Dialoguing between the Genders in Cameroon’s North

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

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

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

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

And it was definitely an interesting three days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Beginning of the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wild, Wild East

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

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

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Lomié, East. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

A Baka encampment. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

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

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

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shannon after climbing into one of the huge trees.

Shannon after climbing into one of the huge trees.

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

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

And that night I slept amazingly well.

Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

A baobab tree. Photo credit: Shannon Clawson

Starting a Girls Club and Learning to Say No

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Barthelemy and I interviewing a family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

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.


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

By Request

So I have had a couple of requests to write more about my work at post here in this blog. The truth of the matter, however, is that things are just really slow to move along around these parts. The first three months at post are supposed to be for integrating into the community and for needs assessment, rather than starting new projects. Really I was mostly just overwhelmed by the whole moving to an African village all on my own thing. At the beginning there were days when buying beans and beignets for breakfast and then swinging by the daily market felt like a big accomplishment.

I have been here at post for a little over five months, now, though, and things are starting to come together more. Going to the market is not intimidating, I am getting more adventurous in trying new street foods, and even more importantly, I am finding more people to work with. I mean, I am not just here to eat koki and buy pagne, though I have done a lot of both.

The contact I am probably most excited about at this point is the director of the Youth Center here in town. The center currently has about 18 students, for lack of a better word, enrolled in a two year program to train out-of-school youth in things like literacy (French, English, math), technical skills (sewing, business planning), and health education (reproductive health, HIV/AIDS/STIs). I have taken over their English classes, since they had no one else to teach it, and I plan to start teaching life skills classes there as well. The director also actually has plans for other projects, and showed me his schedule of what he wanted to accomplish during the current trimester. He was already a little bit behind, but having plans and a schedule still puts him ahead of the curve around here.

I have also met with the director of the Women’s Center, as well as attended a few meetings of different women’s associations. My impression is that they tend to involve a lot of arguing about money, often followed by food and drink. I have a presentation on goal setting planned for later this month with the widows’ association, so hopefully that is fruitful.

The director of the Government Bilingual Secondary School I actually first met with back before In-Service Training. When I met with him again more recently to discuss what material I wanted to cover with his students, he was very adamant about how I shouldn’t just teach them to abandon their own culture and be like Europeans (I assume he meant Westerners in general). I assured him that the sessions I conducted would be based in local culture. He also wanted me to stress the importance of abstinence and denounce homosexuality as immoral and illegal. I had a cold at the time and was not really in the mood, but I diplomatically told him that if I talked about sex I would include a session on delaying sex and that I had not planned to bring up homosexuality (the reality being that it is illegal). That, however, is a bridge to cross next school year, since classes will basically be over in two weeks’ time.

I did have my first sessions at the bilingual school yesterday, on talking about what the kids wanted their lives to look like in 15 years. It was a struggle to get them to think abstractly, and most students just answered the very specific questions that I asked (What job do you want to have? Do you want to be married? Where do you want to live?), some more seriously than others. The anglophone class was much easier to manage, less because of the language, and more because there were only 8 students and a smaller age range. The francophone class must have been closer to 40 students, aged 11 to 25, all seemingly unable to resist talking to whoever was seated next to them.

In the afternoon, when I was teaching English at the Youth Center, I couldn’t help but be grateful for how orderly the out-of-school youths there were. Again, there were probably only about 10 students present in that first year class, and all closer in age, but there they were, learning about possessive adjectives in appropriate silence and responding when called on. Tomorrow, however, it will be back into the trenches of the Government Bilingual Secondary School, francophone class first.