10.11.2014

Fete de Mouton



Ever been to a sheep party? Well I have! Fete de Mouton, or Eid-al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice), is the major Muslim holiday celebrating the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, Ismail, for God, who later intervened and replaced Ismail with a sheep instead. To commemorate Ibrahim’s sacrifice, every year Muslims worldwide sacrifice a sheep, and divide it into three parts (for family, for friends/neighbors, and for the poor). This was my first major Muslim holiday that I’ve spent in an almost exclusively Islamic village. What I thought was just a one day celebration, in fact is a week long celebration in Ngatt. It definitely didn’t disappoint for my first week in village, that is for sure.

The Feast
Since Eid-al-Adha is based off the lunar calendar, like all Muslim holidays, the exact date was unknown. Well, it could’ve been known if any of the people in Ngatt had access to internet, but instead they merely played it day-by-day to see when the moon was right. Throughout my first week, everyone assured me that it was going to be Sunday, so I planned my schedule accordingly. I scheduled to be at the hospital on Saturday and I told my landlord’s family that I’d bake several cakes on Sunday for the festival. But low and behold, I woke up to Abdou, my landlord’s son, tapping on my door early Saturday morning with a piping hot pot of corn beignets and saying ‘Barka de Salla!’ - for happy holiday! I stared at him, “Huh?! Juuldee…alat…!?” - but the festival…is Sunday…?!? Nope, apparently they decided last night that Saturday would be the festival. Go figure.

I took the beignets and ate them as I thought about how I could cram in work, watching the festivities, and baking three cakes (which also involved setting up my Dutch oven). I chose the lets-see-what-happens approach, I finished my beignets and walked to work while greeting every person I encountered on my walk, which is just what you have to do here. I got to work, had a good hour long meeting with the hospital chief explaining what work I did in my old village and what I envision doing in Ngatt. After he told me about the needs of the community and we finished the meeting, all the Muslims were headed to the top of the village to pray. (Ngatt is located on the side of a small hill, so the top of the village is the start, and the bottom of the hill is the end of the village). Everyone I knew who passed me said that I had to go take pictures, so I asked Moussa to give me a short break and I followed the crowd. What seemed like every male in Ngatt was gathered at the base of the cell tower for prayer. I stood in the back, as it is not customary for women to be able to attend the prayer until they have reached menopause. The Chief of Ngatt’s guards stood in the back with me with their spears in hand and explained the prayer to me as I took pictures. They translated the Imam’s prayer and explained why women weren’t allowed to pray with the men. I watched the perfectly choreographed standing, kneeling and bowing of the men as they faced the cell tower (it looked like they were prayers to the Heavenly Father of Good Cell Reception, rather than Allah).


When the prayer finished, the mob descended upon me. Everyone wanted their picture taken and everyone wanted me to take videos of them speaking Fulfulde and about the holiday. After appeasing as many people as I could, I headed back out on the road to watch the village chief get carted away in his car to his house, which would have otherwise been a five minute walk away. Everyone ran after the car as I rejoined Moussa and we walked together toward the chief’s home. When the mob at his house finally dissipated, Moussa and I were invited in to sit in a completely dirt room draped in elegant pagne and flanked with men wearing large, colorful boubous. The chief looked down from his ‘throne’ in his large white headwrap at me sitting on the floor as Moussa explained why I’m living in Ngatt. The chief was extremely receptive and joked with me about me already learning Fulfulde (Unbeknownst to me, he had stopped by my house the first day I was in Ngatt to greet me while I was in pajamas…an awkward first introduction if I’ve ever seen one).


After the visit at the chief’s, I headed home to begin baking cakes. My landlord, Oumarou, said he was inviting friends over to eat the cakes with him. I had assumed he was bringing our neighbors and his family, but no, at 3pm he showed up with all the prominent Muslim men in Ngatt. They gathered in a circle and sat on my drab concrete floor in their elegant boubous as I passed around banana bread, red velvet cake, and brownies and as I attempted to explain a bit about America. My landlord is a prominent Muslim in Ngatt, so he invited his brothers, who are just as genial as he, as well as the Imam, and several men who have already made their pilgrammage to Mecca. I held my breath as they all took their first bites of the cake. It was a sight to see - all these grown men, sitting Indian style on my floor, eating cake with their hands in their nice attire. While I was worried the food would be a failure, soon a smile broke out on all their faces. One particular Alhadji (someone who has been to Mecca), said he loved the cake so much that he will return every Friday for cake - and he also wants me to be his 4th wife, since his other wives can’t bake cake. When everyone finished eating, the Alhadji led a group prayer for the holiday and for my work in Ngatt. When that finished, we headed outside my house for a group picture. Once they saw the first photo, all the men turned into young boys and joked about the way each other looked, and they kept asking for more photos so that those in the back could be in the front. It was a very unconventional Fete de Mouton, but it was perfect. Little did I know, the fete didn’t end there.




The Fantasia 
I’ve wanted to go to a fantasia in Cameroon for some time, but living in Lomie made that extremely difficult. Fantasias are when the Lamido holds a celebration where men get on brightly decorated horses and charge towards the Lamido to show their gratitude for his rule. Fantasias only happen on Fete de Ramadan, Fete de Mouton, 20 May celebration, and perhaps if an outside delegate is visiting. The fantasia in Tibati was to be held 3 days after Fete de Mouton, so after I finished with work on Monday, I hitch hiked a bus to Tibati, where a massive storm was rolling in.

I was meant to meet up with Victoria, the PCV in Tibati, but the storm kept her at home for the time being. As I raced towards the Lamidat, my sandal broke. Clueless on what to do, I ran up and down the street barefoot, looking for a store that was still open that would sell shoes. Finally, I found one, and asked the man for his cheapest pair of shoes. I got what I paid for - the ugliest pair of while floral sandals, designed for children, for $1. I’ll take it and risk looking like an idiot rather than sustaining a foot injury! I finished my run to the Lamidat and was invited indoors by several of the horse riders for the ceremony. I took off my ugly children’s shoes at the door and joined the men sitting in what I would describe to be a large sandbox. An hour later, the storm ended and the preparations for the fantasia continued.

A while later I spotted Victoria and we sat in the plastic chairs that had been laid out for viewing the fantasia. After a while we noticed that it was only Muslim men who were sitting in the chairs, so feeling very out-of-place, we quickly left our seats to join the women and children in the crowd. Not long after, the men in the chairs summoned us to sit with them again. Having no choice, we agreed.

At this point, the fantasia was beginning. The Lamido was paraded out on a horse and men held up red parasols above his head and spinned them as he walked. The Lamido did a parade around the market like this, before returning to the entrance of the Lamidat. This is when the 10 or so other horses walked far down the road and in small groups, or individually, proceeded to charge towards the Lamido and suddenly stop in front of him, raising their arms in gratitude. This whole process was repeated for the next hour, occasionally with the Lamido himself joining the group and charging towards the Lamidat. It was a beautiful sight to be seen, and also quite magical. Not to mention, the Tibati Lamido is one cool guy with his white turban and sunglasses! Not to mention, he is a friend of the Peace Corps.

The Fete 

As I said, the Fete de Mouton ended up continuing for an entire week. After the fantasia in Tibati (which normally marks the end of the holiday), Ngatt just kept on partying. In the past, Mbororos from all over the region would congregate in Ngatt after the Fete de Mouton and hold traditional dances for a week. “Why Ngatt,” I asked a young man attending the celebration with me. “Because Ngatt is known for being the most socially organized and structured!”, he explained as if it were evident. Now, most Mbororos don’t come for the celebration anymore, it continues nonetheless with the Ngatt Mbororos. On Tuesday night I headed to the primary school with my neighbor Ruai and her friends. We watched and Mbororos from nearby (but also from the CAR) gathered around and danced. After a nearly 2 hour photoshoot with Rugai and her friends, I returned to the festival.


Mbororo dancing is very odd and reminds me strikingly of awkward high school formals. All the men link arms in a semi-circle, as the girls stand at a distance. The drummers play the same rhythm over and over again: tam-tamtam-tam-tam-tamtam-tam from 3pm to 9pm. The girls walk with the drummers towards the gathered boys. Each girl chooses one boy, pulls him from the group, and brings him to the ‘middle ground’, which is where everyone then busts the same exact dance move, which goes something like this: Stand up, bend forward so your torso is parallel with the floor and your butt is sticking out, and then wag your behind for a good 15 seconds. After everyone does this move, the men return to their semicircle and the girls return to their mass, and the whole process is repeated again. The Mbororo do this for 6 hours straight, without variation, and without stopping. I got in there at one point and shook what little behind I had, and judging by the laugher, I should start my own comedy show.

All around the dancing crowd, women and girls sold oranges, guavas, chewing gum, and other crackers and biscuits as the dancing continued into the night. Rugai paced back and forth in the crowd, acting either too 'busy' or too 'cool' to join the dancing. I decided to ditch her and her teenage wanderings and go sit to watch the dancing. As I said, pretty much every aspect reminded me of an awkward school formal. As the sun started to set, I followed the group from the school to the market, where they continued for several hours more. This whole process was repeated every night for a week.

While I fail to comprehend the significance of this Mbororo festival and of the dance itself, it was nonetheless an amazing cultural experience that provided much insight into the local community, and what I do realize is that this is just one more way for the Mbororo to manifest the celebration of this holy holiday. All the fete-business made for an eventful first week in Ngatt, but with that came exhaustion that I inevitably had every day, but it also came much insight into the community and some great friendships.


New Beginnings



The move to Ngatt went surprisingly smooth by Cameroonian standards. I took all my belongings to the bus station the night before I moved; throwing all caution to the wind and crossing my fingers that all my electronics wouldn't get stolen. The next morning I headed to the bus station with my cat, checked to make sure all my belongings were accounted for and then watched as they loaded everything I owned on top of the coaster. Shortly thereafter, I began the 7 hour trip to Meiganga.

Despite the rain, the ride was smooth and scenic, and it helped that I sat next to a really kind young man who held my full length mirror the entire trip. When I arrived in Meiganga, the landlord of another PCV was there to greet me with a car. We unloaded my things off the bus just to reload them into the car. I was slightly skeptical it was all going to fit, but as is always the case with Cameroon, it all worked out. All my things were stuffed in the backseat and trunk and Métis and I squeezed in the little space left in the back seat. I was under the impression that this landlord was going to drive, but no, he was just along for the ride. It was his car but he had a driver. In addition to the two of them in the front seat there was a "petite" who wasn't so petite and at least thirty. I'm not sure what his purpose was...but I'm quite positive he was merely there for the free drive to see the Tibati area, as none of these people had been that far west before. So there we were, 4 adults, a cat, and all my earthly possessions. 


Not long after departing, various bags started toppling over on me, so we pulled over to rearrange them...and for Salisou to buy some squash. We departed once gain, but not long after we arrived in Meidougou and stopped again for the driver to eat dinner. Salisou enthusiastically asked me, "Don't you want to see Emily? Let's see Emily!" Emily is an ED volunteer I think I've met once. Rather than visiting Emily I would have rather been on the road, since we had already killed and hour and the sun was already setting and we still had at least 4 hours ahead of us.
Neighbor

After quickly 'visiting Emily' while the driver ate, we finally got on our way, and I hoped we wouldn't stop again. The road was scenic and I passed the two other villages that they talked about sending me to, both of which are far less remote. We stopped in one village so the driver could chat with a friend, and I got out to stretch my legs. Immediately, an elderly, probably drunk, man came up to me and began talking about how he wanted to marry me. I placated him and said I would only marry him if he would be my 4th husband. He smiled and agreed. After less than 5 minutes of banter, we were back on the road. Salisou turned back to me and said, "Wow, you have patience! If that were any other female volunteer, they would've screamed at that man!". If that was what derangement in the Adamawa looked liked, it seemed as if life here would be a piece of cake.

The sun set and we arrived in Ngaoundal, only half way to Ngatt. We took off again after fueling the car and made our way to the dirt road, which continues for about an hour and a half until the pavement reappears 2km before Ngatt. While Salisou lamented the horrid condition of the road, I slept like a baby in the back seat, since this road was nothing compared to the Lomie road. Finally, at 10pm, we appeared in what we believed to be Ngatt.

It was dark (no electricity, ever, in Ngatt), and I had no idea where my house was. Thankfully, the village is so small that the options were limited. Soon, we caught sight of a man running alongside our car and pointing forward. He ran in front of our car and directed us, until we neared the end of village, when he signaled to stop. I got out and everyone swarmed the car to help carry the luggage. I got out and tried to catch a first glimpse of the village but to no avail. An older man approached me and introduced himself as Oumarou, my landlord. 

He directed me to my house, which is perhaps a 1 minute walk from the main road - a perfect location. He opened the doors to my house and gave me the walking tour - or should I say, the shifting your gaze tour, as the house really isn't that big. I stood in what would now be my new house and gazed around at my new, fresh start with my landlord as a group brought in all my baggage. The group carrying my bags seemed so large that I thought it was the whole village, but I later found out that no, that was just my landlord's family - yikes! 

As I stood there with anxiety, anticipation, exhaustion, apprehension, excitement, and determination, I felt overwhelmed, especially as everyone around me was rapidly rambling in Fulfulde. I asked a few people some questions in French and they returned only blank stares. "Oh, people here don't speak French," my landlord clarified. Oh, great.

After all my things were brought in, I said goodbye to Salisou and everyone else and decided I needed to sleep. I let Métis out and he anxiously wandered the house, probably in utter confusion at why he was being moved for the fourth time in his life. I unraveled my bad, laid my sheets down and passed out.
The Cooking House in my Concession

The next morning I woke up relatively early in order to check out the village. Immediately after showering, my landlord's 13-year-old niece showed up at my door. She grew up in Douala so she speaks French, thankfully, and her mom sent her to Ngatt in order to experience village life for a few years. Rugai, the niece, walked me to the market, which took all of 2 minutes. I asked what food there was to eat here, and she replied with "beignets and bouille" - so with that, I bought a beignet the size of my head a 10 cent bowl of the best bouille ever and headed home to eat and unpack. 

As soon as I took my last sip of bouille, everyone began showing up at my door...and I mean everyone. I'm the first foreigner to ever live in Ngatt, and one of only 2 foreigners to have ever visited Ngatt, so naturally everyone was curious. Curiosity here though reaches a whole new level. People didn't just come to say "Sannu" and peak in my doors - no, they came and rifled through all my bags, many of whom began taking gifts for themselves. Before I knew it, I had 25 women and children going through my bags, taking scarves, all my chewing gum, opening and drinking whole MIO liquid water enhancers (nasty), and even opening up tampons and asking what they are used for. The situation was out of control and I had no idea what to do - as all of these people spoke only Fulfulde. I stood in the middle of my living room motionless, not knowing what to do. Finally, Housseini, one of my concession-mates and also a hospital employee, came and told everyone to get out. I surveyed the damage - thankfully nothing I loved too much was taken as a 'gift'.

This scene would repeat itself throughout the day. Women and children would come, go through my house and look in the rooms and in all my bags, perhaps take a few 'gifts', touch all my belongings and do a deep throat clicking, which I have since assumed to mean 'wow'. Between the dozen or so women speaking Fulfulde at once and the 2 dozen children screaming, I soon had a headache and Métis was frightened so much that he ran outside, climbed into the ceiling of my outdoor latrine, and got himself stuck surrounded by dozens of sharp nails. The process of getting him down took several hours, pulling his tail, and much hair loss on his end.

When Oumarou finally explained to everyone that I need to have quiet, I finally gave up on the futile task of unpacking (what good is it to unpack when you have nowhere to put things?), and decided instead to look around the village and try to find some food. Little did I know that Ngatt has no food. Literally, besides the occasional pile of fresh fish, and the ever present beignets and bouille, there is no food - not even onions, which I had previously thought were found everywhere. Rugai made me buy the $1 pile of small, odd looking fish, and having no other food options, I agreed. She cooked up rice and a tomato paste fish sauce that was actually surprisingly tasty.

The first day in Ngatt was a blur, but thankfully, each day after has become more of a routine as I've settled into my home and work and taken the time to discover more about the village. While I could go on and on explaining the weird quirks of Ngatt, I'll save that for another day, and instead just briefly describe the basics, since time is short and I am getting back on the 8 hour bus to Ngatt tomorrow.
My Landlord and I as he Sells his Cattle

Ngatt is super tiny - perhaps 800 or so - and is mainly Peul (Fulbe's who are Muslim) but with perhaps a 10% Gbaya representation (who are usually Christian and who speak Gbaya). There are also Mbororos (formerly nomadic cattle herdsmen), and CAR refugees. Most of the village, however, is Peul/Fulbe, and I live in the Fulbe quartier, which makes learning Fulfulde an absolute must if I wish do get any meaningful work done. Thankfully, I've caught on surprisingly fast to Fulfulde and can now have a very basic conversation and say the basics - and this week I'm beginning 3 hours of Fulfulde lessons per week.

Ngatt has very little in terms of food and amenities, but that only adds to its charm. Here you can't find fruit or really any vegetables for that matter. What you can find though, are beignets and bread! I learned soon enough that even toilet paper doesn't exist here - so I must travel to Tibati to buy it, which I plan on only going to Tibati once every few weeks. There is, however, a market every Thursday, which is when vendors from Ngaoundal to Tibati show up in Ngatt to sell everything from solar lamps, to rugs, to pagne, to perfume - but alas, not to sell food. While the food options may be lacking, at least the walk around town on market day provides good conversation and a lot of interesting 'window shopping'!

People in Ngatt are mostly cattle herders, farmers, or fishermen. The cows are everywhere and often block the road and make it impassible to passing cars. My landlord is one such cattle herder, and he promises to take me out en brousse one day to herd the cattle and to milk and vaccinate them. The other day he took me to the cattle market where perhaps 150 cows were for sale and where wealthy Cameroonians come from all over to buy cows to bring to Yaounde to butcher and sell. A single cow can cost anywhere between $400 and $1,000 - and by the end of the day, around 80 cows were sold. Ngatt is the village you go to to buy a cow in the area, so the herders clearly make a good living!

The hospital is fantastic - it's a private Protestant hospital, directed and overseen by a larger Protestant hospital in Ngaoubela, which is right outside of Tibati. The Ngaoubela hospital is headed by an old Austrian doctor, and there are usually three young Austrians there on service trips at any given time. I went to the hospital my first Sunday in Ngatt to attend a People Living with HIV/AIDS Care Group - this group meets once every other Sunday to talk about their needs and how best to live a healthy life while also sensitizing the community about the disease. This group also pays for the education of all the children to the affected members of the group, so that their children are not kept out of school because of the parent's high medical fees. I'll be working closely with this group over the next year.

The hospital in Ngatt is small, but will soon get larger. Currently it has three rooms for hospitalization, which are almost always occupied, a consultation room, a lab/pharmacy and a payment room. But just recently an addition was added which includes further surgical rooms and more consultation rooms. The hospital staff is small - it features Dr. Moussa, Housseini, my neighbor and fill-in quasi-doctor, and two nurses. I go to the hospital daily for about 4 hours to observe and prepare for the sensitizations I'll give in the coming weeks during the pre-natal consultations and child vaccination days.

Besides just taking care of the people of Ngatt, the hospital also oversees 8 villages en brousse as well as some Mbororo encampments. Each month I will visit each one of these villages and do sensitizations based on their needs. It seems, however, that the main health problems are malaria, anemia, malnutrition, hygiene, and HIV/AIDS. We are already talking about doing a large HIV testing campaign in February, as people in Ngatt are very proactive and always like knowing what their status is, but the hospital lacks the resources to provide all those who want HIV tests, with the test.
Hospital Sign

There is so much to tell about my new village, but alas, time is short, I'm tired, and I've got to save some stuff for later. All in all, Ngatt is the complete opposite of Lomie, and I'm extremely happy. People greet me with huge smiles as I walk around town and fumble with my Fulfulde. I'm pummeled with hugs and women shouting 'Jabbama!' as I walk to my house, and I have my mama who cooks me breakfast, lunch and dinner for free (but I always make sure to repay her with cake!). I'm always approached by people asking what my work is and how they can help. Since Ngatt is known in the region as the town with the best social organization and cohesion, I'm really looking forward to seeing how everyone mobilizes for my projects. Word is already spreading about the first couple projects I'm unrolling next week, and people seem pretty dang excited. Everyone says they want me to stay for 10 years, and who knows, if this hospitality keeps up, I might just have to.

9.28.2014

Fido Doesn't Give You HIV/AIDS


I’m a workaholic, so being on consolidation has been rough. Consolidation wouldn’t be as mind-numbing if there were other health volunteers I could collaborate with on their projects, but alas, I’m the only East region health volunteer, which left me high and dry in terms of work. After getting a call that it would be two months before my house would be finished, I desperately picked up the phone and began cold calling the numbers of health centers in the Bertoua area that I had accumulated over time, in hopes to find some form of work in the meantime. Sadly, none of them answered, despite my repeated attempts. Thankfully though, Lauren and Sarah, two of my East region Youth Development and Education region-mates, came to my rescue!

It’s an East region tradition to do HIV/AIDS sensitization murals in each village where volunteers are posted. Murals have been thus far completed in Mandjou, Batouri, Abong Mbang, and last February, my old post, Lomié. During the week of 4th of July, Sarah and Lauren continued the tradition and did a Diang HIV mural. Sadly, that week I was busy writing my beekeeping grant in Lomié so I wasn’t able to make the long trek to Diang to help out, but ever since the mural was painted, they had never held an ’official’ opening ceremony or sensitization. That’s where I come in.


Last week Lauren and Sarah deemed it was time to hold an official mural revealing and do a sensitization campaign to go along with it. Lauren and Sarah came to Bertoua and we prepped for what we would each teach. The next day Lauren and I got in a bush taxi along with Lauren’s counterpart, Blanche (yes, as in La Blanche!), and began the 40 minute quasi-paved journey to Diang. Diang is a small village of 2,000 that reminded me a lot of Messok, a village I visited 2 hours further southeast of Lomié. It’s small, muddy, and quiet and in need of a lot of help and education. To get to Diang you take the road that goes due North of Bertoua towards Bélabo, where the Sanaga Yang Chimp Rescue is located. Midway to Bélabo we turned off onto a bumpy, muddy road that was grave, but still no rival to the road to Lomié. One annoying checkpoint, a few hundred bumps, and one headache later, we arrived in Diang.


The Center of Diang

Lauren played tour guide and showed me Diang center, the market, the post office, the very nice health center, and of course, her gorgeously decorated house. After washing up, we made our way to the market center where the HIV mural is located to begin the sensitization, which we made sure to clearly state on all advertisements that will start at 9:30am sharp. Of course, we got there at 9:15am and Blanche was still in the process of acquiring chairs, and the only people gathered around was a group of 10 drinking buddies chugging the last drips of palm wine. Lauren and Blanche walked around the village center and tried coaxing people to come learn about HIV. Meanwhile, I tried to convince the drunks to stay and listen to what we have to say, since after all they are probably the most at risk group.


Slowly but surely a group began to form. The proviseur of the local lycée showed up dressed in a suite, bowtie, and cufflinks - clearly I missed the memo we were to be photographed for the cover of Vogue. After the provieseur arrived, Roman, who is the lab tech at the Diang medical clinic, arrived. Roman was there to help us answer more technical and scientific questions. After him, one of the delegates at the Sous-Prefets office arrived. Lauren and Sarah have explained to me in detail the problems and annoyances they’ve had with Diang’s delegates and government officials who think they are all grandes -  and they said this particular man was the worst. When he arrived he immediately approached us and said “I thought this was supposed to be started at 9:30? Your flyers say ‘Please, respect the starting time‘, but here we are at 10:00 and you haven’t started?!”. We bit our tongues, choosing not to point out the fact that he himself had not obeyed the flyer, given that he had arrived 30 minutes past starting time. Finally, when we had about 30 people gathered around, we began.


Cows Who Sat in the Middle of our Presentation

This sensitization was pretty run of the mill, but it opened up some interesting insights into local perceptions and misconceptions of HIV/AIDS.  We all began by introducing ourselves and then Lauren began with a myth or reality activity. While a lot of people didn’t participate because they didn’t want to express their opinion and be public viewed as ‘wrong’, overall those who participated knew a good deal about HIV/AIDS. However, one misconception that holds true throughout Cameroon is that HIV is spread through mosquitoes, and Diang was no different in sharing this belief. 

While to us it seems silly to think that HIV is spread my mosquitoes, the misconception is easy to understand. If HIV is spread through blood, then why can’t a mosquito suck the blood from someone who is HIV+ and give it to someone who is HIV-? It’s not completely unbelievable. I stepped in and attempted to clarify by explaining that while yes, mosquitoes do suck blood from you, they do not, however, go to another person and inject that blood into them - no, instead the blood is the food for the mosquito and therefore is consumed and not re-injected into another human. Much of the audience had ‘AH-HA!’ moments, finally realizing that yes, that is true, but some people still seemed skeptical. To win them over I explained that HIV is only a virus spread among humans, hence human immunodeficiency virus, and therefore, mosquitoes cannot acquire it. At that point, everyone laughed and smiled and mumbled things such as ‘Why, of course!!! Obviously!’. With that misconception cleared up, we moved on.
The HIV Game

The next part of the sensitization was led by Sarah and it was a game where everyone is handed a folded card. Inside two cards, ‘HIV’ is written. In one card, ‘protection’ is written. The rest of the cards are blank. Everyone is told to not open their cards, and instead write down the names of three other people in the audience. After much confusion (much of the audience began writing names of family members and friends who were not in the audience), they finally all wrote down names. Everyone was then told to open their cards and Sarah told the two people with ‘HIV’ to stand up. The first person was Blanche, Lauren’s counterpart. She came up with us and we asked for the other person with ‘HIV’ to stand up. At this, on older man with an opened button up shirt, which bared his hairless, skeletal chest, raised his hand. Sarah said, ’Okay, so you have HIV, come on up with us in front’ - the man’s face looked completely crestfallen and in shock. We then realized that, oh my God, this man thought he actually had HIV. After much reassurance that he did not in fact have HIV, we finally coaxed him up with us. We then made them each call out the names of the three people they had written on their cards. Those people came up and were ‘infected’ and they then called out their names, and so on and so forth until everyone was called up except the person who had ‘protection’ written. The game was meant to demonstrate how easily HIV can spread when one doesn’t know their status and doesn’t use protection. Overall, the audience appreciated the demonstration and in the end realized it was just a game…I think/hope.

After the game, however, somewhat of a chaos broke out, which is pretty dang typical for the East. The game riled people up and made them a bit more talkative and outspoken, which was the point, but it also incited a bit too much excitement and participation among those who were already inebriated - which was a good portion of the audience. It was now my turn to begin my lesson, which was teaching about the methods of transmission and the methods that do not transmit HIV. The mural was the backdrop of our presentation, and it clearly stated the methods of transmission, and when I asked the audience “What are the four fluids which transmit HIV?”, I had hoped they would look at the mural and tell me the correct answers. Everyone was able to get blood and semen, but nobody could guess breast milk and vaginal fluids. After clarifying, I  then explained how each of those fluids transmits HIV and in what circumstances you might acquire or transmit HIV (unprotected sex, birth, breastfeeding, and transfusions or intravenous drugs). I then asked the group if you can acquire HIV through kissing - “no!” they responded. I then asked about toilets - “no!’ they replied in unison. How about sharing food or living with them? - “no!”, and then I asked about mosquitoes and thankfully they all responded with a firm “no!”. Check! They all learned something! This group clearly learns much faster than those in Lomié! 
Me Explaining the Origins of HIV

But as I mentioned, the group at this point had gotten a little raucous. It then spontaneously broke into a free-for-all Q&A. The older man who had previously thought he had HIV when he opened the game card raised his arm and said indignantly, “This is very nice, but HIV was created by Americans and brought to Africa!”. Ugh. I had confronted this widespread belief when I taught about HIV/AIDS in Sierra Leone way back when. Lauren and Sarah were at a loss of how to convince this man that this rumor isn‘t true, and the doctor had no answer because he too believed it was an American creation, so I stepped in and launched into the history of HIV, how to started in the East region of Cameroon (yes, guys, the East region of Cameroon!) and originated from a chimp when a hunter butchered it, then spread down a river and ended up blowing up in Kinshasa and other Central and Southern African nations before making its way to America where our fancy doctors put a name to it. I repeated, “America identified HIV/AIDS as a new disease, but it didn’t create it.” 

This seemed like a good enough answer for them, so then they broke out some more conspiracy theories. I hear one lady mumble, “it’s from China” - I turned to her and said “What did you say?”. Then she repeated, “It comes from dogs”. In French, the word for China (Chine) and dog (chien) can sound pretty similar. When I clarified that she was indeed talking about dogs, I told her to explain, and she said that only people who raise dogs contract HIV. How the heck to these rumors start?


Condom Demos
After my brief explanation, we had a male and female condom demonstration. While Lauren explained the steps of proper condom etiquette, Sarah and I yanked out our penis (…um, the wooden prop penises, that is) and demonstrated. After the male demo was completed, I attempted to show, as best I could without a vagina model, how to insert and use a female condom. After our demonstrations we asked for volunteers to show us how it’s done. The groundskeeper for the Diang lycée raised his hand and came to the front. He was already more than a few drinks into his day, and in a very drunk but sing-songy voice he recited the steps and went through the motions, all the while making the audience laugh. There we have it, our condom demo was tested by a drunk man, and if he can properly demonstrate how to use a condom after having too many drinks, then it goes to show that anyone can.

The sensitization ended and people began slowly meandering back to their houses. We three cleaned up and quickly debriefed what just happened. After counting the whole experience as a success, I hopped back on a moto and returned to Bertoua, but not without passing the beautiful Hausa women from Niger who ride in spectacularly colorful clothes and ride on donkeys through Diang. I was refreshed by a successful sensitization and in awe of the diverse groups who live in Cameroon. Perhaps, indeed, I can have a wonderful last year of service. 

9.13.2014

A Year In, A Year Out

Motoing from Makongoya Baka Encampent, Near Lomie
Somehow, and somewhat to my own surprise, I’ve officially spent survived 365 days on Cameroon's blood red soil. When I accepted my Peace Corps application, I knew there were going to be ups and downs - I guess I didn’t anticipate just how high those ‘ups’ can be, and just how low those ‘downs’ could be. While I knew I’d face obstacles, I partly felt like the whole experience would be somewhat of a piece of cake - well, this year has proved otherwise. While we are each prepared during PST for the ‘emotional rollercoaster’ that every PCV rides for 27 months, I sometimes feel like my rollercoaster is a bit more intense than it appeared before I got on it, and there are many days where I’d rather trade in my rollercoaster for something more tame…like those fun Disney World spinning teacups minus the motion sickness.

This year has been filled with many unanticipated events. When they tell you to enter the Peace Corps with no expectations, that is really the best advice that one can recieve. Even the things that seem predictable cannot really be properly anticipated and prepared for. This past year has been one I’ll never forget (although I’d wish I could forget some things!). There have been many tear-filled days where I’ve thought about throwing in the towel - this past Wednesday being one of them, when I found out PC-Cameroon has no money to finish my house in Ngatt, which means that I’ll be living in the Bertoua case for the next 2+(?) months. Or, take days like yesterday, when  I found out that two other PCVs are moving into the tiny Bertoua case with me, which now means my hours of personal/alone time per day goes from 6 hours to 0 hours. Quite honestly, many days lately it’s hard to see the positive side of things. And the timing couldn’t have been worse - it is happening during the three days that mark the 1 year anniversary of leaving Chicago and arriving in Cameroon. What should be a time celebrating being a year into service and a year from being out of service is instead spent anxiety-ridden, stressed, claustrophobic, and feeling useless. Between eating guavas, drinking endless mugs of tea and coffee, and bouts of tears, I have thought ‘It’s been a year - and what am I doing here?!’. I try to make the best of things - like seeing if I can help at any nearby health centers as I wait to move to Ngatt, but only find that my calls and visits are being ignored. 


Despite the fact that it seems like I have far too many days where I’ve felt like throwing in the towel, something is making me stay - and that’s the hope that eventually I’ll move and my new village and future work will be more amazing than I can anticipate and will make up for 1 year of unfortunate luck. As I reflect on the past year, I’m reminded of the hard times, the good times, the times I’ve felt successful, and the times where things were just too outrageous, rediculous and funny that it was hard to believe I was experiencing it. In honor of barely keeping my sanity for the past year, here is a brief recap, in no particular order:

The Best of Times 


  • Meeting my stagemates and new friends
    4th of July in Makongoya
  • Decorating my first home!
  • Adopting my cat and falling madly in love with his adorable-ness
  • Working alongside my amazingly hardworking counterpart, Yacouba
  • English and Fulfulde lessons with Didja
  • Having afternoon baking lessons turn into an IGA for Didja’s husband
  • Seeing villagers unsuspectingly eating vegan black bean carrot brownies
  • Being the only non-Northern PCV from my stage to visit the North before it closed
  • Drinking bilbil with Spencer and Moussa in Badjouma-Centre
  • Laying in the sand and stargazing after dinners at Sali’s house in Badjouma-Centre
  • Eating fresh dates in Bertoua, Ngaoundere, and Garoua (I love dates!)
  • Introducing vegetable and fruit smoothies to Didja and Oumi and finding that they love them!
  • Teaching Minlo and the women’s group of Lomié how to make tofu, soy milk, and soy couscous
  • Camping 5 days with Spencer in the Congo River Basin/Dja Rainforest Reserve and surviving to tell the tale
  • Seeing monkeys in the Dja and hearing the cry and pounding of gorillas and chimpanzees
  • Seeing rescued chimps at the Sanaga Yang Rescue Center in Bélabo
  • Soaking up the sun beachside with Spencer at Kribi
  • Learning beekeeping and attending the beekeeping conference in Bafoussam
  • Spending the 4th of July with the Makongoya Baka pygmy encampment - population 28
  • Celebrating the end of Ramadan with Didja and her family
  • Falling in love with passionfruit and guava
  • Completing the Lomié HIV/AIDS sensitization mural
  • Starting the Baka beekeeping and soy production project at the Adjela, Makongoya and Pollidor encampments
  • Listening to traditional Baka music on homemade instruments at Yacouba’s boutique with Carlos and Remy
  • Getting sworn in as a PCV
  • Seeing the Ekom Nkam waterfalls in Nkongsamba
Beekeeping Conference

The Worst of Times
 


  • Every trip to and from Lomié on that awful road
  • Sleeping roadside and being grabbed during an 18 hour trip to Lomié during the rainy season
  • Rape threats
  • Being punched in the face by a crazy woman
  • Gender Inequality
  • Getting malaria far too often
  • Getting worms about every 2 weeks
  • Getting boils
  • Being alone or on med-hold during every holiday
  • Living in a very challenging village, and the most remote PC-Cameroon post
  • Getting evacuated from Lomié
  • Discovering that I will be homeless for 3+ months
  • Telling Yacouba, Carlos and Didja that I’m being forced to leave Lomié
  • Having my house broken into on several occasions by a cocaine addict
  • Listening to my neighbor beat her husband and children
  • Having my electronics stolen in Kribi
  • Being on consolidation and not having alone time
  • Having my kitten during PST die (his name was Sauvage or Pascale, depending on who you ask).
  • Having a really bad homestay experience
  • Having my landlady in Lomié threaten to eat my cat
  • Seeing dead monkeys on a daily basis
  • Seeing pangolins and other wild animals be beaten alive
  • Having the majority of PC-Cameroon admin be unsupportive and unreliable
  • Being sick, 90% of the time
  • Having little nourishing food to eat
  • Not pooping for 10 weeks
  • People not showing up to my meetings and projects
    Ekom Nkam Falls
The Funny Times 

  • The times I had intestinal/stomach worms, and when the worms that I’d pass would climb out of my latrine and invade my bathroom - which led to a 2am mission to exterminate all worms.
  • The time I saw my cat on the roof of my house jumping at large birds twice his size
  • Spencer’s ‘striptease’ for me in Nkongsamba to the song ‘Call me Maybe’
  • Yacouba rewarding people with candy for having malaria at my malaria education meeting
  • Getting a kangaroo pouch/pocket on one of my pagne dresses
  • Co-owning a pangalin for a day
  • Getting offered money for someone to buy and eat Métis
  • Being told, “Drink a Guinness! It gives you power!” every time I’m sick
  • Confronting the butt naked Lomié fou
  • Coming face-to-face with the Abong-Mbang fou who is covered in sharp objects and has a machine gun made of barbed wire
  • Me cutting my hand open while chopping up a guava for Spencer and I on the way back from Nkongsamba, having him laugh because he thought I was joking, me holding my bloody hand up for the remaining 2 hours of the bus ride, and then getting 4 stitches.
  • Kopo, our Baka guide, always falling (in rivers, on trails, and breaking our basket of eggs) while hiking in the Dja
  • The women who traveled with only a large bundle of sticks on the bus to Ngaoundéré bus
  • Elections for the board of the Baka Culture Group
  • Killing and eating a 90$ turkey on Thanksgiving
  • Having to hand scoop out poop from my latrine on so many occasions that I lost count

The Things I Miss 
Thanksgiving


  • Whole Foods
  • Raw food
  • Kale smoothies
  • Family and friends, duh
  • Decent coffee
  • Listening to music on Spotify
  • Delicious dark chocolate
  • Endless varieties of food
  • Scenic parts of America
  • Beaches
  • Sunny days in Chicago
  • Sitting by a fireplace during winter
  • Studying and researching and being in college courses
  • Eating out
  • Going to the movies
  • Gelato
  • Running/Gyms
  • Salads
  • Christmastime traditions

The Things I Look Forward To The Next Year 

  • Moving to my new house
  • Living close to Liz - one of my best friends!
  • Living near reported hippos
  • Living near the Lake where the best fresh fish comes from
  • Spending Fete de Mouton with Kim in Batouri
  • Eventually seeing fantasias in the Adamawa
  • Living in a majority-Muslim community (yay, less harassment and hopefully no ass-grabbing!)
  • Learning Fulfuldé
  • Living the simple life without electricity
  • Having my own space and privacy
  • Sharing another year with my adorable cat
  • A possible vacation with Spencer out of and far, far away from Cameroon
  • Seeing more of Cameroon
  • Making new friends in Ngatt
  • Getting back to work and creating projects
  • Leading the East and Adamawa Beekeeping Conference in January (the planning stage is complete!)
  • Climbing Mt. Cameroon, eventually
  • Gonging out next October and becoming an RPCV

9.07.2014

Before They Pass Away

Samburu in Kenya. Photo Credit // Jimmy Nelson
I've been consolidated in Bertoua for 1 month and 1 week - not that I'm counting. Okay, who am I kidding, I am counting. Life on consolidation is very boring. Internet is great, but it gets old. Food variety is amazing but...okay, there's no downside to that. But not having work, personal space, a house, Cameroonian friends, a daily routine, and being free to have conversations with my cat sans judgement is starting to have it's toll on me. 

The longer I'm in Bertoua, the more I'm forgetting the life I had in Lomié. While I guess some things I want to forget, other things I don't. It's saddening that with time, my memories of Lomié are becoming more dream-like. A month ago I could close my eyes and envision the sights, smells, and sounds of my neighborhood and the market, but now what happens when I try to do that, a blurry quasi dream-like image emerges which reminds me of somewhere I might've been, or I might've dreamed of - it's becoming harder to decifer the difference. The only things that remind me that yes, I indeed did live in Lomié for 8 months, is when I talk with my counterpart Yacouba, or my friend Didja (who is now visiting family in Maroua and might visit me in Bertoua in a few weeks), and Djouberou when he calls to tell me about how his patisserie is doing. If it were not for them, I'd question whether Lomié really happened or whether it was weird dream I had during one of my Benadryl-induced sleeps.

Well, here I am rambling again. The point of this post wasn't supposed to be about my life on consolidation, that will come in a later post. The point of this post was about a cool project I've found during one of my many hours of 'interneting' during my day. Lately, it seems like I'm riding a daily rollercoaster where one day I want to take Interrupted Service because I feel like I'm wasting my time waiting for my new post (and let's face it, I am wasting my time), but the next day I feel like shouting 'Hell yes I can do this! Nowhere to go but up now!'. Life in Cameroon is no longer filled with mystery, excitement, adventure and wonder. The things that once amazed me now are simply facts of life or daily annoyances. It's a sad day when you realize you stop observing the world around you with the wonder you did a year ago.

The other day while munching on Parle-Gs and peanut butter, I came across a photography project by Jimmy Nelson, a man who once traversed the length of Tibet on foot with his camera, and who subsequently photographed newsworthy topics such as Russia's involvement in Afghanistan and the Kashmir Conflict. After traveling through and photographing much of the outside world, he was inspired to create a project which he has named "Before They Pass Away". In his words:

"In 2009, I planned to become a guest of 31 secluded and visually unique tribes. I wanted to witness their time-honoured traditions, join in their rituals and discover how the rest of the world is threatening to change their way of life forever. More importantly, I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world...[this project] would provide an extraordinary view into the emotional and spiritual lives of the last indigenous peoples of the world. At the same time, it would glorify their varying and unique cultural creativity with their painted faces, scarified bodies, jewellery, extravagant hairstyles and ritual language."

While the word 'tribe' makes me cringe due to my vehement hate for the word and its depoliticized, ignorant connotation, besides that this project is amazing. All 31 groups that Jimmy Nelson visited and photographed are beautiful and unique and demonstrate the diversity and wonder that is still in our world. His photographs and written descriptions of his jouney with each group can be found on his website. I took some time the other day and scrolled through the colorful and powerful images. I was confronted with the reminder that where I'm living is anywhere but mundane, common, and boring, despite the fact that I feel that way right now. I live in a country where 'pygmies' still exist, despite the constant pressure of modern, industrial life threatening their existance. I live in a country where Fulani cattle herders continue their age-old traditions as if the current international borders are invisible.

While it is easy for me lately to dismiss people here as 'derangey' and ignore the culture around me, looking at these photos put me back on the outside and made me look at Cameroon from a new perspective. I live in a country with hundreds of ethnic groups, each with their own unique tradition. I live in a country where ancient kingdoms dated back to the 14th century. I live in a country where the world's largest pastoral nomadic group exists: the Fulani (it's insane that I knew Fulani's in Sierra Leone, and now here in Cameroon - 3,800 kilometers away). Not only that, I live on a continent that is arguably the most culturally, linguistically, and geographically diverse of the world. 

I'm challenging myself over this next year to try to keep looking at Cameroon with fresh eyes. I think being in a new, completely different region will help with that, but I'm determined not to let this experience continue to pass without me seeing the beauty around me. While it's easy to dismiss this country and its people when a man inappropriately touches me, a baby pukes on me, or when things just simply don't make sense. It's been a rough year to say the least, but this next year I want to fill with culture, new languages, and the sense of wonder that I had when I first arrived. If that means clandoing and breaking rules, then so be it. Cameroon, you are gorgeous (and ugly in so many ways), but I'm determined to focus on your beauty for the next year.

To any PCV reading this, keep looking at your community/village/region with fresh eyes to keep the excitement alive. For those in America, when you get bored by your surroundings, try to find beauty in something/somewhere you haven't noticed before. What I am reminded of when I looked at Jimmy Nelson's photography is that what is mundane to some of us, is new, foriegn, and wonderful to someone else. I'm reminded to not let myself take this experience for granted.

On your coffee break, lunch break, or before bed, scroll through Jimmy Nelson's photographs on his website and rediscover the diversity of the world we live in. While it may seem so small with the increases in technology, our world is so vast and diverse that, to me, it's incomprehensible. While so much of the world is being homogenized by technology and globalization, there are still pockets of the world which are largely untouched and who protect their culture, traditions, and heritage - and Nelson's project aims to document them - before they pass away.

Himba in Namibia. Photo Credit // Jimmy Nelson
Huli in Papua New Guinea. Photo Credit // Jimmy Nelson

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