Poli, North

A view of the Grand Mosque and town center from Town Hall.

Poli is a town with a population between 8,500 and 9,000 in the Faro Division, in the North Region of Cameroon. It was also my home for almost two years.

The Town Hall itself. This new building was constructed during my time in Poli.

The entrance to the Lamido’s compound. A Lamido is a Muslim traditional leader (and in Poli’s case, also the Mayor).

The daily market.

The Youth Center.

This is how people in Poli get water.

And a neighbor’s house (typical for the North).

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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.

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?

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.

Malaria

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.

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.