National Girls Forum

Volunteers, counterparts, and girls on the beach in Kribi.

Volunteers, counterparts, and girls on the beach in Kribi.

The 2013 National Girls Forum was the reason for my second trip to the Grand South of the country since I first went to post at the end of November. This time I got to invite both a counterpart and a Cameroonian girl to come with me to the beach town of Kribi for the forum.

The theme for this year’s NGF was keeping girls in school. This is a theme particularly relevant to the Grand North of the country, where girls often don’t start, let alone finish, school. In some more conservative communities, women never even leave the family compound, and need permission from their husbands or fathers if they do. My town is not actually very conservative for the North region, but two of the secondary schools in my community have girls as only about 30% of their enrollment. I have also heard of schools in the North where the enrollment is closer to 15% female.

The forum featured topics like working with parents and communities in a conservative environment, helping girls feel empowered, activities to raise money for school fees, and HIV/AIDS education. It is always a little hit or miss when it comes to the quality of presentations for these things, but some of them where really good, and I am hoping that my counterpart and I can put some of those ideas into practice in the coming school year.

My favorite part of the trip, however, was seeing most of the girls and many of the counterparts who had never seen the ocean before touch it for the first time, some timidly, some shrieking half the time, others with a gusto that had a lot of us Volunteers looking on with worry as they played in the strong waves. On the last night that we were all in Kribi, we built a fire on the beach just across the street from our hotel and danced as we sang (often hastily translated) camp songs at the top of our lungs.

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

Beaches, Waterfalls, and Fish Mamas

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Hangin’ on the beach in Kribi

Just last night I got back after being away from post for 3 weeks, most of which was spent at an in-service training in a town outside of the capital. It was good to see everyone in my training group again, and less exciting to sit in sessions all day. But after two weeks of boredom punctuated by two intense games of sock assassins, about half of us rewarded ourselves by taking off to Kribi.

Kribi is a beach/port town in the South region of Cameroon, known for having a freshwater waterfall that falls directly into the ocean and also the best seafood in Cameroon. I am going to go ahead and say that from what I have experienced, it also has the best pizza (though unfortunately the night I went they were out of seafood pizza).

Now my favorite Cameroonian dish by far is definitely poisson braisé (which, from what I can find on the Internet, is called “burning fish” in Anglophone Cameroon). It is basically just a whole fish cleaned, scaled, and brushed with a spice mixture before being grilled over hot coals and served with more spice mixture, piment sauce, and sometimes mayonnaise and/or baton de manioc on the side. Yes, the head is still attached, and plenty of Cameroonians will tell you that the head is the best part. Poisson braisé is not available at my post, where fish that isn’t smoked or dried is rarely ever seen. In cities with bar neighborhoods, however, it is typical to see fish mamas set up along the street waiting for you to pick out one of their fish for them to grill up and bring to your table in whatever bar you’ve decided to sit in and order a beer or soft drink.

My first poisson braisé experience in Kribi was like this, making it similar to several nights in Garoua, except that the fish mama had a much wider selection of fish (barracuda, anyone?), all of which had probably still been swimming that morning. And then we found the fish market. This is where you can find fishermen emptying nets full of fresh fish onto cement slabs ready to sell to the crowds, as well as a whole bunch of fish mamas set up with their own tables looking out on the marina, ready to gill some fresh fish. You can choose from the fish the mama already has on hand or go haggle with a fisherman yourself and then just pay a fish mama to cook it for you. A glass of fresh pineapple juice makes the meal complete. I went back the next day, too.

Unfortunately, my last night in Kribi I got sick, and I don’t mean that I had a bit of a cold. I mean standing in the bathroom and trying to decide if the next round would be vomiting or diarrhea sick. 3 month in an out of the way village, and of course the first time I come down with anything more than the sniffles would be in one of the most touristy towns in Cameroon. But hey, I was recovered enough to travel the next morning, and a course of cipro and a lot of white bread and clean water later, I am back at post and eating street food again.

There are some pictures up on Flickr, both of Kribi and my post, including the Youth Day festivities that went on the week before I went to in-service.

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This looks like it could be California, but it is Cameroon, really.

Also, if any of you have been following news of Africa, you should know that I am safe, the kidnappings happened in the Far North and not anywhere near my post, and the Peace Corps is keeping on top of things and being fairly conservative about the safety of volunteers. So in short, there is no need to worry about me, because there are plenty of people in Yaoundé doing it for you!

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.

Into the West

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The CIBAEEVA Orphanage in Dschang

Last weekend the Youth Development trainees got to go on a one night field trip to the West Region of Cameroon. So last Friday after lunch we piled into a little bus and were on our way to spend the night in Bafoussam, the regional capital. The bus was a hot tin can until we opened some windows and let the wind blow in our faces. The landscape was green with periodic patches of burgundy soil.

We didn’t have anything in particular planned for our evening in Bafoussam, but the cooler Western air was a welcomed change to our Bafia routine, as were the shawarma sandwiches and fries we got for dinner, and the hotel showers. Really though, that shower was amazing: warm with just enough shower pressure. My hair felt so clean after mine. Kevin took two.

The next morning it was back into the bus, and farther into the West Region until we got to a town called Dschang (as far as I can tell the D and S are silent). In Dschang we were able to visit the CIBAEEVA Orphanage, which was started by a Cameroonian school teacher and cares for many children from the community whose parents are either dead or, more often, unable to care for them. CIBAEEVA keeps the kids in school, as well as giving them a place to eat in sleep, and here in Cameroon school can be expensive. Even if there are no fees for government primary schools, there are often mandatory PTA fees, and books and uniforms have to be bought, too.

Next on the itinerary was a cultural museum, also in Dschang. I thought it was very well put together, but after learning about the orphanage and playing with the kids, it was almost noon by the time we got to the museum, and we had to get back to Bafoussam before we could have lunch. Then it was back to the hot, humid heat of Bafia. Of course Cameroon would just start to get hotter in November.

I did upload pictures of the trip to my Flickr photostream a few days ago. In case anyone hasn’t figured it out yet, you can find the link to that by scrolling to the top of this page and clicking on the link that says “Pictures.” If anyone is still having trouble, though, let me know.