Nungwi, Zanzibar

Low tide.

 

I went to Nungwi for the beach.

 

I’m actually not that much of a beach person. I do like the beach and the ocean – but more for looking at than anything else. I think that part of the problem is that having grown up in Southern California, sand and salt water don’t seem terribly novel, and I still always expect the water to be cold.

 

I know, boo-hoo, too much of a good thing.

 

But anyway, I went to Nungwi for the beach, and Nungwi certainly delivered.

 

Nungwi is the biggest tourist destination on Zanzibar Island other than Stone Town, primarily for the beach, and it showed: long stretches of the shoreline were dominated by resorts, restaurants, and the tourists patronizing them.

 

Nungwi resorts.

Nungwi resorts.

 

Slightly inland from that, though, is Nungwi “village” (really a small town). So, not being that much of a beach person, I also took a village tour while I was there. This included, among other things, seeing how the traditional dhow fishing boats are built, going by the fish market, and watching a woman make coconut fiber rope using no tools aside from her own leg – I kid you not!

 

Fishermen in a traditional dhow fishing boat.

 

An old Zanzibari house.

 

Making coconut fiber rope.

 

As for the rest of those two days – I spent almost all of it on the beach.

 

Sunset in Nungwi.

Sunset in Nungwi.

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On to the next Adventure

After two weeks milling about in Yaoundé, as well as a good deal of paperwork and a few medical appointments (I have no cavities, stomach parasites, or tuberculosis) it’s official: I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer.

 

The three of us who were having our Close of Service in the same week were all pretty ambivalent about the idea of a whole big ceremony, but after a couple days of equivocating, the matter ended up being decided for us. The new Ambassador was visiting the building on Thursday, and the trainers were preparing for the new trainees that would be arriving the next week, so there was neither the time nor the space. We did away with the whole to-do with the speeches and banging on a gong, and instead just received our pins and certificates, took a few pictures, and started calling ourselves Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. And that was that.

 

To celebrate, my friend Kevin and I splurged and split the cost of two nights at the Yaoundé Hilton, where we laid out by the pool, took advantage of the Jacuzzi, went out for nice meals, and generally lived it up like the grands we aren’t.

 

Then, Sunday morning, I was on a bus at 6:30 am, on my way to Douala, where I got on a plane to Addis Ababa, and then another one to Zanzibar.

 

And on Monday morning, I found myself in paradise.

 

Nungwi, Zanzibar

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Poli, North

A view of the Grand Mosque and town center from Town Hall.

Poli is a town with a population between 8,500 and 9,000 in the Faro Division, in the North Region of Cameroon. It was also my home for almost two years. 

 

The Town Hall itself. This new building was constructed during my time in Poli.

The entrance to the Lamido’s compound. A Lamido is a Muslim traditional leader (and in Poli’s case, also the Mayor).

The daily market.

The Youth Center.

This is how people in Poli get water.

A neighbor’s house (typical for the North).

And some Cameroonian sheep.

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Calling It

On Wednesay, July 30th, I was sitting the Salon de Thé restaurant in Garoua waiting for lunch to be served with three other Volunteers when my phone rang. Our DPT’s name appeared on the screen, and I knew that that was it – that was “the call.” The Embassy has their security meetings on Wednesday mornings, and this time they had made the decision.

 

The previous Sunday, July 27th, there had been a high-profile attack by Boko Haram in the Far North village of Kolofata. In addition to killing at least 14 people, they succeeded in kidnapping the wife of Cameroon’s Vice Prime Minister, who was back in his hometown to celebrate the end of Ramadan, as well as the local Lamido, the traditional Muslim religious leader.

 

So we passed the phone around and all heard the news: the North Region would be closed, and we would have until the 11th to pack up our houses, say our goodbyes, and leave our posts. Then, after a few days consolidated in Garoua, the North Volunteers would load their things onto a bus and say a final goodbye to the region.

 

Fortunately for me, I had been mentally preparing myself to leave soon, anyway, and this was only moving things up by about two weeks, but I still found the actual process to be an emotional one. The day after getting the news I found myself awake in bed at 3 a.m. thinking about the things I would need to start doing once I got back to post that day.

 

Most of the people I care most about at post have been out of town for the summer. Arielle, my favorite teenage neighbor, has been down in the South with her family during the school break, so I’ve just been talking to her over the phone. And when we never heard about funding for a summer program from the mayor’s office, Théo decided to take a break and spend the summer in Garoua until the academic year started up again, so I only saw him one day out of my last week at post.

 

Delicious gumbo with rice couscous.

I mostly ended up spending time with Barthelemey, my domestique, who made my life so much easier during that last week. He helped me find buyers for the things I was trying to sell, he helped clean out my house, he brought me food on my last full day at post so I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking, and he even came with me part of the way to Garoua to help out. I’m not one for drawn out and emotional goodbyes (in general I’d rather just avoid that part of things), and I avoided tears, but he was definitely the hardest person to say goodbye to, knowing that I will probably never see him again. I gave him a decent final bonus, too, but I also worry about him knowing that we will no longer reliably be paid every month.

 

Then there was one other thing that made leaving a bit more difficult on a non-emotional level: when I went back to post to pack up my life, I was already on a moto from the main road to my post when the driver casually mentioned that the bridge had fallen. What? I asked. What are we going to do? We are going to traverse it, he said. And when we got there, traverse it we did. The bridge was in fact completely down, and the river completely impassable by car, so instead I waded through knee-high water, while moto driver put my backpack on his back… and carefully drove through the river.

What used to be a bridge.

For moving day I ended up having to schedule two cars to carry my stuff – one to get me and my things from my post to the bridge, and another to meet me on the other side and bring me the rest of the way to Garoua. I had been anticipating having to pay men hanging out by the bridge to carry all of my luggage across the water, but then Barthelemey insisted on coming with me and doing it himself. Fortunately it hadn’t rained very hard in several days, so the water only came to mid-calf.

Waiting for the sun to rise on the last morning at post.

And then it was goodbye, not just to Barthelemey but to the place that had been my home for almost two years.

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Dialoguing between the Genders in Cameroon’s North

The evening before the North region Men as Partners Conference was to start, my counterpart Théo approached me. Theo is the Chef de Centre at the Youth Center in my town, and the purpose of this conference was to bring together Cameroonian men and women from around Cameroon’s Grand North, along with American Volunteers, to discuss issues related to gender, health, and development.

Théo told me that he was glad that the Peace Corps was putting on a conference that concerned men, since so often things like this only include women.

Now usually my instinct is to bristle at men trying to say that we shouldn’t be highlighting the plight of women in particular. To that man at that round table last year who asked, why is it the Ministry for the Promotion of the Woman and the Family? Isn’t the woman already part of the family? What about men? To him I say that maybe men don’t need to be promoted so much, since men aren’t constantly marginalized because of their gender. After all, it’s women who, all over Cameroon, are sometimes not allowed to leave the family compound, even to go to the health center, without special permission from their husband. All over Cameroon, and especially in the Grand North, girls who do go to school are dropping out early because of early pregnancy or marriage, or because their families prioritize paying their brothers’ school fees over theirs – to the point were at all of the three high schools in my town there are at least twice as many boys enrolled as girls. All over Cameroon, if a woman even bothers to try to report a rape, she is overwhelmingly more likely to be laughed at or be blamed herself than given any sort of help.

But the fact remains that it doesn’t actually make sense to take on such a large issue as how gender is viewed in a society while ignoring half the population. That’s what the Men as Partners Conference was about: involving men in talking about and transforming gender roles. I think that Théo did get that, if not at the beginning of the conference, then certainly by the end.

And it was definitely an interesting three days.

The first day was dedicated mainly to discussing what gender is, acknowledging perceptions of how men and women should behave in society, and sharing how we experience gender. One of the most interesting sessions of the whole conference for me was the “Gender Fishbowl.” This involved first the Cameroonian women sitting in a circle in the middle of the group discussing what it is like to be a woman in Cameroonian society and what they wished men understood, while the men sat on the edges and listened. Then everyone switched places so that it was the men in the center talking about what it is like being a man while the women listened. The women talked about challenges like not being part of the decision making process in their families and the amount of work they are expected to do. Women in Cameroon are expected to care for the children, do all the household work, whether or not they have a “real” job as well, and if their family farms (as most families do), then they do that, too. When it was the men’s turn, some of them started off by complaining that women talk and nag too much. The moderator for this whole conference, Sylvie, who is Peace Corps Cameroon’s Community Health Program Manager, was doing a really good job keeping the discussion going during this session, and at this she spoke up with something like “Don’t lie, guys, tell us what is really the most difficult thing about being a man in Cameroon.” Soon we started hearing about things like the weight of responsibility that men often feel, especially if they are the head and sole decision maker for a family.

Another session the same day was called “Be a Man.” This entailed Cameroonian men making a list of what was meant when someone said “be a man,” while all the American men did the same (though they listed what it meant in the American context). The Cameroonian and American women also made lists of what our respective cultures considered ideal for women. When we all came back together to share and discuss, we found that the Cameroonian and American lists had a lot in common. The Cameroonians also readily admitted that several of the traits that marked “being a man” were not really positive, like drinking a lot and being violent. Interestingly, Cameroonians had no problem with any of the things listed that women should do, including being submissive. Still, I think both these both these sessions helped illustrate that strict gender roles can weigh on both men and women. These aren’t only women’s issues.

A session on the third day turned out less successfully. By that point the focus of the conference had turned to gender-based violence. One activity entailed the men and women splitting into two groups (this time the Americans and Cameroonians were together) and making lists of things that they did on a daily basis to avoid being on the receiving end of gender-based violence. In the room with the women, the group started listing things like avoiding secluded and poorly lit places after dark, wearing modest clothing, avoiding strange men, and going places with other people rather than alone. When the two groups came back together we found that the men had listed things like having a plan in mind and having clear objectives in life. These are things Cameroonian men like to talk about when they talk about the problems with delinquent youths. I’m not entirely sure, however, how these issues relate to gender-based violence, and do think that should have been questioned. On a daily basis, do they think to themselves, I need to have a plan and a goal, and the reason is because otherwise I might be raped?

Sylvie kind of started out like this, but then she went straight on to making fun of the men and their list. Throughout the room, some men started to laugh along and make fun of the list too, and others just tuned out completely. What wasn’t happening, though, at least not with the vast majority of men in the room, was them taking the issue seriously and engaging with it.

During lunch I talked to one of the male Volunteers who was there when the men were making their list, and he said that at the time all the Cameroonian men seemed to be taking the exercise seriously and were earnest in their suggestions. Why, then, did many of them start laughing along when Sylvie made fun of their list? Why didn’t any of them try to explain their reasoning?

The point of this exercise was to point out the daily struggles women often face and that, yes, maybe men are often somewhat sheltered from these same struggles. But when it came to the discussion portion of the session, it was lead in such a way that the most of the men weren’t really listening. They saw that their contributions were being belittled, and they shut down.

Look, it’s not that I think that Cameroonian men are delicate flowers and we need to put their feelings before all else, because that’s not at all the point. The point is that if we want to help women in Cameroon, the way to do it probably isn’t to alienate the other half of the population. The point is that if we want attitudes to change across a society, then we need a dialogue that includes people from all parts of it.

And there is no dialogue if one side isn’t listening.

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The Beginning of the End

I have at least two more posts that I’ve been meaning to write about my travels right after my Mid Service Conference and Kristin’s visit to Cameroon, but the more time that goes on, the more distant all that seems. As I sit down to write about my experience of the North West region, I also find that I have other things more immediately on my mind.

 

At the beginning of the month I went back down to Yaoundé for my Close of Service Conference. Yes, it was only three months after Mid Service, but the Youth Development Volunteers in my training group have all had our official COS dates moved up, since the new Volunteers will be coming in with the Education Volunteers in June and be going to post in August. Since Peace Corps Cameroon didn’t want to spend the money for us to have a separate COS Conference, we had ours five months before our Close of Service, rather than the normal three, so that it could be combined with the outgoing Education and Community Economic Development Volunteers’.

 

It was a little bit bittersweet going into the conference and seeing all the other YD Volunteers from my training group, but knowing that all the Health and Environment Volunteers in our group were missing. Even on my way down to Yaoundé, I would be asked by Volunteers that I came in with from other sectors what I was heading down to the capitol for, and every time I gave my response it would be met with a similar face and an expression of disappointment. We were all supposed to have COS Conference together. Now our training group will never all be in the same place at the same time again.

 

The conference itself had some sessions that were predictably not the best, but then there were others that actually helped soothe some of my anxieties about the end of my service and in particular having to find a job afterwards. I also came away knowing my real COS date: on September 5th I will officially cease to be a Volunteer with Peace Corps Cameroon.

 

There’s another thing that’s been weighing on my mind, though. Just before COS Conference, the whole Mayo Banyo department of the Adamawa Region had been closed to Volunteers based on a rumor that Boko Haram was active in a town in the area. Then early on Saturday morning after the Conference there was another kidnapping, this time of two Italian priests and a Canadian nun 40 kilometers outside of Maroua in the Far North Region. This lead to the closure of another post in the North Region, one that is the farthest north in the region and only about 3 hours away from Maroua. There were three Volunteers at that post, including one of my closer friends in the region, who will now, if he chooses to stay in country, probably not be in the same region.

 

Then, about a week later, we were informed that Peace Corps would not be sending any more Volunteers to the North Region in 2014 – meaning none of us North Volunteers who are COSing this year will be replaced. I finally told my counterpart, the Director of the Youth Center today when I saw him. Predictably, he expressed his disappointment at not getting another Volunteer to work with, but the truth is that he is very competent and motivated on his own. The Youth Center will probably not be offering English classes anymore, but it will be fine.

 

What I’m more worried about is my Girl’s Club at the bilingual high school. Meetings have been going well lately, and I usually have around 20 girls show up. The problem, however, is that the teacher that was supposed to be my counterpart for the club has not been showing up, which means that there are no meetings when I am not there myself. I’m definitely going to finish out this school year with the club, but unfortunately I doubt that I will be able to get it to a point where it will continue when I’m gone.

 

To be clear, my post is currently the southernmost Peace Corps post within the North Region, and not near any borders, so I am pretty confident that I will be able to finish my service ssafely at my site. Still, it’s definitely different to think about leaving my post and knowing there won’t be another Volunteer after me, but on va faire comment?

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The Wild, Wild East

In January I had to head down to the capitol for my medical Mid-Service conference. This involved something of a scavenger-hunt of a checklist of people to meet with, cups to poop in, “best practices” presentations to give and watch, and a lot of walking back and forth between the Peace Corps offices and the hotel where Volunteers were staying since the transit house was being packed up to move to a new location. There was also a dental appointment in there that somehow involved my face getting much wetter than could possibly be necessary.

 

That’s long over, though, and I am happy to report that at the end of the week I was given a clean bill of health. Due to some scheduling changes, I also ended the week with another awkward week before my friend Kristin would be coming from the US, and I would need to meet up with her at the airport in Yaoundé. Traveling back to my post is expensive and takes multiple days in each direction, so what to do with that week? Go see a new region, of course!

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Lomié, East. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

My friend and former region mate, Grant, lives in Lomié, in the East Region, right next to Cameroon’s Dja Faunal Reserve. I had been planning to visit him at his original post next to the Faro Reserve in the North when his post was closed after that French family got kidnapped about a year ago. Now he’s working with a new national park, in a different biome, and much farther away from my town, but I’ve finally managed to pay him a visit! Another Volunteer, Shannon, and her boyfriend, Kevin, both of whom live and work in Cameroon’s North West Region, also came along.

 

The first sign we had that the East was truly a horse of a different color came when we arrived in Abong-Mbang, where we would have to change buses. Northerners tend to be more reserved and laid back (and also more culturally conservative). When in Yaoundé, those of us who live in the northern regions tend to complain about how rude Southerners are, getting in your face, and especially calling out at white people and harassing women (“Le blanc! La blanche! Ma cherie!”). People in Abong-Mbang, take it to a whole different level. We reached our new bus, paid, and claimed our seats, and then once the bus started to fill up, the first argument started. We were in a coaster bus, designed to seat 4 across, though usually forced to accommodate 5 adults across throughout Cameroon (children don’t count). This bus would be 6 to a row, or so the guy from the agency insisted. We yelled right back at him that there were already 5 in our row and there was simply no space. We eventually got our way (for the time being), and soon enough the agency guy who had been yelling at us was joking with Grant about how he was traveling with multiple women.

 

Our already packed bus did end up picking up another woman on the road who ended up in our row, but she seemed perfectly happy to sit in the lap of a Cameroonian man. The kicker though, was another man, who claimed he was a teacher and who had been drinking sachets of liquor from the time the bus had left. By half way through the dusty five hour ride, he was standing up in the moving bus, yelling at all the other passengers, giving a “lesson” in English, making fun of the Chinese, and occasionally taunting us white people. The Cameroonian passengers mostly just seemed entertained by his antics.

 

We eventually did make it to Lomié though, after a flat tire and being coated by a thick layer of red dust, around 9 at night (and this was dry season, so the road was in good shape). I bucket bathed twice before daring to touch the clean sheets of Grant’s guest bed.

 

The real point of our trip to the East, however, was the Dja Reserve itself. Grant has been working with the delegation for the Ministry of Forestry in Lomié to help set up an ecotourism program to for visitors to go into the reserve. We were to be the first group of the season, and as such were a bit of a test run for the program.

 

So on our first full day in Lomié, the four of us headed over to the local MINFOF delegation to discuss the arrangements for our trip – how long it would be, where we would go, and how much it would all cost. The prices actually only worked out to about $70 per person for a three day trip, and Grant would be going for free. I don’t know if there was a miscalculation involved, but all-in-all, definitely a good deal.

 

On the first day of our trip, we showed up at the MINFOF office around 8 a.m., as directed… and then actually set out around 10. L’heure africaine. We were hiking into the Dja from Lomié itself, so we followed our guide from MINFOF, through the middle of town, and then through farm land and several Baka encampments before actually entering the reserve a couple of hours later. The terrain changed a lot during this time: from the town, to obviously cultivated farmland, to parts of the forest that clearly had been cleared at some point and now sported thick underbrush, to the rainforest itself, with tall trees and dappled lighting that seldom reached to forest floor. By the time that we were actually in the forest, the temperatures weren’t actually too hot, thanks to the copious amounts of shade, but we were still sweating buckets from the exertion of the hike, even with a trail to follow. With the humidity of the rainforest, my clothes wouldn’t be dry again for the three days of the trip.

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

A Baka encampment. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

 

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Me, Grant, Kevin, and our Baka guide near the beginning of our hike. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

When we set up camp on the first day, we had only actually been hiking about 4 hours total, but I know I was ready to call it a day. Hiking through rainforest is a bit more challenging than hiking a well-cleared path, and I was also feeling pretty dehydrated. I finished off the rest of the 2 ½ liters of water I had been carrying as soon as we stopped. Grant handed out pieces of the dark chocolate that he had brought, and that actually made me feel better almost instantly. Our guide and eco-guard cleared a campsite by machete a little ways off the trail and next to a stream, and then got a fire going and the food cooking as Grant, Shannon, Kevin, and I set up our two tents. We were all ravenous by the time we had our early dinner of rice with tomato sauce, sardines, and a few veggies mixed in. After dinner, we played cards while stream water boiled on the fire for us to drink.

 

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

The eco-guard demonstrating how to drink water from a vine. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Day two began with omelets, bread, and Nescafé, followed by breaking camp and putting our packs back on our backs. We hiked farther into the forest for about an hour, before hiding our bags a little ways off the path and continuing on a bit without them to weigh us down. Our goal at this point was to hopefully see some wild animals, since this was the day we would be the farthest into the rainforest and away from civilization. We tried to stay as silent as possible while making our way through the forest, and eventually, our guide told us to hold up. He could hear monkeys up in the trees ahead of us! We started inching slowly along the trail, trying to keep our noise to a minimum to avoid scaring them off, and staring up into the trees to try to catch a glimpse. Shannon and Grant ended up following our Baka guide off the trail a ways, while Kevin and I hung back with the eco-guard and eventually were able to see the monkeys from the trail. Sure enough, there were little orange animals leaping from tree to tree up in the canopy. Unfortunately, they were too far away and moving too quickly for pictures.

 

After our monkey sighting, we eventually managed to regroup, and then decided we were ready to hike back the couple of hours to where we had stashed our bags so that we could set up camp. That evening, our guide and eco-guard again cleared a campsite for us a little bit off the trail and near a stream for water.

 

This time, however, the location they chose was not far enough back from the trail to not be visible from it. Between that evening and the next morning when we broke camp, we actually ended up seeing 8 poachers in 4 groups of 1 to 3. Of course they weren’t volunteering the information of their status as poachers, but it is actually illegal to enter the Dja Reserve without paying for an entry permit and the services of a guide and eco-guard.

 

The eco-guards’ role as a part of the Cameroonian government is that of something between soldiers and park rangers who are charged with protecting Cameroon’s reserves. Those who go into the Faro Reserve in the North are usually armed with guns, since the Nigerian poachers they often come across mean serious business and violence between the two groups had been escalating by the time Grant was evacuated from his old post for other reasons. On our first day in the Dja we had actually asked our eco-guard why he was not carrying a gun, and he had replied (in French, of course), that his first weapon was his mouth.

 

So with each time that poachers came by our camp, the eco-guard talked to them in the local language while we mostly just sat by awkwardly conversing amongst ourselves. All the poachers were clearly Baka who were most likely hunting bush meat to sell and feed their families rather than killing elephants to sell ivory on the black market. The eco-guard obviously didn’t have the man-power by himself to arrest anyone, especially considering the possible risks that would end up posing to the rest of us, so it was mostly just an uncomfortable situation to see illegal activity blatantly taking place while he was unable to perform his job protecting the reserve. In the morning before we broke camp, one group of poachers even gave the eco-guard part of a carcass of a smaller antelope-like animal, presumably in an attempt to bribe him for his silence.

 

Shannon after climbing into one of the huge trees.

Shannon after climbing into one of the huge trees.

That final day in the Dja was mostly just hiking back the way we came to get back to Lomié. Of course we were all tired by this point, and the excitement of heading back to town had more to do with the prospect of being able to bathe, put on clean clothes, and eat a good meal of chicken and fried plantains rather than potential monkey sightings. On our way back, however, we also stopped to rest in one of the Baka encampments outside the reserve but still about an hour from town, and then found ourselves sitting and drinking palm wine with the Baka for about an hour while we passed around the last of the peanuts we’d brought with us.

 

We did eventually make it back to Lomié, a little later than we had originally anticipated, and all separately wrote out at least a page evaluating the experience and offering suggestions regarding things like what might make the program more appealing to other tourists (find a way to provide water that isn’t collected from a stream and boiled, provide a somewhat more substantial lunch, etc.) and possible programs to discourage poaching in the forest, both to protect threatened species and so that it is more likely that animals can be seen.

 

And that night I slept amazingly well.

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

A baobab tree. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

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