Sunday, March 13, 2011

Meiganga - toujours le village de mon oncle

It has been a while since I have blogged so I have a few stories that aren’t so current but that I would really like to share with you all. To start with, I want to share my experiences of traveling up to Meiganga, the village in which my Uncle Dean served as a Peace Corps Volunteer nearly 40 years ago. My best friend from Peace Corps training, Claire Hutchinson, was posted to the very same town in which he had served. I knew I had to find time to make it up to visit her and hopefully an opportunity to carry out a project together. So this past summer we began planning and organizing a girl’s empowerment camp and scheduled it to take place over a 3 day weekend in November. The day I was getting ready to depart Manjo and begin the 3 day journey I received some terrible news, my Uncle Dean had suddenly passed away. The journey took on even more meaning than it had before, I knew his spirit would be traveling along with me and I decided to dedicate my time in Meiganga to honoring him and to serve with the energy and enthusiasm that he carried through life. Below is a short article I wrote for our Cameroon volunteer newsletter about the camp.
As Peace Corps Volunteers who work with youth in a variety of different capacities and from vastly differing backgrounds, many of us have found that Cameroonian youth are given few opportunities for critical analysis, self-reflection or creative expression. Gender inequalities create an even greater gap for the young women in our communities as most are forced to spend any free time they may have focusing on domestic work. These responsibilities often inhibit young women from looking past their current situation and dreaming of where their heart wants to lead them. This past November, myself, Claire Hutchinson and Allison Sander (community health pcv) put on a girl’s empowerment camp in their post of Meiganga situated in the Adamaoua Region near the border of the Central African Republic.
The camp consisted of 14 young women who had received scholarships from A2Empowerment, an NGO started by a former PCV and her friend in the states. The girls represent each of the educational institutions in Meiganga from the local women’s centers to the lycee classique(classical high school) as well as the lycee technique(technical high school). These young women between the ages of 15-21, many of whom are orphans, live within critical poverty and yet continue daily to try to improve their own lives and seek to better their future as well as those of their siblings or children by continuing their own education. The focus of the camp was to provide these girls with an environment that permitted them to concentrate on their own individual future and to reflect on important health topics. We covered such topics as HIV/AIDS, STIs and STDs, gender relationships and decision making. The camp included a panel discussion in which successful women from the community came to share their life stories and to encourage the young women to continue to positively construct a positive life for themselves and their families. After the 3 activity filled days the girls organized a soiree culturelle in which they shared a few sketches, songs and dances they had created together. Amazingly, we witnessing an evident growth in the girls’ confidence level from the first day they walked into the women’s center to the day they left the soiree with their camp certificates in hand. Each of these young women has a powerful life story, a story that includes a past marked with struggle but each of them posses’ tremendous inner courage and strength. Through the camp we hoped to empower these young women to recognize the strength and courage that exists within them and to allow those qualities to shine as they continue to create their own paths through life.

Camp photo!

Myself and one of our campers with her daughter

Myself, Allison and Claire

Les Soeurs Lumieres

Monday, November 8, 2010

Village Business Classes

One of my projects here in Manjo as a volunteer in Small Enterprise Development is teaching business classes to entrepreneurs in my community. Cameroonians in general have a very entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone I know has some kind of small business project that they are personally involved in, from selling underwear on the street(my best friend in village sells underwear to create a small income for her and her two small kids) to managing large farms. However, I would say the majority of the population in this area does not have any business training let alone a high school diploma. This is why, in collaboration with the micro-finance that I am connected with, I started teaching business classes. The business classes have been highly appreciated in my community and I am hoping to branch out into a few of the smaller villages in the surrounding area. I have just finished teaching my second class on entrepreneurship. In the curriculum I teach basic accounting principles how to keep a cash book, a stock book, how to calculate profit margins, break-even points, and profitability. I also teach how one does a feasibility study before starting one’s activities, setting goals for a business, and writing business plans. Since this is also in collaboration with the MC2, my host partner micro-finance institution in my community, I bring in the director of the micro-finance to speak to the participants about the importance of saving and the credit opportunities that the micro-finance provides.
The students range in age from 18 – 60 and all are very dedicated to learning as much as possible so that they can better manage their own personal projects. I teach in a small cement building that sometimes has electricity and I use construction paper to write the lesson on the wall, all lessons are taught in French and thankfully I have finally reached a level where I feel confident teaching business principles in another language. There are always challenges, for instance the power being cut as night is falling, teaching to a group with varying knowledge levels(I realized towards the end of the last class that one of my students didn’t know how to read I hadn’t even thought of this possibility), and teaching in a different cultural context also brings its own unexpected nuances. For example, one class we spent a good 20 minutes discussing the effect of “le sorcellerie” (sorcery) on businesses within our community. Lesson learned: yes, sorcellerie can definitely have a major impact on your bottom line so you must treat your clients and your competitors with respect(I entered this within my lesson on customer service, a concept that does not necessarily exist here in southern Cameroon).
Well, this past week we had our “sortie des diplomes” where my students received a diploma from the Peace Corps for successfully completing the business class. As Cameroonians do not know how to do anything halfway when it comes to celebrating we threw a grande fête and invited the Sous-Prefet, the Mayor, the chief of our village, and the Commandant(I think closest relation would be chief of police), I gave a long grandiose speech thanking all of my students and wishing them the best of luck in all of their future endeavors and encouraging them to work towards the development of their own community. It is evenings like these that actually give me a concrete measurement of the fruit of my labor here. However, what I enjoy even more is seeing one of my students after having completing the course filled with pride as they are now putting their knowledge to work in their own projects.

Below is a photo from the "Sortie des Diplomes" on the last day of the business class, in front of the micro-finance along with all of my students as well as our community's Sous-Prefet and Mayor

Friday, October 22, 2010

Everyday Angel

I don’t know how many of you may know, but I have a twin brother. You may be surprised, and yes I was surprised too seeing as for the first 25 years of my life I had never met him! Over a year ago as I was moving in to my new house and trying to adjust to my strange new world as a foreigner in my African village when who would God lead up to my front door but my long lost brother!

Bakari, born July 9th 1983 just on the other side of our world and as fate would have it we were bound to meet shortly after our 26th birthday in the village of Manjo, Cameroon. His family lives just outside of here in a smaller village called Namba but here in Manjo he has an adopted family(very typical of Cameroon, the family structure is much more fluid than our very narrowly defined and constrictive family unit in the west) the family here in Manjo quickly became my family. I spend most all of my free-time with them carrying the little ones around in typical African mama fashion (attaching them to my back with a piece of fabric) cooking and eating meals together, allowing my sisters to do my hair and dress me in typical Cameroonian style and asking mamma Rosa to sew my clothes. I couldn’t be more thankful for my family here and what an integral part of my life they have been.

Last week Bakari’s young sister who lives in the village of Namba was sick and in the hospital fighting malaria and typhoid at the same time. We went to visit her and spend some time sitting and keeping his mother company who had been staying day and night with her daughter. As from my previous blog you may know that the hospital is not my favorite place, but when not the patient it is not quite so bad and I can in fact almost enjoy the social gathering place that it becomes.

So we passed the time sitting and hanging out in the room crammed with about 10 beds while the IV dripped into his sister’s arm. After school had let out for the day Bakari’s younger brother Vincent walked the 5 km down to the hospital to come visit and to bring a surprise gift for his sister. Vincent had saved up every 100cfa(equivalent of 25cents) that his mom and dad have given him over the last week because he knew that his sister needed that money more than he needed it to eat during the school day. I didn’t even realize what he had done until we left the hospital and Bakari looked at me and I realized he was almost tearing up and he said do you realize what my sweet little brother did? When I said no he looked at me and said “that boy is an angel” his little brother had seen the struggle of his family to pay for the medicine to heal his sister and he did everything in his power to share the small resources that he had. I think this is probably one of the most beautiful examples of the spirit I most love here in Cameroon, that of giving and sharing no matter how scarce the resource.

Bakari and his little sister at the hospital in Manjo

Vincent on the route back from the family fields after we had spent the morning picking fruit and planting corn in the pouring down rain.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Une Journée de ma Vie

This last week I hopped in a bush taxi and drove up to Nkongsamba, a larger town just 30 minutes outside of my village in Manjo. I had a package awaiting me at the post and also looked forward to doing a little bit of shopping in their market which is a bit more plentiful than the daily choices my market mamas sell in village.
When I know that a package or even a letter awaits me at the post I am filled with anticipation and excitement like a kid on Christmas day. So as I arrived at the post and realized my package was being held ransom by the women in the post office for a total of several hundred US dollars you can imagine how quickly deflated and distraught I become, knowing that the value they were asking me to pay was much more than the worth of the package. Now I have to say this has never happened to me, I have never once had to pay what was being called a “typical customs tax” and this may have to do with the fact that listed on the inventory of the package was that electronics where packed inside. So please don’t think that if you ever were to send me a package in the future I would run into these problems, just make sure you list magazines or chocolate rather than anything that may be of value;) Anyway, I quickly began to question the women demanding the money and asked for all of the official paperwork as to why I was suddenly being taxed when neither myself, nor any of my friends had ever been taxed for receiving a package, let alone at a ridiculous price of several hundred dollars. When they refused to allow me to make copies or to even take a closer look at the “official papers” I quickly realized the issue at hand was more of an issue of where the money would be going. As they say here, someone was trying to “mange l’argent” literally translated to “eat money” a term used to describe issues of corruption that unfortunately are all too common place. When I mentioned my suspicions and frustrations with viewing issues of corruption in this country (while trying to be careful that they didn’t think I was specifically blaming them)the women became very argumentative and quite retaliatory telling me if I see corruption as a problem to “rentre chez moi” or “go back to where I came from.” I literally was so frustrated at this point I thought I was going to cry and decided I needed some time to calm down before I could decide what my next course of action would be.
So, from the post office I walked to the boulangerie in town that has a small café to sit down and have a cup of tea and begin to calm down. When who would walk in but my village fou(crazy) who had apparently followed me up to Nkongsamba and then into the café where he sat down next to me and began yelling loud enough for all around to hear how he had filed paperwork at our town hall for our marriage. Oh my goodness could this day get anymore ridiculous!?! After ignoring and pretending I didn’t hear him speaking to me, my crazy finally left and I took the long route back to find a bush taxi so we wouldn’t end up in the same one. After arriving back in village that afternoon I must admit I treated myself to a few hours of silence and solitude on my balcony reflecting on the crazies and the corrupt who each in their own way create a colorful and captivating life for me here in Cameroon.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Trip to the Hospital

My head was pounding and my body aching among other problems and though I detest going to the hospital here I decided it was probably necessary. So, early that morning I set out for the 15 minute walk to the local hospital I changed my mind as I saw a motorcycle passing by and decided that would be a much better way to go so that I could avoid greeting every person along the way(not exactly what you feel like doing when you are sick). I felt as though my head was going to explode as the moto bounced along the rocky path to the hospital. I arrived and was greeted by the caretaker of the hospital Ashley, you are here (Francophone Cameroonians love to speak in the present obvious), yes I am here, you are sick, yes you are right I am sick. Nothing in the hospital was seeming to be in the right place…”we are doing some renovations” he explains. I look out into the open courtyard (if you can call it that) where about 15 hospital beds lay strewn about, looks like they must be making good progress on those renovations, I thought to myself. He then explains that the staff is not in yet and I can wait with all of the others who are there to see the one doctor that serves our village as well as several other smaller surrounding villages. After about half an hour another worker approaches our growing group of sick people in waiting. The man says “oh you are all waiting to” (once again the present obvious) “well the doctor is not in yet but we have now changed the check-in area follow me.” The group of mostly women and children and I follow him about 50 feet away to a different bench not long enough to hold all of those waiting to get checked-in. I sit on the bench in great discomfort from my body aching all over and then decide to stand thinking that would be more comfortable. The moment I stand someone takes my place on the bench which is also the line and order in which we are supposed to see the doctor. I argue with the individual and get my spot back on the bench and thus in line to see the doctor. An hour more of resting in the same place and no one has even entered the consulting room where the man who should be checking everyone in is instead arguing over a family issue with a friend who stopped by to see him at work. Outside the consulting room we sit in the open air and wait some more, I sit among a boy who has a gaping wound on his bloody foot which he has just sliced open with a machete while working in the fields and a young girl who is sweating profusely and looks like she is drifting in and out of consciousness, but there are also those who have less pressing needs one woman who I know well tells me she is there because she had a cramp in her hand. The hospital with our one doctor is the only place to go to get any sort of medical attention without driving to a bigger town and thus the whole spectrum of medical problems appear.
Sometime mid-morning the director of our hospital arrives to work, sees me sitting on the bench and says Ashley you are here, yes correct again I am here. I tell him that their system is very disordered and very slow (I would never say something like this to someone back in the states but here being straight forward and sometimes what we would consider as rude in the states is the manner of conversing here in french, just like the present obvious). Just a half hour after this comment was made I finally got through to the consultation room and then immediately in to see the doctor. The first time I had been to the hospital the doctor diagnosed me without doing any actual tests to confirm his hypothesis, when I asked him about this he said that was normal because most people don’t want to pay for the actual tests, I told him I would pay just to be certain that whatever he believes to be wrong is actually in fact what I have. So automatically this time he ordered the few tests our hospital is equipped to do, blood and stool, and after a few hours more of waiting I am sent home with medicine to rid me of the typhoid and amoebic dysentery I have somehow been lucky enough to contract at the same time.
This time I walk home and by the time I make it back to my house everyone I greet along the route knows I am sick and they have each promised a visit. One thing about being here you are never alone and though visitors while I lay in bed may not be exactly what I want, I do appreciate the way that people care for one another here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

And the Darwin Award Goes to….

While in Garaoua in the Northern province of Cameroon we met up with some friends who live in the area to go to the river that travels through town where a man has trained a few of the hippos that live in the river. I don’t think any of us actually knew what we were getting ourselves into when we met up with the “hippo man.” I believed that we were going to go out in one of the dugout canoes in the river and would see the hippos from a distance but once we were out on the water the distance gradually got smaller and smaller between us and the hippos until we docked in the shallows of the river and our friend then called his friend “Afrique l’Hippo” over to where we were standing outside of the boat with a few sweet potatoes and ground up corn flour. Before I knew it I was standing in the shallows of the river watching the sun set over the African planes and watching the hippo rise out of the water for its evening meal(hoping it would not be me).


Probably not a good idea...

Yeah, may not have been the smartest thing I have ever done! Being that close to such a powerful wild animal was an adrenaline rush that I don’t think I will experience in quite sometime and I am just thankful that we all got out of there with all of our limbs intact and of course some great memories.

Another highlight of the trip up north was hiking along the Northern Cameroonian/Nigerian Border outside of the village of Rhumsiki in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon. The terrain in this area is unlike any other area of Cameroon and reminds me some of Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs with jagged rock faces jutting up from the valley.

We reached the village by taking a van from the Extreme North capital of Maroua and arriving in the village of Mokolo where we then took motos for another 2 hours along a small dirt road and although the village is an effort to reach it is absolutely worth the travel. Once there we spent two days hiking through the valley and eating amazing food each night at a favorite Peace Corps restaurant The Vegetarian Carnivore. Kodji, the owner of the restaurant is a good friend to many Peace Corps Volunteers from over the years, each volunteer he meets he tells us (in impressively good English I might add)about his experience of having a PCV English teacher in his village when he was in high school.

Kodji with his famous homemade bread

Everything he makes from scratch with a lot of ingredients that he has grown in his fields. Four courses cooked over a fire, by far the best meals I have had in Cameroon!

Below is a photo of some women we met on our hike while just over the border on the Nigerian side, they are carrying bread from one market to sell in another. As we walked with them the woman in the green decided I should stay with them because I looked strong and would be a good worker in their fields, which she decided made me the perfect candidate for marrying her son.

My new “mother-in-law” and I at the entrance to my new compound

A trip to the village of Rhumsiki would not be complete without a visit to the revered crab sorcerer.

For generations and generations the power of reading one’s future by communicating with a crab has been passed down within the family lineage of this 97 year old man.

Receiving the Crab Sorcerer's blessings

The Clairvoyent Crab himself

I really enjoyed my time up north specifically the calm, more laid back environment that the North provides. In the south people are generally a bit more aggressive and when in village as the only foreigner for miles there is a bit of the spotlight effect on your life so honestly I enjoyed the anonymity of life that the travels provided. I did however miss the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables that seemingly grow over every inch of the south. I realized what a blessing it is to live in such a fertile land and one that has water readily available, though not always clean we do have a constant supply of water. One of our friends villages we visited the villagers dig holes in the dried up river bed during dry season just to reach water and though we were there during the rainy season the river bed was still dried up. Though I have thought much more over this last year about water conservation and water purity than ever before in my life, I couldn’t have ever imagined the lengths at which some people have to go daily just to seek the most vital element to life.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Le Voyage au Nord

It’s been a while since I have blogged, but I am currently on vacation and out of my “routine” life in village and have thus been inspired to try to capture some of the absurdities that I begin to view as normal.
The vacation started last week when I left my village in a bush taxi at 6am in the morning. Bush taxis are always fun in that you never know how many passengers you may be crammed in alongside or what type of passengers they may be(co-passengers may include pigs, goats, chickens, large gas tanks that look as though they could explode with too much jostling, and there will definitely be jostling). Typically you will have at least 7 other human passengers than yourself(kids under the age of 10 don’t count as 1 human passenger only if there are 2 of them can they equal 1), then you are jammed in the “car” I also use this term loosely as these are really just old rusted junkers that you wouldn’t imagine could still roll down the road. I should also mention that 2 people share the driver’s seat in the manual cars, this is a feat that I don’t think I could have imagined as possible before this last year but has now become so normal to me I am surprised when the driver is by himself in the seat. I arrived in Nkongsamba, the closest larger town to me where I met up with my friend Ben a fellow PCV with whom I am traveling through the North. He had already loaded the bus and was waiting for me as I arrived taking the spot behind him and next to the a sweet grandma who would provide great entertainment to me throughout the ride with her fabulous singing and dancing skills. Before the bus would take off though we had one last chance for shopping in Nkongsamba, shopping meaning various vendors stepped on the bus with an array of goods perched on their heads. The Grandma next to me bought a classic meal of baton de manioc (a smooshed stick of mashed cassava molded into a banana leaf)and pistache (a blend of dried fish and crushed pumpkin seeds). Soon the driver started the bus and put the world cup songs on repeat Shakira’s This is Africa and the Wave Your Flag song, I felt like we were a soccer team getting pumped to drive to our big game. After hearing that on repeat several times surprisingly some of the Cameroonians got sick of it (this is highly surprising as the music that is played constantly outside my house is the same 4 or 5 Cameroonian songs 20hours a day, no exaggeration!) Those in the back of the bus who were complaining called for Bakosi music traditional music from the area, the driver surprisingly obliged and our bus quickly turned into a dance hall with all the passengers singing along. Another hour down the road a fight errupted in the back of the bus, which was really just a small disagreement between two people but turned into a screaming match between the whole bus (this is quite typical, I don't even remember what this argument was about but often times Southern Cameroonians just like to yell for no reason). Another half hour passed and the same people that were screaming at each other were back to laughing and dancing with one another, and this typifies my average transportation experience, even when taking a short ride from one village to another. Eight hours later the bus pulled into Yaounde where we would stay for the night at the Peace Corps office/transit house to prepare for our train ride the next day.
From Yaounde the only route to make it to the Northern Regions of the country is to take the train and just like everything else the process is made especially difficult. Thankfully we had our friend Justin who lives up north and will be traveling around with us over the next 2 weeks to take care of the tickets for us. The rule is you have to book your tickets 3 days in advance in person not before, not after, then on the day of the voyage you must show up early in the morning to show that you have booked 3 days in advance with your receipt and then you will be assigned a real ticket. Thanks to Justin the process was shortened to us just waiting the Wed. morning by playing musical chairs with the Cameroonians(this was their process of waiting in a line everyone would shift 1 chair forward as 1 person finished the process). Finally that evening we arrived at the train station and were once again en route to the North. Fifteen hours on the train made for a beautiful way to explore the forrested hills of the Center Region, soon though the sun sank below the plains and gave rise to the lights of small villages in the distance, then complete darkness. I woke up several times during the night as the train came to stops and out of the darkness I heard the voices of women and children yelling l'eau, l'eau, l'eau(water, water, water) baton, baton, baton (same food the grandma from the bus enjoyed). The next time I woke up we had already arrived on the lush green plateau that is the Adamaoua Region. The train arrived in Ngoundere late in the morning to pouring down rain. Which brought rise to one of the funnier scenes thus far on my trip as the old lady walking next to me through the rain decided it would be a better idea to just take her clothes off rather than allow them to get soaked by the rain...hmmm is this normal? No one else seemed to be staring at her or finding this as out of the ordinary as I. So, on we continued as we caught the next bus of our trip to the capital of the North Region of Garoua after arriving in the late afternoon we found motos that took us into Justin’s village. Finally Thursday evening at sunset we arrived in Justin’s village of Gashiga after nearly 59 hours of being en route. Gashiga is a small village along a dirt road that leads to Nigeria composed of thatched roofed mud huts sitting in front of red rock mesas…beautiful! I can already see the North is a different world and I am excited about all the opportunities for exploring a new part of this incredibly diverse country!