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?

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

Starting a Girls Club and Learning to Say No

Soon after I first became a Volunteer and arrived at post, a then third year Volunteer (actually fifth, if you count his time in Nicaragua and Niger) named Jeff told me that one of the most important things I would have to learn as a Peace Corps Volunteer would be to be able to say “no.” People would ask me for things all the time, whether it was to teach an English class, money for school or a project, to bring them gifts back from the city, or just for my phone number. He also advised that new Volunteers could get some valuable practice by simply going out on the street, striking up a conversation with the first Cameroonian they come across, and continuing it until he or she inevitably asked for something. At that point, the Volunteer can say no and just walk away.

I’m not really one to seek out confrontation, though, so I never did take Jeff’s advice to practice saying no in this way. Then, last spring (or, well, spring in America), when I went to meet with the principal of my local Government Bilingual Secondary School, I somehow found myself agreeing to teaching life skills sessions to the regular classes at the school.

Now, there’s certainly something to be said for doing the work that your community actually asks you to do. The thing is that I do not have the skills necessary to control a classroom full of 50 Cameroonian youth on my own, at least not when for at least half of them sitting in a hot room and listening to me talk about personal values and goal setting is not actually what they want. At least it was only four total sessions.

This school year, when I set a meeting to come by the GBSS principal’s office, I made sure I was prepared. I laid out the project I wanted to start, a Girls Club with the objective of encouraging girls to continue their education by teaching them life skills (specifically communication, decision making, and about HIV/AIDS/sexual reproductive health). I told him that all of the boy and girl students together would be too many to teach effectively, and I pointed out that here in Northern Cameroon, our town included, girls are at an especially high risk for dropping out of school, often due to early marriage or pregnancy. I told him that it would be necessary to have a Cameroonian teacher to help with the club, both because she would be familiar with the students and how to manage them, and because she would likely still be around after I left. I also told him that I wanted the club to be optional, because otherwise those students who did not want to be there would just create distractions for those who did. The principal agreed to everything I had laid out, and even suggested a teacher to help.

That’s when he asked me: couldn’t I help them with anything else? Teach even one class to the Anglophone students? I firmly answered no. He kept pushing, and I explained that I already had several hours of classes at the youth center, and now the girls club, and of course I also had to spend time preparing for all of those lessons. I stuck to my no.

The girls getting ready to do the Human Knot exercise (thanks to Kristin Bietsch for the photo)

The girls getting ready to do the Human Knot exercise (thanks to Kristin Bietsch for the photo)

The day of the first club meeting rolled around, and I am pretty sure that the girls were given the option of attending or doing manual labor clearing a field (which is what the boys were doing at the same time), so I had 60 girls show up. Still, officer elections went well (the Cameroonian teacher gleefully pointed out to me that the girls who had been elected President and Vice-President were the second and first girls in the school respectively grade-wise), and then we had a bit of cultural exchange, with me teaching them “Little Sally Walker” and them teaching me some Cameroonian songs and dances.

For the second meeting 45 girls showed up, and we got to the actual sessions, starting with “The Bridge Model of Behavior Change,” a session designed to illustrate the importance of the life skills we would be talking about in the future. We’ve since moved on to sessions about communication (next is passive, assertive, and aggressive behavior – so perhaps we’ll even be discussing how to say no). I have yet to hit upon the group size of about 20-30 girls that I had originally hoped for. Only 5 girls came to the latest session, though I think that had more to do with it being the session right before the holiday break than anything else. Still, I’m pretty optimistic about the club going forward into the new year.

So now I feel that I’m being much more productive than I was even six months ago – and learning to say no certainly helped with that.


No, don’t worry; I haven’t gotten malaria (so far)! I take my prophylaxis at the same time every day and I sleep under my mosquito net (most of the time).

Still, malaria is one of the most significant health problems facing my area of Cameroon. As a result, Peace Corps Cameroon is starting to put more of an emphasis on malaria programs, especially in the North and Adamaoua regions. All the current Volunteers in the North had a training workshop on the subject back in November, and came away with a baseline survey we were all supposed to conduct at our own posts in anticipation of any malaria-related projects we might carry out.

Barthelemy and I interviewing a family

Barthelemy and I interviewing a family. Photo credit: Will Saitta

So a few weeks ago my friend Will, who also happens to be our regional malaria coordinator and who helped write the survey, came to my post to help me actually carry it out. I enlisted the help of my domestique, Barthelemy, who acted as our translator, and after explaining the survey to him and why we were asking the questions we were asking, the three of us set out into the community to find out about malaria prevalence and prevention practices in the area.

Barthelemy ended up being awesome as a translator, and basically did a large part of the work for us, including introducing us, explaining to each interviewee what the survey was about, and asking if they would be willing to answer the questions (only one household of the 71 that we visited refused). Will did most of the record keeping, and I helped ask clarifying questions and tried to test my Fulfulde by following along. Our interviews ended up being conducted in four different languages – Fulfulde, Dowayo, French, and even two that were partly in English – and I was a little surprised by how much of the Fulfulde I could actually follow by the end. Dowayo, on the other hand, leaves me completely lost. Fortunately for us, Barthelemy is fluent in Fulfulde, Dowayo, and French, and Will and I are both pretty solid in English and French, so language wasn’t a problem.

Will took the papers with the data we had recorded back to his post to enter electronically and analyze, but we did find that there had been quite a lot of fevers – the marker commonly used as a proxy for determining malaria incidence – within the last two weeks before the interviews, especially among small children, and there hadn’t been any rain for almost two months before. Most households at least had bed nets, though, even if they didn’t all use them consistently, so at least the distributions seem to have gone well in my community. Curiously enough, many people referred to a fee of 600 FCFA (just over a dollar and under a euro) for prenatal consultations, which are supposed to be free, and only some women who went received an antimalarial during their pregnancies.

All in all, completing this survey was pretty satisfying, and I found out a lot about healthcare in my community in the process. It made me wish I had been more methodical about doing my community needs assessment when I first got to post a year ago, since I have a feeling I would not have felt quite so directionless for so long.

Of course now I have ongoing projects, as well as ideas for others and counterparts that are at least moderately engaged, so I wouldn’t say I’m floundering anymore. Still, I sometimes wonder how useful it is for me to be teaching English and literacy classes at the government youth center, especially considering that there really should be a government teacher with training in that area doing that, and when are these particular students ever really going to use English, anyway?

Going forward I am hoping to move more toward doing things that are not so obviously someone else’s job and perhaps also more useful for me to do. Maybe I’ll even incorporate some malaria programing.

After our second day of surveys, Will and I climbed a hill, and then Will climbed a tree on that hill.

After our second day of surveys, Will and I climbed a hill, and then Will climbed a tree on that hill.

Another Year

(Or going to post, two birthdays, and Thanksgiving in northern Cameroon)

Wednesday the 27th of November was my birthday and also the one year anniversary of me arriving at post for the first time.

The road to my post late one afternoon.

The road to my post late one afternoon.

I still remember that day from just over a year ago. It’s possible my mind has twisted it and lent it extra color in the time since, but the memory is vivid: pulling away from Will’s first post, and looking out the back window of the van and seeing him still standing dejected in the middle of the road outside his new house, surrounded by a swam of children, his wallet having just been stolen; cresting the small mountain between Will’s post and mine and descending into the valley where my post lies; being unable to hold back my grin and exclaiming to Grant how beautiful the landscape around us was as we bumped along getting nearer to town. Though I had never been there before, and though I was still a little afraid, seeing the dry brush-covered hills it already felt a little like I was coming home.

Of course in February there was that first kidnapping, and Grant was evacuated from his post in the bush past my town and now lives in the East Region. Then in April Will was granted his request to move to Guider, a small city north of Garoua, and leave behind the tiny village that was never really right for him.

So now I’m the only Volunteer for hours, and sometimes the distance does feel a little trying. Yet it’s hard to imagine being posted somewhere else, especially now near the beginning of dry season, during cold season, when the hills around me have taken on that brown-green-gold pallet so familiar from a life spent mostly in Southern California – even the dirt is the same color. And in the evening, when I get lucky and no one is burning trash or setting brush fires, when the sun is just going down and the heat of the day starts to dissipate, I sometimes get a whiff of that particular smell of nighttime that brings to mind memories of nights at summer camp. The oaks and the pines have been replaced by acacia and neem, but the wild sage is still there, as well as that crisp freshness to the air. I’m not really one for homesickness, but that smell and sensory memory does come with a distinct feeling of nostalgia.

Fast forward a year and I spent much of my birthday on the road again. I went to visit my friend Laura, who is a Volunteer in a village up north of Garoua, and collect on my gift exchange gift from last Christmas, which was a three course meal, prepared by Laura at her post. Her village only recently got electricity, and still has no cell phone service, so hers is a bit of a different Volunteer experience than mine. I ended up having a lovely birthday dinner with her and Will (whose new post is only an hour away from Laura’s), and then curled up with Laura’s dog (my new best friend) for a screening of Casablanca with Laura’s new ample electricity.

The next day the cooking frenzy really started. Those of us in the North didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until Friday, but on Thursday Laura steamed, pureed, and seasoned a large squash that would eventually become two delicious “pumpkin” pies and put together a tasty quinoa salad. I got to work on a couple loaves of Dutch oven bread. By that evening when we got to Guider, where the Thanksgiving festivities would take place, I had two loaves of bread and another bowl of dough that was almost ready to bake. Over a dinner of Dutch oven pizza (with Velveeta for cheese) chez Jack, the six of us already in Guider discussed things like Jack’s plans for picking up the live turkeys the next morning, whether there would be enough food, and, now that it had been a year since my training group swore in and went to post, the new Volunteers that had just arrived in the North and who I would meet during the celebrations the next day.

In the end, I made five loaves of bread (two sourdough herb, one plain sourdough, and two whole wheat oatmeal cranberry), only one large turkey was butchered and cooked, and along with everything else people brought there was way too much food. I was a little out of it for most of the day (dehydration?), but meeting all the new Volunteers to the region was great and they all seem friendly and generally awesome.

It wasn’t the most traditional American Thanksgiving. A bit of confusion in the market meant we had mashed sweet potatoes rather than more traditional mashed potatoes and the only cranberries present were dried and baked into bread. It was probably a bit odd for the new Volunteers to be spending it mostly with people they had only just met.

Still, while I’m here, these other Volunteers in my region are a bit like my family. Even in ones who I don’t feel particularly close to, I recognize that there are certain things that we share. We have similar understandings of what the holidays are like in America, though we’ve never actually spent them together there. We’ve become amused or frustrated by similar aspects of Cameroonian life and culture – things Cameroonians might not even realize don’t feel normal to us – that are so different than what we had been used to. We all have some similar sensibility – though our individual reasons may have differed – that lead us to leaving all of that familiarity for two years to come live and work half a world away.

It’s a community that I’m thankful to have while I am here.

The Innocent Anthropologist

photo4As Catherine and I were walking back to her place after the morning prayer the day of the Fête de Mouton, we ran into two Canadian VSO volunteers. I hadn’t met them before, but Catherine knew them, since they all work in Garoua and even live on the same street.

Introductions were made all around, and as soon as I mentioned where I lived and worked, Odette, the French Canadian volunteer, mentioned a book she had once read called The Innocent Anthropologist. It takes place, in large part, at my post. Who knew?

The next night the other volunteer I had just met, Miriam, was over at the Peace Corps office for a shared dinner of stir-fried vegetables in peanut sauce. As we all sat down to eat in the computer room, she commented on how many books we had. Those are just the technical manuals, we replied. You should go look in the library.

All of the Peace Corps transit houses and offices have libraries made up principally of books left behind by former volunteers. In Ngaoundéré it is just a few measly shelves, and the Yaoundé case library is much bigger, but pretty picked over, considering that all of the Volunteers in Cameroon pass through there at one time or another. I have heard that the Maroua library used to be the best, but no one seems to know what happened to all those books when that case closed with the rest of the Far North region. The Garoua library takes up most of the office’s foyer with several shelving units, often stacked two books deep and with even more volumess resting on top. It’s not terribly organized, but it is a boon to the Peace Corps Volunteer who often finds herself with rather more free time than she is used to in America and in a country with no culture of reading.

So Catherine led Miriam off to see the library, and when they returned Miriam had found five books to borrow, and Catherine handed me one slim volume: The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley. I flipped it open and found a map of my post and its immediate surroundings as they were at least 30 years ago. I brought it back to post with me.

The book describes an Englishman’s first experience with anthropological field work in, as it happens, the mountains surrounding my post. It’s witty and tries not to leave out the less glamorous aspects of the work. The book was first published in 1983, so, while it makes no reference to the dates of the actual fieldwork, it certainly predates the modern conveniences of cell phones and semi-reliable electricity in my town, but as I read I still found myself relating to a lot of the author’s feelings and experiences, especially when it came to things like Cameroonian bureaucracy, customer service, and reasonable expectations of things working (or not) as promised.

As I read through the short book, I thought that my enjoyment might be mostly due to the confirmation of my own experiences (which I’ll admit is satisfying), but after I finished I also turned to the internet to learn more (namely when the fieldwork actually happened – alas, I could not find a date). The Amazon page for the book, however, also boasts several glowing reviews, including one from a user who speculates that “He may have embellished his story in places, but he probably didn’t need to.” After having lived here for a year, however, everything that happens in the book seems entirely plausible.

I was certainly grateful for the recommendation, so I thought I’d mention that if anyone out there wants to know more about the area I live in, anthropology, or the experience of being a foreigner in Cameroon it’s worth picking up. It’s only 190 pages, which is nothing compared to the George R.R. Martin books I’ve been reading lately, and entertaining the whole way through.

Le Fête de Mouton

Crowds around Garoua's Grand Mosque the morning of the Fête

Crowds around Garoua’s Grand Mosque the morning of the Fête

Tabaski, or the Fête de Mouton (Celebration of the Lamb), as it is commonly called around these parts, commemorates that Old Testament story in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham is totally going to do it, too, and has his knife out and ready to kill the boy when an angel comes down to stop him, God having already been convinced of Abraham’s devotion due to his willingness to go through with the deed. Abraham is then told to sacrifice a lamb, instead, and now Muslims also do this yearly to show their own devotion.

While my post has a large Muslim population, most of my friends and neighbors are Christians, so I decided to go to Garoua for the fête where I would be able to celebrate with the rich Muslims of the Marouaré neighborhood around the Grand Mosque. My friend and fellow Volunteer, Catherine, lives in this neighborhood, so I spent the day with her and tagged along to all of the celebrations she was invited to, enjoying some good Cameroonian Muslim hospitality.

Our day started at 8 a.m. when we went to watch the prayer at the Grand Mosque. The large grounds around the mosque were completely filled with people, even overflowing to block the surrounding streets as well. Unfortunately we couldn’t see much besides the people near us praying, but usually during the morning prayer for Tabaski a ceremonial sheep is sacrificed on behalf of the whole community. Some of the police that were present tried to tell us as we were watching that we should go into the grounds to get closer and get a better look, but normally non-Muslims are not allowed into the Grand Mosque in Garoua, and no actual Muslims were telling us to do that, so we politely declined.

With the prayer finished, we went back to Catherine’s place to make ourselves a delicious breakfast of pancakes with mango jam (Tabaski meal #1) while we waited to watch her neighbors sacrifice their own sheep. It wasn’t long after we had finished that some of her neighbor children came over to inform us that their family was waiting for us to come eat with them. The marathon of food had begun.

Tabaski meal #2 consisted of rice, bread, a tasty stew of cabbage and some sort of red meat (probably either beef or sheep, though I am not exactly a connoisseur of meats), and a wonderfully gingery tea. In the fashion of any gracious Cameroonian host, Catherine’s neighbor told us again and again that we should eat more (Il faut manger!).

The rams, post-sacrifice, with the Cameroonian dagger

The rams, post-sacrifice, with the Cameroonian dagger

It was around the time that we finished this second meal that that two rams arrived at the compound, ready for sacrifice. Apparently, big rams are actually the most desirable (and most expensive) animals for the day’s sacrifice. Those families that cannot afford to buy a ram instead sacrifice a smaller lamb or a goat (or nothing at all if they just don’t have the money). Catherine and I made our way to the section of the compound where the rams were to be sacrificed, and a few of the women asked us if we weren’t afraid to watch. There was a hole dug into the ground for the blood to drain into (I have no idea if this has any significance or if it simply makes for less mess), and the men and boys of the family were binding the first sheep’s legs to keep it from thrashing. The traditional dagger came out (it didn’t look super sharp, but then it got the job done quite well), and all the boys held the ram down while Catherine’s neighbor’s older brother (the oldest man present) cut its neck deep. The blood spurt into the hole, and the sheep convulsed. The second ram kept calmly munching at some leaves nearby. Eventually, when enough blood had drained from the first ram, it was carried over to a piece of butcher paper, and it was time for the second one to be bound and sacrificed.

As we were walking back to the Peace Corps office for a bit of rest (it was starting to get quite hot), we saw a third ram arriving at the compound for sacrifice. There genuinely is a lot of poverty in this country, but Catherine’s neighbors? They are not poor. We had asked how much these sheep usually cost at market, and the prices they gave us ranged from about $80 to $140 an animal, depending mostly on size.

Catherine, her coworker Eba, and I in our fête outfits

Catherine, her coworker Eba, and I in our fête outfits

Back at the office we did get a few hours to rest, digest, and ingest a few vegetables (Tabaski meal/snack #3), and then at around 3 p.m. it was off to Catherine’s counterpart’s house with another volunteer, Mayela, for the main feast of the day (Tabaski meal #4). When we arrived, Nafi immediately offered us our choice of Fanta or Coke, and then also set out bottles of gingery lemonade and a sweet minty milk drink. We chatted amongst ourselves and another of Catherine’s coworkers from her host organization, ACMS, while Nafi finished preparing and laying out the feast. And a feast it was! There was couscous (as we know it, not the Cameroonian kind) and macaroni pasta for the starches, fried plantains, grilled lamb and lamb ribs, a lamb stew with a more tomato-based sauce, as well as a bowl of cooked intestines (which I managed to avoid). As we ate, the topics of conversation ranged from the meaning of the fête and the price of sheep, to the meaning of love and how people date in Cameroon.

Stuffed, we finally begged off around 6, saying we had to go meet up with the other Garoua Volunteer, Lola. We headed back to the office to find her, and then after a while the four of us went to Catherine’s again and had a final meal of more lamb (the rams from that morning) and tea with her neighbors (Tabaski meal #5). Fortunately, Lola had not been feasting all afternoon, so she was able to eat most of what was on the communal plates of meat placed in front of us.

In a lot of ways the Fête de Mouton reminded me of the American Thanksgiving holiday. Yes, it is more explicitly religious (though I would wager that the original Thanksgiving was pretty overtly religious as well), but it is also about sharing a big meal (with lamb instead of turkey as the centerpiece) with your extended family, inviting over those friends that don’t already have a place to go, and perhaps taking a moment to reflect on those things that are good in your life.

Next month the Volunteers in my region will be gathering in Guider for an American-style Thanksgiving feast, but until then, I am thankful that I got to experience a Cameroonian Fête de Mouton with wonderful people in Garoua.


I think I have alluded to this before, but food can be something of a difficulty at my post, at least if I want to eat well.

The staple of the local cuisine is couscous, which is a ball of starch about the size of a fist or a bit bigger made from corn, rice, cassava, or millet. Corn and rice seem to be the most common varieties where I live (and everyone grows corn). From what I have heard, millet is the norm in most of the Far North region, and cassava is much more common in the Grand South. Couscous is usually served with a sauce and eaten by grabbing chunks with your hands, mushing it with your fingers to make a small spoon-like impression, using it to scoop up the sauce, and then popping the whole thing in your mouth. Where I live the sauce is usually made of some combination of traditional leaves, peanuts, and okra. There might be some meat in there if you can afford it.

If I wanted to eat couscous and sauce every day, I would never have any issues eating in my town. I would never even have to cook. But aside from this diet sometimes being a bit bland and boring for my taste, I sometimes just miss other foods.

The thing is that while my daily market at post (at least I have a daily market!) can be reliably counted on to supply traditional leaves, peanuts, and okra, as well as onion and garlic and often tomatoes (as long as I am not too picky about the quality), there is not that much else available. There is also a vegetable that looks like a giant green tomato that is called aubergine (the French word for eggplant) and is like an especially bitter version of an eggplant. Cameroonians eat them raw like apples, which is so strange to me. In September there was fresh corn, and in February my vegetable selection will improve a bit when lettuce and carrots come into season and I can actually sometimes fine them at post, as well.

As a result, I am constantly bringing food back to my post after trips to Garoua. I can buy rice, flour, and spaghetti at post, but I usually bring back lentils to go with the rice, oatmeal for easy breakfasts at my house (I can usually get eggs at post, too), olive oil (I can get cotton oil at post), soy sauce, spices (ginger is available everywhere in the north, but other things I buy in Garoua), and lots and lots of vegetables. The week after I get back from post I get to eat things like potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and leeks, but then as it gets further from my last trip to the city my vegetable intake becomes more and more limited to onions and sometimes tomatoes or fried okra (it’s just so slimy prepared any other way).

Last week, however, I had an amazingly good day at the market. The tomatoes looked especially good, so I bought twice as many as I usually do, and there were small bell peppers, which happens occasionally, but not at all often. I was feeling pretty happy with my purchases for the day (which also included onions and garlic, as well as smoked fish for my cat), and was on my way out of the market area when I looked down and saw a pile of eggplants. I stopped and did a double take. These weren’t the squat green aubergines commonly found around the North. These were the long, deep purple vegetables we know and love in America. I bought two. The old woman selling them suggested that I should just buy the whole pile, and I actually stopped to consider it. I was planning a trip to Garoua three days later, though, so it seemed silly to leave a whole pile of eggplants lying around the house while I was gone.

A Year in Cameroon

Dinner at the Country Director's house in Yaounde our first week in country.

Dinner at the Country Director’s house in Yaounde our first week in country.

Saturday marked the one year anniversary of when I first got to Cameroon. On that day another Volunteer who arrived in country with me pointed out that neither of us had ever actually heard the radio edit of “Thrift Shop,” which is maybe a little crazy. And sure, sometimes I do lie in bed at night and think of all the sushi and tacos I am missing out on, but last year has left me with plenty of other new experiences both big and small. To name just a few in no particular order: I have learned to live without running water. It probably helps that I eased into it a little by not having running water during training in Bafia, since while I had to learn to bathe and do laundry without running water and had to also fetch water to filter for drinking, I wasn’t the one responsible for things like cooking or dishes as well. Still, I got used to the lack of running water a lot faster than I would have thought. I do, however, look forward to showers at the office in Garoua whenever I am there, unheated though they may be. I’ve bought fabric and gotten clothes custom made. Some outfits have turned out better than others. The first dress I got made I now feel a bit frumpy wearing (though I still do), in part because while it fit when I got it, it is now a bit big. It also has puffy 80s-ish sleeves. I have some other dresses that I love, though, and on Saturday I ordered another northern ensemble with fancy embroidery. The tailor kept exclaiming that I would look like a real African! It should be ready for me to wear in time for Tabaski. I’ve had and treated amoebas, which fortunately never turned into dysentery, though they still made for an uncomfortable few days. I also discovered that the drug Fasigyne makes me dizzy. I’ve eaten goat, which I realize isn’t super exotic, but I can’t say for certain that I had eaten it before. I also try to avoid bush meat for various reasons, so that precludes anything much more exciting than goat, which is quite common here in Cameroon’s North. I have also chased a goat out of my living room and another goat kid out of my yard after it got lost and separated from its mother and started screaming at the top of its lungs. Goats really do sound like people when they scream. I have celebrated Cinco de Mayo with not just other Americans, but Cameroonians who I witnessed having their first tastes of tequila that night. Once the taco buffet was put together and everyone started getting food, several of the Cameroonians asked where the piment sauce was until another Volunteer finally just told them it was already in the food.

She looks just thrilled to be holding a condom.

She looks just thrilled to be holding a condom.

I’ve watched Cameroonian youth give condom demonstrations for the first time. That summer program that I was helping to plan and was supposed to go on in July and which had problems getting off the ground since we couldn’t track down the Mayor, whose office was funding it? (See: Periods of Inactivity) It finally started on the day I left post to travel south and eventually on to vacation in America. I got back to town after my vacation in time for the last three days of the program, which also happened to be the HIV/AIDS training. Despite a rocky start, the program turned out pretty successful. I have used an outdoor latrine in the rain. Sure, I have an indoor toilet (that I bucket flush, since I don’t have running water) but a lot of people have latrines, which may or may not be outdoors, and may or may not have roofs. And when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. Cameroon is also the first (and still the only) country in sub-Saharan Africa that I have been to. Now I have not only been to sub-Saharan Africa, I live there. And it is certainly different that any place else where I have lived or visited before. Here’s to whatever the next year may bring!

Dutch Oven Bread

Fresh Baked Bread!

Fresh Baked Bread!

As you can imagine, things are sometimes a bit more basic here in Peace Corps Cameroon. I don’t have running water to make showering or doing dishes easier; nor do I have air conditioning to cool off during hot season – at least not chez moi. There are volunteers in Cameroon who actually do have one or both of those things, but those of us not living the Posh Corps lifestyle have learned to make do.

One thing that is pretty standardized across Peace Corps households, however, is the kitchen setup. All of my cooking is done with a stovetop connected by a rubber tube to a gas tank, kind of like a camping stove, but all-around bigger. When I first got to post and attempted to assemble this (by which I definitely mean watched my community host put it together), I couldn’t get my stove to stay lit. After a few days of buying all my food already prepared, I finally gave in and duct taped shut the mysterious holes in the pipes under the stove, and voila, it worked! So far I haven’t blown up, either.

I should probably also note that gas stoves are a little less common in Cameroonian households. It cost me over $100 to buy the setup in the first place, though most of that was for the tank itself, which is refillable. Cameroonians who don’t want to dish out the money or can’t afford it cook over wood fires for everything – grilling, baking, frying, you name it.

What my kitchen still lacks (besides running water and a microwave) is an oven. It is possible to buy an oven in Cameroon, and also run it off of a gas tank, and I know of at least one volunteer that even has one. Heck, my host family in Bafia had one. What do I have instead? A big heavy pot with a lid and some stones on the bottom. Plop it on the gas stove, preheat, and that’s my oven.

Dutch oven baking is a little bit limited. You can’t really control the temperature too well, and no light goes on or off to tell you when it’s finished preheating. You can’t broil. The heat isn’t always even. It’s a smaller space, so you are limited in what you can put in it, and it doesn’t get as dry. Still, I have successfully baked or witnessed someone baking all of the following in a Dutch oven: pies, brownies, cakes, cookies, bread, and even bagels. I think there is even a Volunteer in the East Region that has conquered Dutch oven lasagna.

My own Dutch oven exploits at post have been mostly limited to brownies and bread. But oh, have I baked a lot of bread. Bread baking was something that I sometimes did in America too, using a recipe based off the No-Knead Bread that Mark Bittman wrote about in the New York Times several years ago, and it only took a little tinkering to get used to the new climate and lack of conventional oven.

It was worth it, though, because bread is not a common thing at my post, and what I can buy is pretty mediocre and has traveled a ways to get there. Now I can have all kinds of delicious and freshly baked breads. I even made a sourdough starter back during hot season (it was so hot in my kitchen that it smelled sour within two days), though I mostly use that as a flavoring when I use it rather than for leavening.  I have also witnessed the look on my teenaged neighbor’s face when I gave her a first taste of sourdough bread and she scrunched up her face and declared (In French, of course) “It’s sour! Did you put lemon in it?” I suppose sourdough, with its history and origins, is a pretty American thing.

So here is my recipe for Dutch oven bread:

3 to 3 ½ cups flour

2 tsp salt

½ tsp yeast

Optional flavorings (sourdough starter, oatmeal, honey, nuts, dried fruit, herbs, etc.)

Water as needed (start with about a cup)

Combine the flour, salt, yeast, and any optional flavorings and mix. Add water and knead it together until it forms a somewhat shaggy dough (it should stick to itself more than it sticks to you). Then, cover the bowl with big plastic bag so the dough doesn’t dry out, and let it rise in a warm part of your kitchen for about 8 hours or overnight. One it had risen it should look something like this:

After the first rise

After the first rise

Next, wet your hands and punch down the dough and knead it just a few times. Now you can shape it however you want. At post I have a small loaf pan that I use, so I grease the loaf pan with some oil and put the dough in there for the final rise. If I don’t have a loaf pan available, though, I just grease whatever flat pan I have, shape the dough into a boule, and place it on the pan seam side down like so:

A shaped boule

A shaped boule

The final rise should take about 2 hours more, until the dough has almost doubled in size again. About a half hour before you are ready to bake, start to heat up your oven. You want it hot (about 450*F if you have a real oven).

Just before you put the bread in, put about a ¼ cup of water in the bottom of the Dutch oven to create steam (or put a pan of water in the bottom of your regular oven). Bake the bread for about 30 to 45 minutes, until the top starts to get golden. When you take the bread out, the bottom of the loaf or boule should sound hollow.

It will be easier to slice the longer you let it cool, but I usually only last about 20 minutes. There are few things more wonderful than butter melting on freshly baked bread.