Mamas

29-Dec-2012

I define a “Mama” as any middle-aged or older woman who may or may not have children, but will treat you like one of her own, whether you know her as the mama who makes omelets in the market, the mama next door who offers to wash your clothes, or the mama who cooks you dinner whenever you show up at her house, often uninvited.

I’d like to talk about my first example – mamas who make omelets in the market. In cities and towns across Cameroon, you’ll find women and men, and sometimes children preparing food over a fire each evening in the central parts of town. Grilled fish and soya (beef kabobs) are commonly prepared on grills in carts by young men and women. All day, children walk around carrying buckets on their heads, offering boiled eggs, gateaux, beignets, corn cakes, and other fried goods, for prices equivalent to an American nickel or dime.

In the large city of Kumbo, we especially like to visit the omelet mamas in Squares, a downtown area that is always bustling day and night. We know them by name and they sit side-by-side, offering the same products: fried eggs and home fries, or “chips.” The volunteers who live in Kumbo will alternate which mama they buy from each time. Whenever I am here, I seek them out, as their chips are delicious and the omelets are always light and flavorful. During this trip however, I have rarely seen the mamas. Instead, there are young women set up in their place. These young women are university students, on holiday from school. One of them is studying psychology and communications, a fact we bonded over as I, too, studied psychology in college. They are the daughters of the usual omelet mamas, and they spend their late afternoons and evenings cooking in the cold, so that their mothers can have a break and stay at home. Their younger sisters are usually nearby, helping to cut potatoes and vegetables. A two-egg omelet with chips costs 500 francs, which is equivalent to about one American dollar. While there are constant customers, the omelet mamas do not make much money in their work. Yet, their daughters are able to go to university, an opportunity not afforded to many young women in Cameroon, who are typically married with children before their twentieth birthdays. Many families barely have the money to send their daughters to decent high schools. Every once in a while, I meet Cameroonian parents, poor and wealthy, who believe so much in the importance of education to give their children the opportunities that they may not have had themselves. Children will move away from their parents to villages or towns, and stay with relatives or friends so that they can attend better schools. Unlike in the United States, where many university students choose to spend their vacations working elsewhere or traveling with friends, the students here often return to their villages to spend time with their families.

These “omelet daughters” spend all term working hard in university, and then come home on their two-week breaks, and what do they do? They help the people who helped them.

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Jujus

28-Dec-2012

Jujus? As in jujubes, the colorful, chewy candies you can buy at the movie theater? No, no, these kinds of jujus are neither pleasant nor enjoyed as a spectator. These kinds of jujus, you must hide from and not make eye contact with. These jujus may throw sticks or dirt at you if you do not follow the aforementioned rules. These jujus often have no faces, but move freely, without constraint. These jujus have the ability to scare not only young children, but grown men and women.

Jujus are common in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. They are often portrayed by young men, but I have also seen them portrayed by children. Jujus are spiritual beings, whose faces are always covered. Like a school mascot, jujus do not speak and you are not meant to know the juju’s human identity. Unlike a school mascot, it is not in your best interest to try to get your photo taken with a juju. Some jujus are relatively harmless, but some will attack if you are not careful. Typically, they are surrounded by an entourage of shirtless men with traditional skirts, headpieces, and body paint. They are usually found at death celebrations and at other traditional events. They sometimes travel through a village at night, so it is best to stay in your house. As a woman, you must be especially careful not to look at or approach them.

While the week-long festival in Kumbo continues, jujus will continue to roam the streets, stop traffic, and scare grown men and women into hiding behind cars and in bars. At first, I was not too scared of the jujus, but I quickly learned that pretending to be afraid makes you less of a target. Conformity is the best choice in this case. Jujus are a strange concept, in my opinion, but they make for some great entertainment, if you don’t get too close.

A juju in Kumbo, Northwest, Cameroon, December 28, 2012

A juju in Kumbo, Northwest, Cameroon, December 28, 2012

The Last Dream I Ever Had

18-Dec-2012

With the fact that light no dey – there is no electricity in my village, with the exception of generators – combined with the daily, invariable sunset between 6:30pm and 7pm, I go to sleep much earlier than I used to and receive the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep per night. I usually read by flashlight for about an hour, and then am asleep by 10pm. Right before I woke up the other morning, I was singing a song to myself with the lyrics “the last dream I ever had” – not the best, but the last. It got me to thinking about the dreams I have here, both while I am sleeping and while I am awake, about my present and my future. Now that I sleep more, I evidently dream more.

How have my dreams changed?

My dreams during college were about practical things or worries, like what I did that day, or an exam I was stressing over. Sometimes, I would dream about the past. Now, I still dream about the past, but I dream about what I am missing in the U.S. I think that is why I often wake up feeling lonely. I dream about dancing, swimming, and other things I did in America. I also dream about nice houses, with microwaves and washing machines. I spent most of last Sunday washing laundry by hand. And I thought I dreaded laundry days in college… I dream about American restaurants and being caught in the snow. Other PCVs who became my friends in training as well as my friends in the U.S. often make brief appearances in my dreams. We are rarely doing anything of consequence, but at least my dreams give me a place where I can be with them again.

The Peace Corps gives you a lot of time to sit and think, especially if you live without electricity. During the day, I dream about the work I might be doing in the next two years. Things seem so unknown right now, and two years seem like a really long time. A lot of things will happen and a lot will change. I think about what I might be doing two years from now, and take comfort in that I don’t have to know right now. I will take one day at a time and keep on dreaming.

Swearing-In, Thanksgiving, and Leaving Bafia/Bokito for Post

10-Dec-2012

So it’s official. I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). I know many of you are thinking, wait, haven’t you been a PCV this entire time? Nope. I was just a lowly Peace Corps Trainee (PCT). Well, I have taken my oath and I am a PCV for real.

Our swearing-in ceremony was also the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps in Cameroon, so it was kind of a big deal. It was held at the Palais des Congrès in Yaoundé. We had all decided that for such a special occasion, it would be necessary for all of us to sport the same pagne. A blue and brown pagne was chosen several weeks into training, and it was our responsibility to design our dress/shirt and take it to a tailor. I think we all looked very nice; it was like a graduation gown! One of the trainees in our stage made a video of photos and interviews in which some of the other trainees talked about why they joined the Peace Corps and their experiences so far. Another trainee (Santina) was chosen to give a speech in French about training and the things we have learned, both in class and in our homestays. Later, all 53 almost-volunteers sang Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with a Cameroonian choir from Yaoundé. Apparently it was a big hit, even amongst the high-up Cameroonian officials! If you do not know that song, you should definitely look it up as soon as possible because the message is very moving. One of my fellow health trainees who envisioned the whole performance thought the song lyrics were fitting of the Peace Corps experience.

New health education Peace Corps Volunteers at the Palais des Congres

New health education Peace Corps Volunteers at the Palais des Congres

When the ceremony was over, we took some group photos, and then walked downstairs to the lobby for the fair, which included tables displaying the work that PCVs from different regions were doing. Then Chantal Biya showed up. Chantal Biya is known in Cameroon for 1) being the first lady and 2) having a lot of hair on her head. She walked around all of the tables with the Peace Corps Country Director, Jackie Sesonga, smiling and nodding politely. Members of her charity, the Chantal Biya Foundation, were there, all wearing the same pagne as well.

Next, we enjoyed a buffet lunch, and I mean COMPLETELY DELIGHTED IN. Food in Yaoundé (in comparison to the rest of Cameroon) is just better. We were each allowed to invite one member from our host families. I invited my host mother, who wore this bright purple dress and had blue hair extensions. We shared a lunch table with Jackie, the country director, and her husband. The homestay coordinator Monique had chosen Kara, another health trainee (now volunteer!) to thank the host families for all that they had shared with us, while Vanessa’s host mother thanked the trainees. After lunch, we walked around the fair and then said our goodbyes to the other PCVs, who would be heading back to their respective regions or completing their service (COS) and moving back to the U.S. or elsewhere.

We celebrated Thanksgiving the next day in Bokito and invited the new environment (agro) and youth development (YD) volunteers to join us. We did a potluck at the “restaurant” of the host family of my friend Emily; we ate lunch there every day. The other Emily in our program and I cooked black beans at her house as our contribution, and then she carried the pot on her head for the 20-minute walk, like a true Cameroonian woman. There were three kinds of mashed potatoes, stuffing, monkey bread, chili, and pumpkin soup, among other things.

The following day, I broke my 4-week, 4-day no-crying streak as we were loading the buses to leave Bafia for our posts. I began to cry when the first two buses to depart began to board. The people headed to Yaoundé were the first to leave. The volunteers posted in the Grand North (Adamaoua, North, Far North) would take an overnight train that evening, arriving in Ngaounderé, Adamaoua the following morning. Next, a bus for the Southwest left, and a bus for the West and Southwest followed shortly after. The Northwest volunteers were the last to leave Bafia. On our bus to Bamenda, the regional capital of the Northwest, we were spoiled with plenty of room to move around and nap. We may never have such a luxury again, as long-distance travel in Cameroon is mainly by bush taxi, carrying at least eight people in a small sedan meant for five. Ten of us were on board; nine of us would be remaining in the Northwest, while one was headed to the northern part of the Southwest. We arrived in Bamenda, the regional capital of the Northwest, in about five or six hours. We met up with other PCVs at the case (the name for the house in each regional capital where Peace Corps is based and where there are beds – 500 FCFA per night), and then went to get shawarma. We stayed at a hotel that night (with hot showers!) and I roomed with my agro friend, Alina.

The next day, we went to Pres Café, a Western café for breakfast. The meal was one of the best I have had in Cameroon. That afternoon, we de-bowed (no idea how to spell it) a car for four of us and headed to Kumbo. The drive was three hours and I was squished in the back of the sedan with Shannon, a YD volunteer. In the front, Ben (Community Economic Development (CED)) and Lexie (IT Education) shared the passenger seat. We spent the weekend in Kumbo and I set up my bank account on Monday. I bought a mattress and gas stove and already started to feel like I was running out of money. Ben and I left on Tuesday to head to Misaje. We arrived at my house (it’s pink!) four hours later, had lunch with Alissa, a health volunteer who helped with our training, and then turned back to Nkambe, where I bought a few more things for my house. We went to Alissa’s village of Fonfuka for World AIDS Day (December 1st) and it was awesome to see a health volunteer in action. She trained moto drivers to be peer educators and give lectures and demonstrations. She also has a health club at the technical high school. The posters, essays, and poems that students in her village created with the theme of AIDS were phenomenal. Fonfuka is very small and barely has cell phone service, let alone internet. The poster that won the contest that we judged depicted an army of white blood cells fighting off HIV, and included captions detailing how HIV affects the body. The essay that won talked about admission into a university of AIDS. These students are really creative and talented!

Misaje Medicalised Health Center, November 29, 2012

Misaje Medicalised Health Center, November 29, 2012

Setting up a new post has already proved challenging. My house is essentially empty and I have been sleeping on my mattress on the floor, with no place to sit. A carpenter in my village recently finished building a bed frame, as well as a gas cupboard for my stove to sit upon. For now, I must save money if I wish to travel for the holidays, so my house may not look like a home for several months.

The chief of the health center and pharmacist have been very helpful so far in getting me settled in. I meet someone new and different every day. I have visited the bible translating center in Misaje, where I met some missionaries, American and Dutch, some of whom have been here for more than twenty years. It is interesting to learn about their perspectives of Cameroon and how they have adjusted to a Cameroonian lifestyle. A former English teacher has been teaching me Pidgin, and I have watched the meningitis vaccinations be successfully administered to hundreds of people in my village.

I will not have internet for a while (and there is no electricity in my village), but hopefully there will be more to come on this blog in a few weeks!