palm wine, I acquiesced. She said "I prepared it with spinach." Not knowing what the bush meat was (I'll eat pretty much anything BUT monkey, the most common type in the South) and not wanting to be rude and ask, I helped myself to the plantain and the spinach and "vin blanc."

It so happens, however, that "vin blanc" here meant grubs. Not exactly sure what genus, but something grub-like with a definite exoskeleton and a soft inside. And the only thing I've eaten here that has brought me to the brink of being quite violently ill. I tried, I really did, after all – what is this but the royal road to acculturation? And after 7 pm, waiting for the driver for over an hour, in a village with no electricity and running quickly out of the water in my Nalgene (damn me for not bringing iodine tabs!), I expected to have to stay the night. My gracious hostess noticed my discomfort, laughed, and called one of the children to bring me fish. She and my fellow traveller finished my "vin blanc" with relish. While I crunched slowly on the fish bones, and we sat and talked awhile longer, the driver came back. With the help of some other passengers, he instated the new tire. We piled back into the car. We go a few hundred meters. The headlight (which was working, somewhat to my surprise) falls off. The driver gets out, puts it back on, and we continue. The headlight and (and the tires) stay on! Victory!

This is as a good a time as any to mention that it's dry season. You may not be aware of this, but the full meaning is that it hasn't really rained (except a few times, briefly) in two months. It's hot here. It's a (red) dirt road. The air – our clothes – the car – the bags – everything, everyone is coated in layers upon layers of dirt and dust. The windows have also been open for the entire trip. My lungs have begun to close, and every time we get out of the car I lapse into a hacking cough (and two weeks later, my allergies have improved to the point that I can – almost- sleep through the night without waking up in coughing fits. But not quite. As the PC/Cam medical manual says, if you haven't had allergies or asthma before, you'll develop them here. Dry season. And if you've had asthma before – well – it's back. Welcome back. I write this as I'm preparing to travel to Ebolowa, again, armed with a bandanna I'm determined to wear as a gas mask).

When we approach the first gendarme checkpoint, near the paved road (which feels like salvation, every time we get there – no matter how broken down the car is, from the paved road, you can get another car or a taxi into Ebolowa), the driver suddenly pulls over. The 2 (3 by now) on top jump off, and a few passengers in back get out. We drive through. The gendarme tries to extort (is it a bribe? Is it our driver not wanting to pay?) money, the driver refuses, and we wait awhile as his papers are taken away. Finally, the papers are restored and we drive through, picking up our renegade (it's against the law to have that many people in a car, but it's done as a matter of course) passengers. We continue. It's almost 9 pm by this time; Lindsey (whom I'm visiting in Ebolowa) often goes to bed early, and she doesn't know for sure that I'm coming. There is no cell phone reception until right when we get into the city limits, very near her house. I had my phone in hand, staring, staring at the bars until – Victory! I had service. And I texted her, and she was home, waiting. When I finally stumbled into her door, shrugged off my bags and collapsed on the couch, home, in the company of my two closest PCVs, to celebrate a wonderful, wonderful New Year's weekend, it was all, all worth it.

Happy New Year!!!