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.