Friday, December 28, 2007

tis the season

christmas here was mostly like i expected: 80 degrees, cameroonian music blasting, a haze of dust filling the air and a trek up the hill to roast two chickens in a friend's oven. peace corps volunteers usually only have a gas range. now, here comes the homesickness.

about three weeks ago the seasons changed. eight months out of the year cameroon is in the rainy season. you may remember previous blog entries where i marvelled at the amount of mud one encounters daily. however, at the end of november/beginning of december, the dry season starts. i expected a gradual change. instead, we went from daily rains to bone-dry, skin-cracking, dust-cloudy heat in this incredible snap that you could almost hear. my skin is so dry now that i have wrinkles that never existed before. my feet look like little old lady feet covered in a red dusty film. every time you leave the house it's like puffing on a dust cigar. the moto drivers wear the free eye pillows provided on all Air France flights over their noses and mouths to avoid the red lung. this is also the season for road construction, and the act of ripping up the asphalt has created rolling hills of dust. this is not the season to where contact lenses.

in addition to the dust, this is also the season of illness. something about the rash change of climate makes people susceptible to disease. i, myself, have already caught bacterial dysentary twice in one month and have twice been to the neighborhood hospital to seek treatment. the first time, the doctor told me that he thought that i have an irregular heartbeat and that it was necessary to see the internal cardiologist. i told him that i thought his stethoscope might be broken.

it is the season to be lonely for home and for family, but it is also the season to be with friends, both peace corps and cameroonian alike. i feel so lucky that i am near other volunteers that i like and that i can be exposed to different ways that people celebrate these universal holidays. even if it means driving around in a dusty taxi covered in tinsel and feeling that something just isn't quite right...

i miss everyone. this blog is kind of short, but my internet cafe time is running out. happy holidays and don't get too cold...

Saturday, November 24, 2007

a change of plans

i realize that there have been rather large time lags between my blogs lately. it should be because things have settled down and my life has become boring. this is true to the extent that i haven't been doing much as far as work is concerned which leaves me moping around the house, reading East of Eden and cooking. however, in every other aspect, my life has been completely bouleversé (overwhelmed, turned upside down).

from my entries, some of you may have ascertained that work hasn't been easy at my bank. what i haven't written about so much are my feelings regarding the town itself. in fact, it's difficult for me to express them in a way that wouldn't seem offensive over the internet.

in short, i don't want to get out of bed in the morning because i don't want to deal the level of agression i encounter without fail every day the second i leave my house. this is not an exaggeration. i am too scared to leave my house after the sun goes down (6:15 all year long; we are located two degrees from the equator), even to cross the street to buy a grilled fish. my building and several adjoining others have been broken into in recent years. recently, the boutique across the street was robbed by bandits who were desperate enough to bore a hole through the cement wall to steal toiletries, notebooks, and a little money. these people aren't kidding around. all of these things, coupled with several reports of brutal mob justice in town and my own personal experience with machete bandits during training, have left me feeling weak and jumpy and jittery, although reasonably calm in every other town i have visited.

i also realized that my body doesn't react well to our required malaria prophelaxis, Lariam (anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, dizzines, crazy dreams), so decided to switch to something that makes me feel a little more sane in an already crazy environment, although the side effects can apparently last for months afterward.

all of these things swirling around in every crevis of my daily life and mind and existence for far too long finally struck me with the realization that changing posts was necessary for my work and sanity and safety.

let me tell you. this decision has not been easy. before i came to cameroon i remember reading other peoples' blogs and noticing how much they complained. i did not want to be that person. i came to cameroon with a lot of confidence. i had studied abroad and traveled. i speak french and am extremely independent. i haven't wanted to give up on this post. i have wanted to be able to muscle through it and show everyone and myself how tough i can be, but i've realized that staying at this post will not only make me unhappy, it will hinder my effectiveness in work. i want to work in a community where i feel welcomed and respected and safe.

luckily, my program director was sympathetic to my feelings and okayed the change.

there was a lot of deliberation about where they would send me. in the end, we've decided that i will move to a smaller town about 1 hour east of where i am now. it's beautiful, with scenic views and quiet corners. my counterpart will be a woman. peace corps has trained volunteers there before, so the town is very familiar with americans. there are community groups that have already said that they would be willing to work with me. there is also an IT volunteer posted there, giving great opportunities for collaboration. i am very, very excited about it, especially after an incredibly successful house hunt and a positive meeting with the president of the administrative council (the position which the chef holds at my current post).

my only enemy now is my inflated expectations. i am still worried that maybe it wasn't the town and work that were so bad... maybe it's just me. i worry about this despite the constant affirmations by people i respect of the incredible roughness and difficulty encountered in my town. i'm sure that with this change, good things will come, and perhaps they will be easier and faster coming. things will not, however be all angels and roses and chocolate kisses. i will have to adjust all over again and, frankly, right now i feel too tired to do anything but stare blankly at a movie screen and eat lots and lots of sushi. but it will come. and it will be good and better.

happy thanksgiving everyone. i am thinking about you.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

a day in the life

my alarm went off at 7:30 this morning as it does practically every morning. i have been more or less awake, however since 6:30, which is the time that everyone else decides to get up and start revving moto engines/whacking children/blaring cheesy french church choir music to test and see if their speakers work. i stuff earplugs in my ears and squint against the piercing morning sun. my window faces east. have got to get me some curtains. i press the snooze button a few times, so stubborn that i refuse to wake up unless it is my choice, and not that of the screaming babies across the way.

when i finally drag myself out of bed, i start boiling water for my daily coffee, oatmeal, and warm bucket bath. although i have a shower, it only has cold water and i'd rather squat on the floor and pour water over myself than suffer the sub-zero torrential rain. i do not want to be that awake.

the hardest part of my day is leaving the house, because walking to work means walking through the center of town, being called la blanche or ndoc or wat or baby at leat 15 times and dodging motos, sludge-filled ditches and crazy stick man.

crazy stick man is one of the regular fous (crazy people) that roam the streets of my town. this man is particularly interesting because he is the brother of the chef and is said to have been turned crazy by sorcery. he wanders around ranting, writing gibberish on walls and leaving pieces of tattered clothing in his wake. he has tried to poke/trip me with his stick before so i make sure i cross the street if i see him coming my way.

today, as i am walking, i see something rather unusual. coming towards me is a man pedalling something that looks like one of those old, three-wheeled, ice cream vehicals. however, instead of selling ice cream, this man is pushing propaganda. he has a bullhorn and is shouting things through it. arching above his head is a sign that proclaims: "homosexuality: the abomination of the century." i stop for a minute. i don't even know how to deal with this. do nothing, bien sur. homosexuality is very illegal in cameroon, although paradoxically men walk down the street holding hands and it's not weird at all. i keep walking, saying a silent prayer for all of the brave souls that have chosen to volunteer in cameroon despite their sexual preferences.

when i finally get to the bank, it's just in time for the credit comittee meeting. when i mean just in time, i mean i'm about a half an hour late. however, i am still the first one there after my counterpart who has to be there because he has other work to do. however, instead of waiting around for the PCA and the rest of the members to show up, i'm dragged aside by the vice president. one day previously, a huge rockslide completely destroyed a large chunk of the highway about 30 kilometers away... the only real route that exists between Bafoussam and Douala that is widely used to truck goods from Douala inward. the vice president wants to know if i want to go see the damage. being a closet rubber-necker, i can't say no.

upon arriving at the site, dozens of young men surround the car. "i'll carry you across on my back!" "rent these boots! you'll get your shoes dirty!" "rent this walking stick, you don't want to slip!" this disaster has at least created the opportunity for some make-shift employment opportunities. it took a lot of firm insisting to convince them that we were just looking. the road is completely shattered, reminding me of "where the sidewalk ends". you can't even see where is starts up again. where it ends, there is a river of soil with uprooted trees strewn precariously through. despite the inability to drive across, people still need to commute so they are hiking over the slide. i see a smashed house and wonder if anyone died. apparently one old woman is missing, but no one other than that. people hypothosize that with bureaucratic stagnation and lack of funds that it will take several years to fix. as they say, on va faire comment?

when we finally get back to the bank, the PCA is already there. we are almost two hours late, but c'est normal. the meeting goes on for almost four hours after that. i zone out completely in the fourth hour, as my stomach is starting to eat itself and i can no longer concentrate on any french. when the meeting finally ends, the only woman on the council brings out the food that they serve after every meeting: grilled chicken with plantains and poulet DG. it is delicious, and i actually pick a good piece of chicken this time. usually, i don't look hard enough and get stuck with some questionable part. everyone drinks a beer, then all of the council members are paid 10 mille francs (20 dollars) for being there. dontcha worry, i attend for free! i'm not sure how much we actually accomplished during the meeting, but i'm ready for a nap. if i feel motivated, i may stop by the market of the internet cafe, but usually i head home and read and think about what i'm going to cook for dinner and dream about all of my plans for the future involving amazingly successful projects and people that listen and are motivated and honest. this future has been seeming a lot closer lately.

and the time passes.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

bank drama continues

and the time passes.

my bank situation is still in limbo. what has been my biggest frustration to overcome is the vagueness surrounding everything and everyone involved. after catching a serendipitous free ride with the president of the council of elders, i also realized the lack of right and wrong surrounding this issue in general. i do not like the president of the council of administration, but a lot of people in my town do. i know that i don't like him because he kind of reminds me of a certain star wars character, but i also have a natural aversion to what he is trying to do at the bank because i am american and was brought up on the ideas that democracy and fairness are the best schools of thought around. in a world where democracy operates perfectly, this man would be ousted and they would find someone else to replace him. unfortunately, things are not that simple. anyone from my town who replaced this man would, in fact, end up doing exactly what he told them to do. here in cameroon, people show deference to their chefs, especially if they are chefs that seem to own half the town (and most of the bank).

i had a realization the other day when i was listening to this man sell his intense propaganda to a very receptive audience. what people don't realize is that dictators and other unsavory characters who we would like to think have no souls and are a perfect picture of pure evil are exactly like us. they are clumsy, they get colds, they burn their mouths on hot coffee, they doubt themselves, they miss people, they spill on themselves. in short, they have moments of weakness. it is so much easier to hate people if we don't have to see them face to face. even something we may consider to be pure evil retains aspects of humanity. the problem is, using this humanity and powerful rhetoric, these people can easily make other people agree with them. it is only later, when the media in a far off land paints them as that perfect picture of evil that we wonder, how was anyone ever convinced? now, really, i have gotten carried away and am more thinking about sociopathic, murderous dictators than small town chefs that don't subscribe to democracy and justice, but being carried away by a charismatic person remains in both cases.

so while i wait for something concrete (anything, really) to manifest at the bank, i try to think of work i can do that will not directly help the ones abusing power. i've started investigating some NGOs and i was thinking of doing a computer skills class with the staff of the bank and whoever else is interested. i'm trying to stay strong and it is mostly working. it's funny. i think i have it figured out every night, and every morning i wake up and i feel awful and vulnerable and like i can't remember why i'm here. i don't know why that happens. i need these good feelings to make their way through the night!

this blog is intense. next time i'm writing about food.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Growing Pains

So things have taken a turn for the difficult. I don't know exactly what's been going on with me, but it's been tough. Actually, I do know. Classic, first three months at post syndrome of moodiness and listlessness and feeling a distinct lack of purpose.

What's been most difficult for me at the moment are problems at my bank. My bank is one of many MC2's in Cameroon. Recently, all of these MC2's were asked to change their statutes in order to be aligned with COBAC's (Commission banquaire de l'Afrique centrale) regulations. Out of all of the MC2's in the country, my bank is the only bank that has refused to adopt the statutes. And it is serious. It took me a while to piece all of this information together, and then to decide how to proceed. Unfortunately, I am very, very new in this position and don't know my own power or limitations, nor do I really understand the complex nuances of the relationships among the bank employees, or between the bank and its regulating organization. Anyway, there is a big, bad, serious, down-to-business meeting on the 27th. I am excited to see how it will pan out, although I feel like I've gotten swept into the drama of the situation, and I may be disappointed in the way it's resolved. The uncertainty of the bank has sort of bled into a vague, all-encompassing uncertainty about everything here. This uncertainty makes me tentative and makes it that much harder to get up when I know that I am going to have to DEAL with everything. Dealing with everything isn't actually dealing with anything, until you lose patience and start getting frustrated. I've been letting my frustration get to me.

Luckily, one of my lovely friends came to visit and we gossiped and shared our misgivings/aspirations/everything else and it made me feel so much more comfortable in my house. It's funny, ever since I arrived in Cameroon, I haven't really accepted what's happening to me in the present, thinking primarily about the things to happen in the future. Now, I've hit the ground running and wondering if this is really it, and if I can meet all the ridiculous expectations I've set for myself. To-do lists paper my (already) messy house, and yet I know that I won't get much past "buy tomatoes" unless I stop trying to quantify the success of my experience. It is completely addicting to compare myself to others. First of all, there are the other people in my stage. It's like, "Oh, you've only been to the bank twice? I go there all day, every day and know everyone's job inside and out." Then, there are the volunteers that have already been here for a year. It's like, "Oh, you don't speak perfect Cameroonian French? I've always spoken perfect Cameroonian French. Not only that, I single-handedly purged my bank of corruption and found the cure for cancer. It's really not that difficult. But don't worry if you're totally incompetent. Nobody does much work in their first year." Totally verbatim, I assure you.

So really, the existential crises, why-god-why, psychological delving has begun. Watch out. I swear I'll try and keep some clever, little anecdotes to please the masses.

For example, today we waited three hours to leave while the chargeurs sat around, argued, then proceeded to pack an entire living room set (complete with couch, armchairs, coffee table, and fan) onto the top of a bus, somehow also leaving room enough for everyone else's baggage. The trip itself was a mere 4 hours of Ivoirian pop music on repeat and chickens protesting being put in cages and bussed to their doom. I was very excited because I got my own seat and was sitting next to someone who smelled lovely. Ah, the small pleasures in life.

This week was tough, but I can only see that things are getting better. I really sincerely feel that after this, I will be able to do anything. For example, cook! I can cook. Hummus and tortillas from scratch in the dark. And it was delicious. Who knew? Finally.

I miss you all like crazy, especially with this tough week. I am thinking about you!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

First Week At Post, First Taste of Complete Derangement

August 28, 2007

Happy Birthday in 4 days, MOM! No, I haven’t forgotten.

So it’s been a bit of awhile since I’ve written anything in this friendly, little blog.
This is partially because the last time I came back from the internet café and stuck my usb key back in my computer, I caught a monster death virus and ended up having to re-install windows. Thankfully, one of the stagiaires had an external hard drive so I could back everything up. To anyone one their way to Cameroon, if you are bringing a computer, bring an external hard drive, keep your anti-virus up to date, and learn how to clean your usb key.
Another reason why I haven’t written anything is because stage finally ended and I am officially a volunteer and have moved to post. As you may imagine, this is a long process involving trying to pack all of your new African clothes into your ever-shrinking suitcases, trying to decide exactly what to give your host family as a goodbye present, and, of course, taking about ten thousand pictures of yourself with the other new volunteers, everyone wearing the same pagne, fashioned into various chic African couture with an American touch.

Swearing in was a little anti-climactic, with me focusing more on actually hearing and remembering what I was supposed to repeat instead of actually absorbing what the words meant. Frighteningly enough, the very next day after swearing in, everyone rode off into the sunset towards their new posts. I only had to ride for about an hour before we got to my new town and house, conveniently already furnished because I am replacing someone. That very same day I made a trip to the market with my lovely post mate, who was kind enough to show me to the best market mommies. I stocked up on groceries and even had time to decorate my bedroom. I have a REAL mattress. I don’t know if that means anything to y’all back in the States, but here, it is an imported luxury. It is definitely something to brag about, as the most common substitute is squishy foam that eventually gets a dent where, no matter where you fall asleep you always wake up in the middle. My predecessor left me several mosquito nets, so I hung one up on my wall and adorned it with the smiling faces of all of my lovelies from back home. Immediately afterwards, I was seized with pangs of homesickness and now I’m wondering if maybe I should hide everyone away until I feel truly established and comfortable here.

It is definitely going to be an adjustment. I just need to figure out some key strategies to coping with all the derangement and I will be set. As I think I’ve mentioned before, it really bothers me when people yell "Oy, la blanche!" at me. Other obnoxious tactics include kissing noises and hissing. Honestly, I cannot even count the number of people that derange me if I walk from one side of town to the other, but it’s enough that I know I really need to find a way to not let it get to me. Meditation? Hissing back at them? Earplugs? No, those definitely wouldn’t work, as I might get hit by a moto and fall into one of the treacherous "drainage" ditches that line both sides of the road.

I've decided that my three biggest fears are: 1. Getting hit by a moto and falling into a sewage/drainage/refuse cement ditch. 2. Getting in a large head-on collision right at nightfall when it’s raining. 3. Having someone break into my house while I’m in it. Number three is next to impossible. Number two won’t happen as long as I look out the window at the scenery instead of straight ahead, out the windshield and strictly adhere to the PC policy of no night travel. Number one will only happen if I wear earplugs and walk too far out in road. Gotta keep on top of it!

As far as starting actual work, I’ve been reading over the quarterly reports of my predecessor, doing town protocol (visiting the grands and letting them know that I’ll be around for the next two years), investigating taking classes in the local language, and possibly planning some collaborative work with other volunteers in the region. Mostly, I’ve been lethargic from the stress of this transition, arranging my house and routine, and reading Harry Potter (759 pages in one day, baby!). The future looks a little daunting, and it’s hard to know exactly where to begin, although I’m still really excited about all the work possibilities, especially about the prospects of working with village women. The SED program is very flexible. I already know that I’m going to appreciate the freedom and opportunities for creativity and innovation, but I also know that it is going to take a lot of motivation to jumpstart myself, follow through with my ideas, and trust myself that they have value, even if they don’t initially succeed in the way that I hoped they would.

Setting up house is exciting! This is the first time that I have ever lived alone and have had to rely entirely on foods that do not come from boxes or cans. I have discovered passion fruit. Bizarre, kind of like pomegranates, but absolutely delicious. I think that I am going to be eating a lot of eggs and pasta, and fortunately also a lot of fruits and vegetables. My post mate treated me to a great homemade vegetable and dumpling soup tonight and I think that I am definitely going to follow her lead. I never thought that I would appreciate parmesan cheese as much as I do now…

On a totally different note, I’ve recently discovered that the PC rumor mill is unlike any that I have ever encountered in my life. Worse than college, even worse than high school. There are virtually no secrets here. I’ve already had people I don’t know very well ask me to verify information that I didn’t share with that many others. Interesting… Definitely motivation to lead an exemplary existence.

In addition, I think I have a poltergeist following me around, or something. For some reason, my stuff keeps walking off, never to be seen or heard from again. Some of it has been legitimately stolen, but some of it has just disappeared and it’s driving me absolutely crazy. For example, just today, my belly button ring came unscrewed and fell out, completely disappearing. That has never, ever happened before. It’s really starting to get on my nerves and I’m wondering when it will stop.

Full time bank employee-ing starts next week! Wish me luck!
August 15, 2007

And then the rain shot down from the sky so hard that I thought it might be hailing, until I realized that 50 degrees Fahrenheit in West Cameroon is just about the same as freezing in the Northwest US. I wrapped my scarf around my neck. Apparently it was freezing. My body had quickly acclimated, and I supposed that this torrential downpour, completely drowning out any possible conversation, was probably the equivalent to one of those rocket-ball hail storms that gave me an excuse to not walk to class during college.

But really, have I mentioned the mud? I KNOW that I have. You don’t have to tell me. I realize that I talk about it too much, but I don’t think that I can accurately stress the level to which mud affects my everyday life. Ever walked on the December black ice up on Palatine Hill? You remember how you reach out your arms like you’re walking on a balance beam, looking always down, taking little baby steps on your toes, trying to keep your weight over your feet so you don’t slip and fall flat on your back? It might hurt to fall flat on your back on the ice, but if you fall flat on your back in the red… thick… mud… well, four words, really. Washing…your….own…clothes. By hand. Not to mention the potential humiliation you would face having to walk around with completely soiled clothes all day long. Although the mud is absolutely everywhere, is completely taboo to have it on your shoes. I am not yet that dedicated (or, I guess, culturally integrated?)

Une petite histoire a propos de la boue: One night it was really dark. I was walking home (with two other people, present it would seem, only to laugh at my misfortune) and decided that I wanted to pee in a cornfield. Side note: This is a very common occurrence, as the lack of bathrooms and water motivates you to hold it as long as possible, although sometimes you can’t make it and have to run to the nearest cornfield. Anyway, I was making my way over, through slippery-slidey pseudo road, whenI fell in a ditch. Yes, it was pitch black, but yes, I should have thought about the fact that there are treacherous drainage ditches on both sides of the road. Luckily, I caught myself with one hand, but not well enough to disguise the fact that I fell. The red dirt has a way of making its way into everything anyway. When my host mom asked me what had happened, all I could say was, "Il y a trop de boue." (There is too much mud). That has become my mantra of the past week or so. It doesn’t help that I have to walk through the center of the watershed for my neighborhood in order to get to and from class. The erosion is so bad that a child could fall in one of the holes and be lost forever. Danger danger walking at night.

Speaking of being a dirty beast, I don’t know if I’ve ever been dirtier in my life. Something about washing your own clothes (especially when you’re a little lazy and haven’t been doing it your whole life) doesn’t get them quite as clean as they may have been had you washed them in a machine. It also doesn’t help if they mildew and then get fumigated with garbage smoke while they’re drying. I had to rescrub that whole load. I can only be so stinky. In addition, I find it really difficult to get up at 7 and give myself a cold bucket bath when the water is turned off. It’s one thing to stand under a cold stream of water, it is quite another to voluntarily splash freezing water on yourself when you could stay in bed for another 15 minutes, reveling in your greasy, potent, stinkiness. That’s right, I have gone (mostly) voluntarily 4 days without washing my hair. Eat your heart out, LC hippies.

Anyone jealous? I knew you were. Let’s see, my emotions are still riding a rollercoaster on steroids. But I’m all good. I’ve played scrabble at least once a day for the past week, and I’m pretty confident I could even beat my dad. My host mom and I have been getting along really well, and I just finished my last tech work for the SED program. I actually feel really well prepared for the work I will be doing in the very near future.

Only one more week before I get sworn in and go to post! I can’t believe how fast and how slowly stage has gone by. Endings and beginnings make me very aware of the inertia of my life. There is nothing I can do to hold it back or push it forward, apparently I just have to take everything as it comes. Ah, the epiphany that I make every five minutes. When will it sink in?

So who wants to send me packages?

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cameroon Vocab 101

Now we all know that I have been taking French for some time now. However, all of those years spent reading French literature did not prepare me for Cameroonian French. So, for all of you that are coming to visit me, I have decided to compile a list words and phrases that are useful to know in Cameroon.

Pastèque : watermelon. They are everywhere here in the West.

Arachide : peanut. Literally, groundnuts. No one says cacouette

Seau : bucket. Necessary to know for when the water is cut and you have to give yourself a bucket bath.

Boue : mud

Muff! : leave me the hell alone ! Appropriate to say to children or very persistent vendors, but not to your host mother.

Déranger : To bother, to bug. Desperately over-utilized, but expresses a persistent sentiment that has no perfect equivalent in English.

Bonsoir : Literally, good evening. However, people will start saying it at about noon. Or earlier.

Piment: Hot pepper made into this amazing, sometimes dangerous sauce that they put on everything.

Babouche: flip-flops. Only appropriate to wear in the house. People think it’s bizarre that Americans wear flip-flops in public.

Vache qui rit: Laughing cow cheese. Ubiquitous everywhere because it doesn’t require refrigeration. I recently discovered baguette sandwiches with vache qui rit, tomato paste, and avocado. Delicious.

Kola : Kola nut. Extremely bitter nuts that are jam packed with caffeine and tradition. I was munching on one the other day and gave some to a Cameroonian friend. He said, “Emilie, you know that this is a stimulant.” I said that I did. He said, “So then, you’re stimulating me.” I said, “What??” He said, “I know that you’re American and that you don’t know these things, so I won’t take it like that this time. Next time, I’m going to take it like a Cameroonian man.” Whoops.

Gendarmes: A type of policeman. They wear red berets and green fatigues and are important to have on your side.

Tu m’a gardé quoi ?: Literally: You kept me what? In Cameroon: Do you have a present for me? Said by friends and strangers alike, in any situation, particularly when you return from a trip.

C’est comment ?: Literally: It’s how? In Cameroon: What’s up? How’s it going?

On va faire comment ?: Literally : On is going to do how ? In Cameroon: It can mean many things. It is most applicable when you would like to express your powerlessness in any given situation, but is also a way of saying “C’est la vie,” or asking for a bribe.

Où est la motivation ?: Literally : Where is the motivation ? In Cameroon : I expect some sort of bribe for doing this.

Moustiquaire : mosquito net. Essential for keeping out the creepy-crawlies.

Tontine : a traditional way of banking. A group of people that come together once a week with a set amount of money. Each week, a different person gets to “bouffe la tontine which means that they get all of the money that everyone brought, creating an informal savings and loan. They were especially popular during the financial crisis in the 80’s, when all of the banks went under and took everyone’s money with them. They are incredibly social, and everyone eats a lot at the meetings and gets matching outfits.

Pagne : 6 meters of cloth, with varying degrees of quality. Usually cotton, but the crappy kind is polyester. Buy some, take it to a tailor, and they’ll whip you up something real nice.

J’arrive : I’m coming/I’ll be right back. Excellent because of its nebulous nature, but can be infuriating if someone says it to you and you have to wait. That’s why we always carry books with us wherever we go.

Cafard : Cockroach. Clearly.

Souris: Mouse

Lâche moi !: Let me go! I learned this from watching too many Argentinian soap operas translated into French.

Casque : Helmet. That I lug around with me every time I want to ride a moto, which is my new favorite activity. For the equivalent of 25 cents, you can go all the way across town.

Prune: Literally: Plum In Cameroon: Some interesting, mushy green fruit with a big pit and a sour taste. They usually grill them. I don’t mind them, but a lot of people have problems.

Ashia: Hang in there/Sorry/Good luck. Said primarily in the West, I believe. People rarely actually say, “I’m sorry.” It seems almost like a sign of weakness.

Ca va un peu: Literally: That goes a little. In Cameroon: I’m doing ok. Not great, but ok. Un peu gets tacked on frequently to things that it shouldn’t.

Il faut bien manger: Literally: It is important to eat well. In Cameroon: You had better be ready to eat 5 more helpings of that rice. We want to you gain 20 pounds so when you go home to America, people will see how well Cameroon treated you.

Je suis plein(e): I’m full. Interestingly enough, the connotation of this phrase in France is that you’re pregnant, but here it is totally acceptable.

Je vais te taper: I am going to hit you. Most frequently used phrase of all time by parents to their children. Don’t worry, the frequency of the phrase does not indicate the frequency of the children actually getting hit.

Legumes: Literally: vegetables In Cameroon: Some sort of spinach-like greens that may or may not be huckleberry leaves.

Crunch You Up Real Nice, Mr. Tap-Dancing Roach

July 24

It is true that no matter where we are, we always have our bad days.

Like today, for example.

This morning, at approximately 7:30, I rolled over and noticed a large, black silhouette in the far reaches of my mosquito net. I wasn’t wearing my glasses and it was still dark in my room making me really really hope that it was just a Lariam hallucination. As I reached for my glasses, the shape zoomed down the side of the net. I punched the light switch and jammed my glasses on to my face just in time to see the enormous cockroach land on my bed. On the inside of the net. I only screamed a little bit. My host mom laughed at me, then proceeded to tell me that she would be gone for the entire day and that I was in charge of the baby. And in charge of making dinner. Mais bien sur. Then she left. I was still in shock from the whole roach incident and didn’t get a chance to mention the fact that I have a good deal of homework due tomorrow and A LOT of dirty clothes to wash. We did just get back from site visit yesterday.

After she left, I ate and got the neighbor to watch the baby for a few hours while I met up with some friends to discuss homework (and our various site visit adventures). At the SED house, someone informed me that a package had arrived for me. YES! A PACKAGE! Anyone who has ever been in college or to summer camp knows the incredible weight of this word. This package in particular was sent to me by my mother on my birthday about a month and a half ago. When I went to pick it up, the man informed me that I owed him some money which, if converted into American dollars isn’t that much but is definitely a big portion of our stipend here. For example, with this amount of money I could buy lunch and a beer at one of the nicest restaurants in town. Worth it? For a package? Of course. Except, it looked to me like they had decided to take a little look-see to check out what was inside, and then resealed it with packing tape. When I opened it, my suspicions were confirmed along with a cold hard plunge into the well of truth about the postal system in Cameroon. Not only will they open your package to make sure that the cake mix your mother sent you is not cocaine, they will eat ALL of the jellybeans she sent you and put the empty bag back in the box! Not only will they look at the color of the cake mix through the bag to make sure it isn’t suspicious, they will rip it open as an extra precaution and then place the open bag back in the box, resulting in a dousing of fine, sticky, brown powder over everything remaining. And with that, my package high was instantly snuffed out as I tried to salvage the lonely card candles, and birthday balloons. Even now, I realize that I should have thrown it all away, because I already have a cockroach problem in my room and a sugar-covered card will probably attract ants. Partaaay!

The rest of the day has been relatively uneventful. I washed my clothes, towel, and sheets for about 3 hours. I scraped caked, dried mud off of my shoes with a machete and scrubbed those too, crouched on the floor of the bathroom, trying not to spray myself with muddy water. I made pasta with tomato sauce, which is definitely harder without any prefabricated ingredients especially when babies are poking you the entire time.

I just saw a mouse poking around the egg crates on top of the fridge, and my host mom killed one last night. I’m worried that this out of the ordinary infestation rate, coupled with the fact that I took my Lariam yesterday, will give me absolutely horrible nightmares tonight. A lovely ending to a lovely day. And you bet I would like some cheese with that wine. Cheddar? Roquefort? You know it.

So I am grumpy. I know, I know, I know that tomorrow will be better. As the Cameroonians say, On va faire comment? In the mean time, I will try and not think too frequently about the apartment with a balcony that is waiting for me at my future post… Where I’ll have some personal space and time to write long, winding emails to all of those wonderful people I have been neglecting. Only 4 more weeks of Stage to go!

Site Visit!

July 22

This past week, instead of our strict regimen of language and cross-cultural training, all 15 of the SED (small enterprise development) people dispersed across the country to visit their future posts. For some, that meant traveling for 2-3 days to the Extreme North, only to stay for 2 days and turn right around and come back home. For others, the trip was shorter (I only had to travel for 45 minutes!). That means that I had ample opportunity to familiarize myself with the town, and of course, to be awkward at my future place of employment.

My counterpart is the ST (Secretary/Treasurer) of one of the MC²s in tow, which is highest position at the bank. There have already been two other SED volunteers at this post, and I am already being constantly compared to them. I foresee my biggest problem to be the meeting and understanding of expectations between my counterpart and I. He did not seem happy that the previous volunteer had initially spent a lot of time in the bank, and then chose to pursue other projects. However, choosing to do something like that is perfectly in line with Peace Corps policies. SED is very flexible, and projects really depend on the needs of the community and the skills of the volunteer. It has already been a blast trying to explain that to my counterpart, while trying to be as vague as possible about what I will actually do myself. I don’t want to promise something I can’t deliver, and I definitely need some time to assess the situation.

I stayed with a current education volunteer, and my future post-mate. I think that we will get along well and have frequent movie nights. The way that she had organized and decorated her house made me eager to move into mine. I also had the chance to visit my future apartment. It is the top floor of an apartment building just off of the main street. It is directly above a radio station which actually uses egg crates to stifle the broadcasts, which apparently start at 5:30 and are not all that stifled. The apartment itself is worth it, however, with three bedrooms, living room, kitchen, bathroom, balcony, and exclusive roof access with an amazing view. Score! The previous SED volunteer lived there, and only just moved out in May, leaving his best Cameroonian friend to house-sit and everything almost like he hadn’t left for good (pictures of him taped to the wall, a pile of papers on the table). Fortunately, that means that I can buy all of his furniture (although some of it isn’t exactly my taste…)

After a few days at my post, I decided to take advantage of my extra time and visit another SED volunteer in the provincial capital, which is conveniently located about and hour away by tippy, raggedy, 15-person van jammed full of 20 people. I was unfortunately smashed next to a creepy older man with an abscess on the same hand he kept “accidentally” rubbing against my knee. I was ready to punch him. Luckily, he didn’t travel the whole way, and the other guy next to me ended up being as helpful as the other was creepy. I was proud that I maneuvered everything by myself. I’m a big girl now.

I’ve also decided that my new, favorite form of transportation is the moto. If only my helmet were collapsible.

We all made our way back to the training village today, in time to avoid possible unrest associated with the elections tomorrow. Back to the grindstone!

So I've Been a Little Busy Lately

Friday the 13th

Somehow, the weeks pass by. On va faire comment?

We found out our posts today. It was all rather anti-climactic, truth be told. We’ve been kept in the dark for the past five weeks, or so we thought. Actually knowing the name of the town where we will live for the next two years doesn’t give it any meaning. Interestingly enough, we had the opportunity to visit a smaller town where one of our posts would be. However, after we visited, no one wanted it. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Peace Corps would not have us visit a crappy town. People seem to be developing some interesting expectations in their heads. Everyone thinks that my lack of enthusiasm about my post is disappointment, when in fact it’s just my attempt at pacing myself. The most ideal-seeming situation could end up being horrible, or vice versa. I just have to have faith that things will work out for the best, and try as hard as possible (as contrived as that may sound).

My post is in the West province, about 45 minutes away from the town in which we currently reside. Apparently, it’s about the same size or bigger and has a similar feeling in general. Yes! Electricity! Running water… sometimes.

Speaking of running water and actually bathing regularly, I find it interesting that we have had a gushing, torrential flow from the faucet every day this week and that construction men are in town to build rain ditches and pave roads…magically coinciding with regional elections. But maybe I’m just being cynical.

As far as my duties at post, I should be working with one or two micro-finance institutions, called MC². They are all over Cameroon and can either be really good or really really bad. The volunteer that was previously at this post also worked with the Gatsby Foundation, which I still have to research, and taught economics at the high school. Big shoes, to fill, if I do say so myself. However, knowing that will also really help me stay motivated.

Work with my assigned company here continues, albeit a little sporadically. The guy is really motivated, and it’s really frustrating to come across systemic problems that I can’t solve or blame on the inattentiveness of my coworker. He can’t necessarily control the fact that everyone buys the same good from different suppliers, and that his competitor might have gotten a better deal than he did, along with the fact that the market is flooded with the same good. An interesting phenomenon noted by some of our technical trainers: Someone has an idea. It is successful (at least apparently) in practice. Everyone else copies that idea exactly and all of a sudden you have 15 “call boxes” on one street. “Innovate or die” is looking awfully theoretical to me at this moment. Damn the market and its nirvana.

Friday, July 6, 2007

And the anecdotes continue...

And then Emilie realized the drawbacks of having so many clothes when she had to wash each item by hand with only a bucket and a bar of soap. Yes, this also includes full-sized sheets. She winced as the soap stung her knuckles, which had been rubbed raw over the course of the few hours that she’d been crouched on the low stool, scrubbing away that damn red dirt that seems to find its way into everything. Yes, she will give you lessons when she gets back, but also expects to be taken out to a nice sushi dinner.

Oh, poor baby. I am a delicate flower; a dirty, wilting, delicate flower. But not for long.

With the stagaires getting to know each other better, coupled with the slow realization that we’re not on vacation, the flood gates of complaining are starting to creak open. Currently, it seems to be everyone comparing who has it worse. I seriously commend the people that came here with little to no French. That is a very brave undertaking. However, my addition the complaining stew regards the complications that arise once one does speak the language. Instead of feigning ignorance, I have to try and explain why the United States will not allow very many foreign students come study, why I do not have endless funds to give to the people of Cameroon, how I’m managing to survive without my precious independence, why I cannot come every day of the week to help organize a business… and the list of potentially volatile conversations goes on. In addition to these more serious topics, when my host mom asks me where I was, instead of saying “I at school. I study. I study French. It is hard,” I end up launching into these elaborate explanations of how I had to go to my friend’s house because I couldn’t call her to ask about the homework because I ran out of cell phone credit, and then on the way I ran into another friend and he invited me to watch a movie and yadda yadda yadda.

Every morning, the rooster cockadoodles outside of my window every 10 seconds from 6 to 6:25. Yes, I have started counting. God, I hate alarm clocks. Also, I started noticing that on some mornings a chicken would cluck very loudly much too close for comfort, but I didn’t really understand what was going on until one day when I happened to be outside just as the chicken flew into a tree and clucked madly because it couldn’t figure out how to get down. It stayed up there until one of the neighbor kids knocked it out of the tree with a stick. I’m plotting some chicken noodle soup revenge for all of these disturbances. Africa seems to be a morning person, while I will stubbornly stay in bed for an hour and a half after I’ve woken up if it’s earlier than I want to make human contact.

For lunch, my host mother made koki, which is a soup of pulverized white beans, mixed with some water, palm oil, salt and piment, poured into banana leaves which are then tied shut, then placed in boiling water for two hours until the soup becomes this gelatinous mound of deliciousness. Although other trainees have expressed their dislike of koki, I think it’s my favorite Cameroonian dish thus far. It was especially nice to eat, considering that my host mother tried to convince me to eat cow intestines last night. So far, the cow extremities pushed my way include liver, hooves, skin, and intestines. I am a very rude guest and put my foot down after the liver.

I have a mosquito bite on my butt the size of a silver dollar and it takes most of my willpower to not scratch it continuously. Chug chug chug along little malaria pills. I don’t care if you give me uncomfortable and sometimes sadistic dreams usually involving infestations or awkwardly naked people, as long as you keep away the dreaded paludisme. And speaking of health, I would just like to note that we recently had two very exciting medical sessions: one involved making sample slides of our blood to test for malaria, and the other involved case-study diarrhea discussion. Imagine forty people crammed into one room, everyone lancing their fingers and squeezing blood onto slides, then intimately discussing changes in our bowel movements. Indeed, we are becoming far closer than necessary, although we still hardly know each other. In some ways, I feel like I’m back at summer camp.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! We actually got it together to make hamburgers and fries. The cow for the burgers was killed that morning.

Thanks so much to everyone that is writing me back. I love all of you so much. Please don’t stop!

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Burial

I was mildly excited to go the burial on Saturday because it meant that I could sleep until 8 instead of 7. Or so I thought, until I was rudely awakened at 6:30 by the radio blaring and neighbor kids with their machine-gunning French. I only call it that because that’s what it sounds like on your eardrums, no matter what time of day it is, every hoarse syllable punctuated for maximum disturbance. My host mom had told me that we would get to the village where the burial would take place by car. I naturally assumed that meant a neighbor or family member’s car. However, I was again mistaken. After having wiped the stubborn mud off of my black leather shoes at the suggestion of my mother, I immediately resoiled them trudging back into town to find a car going to that village. It did not take long to find a car already full of people. I don’t know if anyone recalls the sept places of Senegal: station wagons that would fit three in the front and four in the back, but really, those are nothing compared to Cameroon, where in addition they shove in a petit chauffer. Instead of a station wagon, it’s a sedan. Instead of three in the front, it’s four. And I’m sure you’re thinking, wait, how is that even possible? Well, you put two in the passenger’s seat and two in the driver’s seat. Yes, mother, two in the driver’s seat. And all of cars are manual transmissions. No, I don’t know how they do it exactly. Yes, it is pretty much absolutely terrifying when you think about what might happen if someone’s leg gets in the way of the break pedal. My host mom and I took one of these contraptions to and from the burial, about 40 kilometers away.

For clarification, I would like to stress the difference between a burial (une enterrement) and a funeral (un funeraille). A burial occurs right after the person dies. Technically, no one is allowed to cry. They say a few words, bury the person, and have a feast. The funeral happens after the burial. Apparently, waiting a year in between is common so the family can save up enough money to have another big party. At the funeral, they often times dress up in the clothes of the deceased and dance to drums. Everyone is finally allowed to cry. Then, a successor to the deceased is chosen and they have another feast.

When we arrived at the village, most of the people attending the burial were already there. The woman who died was the cousin of my host mother. She died at 37 from some indeterminable illness. We passed through a group of people seated outside, where I heard someone murmur, “Voila la blanche,” which immediately annoyed me although I'm told that it should not. We entered a windowless, large, dank room with mud-brick walls and a dirt floor. This was the first time in my life that I’ve been to a funeral with an open casket. What everyone says is true. Dead people look much smaller than alive people, as if they deflated as their spirit left them. The funeral flowers, like every other flower I have seen thus far, were plastic. Ribbons wrapped across the arrangements read “Nous ne t’oublierons jamais” (We will never forget you) and “Reste en paix avec Dieu” (Rest in peace with God). Women in the corners were singing off-key hymns, while a brother tried as best he could to withhold tears. Then the grandmother and great aunt came in and started doing this wailing chant that was absolutely heartbreaking. I almost cried, myself, even though it wasn’t allowed. During the actual service, a woman wearing a dress with kerosene lanterns on it read bible verses in French. I was left up alone in front of the crowd of people as the family took the coffin away for the actual burial. I felt out of place and uncomfortable, staring down at my lap to avoid any eye contact.

Finally, my host mother returned and we filed back into the windowless room to start the feast of grilled fish, chicken, beef, and pork, stewed goat extremities with plaintains, rice with sauce, boiled plantains, fried plaintains, and baton de maniac. I took one bite of the chicken, before I realized that it was cold and that the Peace Corps recommends avoiding all food that is not properly heated. My host mom kept slipping me pieces of baton de maniac, which is fermented cassava root pounded, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed to perfection. At least I think that's how it works. It smells kind of sour, but looks and tastes almost exactly like string cheese. My mind refuses to accept this contradiction, and I have a hard time swallowing it although I actually don't mind the taste. I tried my first raffia wine, which is white and sweet with a kick to it.

We took another crammed taxi back to my village, pausing at a roadblock for several minutes while women tried to sell us kola nuts and ginseng. Apparently ginseng is used as a cure-all elixer. Kola nuts are intensely caffeinated, bitter nuts. I finally tried one, completely shocking myself with the bitterness of the first bite. However, as I had more, it became less intense, and a strange, sweet aftertaste lingered in my mouth for hours afterward.

Wow, my first experience of death in Africa, and I haven't even been here a month. Later that night, my host mom asked me if people ever got sick in America. I told her that it wasn't the same, all the while feeling a little guilty about my malaria prophylaxis and rabies vaccinations.

On a more general note, I'm ready for stage to be over. However, we started working with companies in town, and I'm working with the owner of a laundry and general store, encouraging him to create an inventory list, a cash book, and improve his customer service. All of a sudden, I'm responsible. In fact, the Peace Corps picked me to be the leader of the small business group because I'm dynamique, whatever that means exactly. I find out my post in a few weeks! Wish me luck!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Tu connais le franglais?

June 22, 2007

I know that ca fait longtemps depuis I said that I would even begin posting on this blog, but honestly, il y a toujours quelque chose qui m’empeche. The African sensory overload, causing a necessary, constant state of alert is already tiring. Throw in 4-6 hours of French class and some “tech” class, and by 16:30, I’m ready for a large nap. I kept hearing from everyone that training felt kind of like purgatory, and now I fully understand. The sun sets at about 18:30, so I have little to no time to venture en ville and back after class and before dark. There are no street lamps, large holes in the ground and voyous about, so I am not yet comfortable staying out at night. I’ve been feeling bad about neglecting my host family, because I normally don’t come home until sunset. After I arrive, I sit on a footstool in the teeny kitchen, talk to my host mom while she finishes dinner, and pretend to be useful. Then we eat, watch Argentinean soap operas dubbed into French, and then I retire to my room to faire les devoirs, or read, or pass out really really early.

With my two spare hours after class and before the sun sets, I usually accompany my fellow stagieres to the “boutique” to prendre UNE biere SEULEMENT. This boutique consists of a small enclosed courtyard with tables and plastic chairs, a TV, and several children running around. Attached to the courtyard is a smaller room with a counter, behind which can be bought any number of trucs, including hardboiled eggs, cookies, Fanta, or a variety of Cameroonian beers. All of this is attached to the propriétaire’s house. He seems pretty stoked that God decided to ship him a daily dose of 30 white folk that have funds enough to buy one beer a day, even though we are loud and some of the women smoke in public like prostitutes (Did I mention that that is what happens here? One girl was already propositioned.). They are redoing the roads right outside, and, after several of us totally ate it trying to jump over the newly tilled ditch (including me), the proprietaire even decided to spring for a little bridge. Although I have not yet had my marketing tech class, I give him and “A” for customer service.

I’ve gotten used to the humidity, although the mud is still a constant mystery and battle for me. I’m getting more and more accustomed to my house every day. The Peace Corps provides us with a metal trunk, a water filter, a kerosene lantern, two candles, a box of matches, two rolls of toilet paper, two bottles of water, a mosquito net, sheets and a blanket and pillow, and door that locks. I try to keep the net wrapped as tightly around my bed as possible to avoid the things that go bite in the night. Although we have all been meticulous about taking our malaria medicine (to the detriment of sweet dreams), someone already got malaria. Luckily, the medical staff seems pretty on top of it, and she only missed one amazing day of training. Little lizards skitter around on the walls, and cockroaches lurk in the corners. Since most of the houses have cement walls, most of them seem to keep a dankness in the air. My walls are painted bright blue and my window faces the porch, so ear plugs come in handy on the rare occasion that I can take a nap and want to block out the gaggle of kids noisily entertaining themselves juste devant la maison. Mais tu vas me sentir! Like in Senegal, power outages and water coupages are endemic, so my host mother keeps several buckets and plastic gas cans full of water in the bathroom and I keep my flashlight handy. I think the fridge works, but I’m not sure about the oven, which is currently being used to store onions and potatoes.

On a more sobering note, three trainees decided to ET (early termination) this week. All of them gave various reasons, but the major trends that I noticed between the three of them was #1. Lack of a functional French level and #2. Unfinished business elsewhere in the world. Naturally, other people leaving sparks self-doubt in everyone. I myself considered what it would be like to ET, not as an actual possibility, but as a, “Hmm, what would I do then?” sort of thing. However, I realized that there is nothing. I am doing this, and that is that. I am totally into it and excited. I can communicate well enough that I can no longer make the “What? I don’t understand you” excuse, and I feel like the chapters of my life in the US are finished for now. Although I know that it will not be smooth sailing, there is nothing that I feel like I would rather be doing. I’m just sorry that those three people left so soon. Training is certainly not post, and people really underestimate the amount of integrating we’ll be doing in the next few weeks, even though now is not fun. I’m so excited to hear where I’ll be posted…. Can’t wait.

Au debut du Stage

June 18, 2007

I just moved into my host family’s house in a moderately sized town in the West Province. You can tell that it is in the west because of the humidity. I have been consistently sweating all day long, although I attribute that more to the 4 hour, stifling bus ride. It is kind of funny how much I love to travel, and how much I actually hate the process of traveling. At least, when you are traveling in your own private sauna or tube of reprocessed air in the sky.

I have been ridiculously ready to move in with the host family and away from the other volunteers. This is not because I do not like them. In fact, I like them all a great deal. However, for the past week we have been shuttled back and forth between a hotel and an office, seeing little to none of Cameroon or of Cameroonians. No one has had to speak French, and no one has had to take a step outside the box.

Do you get to eat avocados for breakfast? I know that you may be asking yourself if you want to… I’m asking myself the very same question.

The mud is absolutely amazing here. It’s the rainy season, and evidence of frequent cloudbursts has to be scraped off of my shoes with a thin machete every night after I return home. Today, I was so moved by the mud created by torrential rains that persisted for over an hour that I wrote a “franglais” poem portraying my absolute wonderment. It goes something like this:

Je chante a la boue

Qui existe partout

Meme dans ma shoe…

Profonde dans les trous

Elle me rend fatiguee

Et le jour est complet

Si on se rencontre

Au debut

Awful. So bad. And so it begins… It is so much easier to write kitchy poetry if you have more than one language to use for the rhyme sequence. There is only one paved road that I’ve seen in town, and the rest are composed of this deep red dirt, trampled by thousands of feet over god knows how long. Even when the paths are dry, constant surveillance is necessary if one is to avoid falling face first into an inconveniently placed ditch created by runoff from the previous rainy season. Instead of the traditional washboard phenomenon that occurs on dirt roads when there is a lot of automobile traffic during the rain, the washboard takes on a different texture from the overabundance of foot traffic. I am still having problems getting lost on the route from my house to our training house because I have to watch where I’m going so carefully.

Although it rains here so frequently, everyone runs when they feel the first raindrops start to fall and you can find yourself in the company of strangers under an awning, nothing in common but avoiding the downpour and the mud ensemble. The people running by clearly have somewhere to be, or are already too wet to care.

Everyone in the group (myself included) is having a difficult time adjusting to the switch from the hotel to the village. It is incredibly complicated to portray the difficulties of adjusting to a completely foreign culture. It is one thing to cite the obvious differences, such as the inclusion of extended family in most houses, or even the more subtle differences, such as the fact that it is unseemly for women to cross their legs in public. However, knowing where cultures end and real personality begins is the real challenge. It would be difficult for an American to immediately adjust to moving in with a previously unknown American family. Individual strangers placed into situations where everyone else knows each other are going to rarely feel comfortable. Each group has its idiosyncrasies, each its anomalies. Trying to pigeonhole one family into a specific culture is a fruitless endeavor, however, trying to take a family out of its cultural context is also inherently useless. Unfortunately, instead of being able to observe the family and culture behind a double sided mirror, we are placed right in the middle of everything. So what comes next? Somehow trying to discern culture, family and where you fit in exactly. I just thank le bon Dieu that I already speak French and have already visited Africa.

Although, I may have eaten something sketchy today.

While I try to keep the cultural faux pas to a minimum, it is absolutely necessary to have them in order to exemplify the true differences between our culture. I mean, if everything went smoothly, it would be too easy, right? I feel like I can deal with most cultural differences. And then the food decides to blindside me. I thought I would be safe in Cameroon where they have so many fruits and vegetables… Safe until a bowl full of stewed cow hooves are placed in front of me. Three to be exact. I don’t know if I could handle one. I don’t know what it is about food that creates such different habits among people. My host mom knows that cow feet are delicious and that it was necessary for me to try them. There is no doubt in my mind that cow feet are probably delicious if you grow up eating them. They may even be an acquired taste. Mais pour moi qui etais vegetarienne? I don’t think so. It’s not even really a question of wanting to or not. My body, as much as I may push it, refuses to ingest cow foot. Or maybe it’s just the cultural pathways burned in my brain. I’m sure I’ll have to time to experiment with my absolute limits within the next two years.

God knows when I will actually get around to posting this blog.

Last night I was watching a Nigerian movie with my host mom. Although they speak English in Nigeria, my host mom determined that the accent might be too difficult for me, so she translated everything into French. I could totally understand everything they were saying, but I let her. Tonight, she had a friend visit who insisted on speaking in English and I got to see how good her English really is. However, it was honestly très difficile pour moi de parler en anglais après avoir parlé en français pendant toute la journée. We have only been here for a limited amount of time and I can already see the improvement in my language. In fact, I caught myself unconsciously thinking in French earlier. However, it really comes and goes, and I can never tell when I will be able to speak with relative fluency or be completely dumbfounded. I consistency is what I’m aiming for in the long run.

By the way, just so everyone knows, this internet connection is impossible, so infrequency in posting will be normal. Dommage.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The blog begins and the countdown continues

I have less than two weeks before I depart for my Peace Corps assignment (Small Enterprise Development in Cameroon) and I keep slipping back and forth between extreme excitement and utter denial, punctuated by my ridiculous obsession with packing.

I was originally nominated for a completely different program in a completely different country, but dental problems held me up and, lo and behold, that program filled up and they wondered if I might want this one instead. Little did they know that Cameroon was my first choice, or that I just finished writing my senior thesis on the importance of domestic entrepreneurs for long-term economic development in Africa. Go team auspicious twist of fate!

The weather here in the Bay Area is beautiful, and although I longed to be outside every second lived in the library during finals at Lewis & Clark, I've been mostly confining myself to the house, sleeping til noon, distracting myself with mindless activities. I've been home for a week and a half and can't really remember what I've been doing. Recovering from finals, graduation, and moving out and away from that college chapter in my life. It's funny, because I have a really hard time dealing with transitions and yet I frequently subject myself to them. Keeps things interesting I suppose.

As far as dealing with the transition towards the Peace Corps and away from my former life, current tactics involve trying not to fixate on it. I am a chronic over-analyzer. Somehow it gives me comfort, or maybe entertainment, to think of every scenario, from best to worst case, and try and discern my possible reactions. It does not help that I do not know my exact assignment in Cameroon. Not knowing what to expect is killer, as my over-active imagination runs amok. However, I feel like I might have a little bit of an edge when it comes to expectations and perceptions, having recently spent a semester in Senegal. Over the past few weeks I have been attempting to stimulate lucid memory of my experiences there.

What I feel colored most of my experiences in Senegal was the lack of sterility, the rawness, of everyday life. Here, our meat is packaged in plastic and housed in long, cool aisles of box supermarkets. Our elders seem to be preserved in formaldahyde, living to 100. 70 is the new 50. Garbage is collected every weak and whisked away to an undisclosed location, never to be seen or smelled ever again. Living in Dakar provided a somewhat different experience. Whether it be watching a man carry a severed cow head on his shoulder down the street or sharing palm wine with a neighbor on a 4 hour drive in a packed bush taxi, every day accentuated my feeling of being an alien on another planet. I had approximately one existential crisis every day for 3 months. Only in the end did I finally start getting comfortable. Then I had to come home, back to the land of housecats and high speed wireless internet.

Interestingly enough, my Peace Corps training is about as long as I stayed in Senegal. After that, after the initial shock and starry-eyed marvelling subsides, real life begins. Or not. Who knows, it's a mystery!

From now until then, I intend to eat as much sushi as possible.