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.

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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!

Beaches, Waterfalls, and Fish Mamas

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Hangin’ on the beach in Kribi

Just last night I got back after being away from post for 3 weeks, most of which was spent at an in-service training in a town outside of the capital. It was good to see everyone in my training group again, and less exciting to sit in sessions all day. But after two weeks of boredom punctuated by two intense games of sock assassins, about half of us rewarded ourselves by taking off to Kribi.

Kribi is a beach/port town in the South region of Cameroon, known for having a freshwater waterfall that falls directly into the ocean and also the best seafood in Cameroon. I am going to go ahead and say that from what I have experienced, it also has the best pizza (though unfortunately the night I went they were out of seafood pizza).

Now my favorite Cameroonian dish by far is definitely poisson braisé (which, from what I can find on the Internet, is called “burning fish” in Anglophone Cameroon). It is basically just a whole fish cleaned, scaled, and brushed with a spice mixture before being grilled over hot coals and served with more spice mixture, piment sauce, and sometimes mayonnaise and/or baton de manioc on the side. Yes, the head is still attached, and plenty of Cameroonians will tell you that the head is the best part. Poisson braisé is not available at my post, where fish that isn’t smoked or dried is rarely ever seen. In cities with bar neighborhoods, however, it is typical to see fish mamas set up along the street waiting for you to pick out one of their fish for them to grill up and bring to your table in whatever bar you’ve decided to sit in and order a beer or soft drink.

My first poisson braisé experience in Kribi was like this, making it similar to several nights in Garoua, except that the fish mama had a much wider selection of fish (barracuda, anyone?), all of which had probably still been swimming that morning. And then we found the fish market. This is where you can find fishermen emptying nets full of fresh fish onto cement slabs ready to sell to the crowds, as well as a whole bunch of fish mamas set up with their own tables looking out on the marina, ready to gill some fresh fish. You can choose from the fish the mama already has on hand or go haggle with a fisherman yourself and then just pay a fish mama to cook it for you. A glass of fresh pineapple juice makes the meal complete. I went back the next day, too.

Unfortunately, my last night in Kribi I got sick, and I don’t mean that I had a bit of a cold. I mean standing in the bathroom and trying to decide if the next round would be vomiting or diarrhea sick. 3 month in an out of the way village, and of course the first time I come down with anything more than the sniffles would be in one of the most touristy towns in Cameroon. But hey, I was recovered enough to travel the next morning, and a course of cipro and a lot of white bread and clean water later, I am back at post and eating street food again.

There are some pictures up on Flickr, both of Kribi and my post, including the Youth Day festivities that went on the week before I went to in-service.

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This looks like it could be California, but it is Cameroon, really.

Also, if any of you have been following news of Africa, you should know that I am safe, the kidnappings happened in the Far North and not anywhere near my post, and the Peace Corps is keeping on top of things and being fairly conservative about the safety of volunteers. So in short, there is no need to worry about me, because there are plenty of people in Yaoundé doing it for you!