Tuesday, July 29, 2008

the mobile computer lab takes another tour

today is the first real day i've had off in what feels like awhile. last week, i put on my education volunteer hat and taught 20 hours of classes. 4 hours of sessions to the SED trainees (community groups and working with farmers), 4 hours of business class (inventory and budgeting), and 12 hours of life skills out in a muddy village (setting goals, creating action plans, overcoming obstacles, daily activity schedules, and how to resist peer pressure). the most memorable and most tiring were the lifeskills classes out in village.

nura and i, accompanied by elsa and leoni from ridev (and theo on the first and last day), implemented our second tour of the mobile computer lab in another volunteer's village about an hour away (if you can immediately find a car to take you there). we have been intensely word-of-mouthing the project to all of the volunteers in the area. while i was in america, nura sent an email informing me that we would be traveling to danny's village, where i had never been. the only thing that i knew about it was that there was no high school (the students walk to the neighboring town) and that there was only one car that regularly went there. definitely more remote than what i'm used to. danny had posted fliers in french around town, specifying that we wanted 10 girls and 10 boys between the ages of 11 and 18 to take learn computers. each participant would contribute 400 CFA (a little less than a dollar) to go towards our transport costs (which ended up being signifcant). i was definitely impressed to find out that the maximum number of people had signed up; somehow students had scraped together enough money to pay for the class. they really wanted to learn computers!

i was initially worried, because danny's fliers said nothing about the life skills classes that every participant would be required to take, but when the class started, my worries disappeared. the students completely respected our strict expectations (come to every class on time and stay til the end if you want a certificate) without question. we held the class at the chefferie (the chief's palace). my classroom was the storage closet on the way to the prison. nura's class was slightly larger and better lit. danny told me that he had spent the better part of the first morning cleaning up the bat guano that was covering the floor of my room. there were no lights or glass in the windows, and the students sat at long wooden desks, usually reserved for school houses.

we kept the group divided into girls and boys, me and elsa first teaching the girls about goals while the boys had their first contact with the computer, then switching classes. this is the first time that i've ever worked with a group of girls only. it was much more difficult than i had expected. this was also elsa's first teaching experience, so that added to the pressure. i took control during the first class, but the girls were so initially shy that getting them to talk was like pulling teeth. when one girl stood up to talk, she actually got so nervous that she put her head in the desk. luckily, as the class wore on, they became more comfortable with talking in front of us, which consequently meant that it made it harder to control their giggling.

i thought that the most interesting classes came at the end of the tour. having the girls and boys seperately list possible obstacles to their goals was really interesting. the girls immediately listed mariage and early pregnancy, telling me that once your family decides that you will get married, even if you are only sixteen, if you refuse you will be kicked out of the house. even in my village, i feel like this happens less frequently because it is so much more urban and modern. just take a moto off the beaten path (and over the hills, around the bends, and through the red mud), and it's like going back in time 50 years (at least).

in america, i would have immediately thought that a solution to your parents wanting you to marry would be to talk sense into them. here, children have little power in the face of their parents, and to talk back is to be extremely disrespectful. instead, we suggested that the girls identify role models amongst their family members who are well respected in the community (an aunt who is a doctor, a cousin who is a teacher) and ask them to speak on the girl's behalf to the parents. the girls seemed impressed with this solution, previously expressing that they thought there was absolutely no way out.

the boys' problems were more tied to lack of financial means. i ended up teaching about the importance of savings. no one in the group saved their money, let alone had considered opening up a bank account (here, it is important to note that the general age of the boys was on the older side than the girls).

every single day, we rode back home on motos, and every single day, it rained. one time, nura and i had to get off the moto and walk up the hill because the road was too slippery. then i promptly dropped my folder in the mud. ah, the price you pay for fulfilling work.

all in all, i was very pleased with the class, and very excited to read the evalutations we collected at the end. after being asked what their favorite class was, most of the girls chose life skills over computers, which just reiterates the importance of this project: people might be attracted to it by the promise of being able to touch a computer, but they will remember the life skills and hopefully use them in their lives to come.

Friday, July 11, 2008

aller et retour

once again, a lot has occured since last i posted anything.

i flew back home, visited virginia, met a lot of lee's family, drove to tennessee, went to an amazing music festival, drove back to virginia, flew to california, went to the spa (thank god), saw more family, and ran around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to stock up on supplies and gifts to bring back to post. everything in the states seems simple, but going to target, costco, best buy, and old navy all in one day still takes it out of you.

one year down, one to go.

coming back to the states was bizarre at first. the small cultural differences are what were initially the most strange to me, for example, apparently it's really formal to shake everyone's hand in a room. also, toilet seats are awfully sturdy and roads are awfully wide and smooth. being in walmart is like being trapped in an air-conditioned hamster cage with lots of distractions. sushi is my life blood, the only thing that i seriously cannot replicate in cameroon. road rage seems completely unnecessary and everyone seems terrified and stressed out for one reason or another. climate change climate change climate change. at post, my scope is not so large.

the music festival was an oasis, a place that was neither in the states or africa, full of things to listen to and look at. it was so much fun. i will never forget it. live music has this amazing power to move me emotionally in a way that nothing else can. i realize that i can't live without it.

it was also great to see my family in california, although i felt a great deal of stress there, mostly because i only had one week to run ten thousand errands and see everyone before i came back.

and now, the backness. it was ridiculously difficult for me to leave washington dc and my boyfriend, knowing that i would be spending a year without him, which, for your family, is ok because you are 95% sure that you will see everyone again and have the same relationship. they are stuck with you and your roles are defined. inter-continental romantic relationships are another beast, full of uncertainty and an extreme desire to hold on as tight as you can but also knowing that you can't control what happens. this depresses me, and i know that it will depress me for a long time to come.

apart from that, everything is advancing. the minute i got off the plane and smelled cameroon, i knew that everything was fine and that i feel at home here and still have a lot of work to do. i immediately went to help with the training of the new SED/ED stage, and have now immediately programmed another tour of my mobile computer lab, for which i need to create four more interactive lesson plans. work work work. i just wish that the depressed tinge would go away. i thought that i could completely blot it out with frantic activity. apparently it's not that simple. damnit. and i've only been back for ten days. maybe it will get easier?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

la vie, l'amour, la transition...on va faire comment?

So it's been awhillllleeee since I've written anything here. Lots has happened, so i will try and summarize as best as possible.

Major Events:

a.) the strikes

b.) consolidation

c.) business class

d.) mobile computer


f.) best friend ETing

g.) boyfriend deciding to not extend for a third year or work in Cameroon

h.) training design workshop

Ok, from the beginning.

It has been a couple months since the strikes and riots have happened, but I feel like I need to briefly clarify what happened (at least from my perspective). Most of us agree that they started when a truck drivers' strike, spurred by high gas prices (which are controlled by the state), got out of hand. In Douala, people started shooting each other and destroying gas stations and PMUC vestibules. Then it spread to the Anglophone regions, the capital city of Yaounde, and the West province (where I live). The rioters went in and shut down schools, burned tires in the streets, and generally caused mayhem. What happened varied from town to town. I am 15 minutes away from Bafoussam, the provincial capital of the West and the third largest city in Cameroon. Apparently things were pretty bad there. I don't know what that means exactly, because the minute things started to get bad, PC ordered us to stay in our houses, which is exactly what the Cameroonian families that weren't participating in the strikes were doing. I share a compound with another family. It has huge walls and I felt like I was more in danger of dying from curiosity about what was happening than from violent rioters. This lasted for about a week, then the army was deployed and everything settled down.

This is when PC decided to consolidate those people affected by the strikes, just in case they were to start back up again. Everyone in the near West was consolidated to my post (about 12 of us). They didn't start back up, and we spent several days consumed by boredom, wanting more news and some sort of resolution. After a few more days, it was business as usual and everyone went back to their respective posts. After that, it was almost like nothing had happened. There was very little evidence in my area of what had happened, although if you look closely, you notice that the road has begun to deteriorate where they burned the tires (exactly what Cameroon needs, another bad road!). Now, it has been several months since the riots and daily life has completely returned to normal without any problems since.

I finished teaching my first business class a couple months ago as well. Before I started, I was terrified of about a million things: teaching, teaching in French, teaching in French to men who may not respect women, teaching in French to men who may not respect women who have been running businesses for 20 years. You get the idea. I was also terrified that I wouldn't have enough people sign up. However, it turned out the I had 38 people in the class, and was still turning them away afterwards! Next time, I am only letting 30 in, tops. The class was a fabulous experience for me because I learned that the best way to learn how to teach is to just jump into it. You are never going to feel 100% ready, especially if you are teaching in a second language. However, once the class got going, I loved it. I co-facilitated with the regional director of my bank, which also taught me a lot about how to train those with whom you teach (training of trainers). She ended up being way too busy with work and family (manages five bank branches, has five children, gets up at 5am each day), so she wasn't as involved as I would have liked. However, everything still went well. Everyone was excited and dynamic. People participated, raised interesting questions, and tried really hard on their homework. And they gave me really positive evaluations! In addition, the make up of the class was incredibly diverse, and it gave me an interesting insight into different types of business problems in vastly different sectors. For example, I had a 60-year-old woman in the class who sold fertilizer in her neighborhood, and a 16-year-old student who aspired to start and market a comedy act. And although these people were in completely different places in their lives, somehow they were both able to related to and do well in the class. I'm very satisfied with the results. I will be teaching the class again during the training of the next batch of volunteers in order to act as a model for possible work they could do at post. That means that PC people will probably come in and watch! Scary!

I have also been working working working on my mobile computer project. I recently finished a project design and management book that emphasizes how hard it is to estimate the time designing a project takes. Designing this project took much longer than I wanted it to. Managing the other three people working on it, designing, researching, and creating lesson plans, formatting computers, doing training of trainers, logistics and so on finally resulted in a ready product about two weeks ago, right before I had to pack up my stuff and head to Yaounde for three weeks for the HIV/AIDS/Gender, Youth, & Development committee, the training design workshop for this year's SED/ED training, and training of trainers (where we give a sample session, to prove we can teach). And we were so close to implementation! I am heading back to post for two weeks at the end of this week, then heading to America for three weeks, then coming back to help with training. I am DETERMINED that we will implement the project during those two weeks I'm at post. In fact, we have already found a women's group (mostly wives of a chief) and have dates when we can work with them. FINALLY!

The people implicated in the project are myself, another volunteer, and two junior members of the NGO with which I work, RIDEV (the Research Institute for Development). One is a dynamic, extremely intelligent 21-year-old woman, who will be teaching lifeskills with me. The other is a charismatic, diligent 28-year-old rugby player who will be teaching computers. In addition to the computer project, the RIDEV team has other projects primarily in the domains of HIV/AIDS prevention/stigma reduction/and care and support, and human rights. I attend their weekly meetings and act as a consultant, helping them design and monitor projects, giving regular feedback and tips on professionalism. We recently had an exhausting, yet fruitful retreat where we hammered out a formal project plan for the organization, hoping to give the members concrete and sustainable direction. I very much enjoy my work with them and love seeing their personal and professional growth. I feel extremely lucky that I work with such motivated and honest people. That is not always so easy to come by.

The other volunteer who was working on the computer project was my best friend and post mate, Travis. He has kind of had a rough time since we arrived in country, approximately one year ago. When I switched posts and moved right across the carrefour from him, he told me that it gave him a reason to stay. He loved teaching, and generally liked his colleagues, he just wasn't happy in other areas of his life. Every time he talked about going home, I would talk him out of it. Lately, I felt like everything was going way better. He talked about how he couldn't imagine being in America, how he was so excited for next year, and how he had so many projects that he was excited about. That's why I was incredibly surprised when he called me to tell me, "You are going to be mad at me. I ET'ed." For those of you that aren't savvy with the PC acronyms (god, there are so many), ET means early termination, or the decision to go back home without finishing your service. In fact, I was mad. Really mad!

Why? Because in addition to my best friend and neighbor dropping this bomb out of the blue, it was on top of something of equally lame proportion that I had been preparing for for awhile: my boyfriend of almost a year (another PCV, who is also very nearby) is finishing his service at the end of May. So basically, the two most important people in my world here are leaving me to my own devices. At the exact same time. If I was allowed to swear in this blog, I would do it right here for emphasis. The day that I found out that Travis was leaving me too was the lowest day that I've had it awhile. It's because they get me the way other people don't. It's because nights in Cameroon are ridiculously lonely sometimes, and it is really nice to cook with someone and just have them be around, even if you are both reading or working. If you are a woman, you can't have Cameroonian men over without people thinking things are happening (your neighbors and the guy), and it is really difficult to make women friends (most people your age are married and have kids). So I kind of fall back on my PC friends. Everything will be different next year though. Complete integration here I come! Sigh.

Actually, although I am very sad and wracked with feelings of abandonment (to be a little dramatic for when Travis reads this), I am not overly depressed. Keeping busy with work is keeping me from getting too down. I am excited to help out with training and see all of my projects come to fruition. In June, I am going home to visit my boyfriend, going to the Bonnaroo music festival, and seeing some of my family on the west coast, then coming back and working working working. Only one more year to go! Although there have been some major bumps in the road, I am determined to see this through, and not just stand it, but enjoy it. Interestingly enough, although this is yet another time of major transition, I am in a (generally) positive place and am ready to take on these new challenges.

I also have an interesting perspective because I have been working on training design for the past week or so. This brings up extremely strong, almost physical memories of my own training a year ago. I have also "friended" some of the new trainees, and taken a look at their concerns about coming here. I want to give the best advice I can, but really, it is so hard to prepare (emotionally, mentally, physically) for something you have never experienced. Even with my previous experience in Senegal, I still had no idea about Cameroon before I came. You just have to give in to the unknown, ask advice about packing, and don't read the Village of Waiting (too negative, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha is MUCH better).

It is amazing the difference a year makes! I have changed so much. In fact, I am a little bit terrified of going home and walking into Walmart or something. America has turned into the unknown for me. I can kind of picture it, but have no idea how it will affect me. Regardless, the minute I get home I am stuffing my face with sushi, stocking up on DVDs, and basically regenerating for year number two.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

finally working

Finally I feel like I’ve reached a point where I can start talking about work. I have been dating a second year volunteer for awhile (this is not work, I know). Other volunteers joke that he is “the captain of the football team” or “Peace Corps’ golden boy.” He is always busy and always has a lot of projects and a lot of advice. During my first months at post, I could not stand listening to him, lest I think about my relative lack of success and complete frustration. In fact, if I could describe my Peace Corps service to date with one word, it would definitely be: “frustrating.” Thank god things are finally changing and we can have frank conversations about work.

Admittedly, a significant part of this shift has to do with my changing posts. At my old post, any ideas I directed towards my colleagues were generally met with blank stares and stubbornness. People frequently talked about me in the third person while I was standing right in front of them. I was scared to open my mouth during council meetings. Everywhere I went, I took frantic notes in a notebook, simultaneously brainstorming project ideas and venting my frustrations. As soon as I switched posts, I ditched the book and decided that nothing would be accomplished without confidence and frank conversation – if my new colleagues would actually talk, and better yet, actually listen to me. They did. Right from the beginning. Things are looking up.

The first positive indication that things were changing for the better came at our in-service training, to which I brought the “chef d’agence” of one of the branches of my new bank. The woman who would be serving as my future counterpart couldn’t come, as she had an infant to take care of. However, the woman, Jeanette, who did come was fabulous and smart and articulate. She spoke American. For example, we had an exercise where we were divided into mixed groups of Cameroonian counterparts and PC volunteers. The activity was to discuss the various goals and objectives of the Small Enterprise Development project plan and give examples of projects that would contribute to meeting those goals. I rambled and rambled and rambled along in French (being the most language-proficient among the volunteers in the group). The volunteers nodded their assent and added tidbits here and there. The Cameroonians looked at me uncomprehendingly. Jeannette, however, got it. “Is this what you’re saying?” She asked me, translating my American-style French and bluntness into Cameroonian-style French and flowery oration. Exactly right! She did this several times, both for me and my fellow volunteers, each time capturing the essence of what we were trying to say and expanding it in a way that was more comprehensible to the other counterparts. I was so excited to finally be working with somebody who I felt understood me.

I am going to start teaching a business class with her in two weeks. While I have never formally taught a class, the materials (prepared by “PC’s golden boy” and another volunteer) are incredibly detailed, practical, and meticulously divided into 5-20 minute increments. Each class is two hours, and there are 12 sessions. We will be teaching classes on what makes a good entrepreneur, feasibility studies, goals and action plans, basic accounting, inventory, leadership, meeting management, income statements and balance sheets, budgeting, financial services available in Cameroon, business plans, and two sessions on marketing. What makes me nervous and what could make or break the class is the need for Cameroonian examples (and maybe my accent). Fortunately, I now know relatively enough about raising animals and farming (agriculture dominates this region) that I should be able to provide some good input. Fortunately also, Jeannette agreed to teach the class with me. I am really excited to start. Finally, something tangible!

In addition to this class, my new post mate (who is also a close friend) and I are working on a mobile computer lab and training to go with it. While on vacation in the states, the volunteer I have been dating got family and friends to donate 5 used laptops. On return, the idea of a mobile computer lab that was able to reach the most rural of populations floated around, but the project stagnated and the computers just ended up collecting dust for about three months (and since this is the dry season, that is A LOT of dust). After I switched posts, with his blessing and encouragement, I decided to take over the project. I wrote a project proposal and started working on the computers with my post mate. We will also be working with members of a Cameroonian NGO named RIDEV (Research Institute for Development). The head of the NGO is also a PC health tech trainer, which means that he leads the 3-month technical training that all of the new health volunteers receive upon arrival in country. The members of the NGO are extremely motivated and dynamic and eager to work on the project. They seem as excited as I am to work on a project which is so close to being implemented.

With the computers, we will travel around to rural villages, focusing our efforts on women and youth that have had little or no access to computers. Our objective is to give them confidence enough to continue to explore these technologies after our training is finished. In addition to the basic computer training, we will also be sneaking in “life skills” training. For groups of girls, we will teach computers, but also require that they attend sessions on HIV/AIDS prevention and good decision-making. For groups of mothers, we will throw in malaria prevention and water purification. For women’s agricultural cooperatives, we will teach budgeting and the importance of keeping a cash book. In order to make sure we keep the “life skills” pertinent to the participants, we will target specific groups in different villages that have relatively homogenous needs. If we instead chose to advertise, we would get a range of people with very different needs and life experiences. For example, you can’t as effectively do a condom demonstration when young girls and older men are mixed in class. In fact, I cringe just thinking about trying to do it.

I have a couple other projects I’m working on, but I think I’ve rambled enough for today. However, in closing I would like to highlight something. The projects that I’ve mentioned are both ideas that have diffused from other volunteers. I feel very lucky because I am posted in province where you can’t go a week without running into another volunteer. While the new volunteers generally use these opportunities to bitch about their difficulty finding meaningful work or friends, having contact with the old ones creates access to an amazing accumulation of knowledge that is completely invaluable. From project ideas and materials to valuable contacts, having the advice of a volunteer who has been there longer than you have will shave off a lot of obnoxious trial and error. We are only here for two years. While that might seem like a long time to our mothers, it is a blip on the development trajectory of a country where things generally take at least twice as long as they are supposed to anyway.

Here’s to finally doing some good work!