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.

Eggplants!

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.

Oh, Africa.

I got back to Cameroon two weeks ago, spent several days in Yaoundé seeing friends posted in other regions, then took the train up to Ngaoundéré, spent a couple days there, and then finally got back to my post a week ago. Other volunteers have been asking me how I felt about coming back (and another Volunteer from my training group in my region went home around the same time as me and then just didn’t get on his flight back), and for the most part it feels pretty good. Of course, I eased into it by spending some extra time in the capital and was actually pretty tired of it by the time I left. It was nice to finally get back to my own house, with my own space a week after getting back to the country.

That isn’t to say that it was all roses all the time. My bank did manage to welcome me back to the country with an ATM that ate my card that Tuesday morning. I marched into the bank building, told a woman behind a desk what had happened, and in true Cameroonian fashion she immediately tried to pin it on me. Did I put in the wrong PIN? No, I explained, I had successfully entered my PIN and checked my balance before the machine ate my card. She told me to come back tomorrow and she would be able to get me back my card back to me. I then told her that I had been trying to take out my money because I actually needed it, so that I could do things like buy a train ticket, since I lived in the North, and no, I did not have my account information, since it was at my house in the North and I had not anticipated needing it. She was eventually able to look up my account with my ID card and a few other pieces of information, and asked me how much I would like to withdraw. Not having a great deal of confidence in her promise that my ATM card would soon be returned to me, I opted to withdraw most of my money right then.

That is when I found out: but Madame, she replied, you do not have that much in your account. I came around her desk and looked at the screen in front of her. Along with the rest of my account information it showed my balance from the close of the day before as well as my current balance. The difference between the two was the amount I had been trying to withdraw from the ATM, which was, as it happened, a little over half my money. I was freaking out a little bit about this. I had no idea if I would even get the money back in the long run, and in the short run, train tickets are expensive, you guys.

I ended up having to write a letter to the bank explaining what had happened, and agonized over writing a formal letter explaining what had happened in French for way too long. When I brought it back to the bank the woman who had been helping me all along told me it would have been better if I had written it by hand. Nonetheless, she stamped it since all official documents in Cameroon must be covered in stamps, and put it in a pile.

I did eventually manage to get my ATM card back on that Friday before getting on the train in the evening, so no waiting in line for a teller for me. The money I had been able to get out was enough for me to get back to post, live there for a week, and then get to Garoua for banking now that we have been paid again, though it was closer than I usually like to get. And today, when I went to the bank, I had some more good news: they gave me my money back! It was all there in my account, along with my living allowance for September.

As I was leaving the bank I thought to myself how impressed I was that it had all been sorted out so quickly. After all, I had been expecting it to take at least a month for my money to make its way back to me, and it only took about a week and a half – maybe even less, since I hadn’t bothered to check before. Then I realized: my money shouldn’t have been taken away from my in the first place.

The Republic of Cameroon: lowering expectations since 1960.

America!

I arrived back in the land of supermarkets and hot and cold running water (that you can drink right out of the tap!) for my two week summer vacation two Fridays ago on July 26th. Since then I have developed a sort of elevator pitch explanation in response to the constant asking of the same questions by different people (So how do you like Africa? What exactly do you do there? What is the food like?). It has been pretty gratifying, though, to hear a lot of people tell me that they’ve been reading this blog – so thanks, guys, even those of you who don’t comment!

I have also constantly stuffed my face with bagels and cream cheese, sushi, Mexican food, and many other delicious things I hadn’t seen for a while.

A California burrito in California

A California burrito in California

Last Tuesday I drove down to Santa Monica to meet my friend, Kellye, and go have an open air food truck dinner. As we sat on the grass and munched on El Salvadorian street food and Sweet Arlene’s cupcakes, one of her industry friends came to join us. It came up that I had been in Cameroon with the Peace Corps for the last ten months, and he asked me whether I was now disgusted by American excess and consumerism. I responded almost immediately: “But I love it!”

Pretty soon the conversation moved on, but I continued to ponder the question. Ok, it was probably a little silly that we were sitting on a nice lawn in an area that gets far less annual rainfall than the North of Cameroon, and I had been constantly astounded by the amount of packaging that comes with seemingly everything in America (having no trash pickup for a few months will really make you notice that sort of thing). And it probably is excessive to have a separate car on the road for every adult that can drive – but how often have I wished for my own car and the right to drive while in Cameroon? (Answer: pretty often.) I’m not saying that the American way of life is perfect, but it sure is comfortable, and it’s home, and boy do I find myself missing it sometimes.

Last Friday I saw a friend from high school (and middle school, and oh yeah, we went to the same elementary school, too!) get married, and it was beautiful, and even more friends were in town for the wedding. By now Mary and Barry are off on their honeymoon in Italy. Best wishes to both of them! As for me, I am currently enjoying my second week in America on a family vacation in Hawaii before I start the trip back to Cameroon on Sunday.

To answer that first questions (How do you like Africa?): it is in turns really amazing and really frustrating. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t go back, but I also know I’ll be missing life here in America when I do.

Periods of Inactivity

On the way back from the market

My walk back to town from the weekly market

I have a small confession: I have done almost no work so far this month. I had plans, oh yes I did. I rushed back to post after the National Girls Forum (instead of, say, traveling to parts of Cameroon I have not yet seen) with the expectation that I had a busy month ahead of me. The Youth Center I have been working with had gotten funding from the mayor’s office for its summer activities a few weeks before, the activities were to be launched on July the 4th, there was a lot of planning still to be done, and I was going to help as a member of the center’s staff. There was going to be a reforestation program, sports tournaments, leadership training, and workshops on HIV/AIDS and reproductive health. I was excited to be involved.

My counterpart, the director of the youth center, came back to post after NGF on July the 1st, only to be immediately summoned back to Garoua by his boss. That was a long day of travel for him.  I did actually do some work on July the 2nd, when my counterpart and I met with people at city hall and wrote a speech for the Prefet to give during the opening ceremony two days later. (When I say that we wrote it, I mean that I mostly just took dictation, as the only person present that had grown up in a society where children often learn touch typing in primary school. It is not an exaggeration to say that many Cameroonians would have no idea how to turn on a computer, and those that do tend to slowly pick away at the keyboard. Even with my numerous errors in French grammar and orthography, this was a way to speed the process.) The next day, I waited patiently for a phone call from my counterpart, who was still waiting to meet with the mayor himself, to be summoned to meet with him for more planning and work. When the phone call finally did come that afternoon, it served only to tell me that the launch ceremony the next day had been cancelled, and that my counterpart would be going back to Garoua instead.

This didn’t make my 4th of July a total bust. Rather it meant that I could leave post in the morning rather than waiting until after the ceremony to go celebrate America’s fête national with other Volunteers. We grilled cheeseburgers and made potato salad, ranch dip and guacamole with veggies, and apple pie, then toasted the US of A late into the night.

Then on July the 5th I woke to find that I had nothing to do with myself for the rest of the month, save wait to hear from my counterpart who was soon on his way back south to Yaoundé. I would be heading south myself to head back to the US for a bit of a vacation in a few weeks, so I wasn’t about to try and start anything.

On Monday it rained for most of the day, which is to say that I stayed inside, drank hot chocolate, and watched a season of Portlandia.  It is Ramadan now, though to be quite frank, only a little over half of my town is Muslim, and they can’t just stop working the fields now that it’s rainy season, so the holy month has not slowed things as much as I thought it might. Still, nothing really happens in Cameroon when it rains. Meetings get cancelled, children skip school (though school is out by now), and people generally stay in.

My cell network wasn’t letting me make calls for most of the day, even though my phone claimed that I had several bars, but I eventually got through to my counterpart. He is back in town, and was hoping to meet with the mayor the next day, and then he would call me and we can get back to work.

I finally heard from him this morning. He still has not been able to meet with the mayor. I have to admit I am a little less optimistic this time around, but hey, it might work out, even if it doesn’t happen before I leave for my vacation in a week.

How I Became a Cat Lady

Many who know me will be surprised at that title. After all, I have never been much of a cat person before. It’s not that I didn’t like cats; it’s just that I preferred dogs, which also tended to be less likely to cause me a case of sniffles and itching. So how did this happen?

The thing is, my house has had a problem with mice. Especially at night I would sometimes see them scurrying around, quickly running to hide when I turned on the light in my kitchen. They pooped everywhere, and they got into my food. I’m sure everyone thinks their mice are particularly awful, and maybe I am deluding myself, too – but they would not only get into my dry goods, like the lentils or split peas I had brought back from Garoua, but also nibble at raw onions and devour whole piment peppers.

Napping in a medium sized flat rate box

Napping in a medium sized flat rate box

Enter Couscous. He had belonged to a Volunteer in Garoua until she ended her service and went back to America in May. The Volunteer that inherited her house also inherited the cat with it. Couscous, however, is pretty needy for a cat. He will follow his human everywhere around the house and cries to get attention. So the new Volunteer announced at June’s regional meeting that things just weren’t working out between them, and that Couscous needed a new home.

Couscous came fixed and with flea medication, along with the promise that, yes, he does know how to hunt. He is also miraculously white and big for a Cameroonian cat (which is to say normal sized for an American cat). I said I would take him the next time I was in Garoua after National Girls Forum.

He cried in his crate the whole time I was packing the rest of my things, but amazingly enough was mostly quiet once we were on the road. The crying resumed as soon as we were at my house, until I could get the wires holding the crate closed untwisted. By that evening I was sure that yes, I was a little bit allergic to him, but fortunately the symptoms seem too have mostly subsided by now. That night, he vomited on my dirty laundry pile. I think he’s starting to learn that he is not allowed in my bedroom, but he still likes to cry when I am in there without him.

I am also well on my way to becoming a woman who talks to her cat more than any one human person (See: Loneliness and Alone Time at Post).

It was all worth it, though, when I saw him kill and eat a mouse the morning after coming to his new home.

National Girls Forum

Volunteers, counterparts, and girls on the beach in Kribi.

Volunteers, counterparts, and girls on the beach in Kribi.

The 2013 National Girls Forum was the reason for my second trip to the Grand South of the country since I first went to post at the end of November. This time I got to invite both a counterpart and a Cameroonian girl to come with me to the beach town of Kribi for the forum.

The theme for this year’s NGF was keeping girls in school. This is a theme particularly relevant to the Grand North of the country, where girls often don’t start, let alone finish, school. In some more conservative communities, women never even leave the family compound, and need permission from their husbands or fathers if they do. My town is not actually very conservative for the North region, but two of the secondary schools in my community have girls as only about 30% of their enrollment. I have also heard of schools in the North where the enrollment is closer to 15% female.

The forum featured topics like working with parents and communities in a conservative environment, helping girls feel empowered, activities to raise money for school fees, and HIV/AIDS education. It is always a little hit or miss when it comes to the quality of presentations for these things, but some of them where really good, and I am hoping that my counterpart and I can put some of those ideas into practice in the coming school year.

My favorite part of the trip, however, was seeing most of the girls and many of the counterparts who had never seen the ocean before touch it for the first time, some timidly, some shrieking half the time, others with a gusto that had a lot of us Volunteers looking on with worry as they played in the strong waves. On the last night that we were all in Kribi, we built a fire on the beach just across the street from our hotel and danced as we sang (often hastily translated) camp songs at the top of our lungs.

IMG_0493

It’s so easy to find good food in Kribi, too – this restaurant was great!

Loneliness and Alone Time at Post

Some of my neighbor children hanging out in my doorway

Some of my neighbor children hanging out in my doorway

When I first got to my post I had a lot of people who came by my house asking me if I lived there all by myself. At first I was reluctant to answer that yes, one would be able to find me in my house alone and asleep at night, but after a while I started to realize why people found my situation so curious.

You see, one of my teenage neighbors also comes to visit me pretty often, sometimes just to say hi, or sometimes to hang out and chat, play cards, or read. Her questioning about my living situation has gotten a bit more direct: don’t you get lonely always in your house by yourself? I always reply by assuring her that no, I do not mind spending time alone, that I am used to it.

The thing is that in Cameroon very few people actually live alone. The few people I know who are unmarried and living away from their parents are men who are in my town for work, since government workers can be “affected” to anywhere in the country and are just expected to go where they are told. As far as I can tell, these men rent rooms in other families’ houses or compounds. In some cases I know men who live and work at my post, while their wives and families are in a city like Garoua or Yaoundé. They often sleep in their offices. I do not know of any other one person in town who lives in a house by themselves.

Add in the facts that that the families are so much bigger and the houses are so much smaller here, and you can see how the idea of alone time might seem a little strange. The affected government workers who rent rooms actually probably get a lot more of it than the average Cameroonian, what with having a whole room, however small, entirely to themselves.

If I am being completely honest, though, I do sometimes get lonely at post. It’s not an overabundance of alone time that bothers me, though. After all, I do have a lot of very friendly neighbors and other friends to visit and be visited by, and it is true that as an American (and self-confessed introvert) I am used to some time alone. What I don’t have is people that speak my language – or at least not at a level that makes conversation flow easily. What I don’t have is people who immediately get my cultural references, and I theirs. I don’t have people who understand what my life was like in the US and the infinite small ways it is different here.

I am not writing about any sort of crushing loneliness with no respite. In fact, when I do have alone time, and especially electricity and cell service, I can immerse myself in my own culture through TV shows on my laptop, phone calls, and sometimes even Internet. I see other American volunteers every couple of weeks on trips to cities. I am told that the Peace Corps might even be sending me a post mate in a couple of months.

The loneliness is very manageable, but it is there.