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