Almost Like Tarzan

Nkongsamba, Littoral. If you come to Cameroon you must go there. On April 23rd, we visited Ekom Falls, featured in 1984’s “Greystroke – The Legend of Tarzan.” Three out of the five of us made it down the rocky slope to the water below. I had help from two of our moto taxi drivers the entire way down and back up. The rocks were terribly slippery and I took my shoes off halfway down and my bare feet suffered through the rest of the climb. I seriously thought I was going to die – slipping and cracking my head open is not the way I would have wanted to leave this world and I am grateful to the moto drivers that it didn’t turn out to be. My legs became covered in mud and the mist from the waterfall soaked my clothes completely through, but I made it down! Of course, as soon as I made it down, Michael and Jake, who had been waiting for me for some time, decided it was time to go back up. I barely had a break. I’m thankful to Gillian for inviting me to her post in Nkongsamba and taking me to see the waterfall. I believe it’s the tallest waterfall in Cameroon; at least, it’s the tallest I’ve seen. It was great to have one last day with Lacie, who will be leaving Cameroon this week to pursue medical school. She and Michael had just climbed Mount Cameroon the few days before, so they were real troopers for hiking the waterfall with us.

*The internet here is not cooperating so unfortunately I cannot post a photo of the falls right now. Check out my photos on Facebook (if we’re friends).

Update: Photo!

Ekom Falls

Ekom Falls outside of Nkongsamba, Littoral April 22, 2013

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A Driver’s Test

Recently, I became a member of the steering committee for the community health program in Peace Corps Cameroon, and I thought maybe some of you kids (especially those interested in joining the PC) might like to read about it. I applied for the steering committee without really understanding what it did. I had to email my program manager (1) why I wanted to join the committee and (2) what ideas I have. I figured the committee “steered” the health program in the right direction, but I could have been wrong? Turned out I was right. I was chosen as part of a group of eight volunteers, four veteran and four new. I am the only PCV on the committee from one of the two Anglophone regions in Cameroon. We met in Yaoundé over two days this month to discuss how to improve the health program. That’s another thing – if you want a free trip to the capital where you’ll get to see your friends a few times a year, join a committee. It’s definitely one of the reasons I applied for the steering committee, although not a reason I included in my application. On the agenda were ways to improve pre-service training (PST), in-service training (IST), community needs assessments, communications between volunteers and their counterparts as well as the administration, placement of volunteers, and volunteer satisfaction and support, among other things. All topics were covered on one level or another and I am overall satisfied with what we accomplished over the two days. I hate to say it, but it’s one of the few meetings/sessions I’ve had in the past seven months that I found actually useful. Our next meeting is at the end of August, when we’ll (hopefully) transform the way PST is carried out.

Peace Corps Cameroon and its community health program have many problems; they are nowhere close to perfect. I struggled a lot during PST, with homesickness and with training itself. I later struggled with a lot of uncertainty during my first three months at post. I’m glad I now have the opportunity to have a voice in Peace Corps Cameroon. When you are frustrated at post, with work, people, and/or isolation, it’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off of another person. It’s also great to now be in the know. My friend Kathleen is also on the steering committee, so I was glad to be able to see her and I look forward to us both being in the know. Kathleen is one of the volunteers whose post was closed in the North region. One topic that has stuck with me since our committee meeting is that of volunteer satisfaction. Many people have been forced to move their posts or take interrupted service (go back to the U.S.) as a result of the Boko Haram kidnapping in the Extreme North. Others have asked to move posts, but all for different reasons. If you haven’t heard about the Boko Haram kidnapping, I would look it up right now if I were you. The French family abducted has since been released in Nigeria and are safe in Cameroon. In our meeting, we talked with our program manager about why volunteers are unhappy. Of course, there are many reasons. Many of us have become discouraged as a result of the displacements in the North, whether or not we ourselves were displaced. Some PCVs are having problems with cultural barriers, preventing them from making any impact on the people in their communities, some of whom believe that they can make up for their mistakes in a second life. Many volunteers, especially health volunteers, struggle with corruption, on a local level and in the government, and working with a broken health system. We often feel like we are running are heads against a brick wall. Some things cannot and will never change and it’s hard to accept. Problems tend to be work-related or personal. Some volunteers on the committee suggested “tough love.” We all knew coming in that this job would be hard (keyword: “job”) and sometimes we just need to suck it up and try harder. I suggested looking for patterns among the happy people and the unhappy people. Many people who might not love their village stick it out because they have great counterparts and work partners. I think we all just need to try a little harder to find happiness at our posts. If the problems we have at post are problems we’d have at any other post in Cameroon, the solution is most likely a personal one, not an administrative one. However, if a PCV is truly unhappy, he or she will not be an effective volunteer. As I said before, Peace Corps service is incredibly difficult, but not because of the way we live, because of the way we must think. None of us live in mud huts. Many of us have electricity and running water (I cannot count myself amongst them, but still…) and we are all making more money than we really need to live day to day in our villages. We make our own schedules and we don’t have to put up with roommates. Instead, we are left with a lot of time to think. I have always thought too much and I overanalyze everything and now I’m in a place with few ways to distract myself from my thoughts.

Here are some ways I cope:
– Lying in my bed for at least 30 minutes each day, headphones on, with volume high enough to block out my neighbors.
– Crossword puzzles. They make me feel smarter. Sometimes.
– Cooking. I’ve become pretty good at it because I take the time to experiment (with the few ingredients I have access to in village) and it’s a nice distraction.
– Play cards with my neighbors kids. When we play Uno, I help them practice learning their colors – “I choose green, like oranges.”
– Dancing around my massive living room. The little things.
– Reading. A lot. Thank Amazon for Kindles and thank Prinal for giving me over 1,000 books.
– Talking on the phone. I used to hate this but now I require it. My cell phone service went out for four days after a thunderstorm and I almost went mad. Texting and calling other volunteers keeps me sane and reminds me that I’m not alone.
– Looking back at the end of each day and being able to name one thing that happened unexpectedly, however small.
– Reminding myself that I live in AFRICA and I will never have an experience like this ever again. As the negatives build up, I keep looking for the positives.

IST and Kribi

17-Mar-2013

I spent the last three weeks back in Francophone Cameroon. The language center of my brain is exhausted. As we left for our posts back in November, we all knew that we would be seeing each other again in less than three months. I spent a few days in Fundong, NW, at Alina’s post before heading to in-service training (IST). IST was also known as “PST Reconnect”, but we resisted such a ridiculous name. Monday, February 18th, Alina and I took the VIP bus (that means your own seat and air conditioning, rarities in Cameroon) from Bamenda to Yaoundé. That afternoon, we arrived in Mbalmayo, a city about one hour south of Yaoundé in the Centre Region. We stayed at a centre d’accueil because it could accommodate such a large number of people. Without mosquito nets or screens, we were eaten alive by mosquitoes every night. We also often went without running water. Still, it was great to see everyone again, and hang out like we used to during PST. The location of the center as well as the city itself was convenient. Some of us went to Yaoundé the second day to meet with Peace Corps medical staff. No worries, I am healthy! We stayed for two nights, bonding and eating amazing food (e.g., PIZZA). It was great getting to know better some volunteers who lived in Bafia during PST. As I’ve said in previous posts, only the health trainees lived in Bokito during PST, so there were many environment and youth development volunteers I never had the opportunity to know during PST.

 

The first week of IST was spent in sessions (I missed a few sessions because of my trip to Yaoundé) with our counterparts and supervisors. My counterpart could not make the training, so my supervisor, the chief of my health center, came instead. Our days were spent learning about positive deviance, project design, behavior change communication, and monitoring & evaluation. It was helpful to have both volunteers and counterparts/supervisors present so that we could share ideas as well as problems we may have encountered at our posts. In the evenings, we would go into Mbalmayo, eat dinner, and talk, mainly about our posts, but also about things we remember from PST. It was like a high school reunion, I suppose. The Francophones helped the Anglophones (e.g., me) communicate, but I’d like to think that I did a decent job recalling my French. I definitely acquired a Northwest accent in the past few months that I could not hide while speaking French. On Sunday, February 24th, our counterparts and supervisors left Mbalmayo and we were driven to Yaoundé for a tour of the city, led by some other volunteers. I appreciated the opportunity to get to know the city better, as it is the country’s capital and I will be going there from time to time.

 

Some Northwest PCVs in Mbalmayo

Some Northwest PCVs in Mbalmayo

The second week of IST was definitely less stressful in terms of sessions. Our first week was somewhat redundant, as much of the material we have had before, but were now meant to benefit our counterparts/supervisors. Our sessions were also led in both French and English, which doubled the length of the sessions. Highlights of the second week include “Best Practices” and “Open Spaces.” “Best Practices” for the health program was a seminar led by three volunteers, who talked about some projects they have done that were successful. One volunteer spoke of an HIV support group she formed in the Southwest, where HIV rates are high; another talked about a malnutrition and family planning program in the Far North region. The third volunteer from the North shared with us a training that she did with community health workers, focusing on HIV awareness. “Open Spaces” gave us more flexibility, as we could choose classes to attend based on the topics that interested us. These were all offered by other volunteers. I learned about a camp for girls, community health insurance, community fundraising, making lesson plans, and water and hygiene projects. I also went to a session entitled “where does joy come from?”

 

Friday, March 1st, we left Mbalmayo in the morning for Yaoundé. I had plans to visit my host family in Bokito, but things did not go as anticipated. There was much traffic in Yaoundé and two of my friends and I ended up traveling around the city for three hours before giving up. The journey to Bokito is three hours, and we did not want to travel back in the dark. Hopefully I will be able to visit my host family another time.

 

Saturday, waves of volunteers left Yaoundé for the Cameroonian paradise that is Kribi. When we arrived in the coastal city almost four hours after leaving Yaoundé, the Cameroonians on our bus all gave us weird looks at our reaction to seeing the ocean for the first time in months. Kribi was like a dream. We spent the rest of Saturday afternoon and evening at the beach. The next day, I stayed at the beach and pool with a small group of seven PCVs, seeing the others at night for a campfire a few miles down the beach. Monday, we decided to trek to Lobe Falls, one of the few waterfalls in the world that empty directly into the ocean. Some of us swam across to a small peninsula, getting carried further and further away from the falls. We made it there and back, and then rewarded ourselves with shrimp at a small place on the beach. We had so much good food in Kribi. When I arrived back in my village a few days later, one of the nurses told me, “You’re fat again!” Fortunately, that’s a compliment here in Cameroon.

 

Gillian, Me, Caitlin, and Mayela at Lobe Falls

Gillian, Me, Caitlin, and Mayela at Lobe Falls

All in all, I would say that my three weeks away from post gave me a lot to think about. While at IST, we learned of problems taking place in the Far North region that will affect some of the PCVs in that area. Some of them will be forced to move to other villages. I know this comes with the territory of living and working in a developing country. Going back to post was difficult as well, as I do not know when I will be seeing my friends again and there is a lot of pressure to start working. In the next few months, I am looking to get some projects started in my village, and when I have time, I will visit other volunteers in my area. I appreciate the volunteers who live in the Northwest and nearby regions and I am glad to have a network of support. Many of us are in a bit of a funk right now, so we’re trying to help each other to not get discouraged. Life in Peace Corps is definitely not all sunshine and rainbows, and one of the hardest parts about being a volunteer is acknowledging that you can and need to share your burdens with other volunteers. Many of us are encountering the same situations and experiencing the same feelings. One thing that Cameroonians and PCVs both like to say is “we are together” or “nous sommes ensemble.” It means, “We understand each other.”