Calling It

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.

Delicious gumbo with rice couscous.

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.

What used to be a bridge.

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.

Waiting for the sun to rise on the last morning at post.

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

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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 Innocent Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Fête de Mouton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rams, post-sacrifice, with the Cameroonian dagger

The rams, post-sacrifice, with the Cameroonian dagger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot season is winding down.

The plumeria are in bloom around Garoua.

The plumeria are in bloom around Garoua.

I’m in Garoua again for a meeting later this morning. It is amazing the change in weather just between here and my post.

At my post, hot season is already winding down. The market is still full of mangoes, and most days still feel hot and dry, but the rains that started as a teasing five minute sprinkle at the beginning of April have slowly become heavier and more frequent. They bring a brief respite in the form of cooler temperatures and fresher feeling air, but the heat is usually back a day later, often with a touch (or maybe an uncomfortable slap) of humidity. Still, either the temperatures are starting to trend down down, or I am getting more used to the heat. Or maybe visiting Garoua just makes my post seem cooler by comparison. It is pretty much the hottest place in Cameroon.

Two nights ago I was on the phone with someone who was in Ngaoundere, where is was pouring rain. The power was out at my house, and it was getting dark, so I was sitting on my porch where there was still a bit of light left, and watching the storm clouds gather in the sky, the winds already making the temperature drop more quickly than most evenings (to really pleasant, no cold). An hour or so later, the rain started coming down, leading the the biggest storm so far this season. I went to sleep to the sound of rain pounding on my tin roof.

The next morning it had stopped, all the better for traveling. They have been working on the road between my post and the main road, and it has gotten a lot better, but it is not paved yet. Still, I got to Garoua in my fastest time yet: just under three hours. I asked people here if they had had rain the night before, and to my surprise I was told that no, the rain did not make it up to Garoua.

All I can say is thank goodness for the air conditioning in the Garoua office. That, and the fast wifi.