Friday, June 25, 2010

Purple Rain, Candy Coated Raindrops

The clouds that appeared out of a blue sunny sky in under an hour's time looked as if they would open up and give my village relief, but I knew better than to trust dark grey clouds. The day before the winds picked up, tossing pagne skirts and spraying dust into our eyes. Lightening lit up the sky Las Vegas style while thunder grumbled in the bellies of the clouds. This theater started up around noon time, a very convincing act that fooled me two other times that day into thinking we were finally getting some relief from the two week long draught we are still suffering from. I am concerned and at times I think I might be more concerned than the villagers. I wake hoping the sky is already filled with clouds, make periodic checks during the day and am developing a cramp in my neck from looking up too often. I use to get excited at the sight of clouds, but now the numerous false alarms have turned me rather pessimistic and cynical. I use to be the one telling my neighbors that it looks like rain, but now when they tell me rain is on the way I just laugh and say "I'll believe it when I see it." Villagers are remaining calm even though some of them are in danger of losing their crops and may have to replant if they have the ability and resources. Even though I am a health volunteer the lack of rain also affects my work. Fewer water sources means more water contamination, more people sick with diarrhea and worms, but it also means I have to hold off on my nutrition project where I will be planting a variety of tree who's leaves have the capability to end malnutrition in my village.

The first time I brought up the subject of rain it was with my counterpart's wife. Fadimatou is a fairly young girl probably in her late teens or early twenties (most people don't know their exact ages) who I have often talked to about many cultural aspects of Cameroonian village life and American culture. She, like many Mandamans, believes in sorcery and sorcerers who according to her are now at work preventing the rain from falling on Mandama. My first reactions to sorcery after settling in Mandama was to nod and change the subject, later when my French got better I started to explain that I didn't believe it to be real, but now after my almost two years here I am starting to understand its importance in village life. I must confess that when I came to Mandama I was chalk full of ideas and a vision of how this volunteer thing should be carried out and started out on a path that I laid down without even knowing the terrain. You have already heard of some of my failures and frustrations and it was these that have led me to be more cautious and speculative. I have found that after my deflation I was able to see my village more clearly; I became more content to sit around and ask questions, observe and learn. When the conversation of sorcery came up this time I set in on Fadimatou who is a person whom always tries to find answers to my questions and whom I love to push to think critically and objectively during our conversations. I asked every question I could think to ask: Where do they live? Why do they withhold the rain? How does one become a sorcerer of rain? How does he stop and start the rain? How often does this happen? From her husband, my counterpart, I also asked about the rain and was surprised when I got much of the same answers.

Abdou, besides being my counterpart, is a staff member at the high school. I asked Abdou to be my counterpart because he has on many occasions demonstrated the most forward thinking I have encountered in village. He is always one-step ahead of me in agricultural practices, is the president of the HIV/AIDS village committee, he has borrowed books from me concerning female and male contraception he wants to introduce at the high school and has an incredible tact for business. When I asked him about the whereabouts of the rain he responded in much the same way as Fadimatou, launching into an explanation about the man who is preventing the rain from falling. In addition to my counterpart I have also had similar discussions with the Director of the CETIC (a technical training high school) and a nurse. The first observation that is always made is about the man in Mandama who refuses to let it rain. From children to the wealthiest man to the university educated woman, the belief in sorcery is held among all villagers. From these conversations I have gathered some stories about these men who stop the rain. They are everyday men with farms and wives, their only special power is the ability to induce and stop rain. They stop the rain by retracting some type of stick from their yard when clouds start to form; without the stick the rain cannot fall. Villagers will sometimes collect money, 120,000 cfa ($250) according to one source, or sacks of grain and animals, and offer this to the man in hopes that he will allow the rain to start. Supposedly these men withhold rain because they believe someone is sleeping with their wife or that someone has stolen something from them. Last year our village chief asked the man not to withhold rain and if he did he would ask the local police to arrest him on the village's behalf. The matter of sorcery extends beyond the man who can stop rain; it is also the reason for deaths, illnesses, injuries, crop failure and other malevolence at the village level. Sorcery is an engrained belief that has affected village life since before Islam and Christianity converted many of these villagers' ancestors. The belief, despite the contradicting practices of Islam and Christianity, of sorcery has successfully created a religious syncretism that is not uncommon in other parts of the world where tribal beliefs are dominated and almost destroyed by fundamental religions.

Throughout my conversations I have been trying to push away my skepticism, science and ethnocentrism. For me sorcery conjures up images of Disney movie villans, red apples and sleeping beauties. I try to pick apart all these stories and ask so many questions, to which only a hand full can be answered. My analytical and logical brain is having a hard time processing and believing in sorcery. I guess one needs to look beyond the science, the 'facts.' We might look into our own beliefs and see seemingly unbelievable occurrences. Catholics believe in the rising of Jesus from the dead and the drinking of his blood and eating of his flesh every Sunday. There are even those who believe that after you die you will come back to this earth as another living creature, that coffee is sinful or that we are all descendants of an alien race. There are a lot of different beliefs out there and a man having the ability to stop rain isn't one of the more outrageous ones. According to villagers there are other ways to bring the rain.

During the first weeks of the draught, while laying in my bed reading around 8pm I heard villagers singing in the familiar call and response style. This is not out of the ordinary; I have heard the children running up and down my street and around the neighborhood many times at night singing. This time however, I was able to pick up a little of what they were singing with my limited Fulfulde. I lay in my bed listening to the girls asking Allah to bring rain, "Allah wartan iyeende" for about an hour. The next morning my neighbor Haoua told me she pumped four buckets of water for them, soaking them as a sacrifice to Allah. Other sessions like this will take place in other villages usually after two weeks of no rain. In the event of a month without rain an all day prayer session will take place at the main mosque in Mandama culminating in the killing of a goat or sheep, with the meat being distributed to the villagers. Everyone seems to taking the lack of rain calmly and with an air of familiarity I can't muster. I am trying to settle down and take on a Zen like demeanor, but I decided to offer up my own form of aid.

Yesterday I made my own effort to bring the rain, American style. I figured if the young girls, the elites and the men and women were all doing their part to make it rain then I had to offer up something as well. My ideas of rain dances are wholly informed by what little I have seen and heard about Native American cultural practices. I felt music should be involved, songs that invoke rain would be a start since I am at a loss of what types of body movements might entice the clouds the give up their water. I took my mini speakers and IPod out to my back steps deciding that a search for 'rain' in my IPod's search feature might yield some cloud pleasing melodies. I started my entreaty with a song that I often sang last rainy season when the humidity became unbearable and drudged up the lyrics from my memory. I started off with the Temptations' "I Wish it would Rain", not to in order to hide my tear drops, but the sweat that continues to trickle down my face and body. I followed them with Jill Scotts "Love Rain", Prince's "Purple Rain" and Soul For Real's "Candy Rain." I will take the rain anyway I can get it, purple, black, gum drops or skittles. I rounded out my rain chant with the theme song from "Singing in the Rain" and the Hawaiian singer IZ's rendition of "Somewhere over the Rainbow." As I sat on the steps singing to the clouds and myself, a few drops did fall. The clouds ended up passing Mandama by however and left me debating whether next time I should go all out with choreographed dance steps and a better sound system. I guess the real question is whether I believe in all our entreaties, bribes to the local sorcerers, late night call and response sessions and all day prayer sessions. As of now I am still undecided, but I am becoming more of a believer every draught filled day.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

One thing I have always lamented, after arriving at my post, was the lack of Daba cultural identity I encountered in my village. The village does maintain a since of the pre-colonial feel in the mud huts and farming practices, but that is out of poverty, not a sense of cultural meaning. It seems like most places I turn here I encounter home. U.S. rappers decorate the shirts of the youth, Elhaji’s are wearing knockoff Prada sunglasses and Obama seems to be tattooed on my forehead for the amount of times people call me his name. I’m not saying I wanted to see naked women dancing in grass skirts and bones through noses. I wanted to see what makes the Daba people Daba. How are they distinguishable from the hundreds of ethnic groups that exist within the borders of Cameroon?

I got my first glimpse in December. Sometimes at night I will hear drums, a distant beat that lets me know history is still living. Most of the time the drums are from the children at the church getting in a late night dance and drum session or from a marriage. One night, hearing the drums were close, I was asked by my neighbor if I had ever seen a Daba funeral. I immediately perked up as a photograph in my memory resurfaced. I was shown by one of the Grands in my village a picture of a Daba burial. A photo of a figure, human-like shaped, but much simpler and malleable. The figure reminded me of a life-sized rag doll made from someone’s entire wardrobe, tied up by its extremities by some gruel older brother at the torment of his younger sister. The rag doll, I was explained, was once a man, a very prominent and rich man of the Daba people and the clothes, his coffin.

I have begun to believe I am on a cusp. I have been placed in my village in a crucial period where a shift from the traditional to the modern can be felt in the fading frequency of funeral drums. I have seen many elders in village, mostly women, walking around with what I assume to be remnants of their culture; ropes tied around their half-naked bodies, wooden cylinders protruding from their bottom lips and their minimalist dancing style often brought out for fetes. I often ask what it all means. In response I have gotten little to help me understand the Daba; the responses from the women and their families are typically a variation of “It’s what the older people do” with no explanation close to why they do it?

I can’t say I came any closer to understanding this particular Daba practice even though I tried to ask as many questions as I could about the one Daba funeral I attended in December. Following the sound of the drums and flames of the bonfires, several neighbors escorted me to the 3 all day, all night vigil. I shy away from village gatherings as a rule because my skin seems to attract the attention away from those for whom it’s meant. I felt that the cover of darkness might allow me to fade into the crowd. I felt somewhat anonymous sitting in the large semi-circle of women and men watching the elderly women dance in their tight moving circle. The Daba dancing is a shuffle, a fast dragging of one stiff leg accompanied with a constant shrugging of shoulders that I am convinced done anywhere outside the context and confines of village life would look a lot like a cripple with a tic. Keeping watching over the night’s festivities, obscured by the mud hut on whose side she rested, was the former women, the rag doll. I could see rag doll legs and arms filling the darkness, stretching out towards the dancing women, but nothing more. My neighbors refused to approach her, what they called the ‘cadaver,’ out of fear. My curiosity wasn’t enough to break down the wall of anonymity that I enjoyed as a result of the darkness. I knew from questioning that I had three days in which to see her and each day she would become fatter and heavier under the weight of clothing.

Dabas are buried. Before they enter the earth they are wrapped or dressed in multiple layers of used clothing bought at local markets. These are the clothes that Cameroonians buy and that once graced the interiors of American and European closets and then were donated to charities under the assumption that they would be given to the people of other nations for free. Why do they wrap them in clothing? No one could tell me. On the end of the third day they are then buried, sometimes in a concrete slab if they are rich, or just in the dirt. They are to be buried with all their possessions. I was told to use a ‘cadavers’’ possessions is to invite haunting and bad luck. When asked whether the graves get robbed, the answer was yes, all the time. If your thinking this sounds a lot like Egyptian burials I would agree with you.

But now to the picture. Most of the time I am concerned that attending village fetes with my camera I will be crossing some line, invading the sacred and private with my foreign inquiries. It seems that when I worry like that it’s usually the Cameroonians who turn the events into a public spectacle. The next day I exited my house with the intention of capturing Daba life and sharing it digitally. I wanted to make sure people were consulted and asked permission before I went into photographer mode. Every inquiry was met with “of course” and “why are you asking.” As soon as the camera emerged from its case people were jumping in line to take a picture with the ‘cadaver.’ Children crowded around, nudged their way into the adult’s pictures and gave those famous unsmiling faces they like to give to all awaiting photographers. Then it was my turn. Not scared, but maybe slightly uncomfortable, I slowly lowered myself down onto the edge of the bed and assumed the non-smiling position. In the untrained hands of my neighbor my camera captured what is probably one of my most interesting pictures, which I now share with you…..enjoy!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Global Citizen on the Verge

I'm going to admit it. I am thoroughly unfocused and lacking in ambition to continue my work. I am right on schedule it seems with most of the volunteers before me. And like them, I am certain; I thought this fate wouldn't befall me. There are many factors that have contributed to the hesitation to step outside my door in the mornings and my procrastination to complete simple tasks. Recently I visited my sister in London and what a vacation it was. I actually spent the time being a tourist and seeing the sights, eating until my belly hurt on the diverse food selections and falling in love with a multi-cultural city. I've been out before, but that was to home, to the familiar, to my sister's wedding and gift shopping. The first time wasn't really a vacation, but a brief sojourn into who I use to be. This time I felt the possibilities, saw what my life could be like after Peace Corps and I am deflated at the prospect of 8 more months. Another factor in my lack of ambition, lack of action, lack of caring is that I have returned to another failure. Yes there have been many. I have failed more times than I have succeeded and I knew at least that when I chose to come to Cameroon. Us Peace Corps Volunteers are of the kind that sees failures as necessary, as invaluable learning experiences that will make us informed global citizens ready to give our two cents on how to really make development sustainable. This new failure has maybe been the one to push me close enough to the edge, close enough make out the depressions and insanity below.

Before leaving I helped a mixed group of women plan events for the International Women's Day on the 8th of March. I tried to bring together different groups, a different village, young and old, Muslims and Christians. With the busy schedules of women, the cooking, the cleaning, the trips to the river, the pump and then more meals and an endless supply of infantile energy swarming around you at all times, its hard to get women to come and sit down for an hour meeting. I did manage to get quiet a few women's groups to come to the meeting where I laid out my plan for the 8th of March. I wanted them to work together, think of new activities they could create to get away from the usual soccer games, marches and dances. I made my suggestions, we approved the activities and then mistakenly fell into a haphazard election where I ended up as the treasurer and the typical president. I say the typical president because this women is the president of the first women's association in Mandama that has been functioning, but with a serious lack of transparency and is made up of members from wives of all the "grands" or bigwigs in my village. People have been telling me stories, enough to put me on alert, but I refuse to make judgments about people until I see evidence firsthand. The 8th of March gave me the evidence I needed. Before I said farewell to the ladies on the 6th of March I handed over my treasurer duties to the secretary and president, outlining how they were to keep track of all expenses and donations. They both nodded in agreement, with me asking several times if they understood. I left with confidence, but my impending vacation was looming too large obscuring my view of what now seems the obvious. I returned not to stories of success, but of many women pointing a finger to several events failures at the actions of the president. Gifts I had donated to competition winners were mixed up and given suspiciously to women of her group, leaving other winners hastily bought packaged cookies, money that was donated wasn't logged and expenses were not accounted for as discussed.

Even more recently Mandama was the beneficiary of over a 1000 free mosquito nets by a number of international donors. The campaign seemed well put together, although maybe lacking in the pre-education campaign part. To make a long story short about a 1/8 have been reported as sold to Nigerian traders for about the equivalent of a $1, when I know they cost a lot more than that to manufacture and transport. I find consolation in the fact that at least Nigerian's will be protected from Malaria this season. I also like that several people I talked to were visibly upset that some of their fellow villagers were selling bed nets that could have been theirs. At least some of them care.

I don't think I am becoming pessimistic. I think that I am becoming more pensive and maybe leaning towards the idea that money and things need to stop being thrown at the problems here. We need more education and information, that is all.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

From the Summit to the Waves

They said we couldn't do it, make the top of the mountain. We are women and just can't make a three day trek to the summit of Mount Cameroon at 4095 meters. It seems like my abilities are always being doubted and feats accomplished remarked by others with surprise. We made it, Anitha and me after losing Thea our third to Bronchitis the day before. For a moment at the beginning of our trip as we walked up past the prisoners cutting grass at the Beau minimum security prison and the coco yam farms I thought that they might be right, maybe I couldn't make it. All it took was a burning in my ass and lungs, that familiar feeling which accompanies the upward climb that reminds your body how to hike. The first day was all uphill starting in the forest and then ending on hillside grasslands. During that day we passed the Magic Tree which looked more like a magic twig, a plain old tree ravaged by the carvings of disrespectful hikers. I wondered at that moment if the whole trip was going to be made of lackluster finds and views; pictures making promises reality couldn't keep. With time the mountain did open up to us showing its bare grasslands, humid forests and harsh lava trails.

I spent most of the trip moving upward by myself, five or ten steps at a time. Every now and then one of the two porters would pass me floating up the mountain like a gazelle strapped down with my load. It is a policy of the official ecotourism group that all hikers have at least one porter to carry their pack. I of course thought that unnecessary, but put up no fight. I reflected later how glad I was that ecotourism didn't listen to all the stubborn-hadn't-workedout-in-at-least-six-month-26 year-old-with-50 year-old-knees hikers and made the decision on their behalf. Besides the porters we were required to have a guide and permit with everything else optional. We decided to take the bare minimum, forgoing the tent, mats and additional things more financially equipped travels opted to buy. At the end we headed up the mountain with our sleeping bags, extra layers of clothing, food, water and cooking utensils.

The first day proved to be somewhat of a challenge for Anitha and I both. We were prompted to take our time and go slowly; pacing ourselves to maintain a steady level of energy. We took brakes about every thirty minutes opting to remain standing for fear we would never get back up. It was during one of these brakes that our guide confronted Anitha and I with our first bout of discouragement. He told us that we needed to have a serious conversation about whether or not we were going to make it up the mountain. That first doubt from our guide and porters, our hired support system, was daunting to hear in the middle of the first day. Anitha and I both gave him the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me gaze, that went well with our burning muscles, burning lungs and determined hearts. That first bit of discouragement set the tone for most of our conversations with the guide and porters. As the day wore on my longer legs and sports lungs kicked-in leaving me about 5 to 15 minutes ahead of Anitha for the rest of the trip. This however didn't encourage our guide or porters that we could do it, but encouraged them that only I would make it. I spent most of my time with my porter fending off advances and defending Anitha's ability to finish the hike. At the end of the first day, which we finished an hour ahead of the time they said we would, we cooked our meal of spaghetti and canned green beans in the whistling metal shacks of Hut 2, listened to the Cameroonian-Egypt match on the guides portable radio and then passed out to the sounds of scurrying mice hunting for food in our packs.

The second day we woke to what felt like and Arctic wind to us desert villagers. We started out with socks on our hands and five layers of clothing, looking more like cold weather hobos than hikers. The second day was the summit. It's characterized by its freezing temperatures and wind gusts that could probably knock a medium-sized child off the top. The air was thinner at Hut 2 and in the morning my lungs were feeling it. After a while with the aid of Yoga breathing I was able to adjust to the thin air, but my layers of clothing were constricting. Several times I wanted to cut myself out of them convinced then I could take in a deep breath, but the wind and my numb fingertips had me in my right mind. I would hike with my head down, only looking up to pick my next point of rest. Every now and then I would remind myself to look up and enjoy the scenery, for what is a hike if all you remember is the top? There wasn't much to look at during that portion of the hike though, a cold desert created from an ancient lave flow.

The porters didn't follow us to the summit, which was a relief for Anitha and me. That is how I hiked to the summit, alone and breathless, with Anitha and the guide sometimes in view behind me. There was never any thought that we wouldn't make it. Anitha and I are both stubborn, but also silent powerhouses. When I saw the summit in my heart I was running up the last few meters, but my legs and lungs kept me in reality. I had to watch every movement my fingers did because I could not feel them searching for my camera or unzipping my pack. I stood for only a few moments, afraid the wind would send me off the edge. I found the visitors log and painfully scribbled out Anitha's and my name with a short blurb about never doubting the determination of women. I marked our time, which again was 30 minutes before the time we were supposed to reach the summit. We were told by the guide that he was African and therefore was not equipped to handle the cold so we were to take our pictures and have our moment and then descend tout suite. I didn't complain about the rush and quickly descended as a victor. Twenty minutes into the descent my knees were making me feel more like a loser. I had my left knee wrapped in an ace bandage, an old sports injury from high school, but then my right knee started to tweak for its overcompensation. I have always hated going downhill more than up. I will take gasping for air and sweating over strained knees and jammed toes on any hike.

The descent took us through the lava flows of the 2001 eruption, which was still an island of jagged lava rocks and pebbles. I was wearing the only hiking shoes I had, which were hard toed sandals. They had served me well on the uphill, but now that we were skidding down the hill on loose gravel lava I was stopping every five steps to shake the rocks out of my shoes. Eventually in my frustration I looked up to see Anitha almost skiing down the mountain and decided to give in and just fill my shoes with the fresh lava powder. It actually was fun sliding heal first down the mountain with large steps whipping up lava dust I'm sure our guide behind us didn't appreciate. I of course fell the obligatory 10 times, rolling my weak ankles and over extending my knees. I figure it's not a hike unless I have fallen and I was always lucky enough to do it out of sight of the porters and guides, luck Anitha didn't have. When I roll my ankle the best thing is to walk immediately or else I would just give it time to get stiff and if the porters saw me they would make me stop and ask if I was okay. I think being asked if I am okay annoys me more in life than if people just ignore me, but it's inevitable that people will ask, it's in our nature, even mine.
That day we also passed the 1999 eruption that presented us with rolling hills of black sand. This was the eruption that flowed to the beach at limbe some kilometers away and we were told was the reason of its black sand beaches. We hit grasslands, dense weed forests which overran the trail and led me to fall 6 of my total 10 times in the span of twenty minutes. I had trouble seeing the uneven trail until my foot touched down on it and then sometimes not even at all. That section of the hike reminded me of the 2nd or 3rd Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum is leading a bunch of people threw tall grass and the velacaraptors are hunting them. We never came close to any such thing, never seeing more than birds on the whole trip. We were told Gazelles lived in the grasslands, but not near where we were hiking. We did, however, encounter a hunter on our way down, which we were reminded was illegal, but then were offered the chance to watch him skin his kill as entertainment later on in the night. A few minutes after the hunter we reached our resting place for the night, a traditional two-room, grass hut, which we shared with our porters because we opted out of the tent. It was there at the natural spring, Manspring which the Germans covered and tamed that I was able to wash the lava's blackness from my hands, feet and face. I had been wearing the same clothes for three days, only changing my dirty day clothes for dirty night clothes in efforts to keep my funk to a minimum. The night came quicker than on the first day and we slept once again in the embrace of the sound of rats, wrapped up tight in our stuffy sleeping bags.

The next day we were told was once again all downhill, but through the forest. I love the scenery in the forest, but its thickness makes it difficult to gauge how far you have gone and how much, how very much you still have left to cover. We were told that we would come down into the village where we could catch a taxi at about one o'clock that day. We were in a hurry, trying to make it down in time to go directly to the bus and back to Yaounde, stinky, sweaty and sore so that we could spend the next day reminiscing and recovering on the beaches of Kribi. As the leader I passed many of the designated rest stops out of time constraints, but also because stopping made my legs think I was done and gave them a reason to cramp up. Every time we stopped we were given a new, later time of arrival and I gave up on Yaounde. I started to slow down, take pictures and enjoy the greenery and occasional floral color. My new method of silent, few words was finally giving the porter a hint, but he still decided to act as my personal guide and even picked me a rare flower, forgetting that he was supposed to "take nothing and leave only footprints."

Slowly the layers came off until I reached the village in a tank top and a layer of sweaty dirt. Once again with all their estimations we still reached the bottom ahead of schedule and decided to leave the porters and the guide on the road with handshakes and a small tip for our guide who was in the end very patient with us. The look on their faces made me think we might just be crazy, leaving without showers or our summit certificates. The only thing I had on my mind was white sand and the sun beating down on my skin while the waves sounded in my ears. After sitting on the bus for three hours before it took off and then sitting on it for another five hours in route we made it back to our starting place, the Yaoundé transit house and of all things no running water.

Needless to say we made it to our white sand, warm water and crashing waves. It wasn't a smooth journey, but when is traveling in Cameroon ever smooth? The beach for three days overshadowed the cramped five to a row, stuffy buses with fish juice pouring down the windows onto our heads experience and kept me from an angry place. When not on the beach I stuffed myself with tasty fat fish, pizza, ice cream and a daily Snickers bar. I finally got that infamous tan you are suppose to have when living under the African sun, but I had failed to get from living in a Muslim village where I am obliged to keep my knees and shoulders covered at all times. And I got to sit on the beach with a glass of wine, watching the nightlights reflect off the water's surface and laugh my way to an inner peace with good friends. My experiences here have been necessary. They have been tough and a welcome challenge, but every now and then letting go and giving into relaxation is what we all need to help us keep our sanity. Now I am back in village after two days of almost constant travel and I have hit the dirt road of Mandama running.

We left our mark on the hut next tow two other PCVs who hiked last year.

My Postmate Anitha resting on the first day at one of the huts.

Walking up the first day above the cloud cover.

Anitha and the guide during the first day in the forest.

One of the porters did not heed this message and I got a beautiful flower picked in my honor, but I was not so honored.

Bring the Color Back to Education

One of the most striking things about Cameroon is the desert. During the rains all the bare brown trees turn green making the northern half of the country feel like it belongs in a vegetative world. But during the months of February to June, when the earth has forgotten the taste of rain one can see miles through a tree graveyard. It's during this time that I see the most beautiful images of Cameroon. When everything is green and lush we can't pick out the individual beauty of each leaf and it all begins to blend together. Right now when we have no options, when our eyes yearn for a respite from the dreary they land on the most pink flowers or bright teal birds standing out against the brown and grey. Even women are a bright reprieve from the drab; pagne waving in motion with their legs as they walk home from the fields becomes a moving canvas in a dusty rock gallery. When you see that, you can be nothing but in awe.

In the same way I feel Northern Cameroon is in a perpetual state of arid dullness while everything south of the grand north is vibrant with color. Even within my own village the two extremes exist. Anyone who has passed the Catholic Mission is struck senseless by the color; red, orange, yellow, purple, red flowers; oranges, mangos, papayas; the beautifully illustrated walls of the kindergarten alive with giraffes, lions and elephants. Soon as you pass by those gates you are left with the disturbingly pink Camtel building and the rest of the faded and forgotten. The most depressing buildings for me to pass belong to the children of Mandama. The elementary school, which in comparison to other villages is faring well, still fades into the dirt which lies outside each classroom's door. Many times I have wondered how a child could go from the impossible western style kindergarten at the Mission with its toys and stimulating colors to the cracking and dirty walls of the elementary. It's like they are priming students for a great intellectual and exciting experience only to graduate them to the deepest part of the dungeon. Now this is only my perspective, but I have found that children tend to behave better, pay more attention and participate in a welcoming and cared for environment. Having a maintained school means you care about the school and those who use it. Having a colorful school means you wish to stimulate a child's brain. I have often imagined drenching that school in Pollock like paintings just to give it some color, but the answer ended up serving more than just my hope for color.
When I first came to Mandama I spent a lot of time doing needs assessments with different organizations and community structures. I had a chance during this time to talk with the director and teachers of the elementary in Mandama and the surrounding villages. When I asked what was missing at each school that would enable the staff to more effectively educate their students everyone said educative materials. This was evident the moment you stepped into any classroom, the bare walls adorned only with an aged chalkboard. I was aware of the lack of didactic materials early on in my service having visited schools while still in training. I thought the lack of materials was a problem, but did the teachers? During one conversation a school director gave me examples of what he wanted, posters of the human body, the different systems, muscular, nervous, etc. I started to think after that how I could obtain these in French. The few materials I have seen looked to be from the 1970's and the few materials people sent me from the states didn't seem to translate into the village context. Simple things like drawings of fruit don't translate. Although apples exist in Cameroon they are very rare in village and are never the red variety and oranges are never orange, but usually yellow or green colored. I started to think they needed personalized materials, ones that translated easily for the children. In Hawaii as an Outreach Counselor I led a group of kids in a mural project representing the diverse background of the people living on the islands. Art is always something I enjoy doing with and for others and decided to propose to the director in Mandama that we create our own materials in the form of movable murals.

Today there hangs 24 murals of various sizes at the elementary. Subjects include personal hygiene, the water cycle, slavery, human skeleton, parts of the body, plant life cycle, the transmission of malaria, etc. The project was supported by the community with contributions from various sources, but large in part to my landlord who donated a large sum. The project was also funded largely by the generous donation of pennies from one elementary school in Sacramento, CA. Five other Peace Corps volunteers came for two to three days to assist with the paint and drawing process while community members aided in the prep work.

The murals were painted on ply wood canvases reinforced with a wooden frame. They range in sizes from ¾m x ¾m to as large as 2 ¾m x 1m. We used oil paints and finished the canvases off with varnish to protect them from the Harmattan dust and children's dirty fingers. This project had several advantages over traditional store bought materials and wall murals: Village specific designs using village landscapes, dress and culture; movable so any teacher can use them in their lessons; durable and long lasting in a dusty and harsh environment and reversible (potential to add ply wood to other side and create 25 new murals).

A health mural highlighting the importance of brushing teeth for the 1st grade classroom. These pictures were taken before the writing was painted on.
This mural is for 1st grade as well. Later I wrote in the names for the parts of the body.

A Map of Africa for the 6th grade classroom, with Cameroon respresented in the colors of its flag. Names were written in later for all countries.

Some of the other Peace Corps Volunteers who came to my house to help me paint.

My house, mid-project.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Some things are never meant to get easier

I woke up on Monday the 14th with my eyes dry and tight like I had cried in my sleep. I don’t remember any of my dreams. I know I slept deep from my travel fatigue and the last thing I remember was straining to hear Bilali’s cries from next door. That afternoon I passed by to see if he had gotten any better since I last saw him two days ago and he had not; his legs thinner, round belly shrunken and eyes vacant, unfocused. As I sat there with Hauwa, his mother and my best friend in village, I asked about his condition and she showed me the five medications he was taking, none of which he could keep down. I told her that it was a good sign he was crying, for although he is sick he still had enough energy to cry and that she should worry when he ceases to cry. As I lay asleep that night maybe I knew then and already mourned his death in my dreams or maybe I knew yesterday that this time he wasn’t going to get better. As a child he has suffered much. At 1 ½ he still wasn’t walking or talking because of previous illness. The next morning already in a melancholy state from work problems, five children showed up at my front door looking down at their feet avoiding my irritated attempts to get them to speak. They brought the news to my ears and it wasn’t shocking. When I entered Hauwa’s yard she was already surrounded by crying women, her own eyes half closed and puffy. I went directly and sat behind her on the mat spread out for all the women who were soon to come. I was sitting so close to her, wanting to reach out and hug her in my grief and hoping it would help her to grieve. We sat in silence with the occasional greetings tossed back in forth with lackluster. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, French was eluding me and still worse Fulfulde wasn’t an option. What does one say here? What does one say to a mother who has lost her second child before the age of 20? What does one say to a mother who has lost her child to a preventable illness? I’m trying to be angry and at the same time I’m not. I could blame many people for his death, but I’m not the one to judge. I think of all the things that could have saved him and I just end up blaming everyone, because we are all to blame.

The flies buzzed not even giving us a moment’s peace. As I sat I thought about how I am going to miss holding him and how in these last weeks he would reach out for me when I went to pick him up. I cradled his feverish body against mine, his head leaning against my chest and my chin on his head. I’m going to miss his smile, it was so infectious. It made my anger dissipate and Mandama seem hospitable. I’m going to miss the joke Hauwa made at least ten times a month about how Bilali was going to return to America with me in my luggage or my pocket depending on the day. And I hope that when I think of how Hauwa always called me his second mother I won’t cry like I am right now. I know people die here more often than they do in the West, but that doesn’t mean the hurt is any less, it just means that people here are more adept at dealing with loss. I see nothing wrong with crying. I feel like we all have a certain amount of tears stored up for certain people and when it’s time to let them fall it’s good to get them out. One should cry, grieve and carry on and be happy knowing that the one you loved is no longer suffering and is in a better place.

May we count our blessings everyday...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sorry I'm back!

Wow how the time passes. I have to say right off that I had a blog written and a rather lengthy one at that about a traditional marriage I had attended, but when I tried to save it to a computer in the capitol something happened and I lost it. I was discouraged for a while and thought it best to just leave the blog alone until the pain and anger subsided, which took all of about a day. After that I just found myself busy and away from the internet. Then I found myself at home preparing for and attending my sister’s wedding and then the mad rush to make sure all the people in my village would get their American gifts. In all that rush and meticulous list making and crossing out I forgot the most important person in my village, my chief. With little rearrangement (he got my counterparts gift) my chief is now the proud owner of a tiny desk clock, not digital cause that isn’t classy. He even told me where he put it, right above is bed, on the wall, attached with some double-sided tape I gave him (also from America). I couldn’t help but prod over how I could have forgotten my Lamido, my chief. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Middle March by George Eliot that states how this world could never really survive, even with all its problems without all the people who make the little differences and do it quietly and without the need for recognition. That is my chief to a T. He is a very quiet, unassuming man who doesn’t lord over you with his presence. He is always quick to give me his chair and is constantly busy with his own farm or the health centers vaccination campaigns. He is there when I need him, but otherwise he slips from my memory until I need him again. There exist others in my village I wouldn’t have dared to forget or else I would have never heard the end of it. So I want to take this time to thank all the nameless heroes, the ones who make my job bearable “…and rest in unvisited tombs.”
…but back to the gifts. I even heard that a policeman offered my moto driver, who I bought a watch for with his money, five times what I paid for the watch. I told the story to my neighbor Hauwa that I bought the watch for the equivalent of $10 and that it was made in China like nearly all the watches you find here. I have noticed a difference in American made China products and Cameroonian made China products though. I would say the difference is Chinese made for American sell is slightly bettered made crap that will last you maybe a year longer than it would in Cameroon. It wouldn’t have mattered what I got anyone. What matters is that I got it in America and that an American thought enough of them to lug a gift all the way from the other side of the world. I guess for me that’s what would mean the most too.

I guess I have to talk about my experience home and whether or not there was some great change or cultural shock I experienced. It was like I thought. You can’t erase 26 years of your life by spending one of them outside the country. I slipped back into a routine as easily as I slipped in between 400 count Egyptian cotton sheets and slept like a baby. Of course I remarked on all the new development in the area like the huge Sam’s club and Super Walmart that replaced the old Florin Mall I used to go to as a child. Walking in those stores didn’t seem overwhelming. I was excited about the choices I had rather than confused or overwhelmed like so many said I would be. I must confess there was a time when I did get overwhelmed by choice and it was in Big Lots while trying to pick out a hair brush for another volunteer. I stood there for 10 minutes testing brushes for firmness, durability, and handle grip until I thought myself ridiculous. I guess when it was a choice I made for myself it was an easy decision. I even had a list of things to eat, people to see and things to bring back, which I stuck to pretty well considering I am the queen of making lists I rarely stick to. Now enough of the States, I presume you are not reading this to hear about hairbrush firmness and cotton sheets.

Since I got back I have been running around, which I knew I would be. It seems like I couldn’t get any of my projects set until after I had been here a year. I think it was mostly due to my own mental block, but every time I would start I would hold back from some sense that I didn’t really know the community that well and I needed more time. As much as I didn’t want to be dragged into a large project I find myself smack dab in the middle of one and trying to remind the community that all I said was I will look into it, not “yes you are getting an ambulance and solar panels for the hospital.” I have to quote something to help you better understand my situation and my frustration. This is from East of Eden by John Steinbeck, “You are one of the rare people who can separate your observations from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect” (pg. 214). Now most people in village fall under the opposite category in that they only see what they expect. They see my light skin and my Americaness and immediately associate that with money. I can’t say that it is entirely their fault. So many people have come into their villages with huge projects like wells and pumps free of cost, and free of work. I keep trying to reinforce that if they want something they have to give something, monetarily and physically if they want to work with me. Some people are starting to get it, while others just nod in my direction that they understand, but then show up at the next meeting asking “so when are you getting the money from the States?” It all comes back to the old adage of “give a man a fish, let him eat for a day, but teach a man how to fish, let him eat for a lifetime.” I would also like to add that we also need to instill in that man the importance and value of fishing otherwise when you walk away he may just give it up and go back to his old habits.

From now on I am going to add a reading list to the end of each blog. I feel like the books I read are helping to shape my experience and if you feel like reading along let me know. I would be happy to send you a list of what I have already read and discuss any of the books with you.
Since I returned on October 28, 2009:

Slaughter House-Five Kurt Vonnegut
Siddhartha Hermann Hesse
The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath
East of Eden John Steinbeck
The Stranger Albert Camus
The Monkey House Kurt Vonnegut