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.
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.
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.
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.
And then it was goodbye, not just to Barthelemey but to the place that had been my home for almost two years.
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 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.
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.
(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.
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.
As 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.
I think I have alluded to this before, but food can be something of a difficulty at my post, at least if I want to eat well.
The staple of the local cuisine is couscous, which is a ball of starch about the size of a fist or a bit bigger made from corn, rice, cassava, or millet. Corn and rice seem to be the most common varieties where I live (and everyone grows corn). From what I have heard, millet is the norm in most of the Far North region, and cassava is much more common in the Grand South. Couscous is usually served with a sauce and eaten by grabbing chunks with your hands, mushing it with your fingers to make a small spoon-like impression, using it to scoop up the sauce, and then popping the whole thing in your mouth. Where I live the sauce is usually made of some combination of traditional leaves, peanuts, and okra. There might be some meat in there if you can afford it.
If I wanted to eat couscous and sauce every day, I would never have any issues eating in my town. I would never even have to cook. But aside from this diet sometimes being a bit bland and boring for my taste, I sometimes just miss other foods.
The thing is that while my daily market at post (at least I have a daily market!) can be reliably counted on to supply traditional leaves, peanuts, and okra, as well as onion and garlic and often tomatoes (as long as I am not too picky about the quality), there is not that much else available. There is also a vegetable that looks like a giant green tomato that is called aubergine (the French word for eggplant) and is like an especially bitter version of an eggplant. Cameroonians eat them raw like apples, which is so strange to me. In September there was fresh corn, and in February my vegetable selection will improve a bit when lettuce and carrots come into season and I can actually sometimes fine them at post, as well.
As a result, I am constantly bringing food back to my post after trips to Garoua. I can buy rice, flour, and spaghetti at post, but I usually bring back lentils to go with the rice, oatmeal for easy breakfasts at my house (I can usually get eggs at post, too), olive oil (I can get cotton oil at post), soy sauce, spices (ginger is available everywhere in the north, but other things I buy in Garoua), and lots and lots of vegetables. The week after I get back from post I get to eat things like potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, and leeks, but then as it gets further from my last trip to the city my vegetable intake becomes more and more limited to onions and sometimes tomatoes or fried okra (it’s just so slimy prepared any other way).
Last week, however, I had an amazingly good day at the market. The tomatoes looked especially good, so I bought twice as many as I usually do, and there were small bell peppers, which happens occasionally, but not at all often. I was feeling pretty happy with my purchases for the day (which also included onions and garlic, as well as smoked fish for my cat), and was on my way out of the market area when I looked down and saw a pile of eggplants. I stopped and did a double take. These weren’t the squat green aubergines commonly found around the North. These were the long, deep purple vegetables we know and love in America. I bought two. The old woman selling them suggested that I should just buy the whole pile, and I actually stopped to consider it. I was planning a trip to Garoua three days later, though, so it seemed silly to leave a whole pile of eggplants lying around the house while I was gone.