11.11.2014

The Trifecta: Vaccinations, Milk, and Poop

Family Photo at One Encampment

Housseini and I recently finished our 3 day polio vaccination campaign en brousse. Given the plethora of polio cases up in the Extreme North, and the 3 cases we diagnosed in Ngatt itself, a nationwide polio campaign was launched…yet again. As I’ve previously mentioned, the experience was disappointing in the fact that it reaffirmed my opinions of the broken/outdated development system, but it was at least fun to see nearby encampments and villages and bond with some people far out en brousse, as well as amusing to see their faces when I start having a conversation with them in Fulfulde!

I’ve always criticized going on these campaigns as a volunteer - it isn’t necessary for us to tag along, since the health center staff is trained to do these campaigns themselves, but it was a great free trip to see Ngatt’s surroundings and to talk with villagers about health, my work, and America, as well as to promote my weekly group meetings in Ngatt.

The first day of the vaccination campaign took us to a Mbororo encampment and the villages of Mbizor, Wandjock and Ngaoumere. On our way to Mbizor, we stopped at a small encampment to vaccinate the 12 kids living there. Despite our stop at this encampment, I noticed that Housseini opted to skip a handful of other encampments, where I’m sure there are children (which is clearly one of the flaws of these campaigns). In addition to the polio vaccine, which is just 3 drops of liquid into a child’s mouth, we also gave out single doses of Vermox and Vitamin A tablets, which children weren’t supposed to eat the encasement, but Housseini insisted that it does no harm…I sure hope so!

After the quick encampment stop, we headed to Mbizor. Mbizor is a cute and quaint small village, but still decently large enough. Mbizor is located on Lake Mbakaou, and Housseini and I walked down to the lake to watch as fishermen made their way back to shore with their catch. We then went to the village center to wait for the children to come for their vaccinations.

After the quick campaign in Mbizor, we headed to Wandjock, a village where I had previously done a sensitization on the Oral-Fecal route, and where I had also had a great talk on behavior change. In Wandjock we handed off the vaccines and pills to the DC/relais communautiare, Amamdou, who then was going to do the vaccinations the following day.

Fishermen Arriving to Mbizor
After Wandjock we headed to another small village along Lake Mbakaou, Ngaoumere. We stopped at a small school where Amadou teaches and vaccinated the children there. Amadou too demanded the Vermox pills, which instead of swallowing, they all chew, which results in everyone's mouths being covered in a white chalky substance. It looks like a 'Got Milk?' add gone ary. 


For being so far en brousse, the youth here speak better French than anyone I encounter in Ngatt! It's refreshing to see that where there is no formal education system, there are motivated people such as Amadou, who spend their days teaching children for the betterment of their community. Amadou doesn't see any renumberation for his work, he merely does it as a service to his community. It's small stories like that which give me hope for Cameroon. 

As we approached the center of Ngaoumere, the wife of the village chief stopped us to show me the crocodile she caught in the morning and is attempting to sell. She led us to the lake to show us, and I think she was under the impression that I was in the market to buy a crocodile...which I wasn't. After asking her the price, asking when she caught it, I then told her that I couldn't possibly bring a crocodile with me the rest of the day on our campaign. She shrugged and put it back into the water. Never fear, Mr. Croc has since ended up as a pet to someone in Ngatt. Sheesh. After a short visit by the Lake, we continued to the town center, vaccinated, and headed back to Ngatt, but not before receiving some smoked fish from the chief’s wife. As a side note, the fireplace used to smoke the fish would make an awesome hearth to cook pizzas in. If only!


On our way back to Ngatt, I asked Housseini why so many villages in the Adamawa start with the prefix ‘Ngaou’. Apparently in the Mboum language, Ngaou means mountain. So all these villages that start with Ngaou, were initially settled by Mboum and usually have a hill or mountain nearby. However, I didn’t see a mountain near Ngaoumere…only lots and lots of water.

The Crock!
Day two was spent going to four Mbororo encampments located passed Ngatt’s cellphone tower. The path was very rock and bumpy, and the encampments were far! As we continued on the moto, we approached a pretty heavily forested area and a nice little steam. The first encampment met us here at the stream for the vaccinations because their village is inaccessible by road. I gave my little presentation on the importance of vaccinating for polio and used my poster I created for visuals. The women loved it, and it prompted a lively discussion for a good 10 minutes.

When we finished with them, we made our way to the other nearby encampments, whose names are too long for me to remember. The next encampment was super clean and pristine. We entered through the cattle herding pen and waited with the chief and one of his eldest wives as the children filtered in from the fields. As we packed up to leave, the old woman grabbed my arm and linked it within hers and led me deeper into the encampment, signaling me to film their land. She asked me to take a family photo with her and her grandchildren, and then the chief made me take a family photo of him with his family in front of his house. The buildings in these encampments are so clean and organized, despite being mud and clay. They are also gorgeously painted, often with artistic colorful designs on the exterior. Most encampments practice beekeeping in addition to cattle herding, so there are always a plethora of traditional cylindrical hives lying about.

Milk!
The next village proceeded in a similar fashion as all the others, but before we left, Housseini and I were fed fresh beef and milk. I was never a milk drinker in the states. I think the last sip of plain milk I ever had was in my childhood, and I’ve consumed soy milk and almond milk for at least the past 5 years. Needless to say, I was worried when I was handed the hot milk - not only was I worried the taste would be awful, but I also had no idea what fresh milk would do to my stomach. Thankfully, the hot milk wasn’t all that bad taste-wise, and I didn’t get sick afterward! It most definitely had a very ‘fresh’ taste. As for the beef, it was the freshest, most tender beef I’ve ever tasted! So delicious!

The next encampment proceeded as usual once again but as I was sitting waiting to give my sensitization schpeel I noticed one of the chief’s wives turn sideways and I saw a huge thing protruding from her chest…kind of like a unicorn horn, or a protruding 3rd nipple. As she approached, I realized, it wasn’t a unicorn horn, but rather a huge cow horn. As I tried not to stare, I wondered if she had been impaled by a cow from behind, and how much that must’ve hurt! But as I kept taking quick glances at her, I realized that that couldn’t have been an accident. Sure enough, I asked Housseini later what that was, and he explained she inserted that in her because of its power and beauty. That day was Halloween and she by far got the most perplexing and slightly terrifying costume award, in my opinion!

CAR Refugees
Day 3 was quick - we merely vaccinated the few villages that are along the main road close to Ngatt. After leaving the Mbororo encampment of Mayo Sola II, we encountered a huge group of fleeing CAR refugees with their cattle, belongings, and donkeys. Nearly every day now there are large groups that flee through Ngatt, a sign that the crisis is not winding down in the CAR. As we made it back to the main road, all the refugees’ cows poop was littered across the paved road. As I stood giving my presentation to the group, a car flew past us through the poop, and sent that manure flying - Housseini and I were drenched in cow dung. It was on our clothes, in our hair, and in Housseini’s case, on his face! We noticed rain approaching, so the chief’s wife took me in (the chief took Housseini to his hut) and we washed the cow dung off us, ate some rice in manioc leaf sauce and waited 2 hours for the storm to pass.

While I feel like the vaccination campaign is somewhat of a farce - we miss so many encampments and so many kids - it was at least a memorable trip to various encampments. I’ll always remember that trip as the one where I had my first sips of raw milk, saw a cow horn implanted in a woman’s chest, and where I took a dung bath. You never know what to expect when you live in Cameroon!

11.10.2014

Disenchantment

Gorgeous Mbororo House

It's been a while - sorry for the delay. Access to internet is pretty limited and my trips to Ngaoundere are few and far between. Life has been good, for the most part. I am still completely in love with my village. It’s very adorable, quaint, and the people are extremely kind and welcoming and pretty much interested and engaged in all the work I do. Granted, there is no food other than beignets, but I've managed not to starve to death thus far! My landlord recently asked me “What long lasting mark/gift will you leave in Ngatt, which we can always look and remember you?” - that was an intense question, especially since I still have 11 months left, and after thinking about it, I think some murals will suffice as a long-lasting parting gift.

Work has been up and down, but mostly up. I had a lot of ideas for great projects, but having less than a year left makes it a bit tough to do many of them, since the ones I’m most interested in involve grants and long time spans. I’ve started 2 groups, which are held on alternative Fridays. The first group is a girls and women group where I teach various life skills such as communication, sexual reproductive health, decision making and leadership. The other group uses the Men As Partners curriculum, and it is wildly popular - my chief even shows up to it! More on those projects in a further post. I do weekly sensitizations at the pre-natal clinics in Ngatt, which involves me spending a lot of time coloring posters. I also prep sensitizations and games for the weekly vaccination clinics health in other villages. In addition to all that, I’ve been a part of a People Living with HIV/AIDS Care Group. 



Metis is Great at Development Work
I had a bit of a falling out with the village crier, to whom I was giving English lessons in return for Fulfulde lessons. He deranged me while he was drunk one afternoon (he is literally one of the handful of people who drink in Ngatt), and I called him out on his hypocrisy of translating for all my groups, which discourage alcohol and substance abuse, and yet show up roaring drunk in the market. He took that hard and then refused to advertise for my group meetings from then on. But apparently after I called him out, so did several others throughout the course of the week, and by the end of the week, he made a resolution to cut out alcohol entirely. Since then he has been extremely motivated and hardworking, and I'm hoping he has seen as much a change in himself as I have. After our brief falling out and his sabatoge of my projects, things are now better than ever between us.

My big project lately though has been planning an HIV sensitization campaign, which finished with me submitting the grant application today. I went for weeks being hopeful and excited about the project and working with my counterpart, and then suddenly I was confronted once again with the broken development system, which has once again caused me to be disenchanted with development work. While development work’s motives and goals are all admirable, I feel (or rather, I re-realize) that its goals are as obtainable as say, Boko Haram being thwarted with a mouse trap (in other words, zilch).

Maybe I’m a cynic. Okay, no, I know I’m a cynic, but I feel like when you work in development, you have to realize that your work isn’t all that groundbreaking. You have to be ready for frustration and disappointment, and usually the days you feel great about all that you are doing, or feel truly fulfilled, just barely make up for the days you feel the complete opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Peace Corps and it’s a great cultural, linguistic, and life experience. I am learning valuable skills that will aid my future career and academic goals, but do I think that any of the work I’m doing will truly make a difference? No. I’m not that naïve. Yes, people will remember that I lived here and they will remember the things I did with them, but will they remember the day I talked about nutrition, or about the oral-fecal route, or so on and so forth? Probably not. They will instead remember me fumbling about with my Fulfulde, they will remember my red hair, they will remember my undying love for my cat, and they will remember the cakes that I baked.

While I understand that development, eradicating poverty and combating disease doesn’t happen overnight, much less over decades, I know that it will take a hell of a lot more than good-meaning and well-intentioned volunteers or development workers, well-funded NGOs, and rich development banks to make it all happen. There needs to be a grander paradigm shift, behavior change, and political and social upheaval.

Cynicism aside, development work has made strides and done great things, but for all the development work happening out there in the world, we should’ve made it a lot further than we are if the whole system was truly working. Peace Corps Cameroon prides itself in being in Cameroon for over 50 years, which yes, speaks to the relative stability of the government, but doesn’t us being here for so long (and with some volunteers being the 10th+ volunteer in their village/town) mean that something isn’t working? If the current development system worked, shouldn’t we have worked ourselves out of here already?

I’ve long studied the dysfunctional development/aid system, and it has long been one of my academic fascinations. I’ve always known the facts, and I’ve read the academic and professional critiques of the current development system. Reading about it all from my home computer in Chicago was infuriating enough, but being amidst it is something entirely different.  Despite me being on a ‘high’ from my new village, I’ve been confronted with several unnerving instances lately which have reinforced my disenchantment with development work. I’ll explain a few of them here.

The first example deals with family planning messaging. As health PCVs, we are often encouraged to promote family planning methods. Our world population growth and our increasing consumption are putting undeniable pressure on the world and its resources. Soon the world’s resources won’t meet our exponential demand, and little is being done to mitigate this problem. Many NGOs suggest that family planning in the developing world will help to prevent exponential population growth.

The problem with condom distribution and family planning in the developing world is multifold. One being that Catholicism is against birth control and family planning. Thanks to colonialism, there are many Catholics across the length of Sub-Saharan Africa, so it’s hard to convince them that the Pope is wrong, especially when he is basically giving men an excuse not to wear the pesky rubber; “Sorry babe, the Pope forbids me using a condom’ - in other words, the Catholic church is saying ‘Go forth and procreate! And spread HIV while you’re at it!’. The logic isn’t there in my opinion.

Fishermen Rolling into Mbizor
The Catholic Church isn’t the only hindrance; family planning promotion also neglects the importance of large families in most African societies. While access to family planning methods (condoms, the pill, Norplant etc.) are a problem, it’s not so much the lack of access that hinders the success of family planning methods rather than the social and economic importance of large family structures. Childlessness is a curse. Lots of children guarantee that you will be taken care of in old age, and if you have a few extra kids than you meant to, then it is merely insurance in case a few die off at a young age. Telling families to have fewer children is like telling them that they should die alone. While yes, less mouths to feed would ease the burden of food accessibility, education etc. for the family, it would also hurt the financial situation because less hands would be working the field and herding the cattle. Cultural values such as those can’t change overnight, especially if other economic, political, and societal problems have not been remedied.

Another example of the dysfunctional public health and development scene is the polio campaign I recently took part of around Ngatt. Ngatt itself has had three polio cases in the past 2 weeks, and this is in addition to the several confirmed cases in the Extreme North. Because of this, yet another polio vaccination campaign has been launched across Cameroon. Housseini and I have spent the last few days traveling to nearby villages and encampments to vaccinate and revaccinate children under 10 years old. In addition to the polio vaccines, we also gave out vitamin A supplements, and Vermox pills. The vitamin A tablets explicitly said on the bottle “Do not put the casing into the child’s mouth and under no circumstances should the child ingest the capsule”. We were supposed to open each capsule and empty the liquid into the child’s mouth, but what does Housseini do? He pops the whole capsule in every child’s mouth, even small infants, and tells them to “swallow - it’s candy“. When I confronted him about the capsules and the fact that it was not supposed to be ingested, he replied with ‘Hmm, that’s interesting. It can’t hurt that much’. Hmm, okay. We also gave out de-worming medicine. I’ve had worms enough times to know that a single pill will not de-worm you, but that is the impression we gave out.

Ride to Mbizor for Vaccinations
Other than the Vermox and Vitamin A tablets, we obviously gave the polio vaccination to all the children, since that was the goal of this campaign. What became quickly evident, however, was that in no way is there a manner to ensure that all children get vaccinated. Housseini and I rode the motorcycle to Wandjock, and on the way we passed a few paths that I’ve biked down and know there are Mbororo encampments. When I asked Housseini why we aren’t going to the encampments, he reassured me that they would be hit on the way back. Where they? Of course not. At each village we got to, children were off in the fields or with the men herding cattle, which means that we probably vaccinated 70% of the children we needed to. Additionally, there were several villages that we didn’t even try to go to because of fatigue, distance, or bad road conditions. No wonder why polio cases keep rising!

The last most recent example is my struggle getting a grant organized for my HIV testing campaign. Here in Cameroon we have specific grants set aside for HIV projects. When I began working on my grant, I asked two admin staff if I could buy 4,000 tests, and was assured I could. When I submitted my grant for review, I was quickly told that no, I couldn’t buy tests with the grant. After enough questioning, I was eventually told that the most tests I could buy is 1,000, which don’t get me wrong, is a fine number, but not the amount I needed when previous testing campaigns in Ngatt have proven that 2,500 tests are insufficient for the demand! When I demanded to know what the grant money is meant to be used for, if not for buying HIV tests, I was told it was for sexual health camps and other prevention campaigns. While prevention campaigns are all fine and good, I know that a camp might encourage a few girls to abstain or to use a condom, but the majority will continue as they would have regardless. To me, the most important aspect of HIV work is knowledge of status as a means to prevention. I think large scale testing campaigns and pre and post-counseling yields far more sustainable results that prevention sensitization. If people aren’t tested, they don’t know if they are HIV+, and don’t know if they need to actively prevent further transmission. Tests let those who don’t have HIV review their risky behavior and start on the long path to behavior change communication.  I was disheartened by the fact that PEPFAR discourages testing campaigns and would rather provide grant money to putting on camps that have little measurable benefit.

While I love the work I do in Ngatt, my Peace Corps experiences are causing me to realize firsthand the very broken aid and development system. I find myself questioning what can be done to fix the existing problems and revamp the system to be effective. I find myself wondering if development work can be effective without larger political, social and economic changes that are out of the realm of development. Is successful development dependent upon the political and social environment of the country and culture in which it takes place? While I can’t answer these questions now, I hope to someday be part of the academic community who suggest new alternatives to the broken system we have today so that perhaps someday, real strides can be made to alleviate poverty, disease, and other social woes.

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. 

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