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.

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