Ethiopia

The main room of a traditional Harari house.

The main room of a traditional Harari house.

 

This post has been a long time in coming.

 

In part this is just because as soon as I got back to the U.S. I just kind of got swept up in readjusting to life back here – buying a car, seeing people, eating food, and looking for a job. Soon the entire African continent seemed so removed from me, both in terms of distance and time. Cameroon feels so long ago, and my trip to East Africa does too.

 

But if I’m completely honest, part of my reluctance to write this post has also stemmed from my inability to decide exactly what I want to say about my trip to Ethiopia.

 

My first meal (besides breakfast) in Addis Ababa.

My first meal (besides breakfast) in Addis Ababa.

 

Buna macchiato

Tasty buna macchiato – coffee with milk.

A large part of why I decided to visit Ethiopia was the food. I’d been enamored of Ethiopian food ever since my first taste back in Switzerland. I mean, what’s not to like about having several tasty vegetarian stews all on one plate for you to scoop up with nothing but your hand and some spongy, sour injera? And on that count, Ethiopia did not disappoint. I ate Ethiopian food at least once each day, every day for two weeks and did not get tired of it. Add in delicious, strong Ethiopian coffee, often for as little as 25-50 cents per cup, and I spent my sojourn in the country constantly buzzed and satisfied.

 

And then there was Ethiopia itself. I’d heard about trips that other Peace Corps Volunteers had taken: Kevin had had a long layover on the way to Kenya and come back talking about what a great city Addis Ababa was, and Laura had gone for a week and come back with fascinating stories about her time in Harar. A quick Google search also showed sights like the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela.

Bete Abba Libanos in Lalibela.

Bete Abba Libanos in Lalibela.

 

An Orthodox priest.

An Orthodox priest.

So I did go to Ethiopia, in particular, Addis Ababa, Lalibela, and Harar. It turns out that if you have an international flight in or out of Ethiopia on Ethiopian Air and you are willing to wait and book your domestic flights in person at one of their offices, the tickets cost less than half as much as they do online.

 

Lalibela is one of the holiest cities in Ethiopia according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is the site of 11 churches cut out ofsolid rock during the reign of the Zagwe emperor Lalibela (at the time the town was known as Roha, instead). They were meant to be a replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia after the real Jerusalem was captured by Muslims in 1187 – there is even a River Jordan in Lalibela, also carved from rock. Seeing all those monolithic carved churches and the pilgrims swaddled in white cotton is an interesting reminder of Christianity’s older roots.

A pilgrim outside of Bete Giyorgis.

A pilgrim outside of Bete Giyorgis.

 

I was in Lalibela during the Ethiopian Orthodox holiday of Meskel (usually September 27th on the Gregorian calendar), which commemorates the finding of the true cross – that is, the one on which Jesus was crucified. This meant that not only were there a lot of pilgrims from surrounding villages in town, but a big celebration on the eve of the holiday with a big bonfire that morning.

The aftermath of the main bonfire.

The aftermath of the main bonfire.

 

Harar, on the other hand, is the most significant Muslim city in the country, and apparently considered by some to be the 4th holiest city in Islam. It’s a walled city on a hilltop with over 80 mosques within the walls of Harar’s old town. In Harar I saw sights like a man hand-feeding wild hyenas and another sheep being sacrificed for Tabaski (see also: Le Fête de Mouton), though I completely failed at finding the main celebration for the holiday.

 

The Harar hyena man.

The Harar hyena man.

 

I have to admit, though, that despite all that I saw in Lalibela and Harar, Addis Ababa was my favorite of the places that I visited in Ethiopia. Addis doesn’t have the magnificent monolithic churches of Lalibela, nor does it have the narrow winding alleys of Harar’s walled city, and the price of its taxis gave me a renewed appreciation of Yaoundé’s taxi system. But having just spent those two years in Cameroon, I could definitely appreciate Addis Ababa’s amenities. The inexpensive day spas, the froyo place complete with free wifi, the food, and oh my goodness, the food, both Ethiopian and otherwise. It’s an African metropolis that is modernizing very quickly.

 

But the other thing that really set Addis Ababa apart from both Lalibela and Harar was my experience just walking down the street.

 

You see, a white woman in a country like Cameroon or Ethiopia is bound to stand out a bit. And how people respond when they see a white woman varies from person to person and place to place. In Cameroon, the East, West, Center, and South regions were ones where non-black Peace Corps Volunteers in particular expect more harassment than in the Grand North or anglophone regions.

 

In Addis Ababa, I was actually surprised by how little harassment I experienced. In Lalibela and Harar, however, harassment was an almost constant part of the experience. To be fair, the vast majority of people yelling at me seemed to be going in the direction of wanting to be my guide, and as far as stereotyping based on appearance goes, “rich tourist” is pretty positive and certainly not completely untrue. But when people are yelling at you constantly, and you don’t know which ones are going to go from “you need guide?” one second, to an offer to “help” me by marrying me, or occasionally much worse, the next second, it gets exhausting very quickly. The Peace Corps Volunteers I met in Addis told me that sometimes the harassment even goes as far as people throwing rocks, but fortunately this wasn’t something I encountered.

 

I am glad that I went to Ethiopia, but I’ll also admit that by the time I was boarding a plane to leave the country, I was very ready to be going home.

 

Ethiopian coffee

All set to brew some Ethiopian coffee.

 

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Another Year

(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.

The road to my post late one afternoon.

The road to my post late one afternoon.

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.

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.

Official Celebrations Big and Small

Here in Cameroon there seems to be an endless parade of national and international holidays to celebrate. Some I had at least heard of before. International Women’s Day? Ok, yes, that’s a much bigger deal in a lot of countries that are not the USA. Some I had never actually heard of before coming here and was a little skeptical about. International Bilingualism Day? Is that a thing? I was told that yes, it is an international holiday because Canada is also bilingual. I have no idea if Canadians actually know about this one. Some of them are understandably more important in the Cameroonian context. World AIDS Day? Yeah, I am glad that is at least recognized here, since any opportunity for education on that topic is welcome.

One morning a few weeks ago I woke up to a text about a holiday that I had not even heard about from any Cameroonians until that moment. The delegation for the Ministry of the Woman and the Family was hosting a round table discussion that afternoon in honor of International Family Day. Apparently that is a thing, too.

International Family Day did not actually seem like a huge deal at my post. Nothing was closed and there were no big parties that day, at least not for Family Day. There was just the round table discussion at city hall.

The topic of the discussion was social integration and intergenerational solidarity. The speakers all began after the fashion of many middle school speeches: by defining the individual words that made up the stated topic, starting with the word “social,” an adjective that comes from the word “society,” and so on. They went on to talk about things like reaching across tribal or religious affiliations and being open to the wisdom of older generations.

After an hour or two of this, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. The very first was from an older man sitting right in front of me, who I gathered was a delegate from some ministry or another. His question? Why is it the Ministry for the Woman and the Family? Isn’t the woman already part of the family? What about men? Now I could go on about the place of women in Cameroonian society, but that is not this post. Suffice it to say for now that women in Cameroon, and the Grand North in particular, are marginalized in a way that men are not, and it certainly does not bother me if the Ministry pays them some special attention.

This small recognition of International Family Day was overshadowed, however, by preparations for National Unification Day, commonly referred to simply as May 20th. This is pretty much the biggest holiday in Cameroon. The whole week before the day was marked by things like soccer tournaments and cultural soirées.

The day itself, like all the big official holidays in Cameroon, is kicked off with a parade. Having already been to the Youth Day parade on February 11th, this time I knew better than to show up at 8 a.m. (In my defense, I had been given an invitation to that one that said 8 a.m.) On Youth day they had still been decorating the pavilion and setting up chairs for the invitees when I got there, the first of the invitees. On May 20th I Instead got to the busy stadium around 9:30 and was shown to a seat under the pavilion, because as a Peace Corps Volunteer and white person I am one of the lucky ones who get a shaded chair. Then the lamidos from my town and the surrounding villages started arriving, wearing big robes and surrounded by their notables and accompanied by traditional horn players. A little after 10 a.m. the Prefet got there, and the event could officially start.

The parade went much like the parade for Youth Day, and I imagine Women’s Day, though I did not actually attend that one. The only big difference is what groups march. On Youth Day it was mostly just all the schools and training centers. I believe Women’s Day was mostly Women’s Associations. For May 20th, it is all of the above, but starting off with every military or law enforcement group in the area marching in full uniform, often with rifles strapped across their chests, and saluting the pavilion as they go by. I was a little disappointed that the preschools didn’t march with the rest of the schools like they had for youth day, because even though it is disconcerting that they are taught to march like that at such a young age, they are adorable while doing it.

The rest of the day was hordes of people milling around the stadium, buying from all the food venders, and then more sporting events later in the afternoon. All in all, a big official Cameroonian holiday.

The Lamido/Mayor about to accept a medal before the parade.

Holidays and Travel in Cameroon

First view of the Grand North

This is the view in the morning on the overnight train from Yaounde to Ngaoundere.

So it has now been two months since I first got to my post. Sorry about that. I suppose I have not been the best blogger so far. In my defense, the Internet has been difficult, lately.

I possibly have not been the best Peace Corps Volunteer either, since I have also already left my post three times since I first got to it. Fortunately for me, traveling over the holidays seems to be pretty standard in Cameroon. Government workers, who are often posted far from home for work, get a month off every year. Those that can afford it often use their month of vacation all at once to see their families for the holidays. So, even though my new town is mostly Muslim, people are not particularly surprised to hear that I’ll be away for a few days for Christmas or New Years – both national holidays.

The first time I left post, however, was not actually for a national holiday, but instead for a cultural festival in Guider. Guider is a small city about halfway in between Garoua and Maroua, but still in the North Region. The trip involved watching some cultural dances and rituals that led into the festival, as well as a visit to the nearby Gorges de Kola – awesome rock formations that are apparently completely covered by water in the wet season.

I spent Christmas in Garoua with other Volunteers. We made a feast in the Peace Corps office on Christmas Eve and read Christmas stories. On Christmas morning we had a white elephant gift exchange followed by an awesome brunch involving homemade Dutch oven bagels.

For New Years I went to Lagdo, another town in the North Region. It is located next to Lake Lagdo, a large man-made (by the Chinese) lake that provides power and fish for most of the region. There are currently three Volunteers posted there, and one of them was nice enough to host all the Volunteers from my training group who are in the North Region in a night of Mexican food and New Years fun.

All this travel has left me a lot more confident about how to get around Cameroon, at least in the Grand North. I have found that even if it is not always easy to get directly from one place to another here, it is just a matter of finding a way to your next turn or intersection, where you can then find a way to the next. This is less complicated than it probably sounds; there aren’t actually that many turns or intersections to deal with. When I leave Garoua to return to my post, it is just a matter of getting on a bus going south toward Ngaoundere, and making sure the bus driver knows at which intersection I’ll be getting off, about halfway along. Then, at that stop, it is simple enough to find a ride going the whole rest of the way along the one road to my post. It is normal for cars and buses to stop along the way from one destination to the next to let people on or off. It is just a matter of planning , as with many things in Cameroon, plenty of buffer time for when things take a little longer than you think they should – as well as excepting cramped quarters and that at least one of your fellow passengers may well be a live chicken.

Just today I got back from Garoua again for a trip to the bank and a regional meeting (and the Internet was down the whole time I was there). On Thursday I made it from my post to the city in record time – about three hours. And half of the trip was even spent in the height of comfort on Cameroonian public transportation: an aisle seat on a big Touristique bus. Today I got lucky again, but the trip back has taken up to seven hours. Delays so far have included waiting for the next bus that is not already full to leave Garoua (I have waited 3 hours at the bus station), waiting for flat tires to be fixed, or just having found myself in an excruciatingly slow-moving minibus crammed between other passengers sitting 5 to a row in rows built for four.