Dry Season vs. Rainy Season

Dry Season Rainy Season
Pros
  • Fewer insects
  • Clothes dry quickly
  • A permanent spray tan can have its perks, especially if you’re usually pasty white like me
  • WATER
  • Plants grow
  • Cooler temperatures
  • Windows down when driving
  • It’s socially acceptable to stay in my house when it’s raining
  • Humidity is good for the skin (I think?)
Cons
  • NO WATER
  • DUST. SO MUCH DUST.
  • Dusty car rides, sometimes involving hyperventilation
  • Constantly dirty
  • Dry skin
  • Cannot schedule anything
  • Trying to explain the U.S.’s four seasons to a Cameroonian
  • Less sunshine
  • Humidity
  • Clothes take forever to dry
  • Impassable roads (i.e., MUD)
  • Insects!
  • Hail storms
  • Unstable cell phone network during storms
  • Cannot schedule anything
  • Trying to explain the U.S.’s four seasons to a Cameroonian

This morning it rained. It doesn’t usually rain in the morning, but I was thankful for it. I turned off my alarm and went back to sleep.

When I arrived in Cameroon, rainy season was at its peak. During my first three months at post, between November and March, I learned how to live during the dry season. Now it’s back to rainy season, so I’ve compiled a list of pros and cons for each season. Note that I listed “WATER” as a pro during the rainy season. Unfortunately, this is only in the form of rain water. I have not had running water since January. There is some public water pipe problem that is too complicated for me to understand (or I just can’t be bothered to try), so I will not have running water until that problem is resolved. Until then, I must continue to collect rain water, to filter to drink and to use for dishwashing, laundry, and flushing my toilet. Collecting rain water, an idea that mortified me when I first read about it in another PCV’s account, has now become a fact of life. Welcome to Africa.

Not only is it rainy season, but it’s also the (summer) holiday between school terms AND Ramadan. No one can be bothered to do anything right now, except maybe play football. They’ll do that rain or shine. I sat at my friend’s house a few weeks ago, waiting for the rain to lessen because I had forgotten my umbrella. When I became tired of small talk, I got up and said I wanted to head home and make dinner. “But it’s raining!” She lent me her umbrella and I left. So many people have umbrellas but are still terrified to go out in the rain. I’m still trying to understand it. Laziness, maybe? I guess that makes me lazy, too, sometimes. Or I just know that no one else will show up to work early when there’s rain, so why should I bother doing so? Those who don’t own umbrellas tell me they don’t have money (yet they have five children), and so they show up more than an hour late to meetings because “there was too much rain!” Priorities.

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ASHIA

I should have written this post ages ago. It is only about a word that has revolutionized my thinking and inevitably reduced my need for other vocabulary. Ashia. What does it mean? Don’t bother asking Merriam or Webster, because they won’t know. Ashia is a word in Cameroonian Pidgin English, but it is also used by Francophone Cameroonians. I learned about this wonderful word during my first week in Cameroon, while I was still doing orientation in Yaoundé. It is probably the only thing I remember from that week, actually… Anyway, so what is the definition of “ashia”? Well, there are a few. Its basic definition is “sorry”, but it’s so much more than that. It can also be an expression of empathy, or just a simple greeting. I use it and hear it many times a day. One of these days maybe I’ll count the number of times. Sometimes “ashia” (pronounced “OSH-ee-uh”) is abbreviated to “ash” (“osh”) or lengthened to “ashia-oh”. Regardless, the answer is always “thank you.” Cameroonians respond with “thank you” to everything. For example, every morning my neighbor and I greet one another. This is how it goes:

Neighbor: “Jaclyn! Morning!”
Me: “Good morning.”
Neighbor: “Thank you.”

Now that I think about it, is that what we should have been saying all along? “Thank you”? When “ashia” means “oh hello, there”, you still respond with “thank you”. I guess you are just thanking the other person for acknowledging your presence? Is that it?

The best thing about “ashia” is that it can be used both sarcastically and sincerely, just like with “sorry”. If my friend asks me if I will buy him a beer, I like to say, “Um, no. When have you ever bought me a drink?? Ashia!” When another friend tells me that her husband’s sister’s brother-in-law’s cousin has died, I also respond with “ashia!” If I walk past an old woman who is clearly from the farm, carrying a hoe on top of her head and maybe even a baby on her back, I also greet her with “Evenin’! Ashia, mama!” Finally, whenever people ask me for anything, whether it be sincere requests for money or the hair on my head, they will always get an “ashia!” out of me.

20th May vs. 4th of July

18-Jun-2013

 

I recently experienced my first national day in Cameroon – 20th May. According to Wikipedia (the most reliable source), “Cameroon has no single date of independence. The United Nations Trust Territory known as French Cameroun achieved independence from France on 1 January 1960, and British Southern Cameroons changed status from a Trusteeship under British administration to a federated state within Cameroon on October 1st, 1961. The government chose 20 May as Cameroon’s National Day to commemorate former President Ahmadou Ahidjo’s abolishment of the federal system of government and creation of a unitary country in 1972.” I’m sure that was really interesting for you to read. The Fourth of July definitely wins this contest when it comes to its history.

 

The United States’ “Fourth of July” celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from Great Britain. Independence Day is our National Day, but we do not celebrate it with “march pasts” and boring speeches from the president and/or mayor. Different parts of the country observe Independence Day in different ways, but most celebrations are outdoors, as it is summertime everywhere in the U.S. Across the country, there will be fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics, carnivals, and concerts.

 

As far as I know, 20th May in Anglophone Cameroon always takes place at the “grandstand”. The grandstand is often not so grand, as in my village, but every event is held there nonetheless, and every event is the same. There is always a “march past” involving students wearing sometimes new, clean uniforms, singing a Cameroonian song whose lyrics are impossible to understand, and competing for some award (is it money?) for arm-swinging togetherness, straight lines, and quality of song choice. Sometimes other people march, like tailors’ unions or butchers’ unions or political parties (I still don’t know what any of them stand for), but the march past is always very long and boring and I just don’t care. The day before 20th May (I guess that would be 19th May), I attended two football (soccer) matches. Don’t crucify me, but I had never watched a soccer match in its entirety until that day. I can’t say I enjoy soccer any more than I did before, but I wasn’t TOO bored. At the grandstand, the buy’am sell’am women received a trophy and money to fight about later for winning the women’s match against the female workers. The Misaje Council also won their prize for winning their match against the Misaje Workers’ Association (male workers) with penalty kicks. A few people received some money for winning foot races that apparently took place the Thursday before, between Misaje and a bush village, Chunghe (seriously, where was I?). In the morning, before reaching the grandstand, I spent almost an hour taking photos of my neighbor Glory’s primary school students. They had a lot of fun singing to me and copying my silly poses.

 

The afternoon and evening is spent eating and drinking way too much. In my case, being well-known in the community (you would be, too, if you were the only white person), I was invited to two receptions. Actually, I was officially invited to one, and then an invitee of the second invited me along, and no one seemed to notice I wasn’t supposed to be there. The first reception was at the D.O.’s residence. The D.O. is the divisional officer who is appointed by the president to each subdivision. In truth, I don’t really know what he does. I just know that I get free food and drink whenever I go to his house. The food wasn’t completely awful this time, and they had Coca-Cola, so I was happy. It started pouring before the food was served, and everyone freaked out. It’s Africa, and people are afraid of rain. I don’t understand. A few hours later, I headed to the next reception, hosted by the inspector of basic education. This man oversees the primary and nursery schools in Misaje. Earlier that day, he was awarded the second-highest medal of something for thirty years of work. I told you, these grandstand events are boring and I can’t be expected to pay attention. There was more food and more Coca-Cola, and you know I can’t refuse free food. After that, I went to the market, where it looked like everyone in the entire subdivision had come out of the bush to buy and sell and enjoy. The market hall had been open for children to come and dance. When I asked if I could take a peek inside, I noticed that the hall was rather empty. I guess parents had not given their children enough money to pay the cover. Around 8pm, I went to the health center and remained there for the next three hours, as there was a labor case. The labor was long and difficult, and the 17-year-old Muslim woman barely spoke/understood Pidgin English. The baby girl was born unresponsive, and while she started breathing better within the hour, she died less than 24 hours later because her mother kept giving her water.

 

20th May used to be celebrated in my village for one week, but celebrations have since been restricted to three days. With that, I think villagers have consolidated a week’s worth of drinking to three days. I cannot tell you the number of times I was propositioned in those three days by drunken men. Well, sober men, too, but that’s a different story.

 

When I think of the Fourth of July in the U.S., I think of fireworks and barbecues and the beach. I hope to spend this Fourth of July at one of the beaches in Cameroon. There will be no fireworks, but I think I can survive without those – the loud noise of fireworks used to make me cry when I was younger. I don’t know how you celebrate your National Day, but I’m sure it’s an occasion, just as it is here.

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

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.”