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. 


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 

  • 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


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


Village of the Apes

Life as a IDPCV (internally displaced Peace Corps Volunteer) is quite dull, so much so that I am inventing stupid acronyms to describe my situation (such as IDPCV) and having long drawn out meowing conversations with my cat, whom I just reacquired last week after him being trapped in Lomié for a month. I spend my days in a very routine fashion - getting up, doing an hour of yoga, doing a bit of Insanity, eating breakfast, cleaning the case, and then sitting on the computer (electricity and internet permitting). It has almost been a month since I was evacuated from Lomié, and I’ll tell ya, a month of doing nothing can get insanely mundane. Not to mention, I've got worms (again), so I've been feeling pretty darn crappy lately (hence the lack of blog posts). Good news though is that my house in Ngatt apparently now has walls!

Since life in Bertoua has settled down and the novelty of internet is wearing off, I decided to check out the Sanaga-Yang Chimpanzee Rescue Center near Bertoua last week. Spencer was visiting Bertoua, since he too was evacuated a few weeks ago. Deciding that it was time we had some fun, we took the 90 minute bus to Bélabo and then an hour long moto ride through the forest to the free Sanaga-Yang Chimp Rescue.

After the butt-numbing moto ride, we arrived at the Chimp Rescue (which I accidentally kept calling the ’Chimp Farm’). Nobody was at the front gate so we continued on our way and made it to the camp. A German woman named Agnes, who oversees the reserve, greeted us. She explained that there were no guides because there was an ‘emergency’ today. I’m not sure what emergency there could possibly be, besides all the chimps escaping, which I don’t think happened. "We will find someone to take you around", Agnes said. She disappeared and a few minutes later came back with a volunteer from Nice, France. This girl was previously a secretary for the French government, but decided she wanted a break. She has spent 3 months volunteering at the Chimp Rescue and has 3 months remaining. Apparently the French government has some program where if you agree to work 10 years for the government, you can take up to 3 unpaid years off to do as you please and come back and have your job waiting for you. 

The Dominant Male

She led us around and showed us the first chimp area which had 15 chimps between the ages of 6 and 12. The dominant male of the group came charging up to us to check us out as the other chimps gathered around and played on the playground. This was by far the closest I’ve ever been to chimps before and in such a private environment. The girls explained to us about the chimps in this area, and told us about Milou, one of the chimps they rescued after his mother was killed for the illegal ape-trade and after he was taken in as a pet. After two years at Sanaga-Yang, he fell from a tree and a branch poked him in the eye, causing him to loose his eye.

As we walked to see the young chimps, one of the chimps in the area we had just seen started following us. Spencer looked at the chimp and asked, “Um, are those rocks in his hand?”. I responded, “I don’t know. What does it matter?”. Our guide said, “Yeah, I think those are rocks…” Just then, the chimp stood up, took the rocks one-by-one and began launching them at Spencer, and only Spencer. Nothing is quite as amusing as seeing a chimp chuck rocks at someone.

Milou, the Chimp who lost his Eye
The second area we saw were the caged area where the young chimps were introduced to the friendliest old chimps in hopes they would accept the young ones into their group. The young chimps would stay in this holding area until an older chimp accepts him. Adorable doesn’t even begin to describe these chimps! They were so rambunctious, loud, and playful. They swung all over their holding area, communicated with us, and did flips and tricks to impress us. After falling in love with the young chimps, we headed over to an observation tower to see the oldest and most aggressive chimps from above. When we got to the top of the observation tower, it was time for feeding the chimps. A worker came to their enclosure, called the chimps over, and gave them all baton de manioc. It was perfectly timed, not only did we get to see feeding time but we also got to see the majority of the 73 chimps at the reserve. We got a good laugh at the chimps eating baton de manioc - they eat just like all Cameroonians. I made sure to recommend to the chimps that they grill their baton to make it taste better. The chimps went crazy over the baton and a few even stock-piled their baton in their fat pockets, while other chimps wore their extra baton like necklaces.
Young Chimps

Our guide explained to us that the Sanaga-Yang Rescue Center takes in chimps whose parents have been killed or who were intended to be smuggled out of Cameroon to be sold as pets or tourist attractions in North Africa or Asia. Many of the chimps in the Rescue were found as infants, while others were rescued later in life after being locked up for years. Once the chimps are at the Sanaga-Yang Rescue, they are there for life, since reintroducing them back into the wild would mean their likely death. At the Sanaga-Yang Center, the chimps are slowly introduced to other chimps until they are adopted into an exising social group. There are 6  fenced enclosures over 2 square kilometers of land for the 73 chimps, and each enclosure has natural forest habitat which make the chimps feel as if they are in the real forest.  I was extremely impressed by the Sanaga-Yang Rescue Center, especially since they are mostly volunteer-run and sustained mostly by outside donations. In addition to the rescue and rehabilitation of chimps, the Sanaga-Yang center also works in community development by employing mostly local Cameroonians, does conservation work with the Cameroonian government, and raises awareness of the necessity to protect chimps with the nearby villages. That’s a hell of a lot of work.
Enjoying baton de manioc

On the bus ride home, I was amazed at the successful work the center had done thus far, especially in an area were the bush meat trade is so embedded in local culture and cuisine. It made me realize that my work here can be successful too, despite all the obstacles I perceive as blocking my way. Changing habits often feels impossible here in Cameroon when people do things merely because that’s how they’ve always been done. But one of the things the Sanaga-Yang Rescue center taught me is that behavior change is possible, even if it takes an impossibly long time. Another thing it taught me is that chimps are probably the cutest things ever. Seriously.

If you want to learn more about the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center or financially support their work by donating to help the upkeep of the camp, then check out their website. You can also donate items on their Wish List by mailing them to their office in Oregon, or you can also sponsor a chimp. Thanks for the support!


Busy as a Bee

My Counterparts and I - The Lomié Beekeeping Trifecta! (Jean-Paul Gouffo, Yacouba Oussmanou Njindiymoun, and I)

**Warning: A few bees and PCVs were harmed in the making of this conference

I’ve had a lot going on the last few weeks, what with being called in on medhold, evacuated, moving, settling into Bertoua etc., it has been, to put it simply, exhausting, draining, and somewhat depressing. While I know the move was necessary and far overdue, it doesn’t make it any easier to leave behind good friends and projects. Needless to say, I needed a big ole pick-me-up to renew my enthusiasm and inspiration. Thankfully, this week I got just that! I headed to Bafoussam on August 5th for a 3-day conference on beekeeping. It was a very busy three days, but it was awesome! I’ll try to summarize with not too much boring detail and I’ll try to keep my oozing excitement over the conference at a minimum.

Before I was evacuated from Lomié, I had applied for a $4,000 Feed the Future grant for beekeeping with the Baka, as I described in a previous post a while ago. My counterparts for the project were Yacouba Ousmanou Njindiyimoun (the artisan who made my bamboo furniture and who often works with art among the Baka) and Martin Atangana, a local pastor and beekeeper. For this beekeeping conference, I brought Yacouba, since he was going to be the driving force behind the project and because he has accepted me and the Peace Corps with open arms. Since I was in charge of scheduling and programming this beekeeping conference, I was also in charge of bringing someone to train on ’best practices’ in beekeeping, so I brought Pastor Jean-Paul Gouffo, who has practiced beekeeping with the Baka of the Nomedjoh encampment, which is ~20km north of Lomié, over the past 18 years. With these two extremely motivated and hardworking men, I’m confident that this Baka beekeeping project near Lomié will succeed without me needing to be present.
Kim and I Working on Our Beehive

I got to Yaoundé on Monday afternoon and on Tuesday I went to the agence de voyages to travel to Bafoussam with Yacouba. I arrived and called Yacouba who told me “J’arrive!” - I’m coming! He claimed he was in a taxi and almost at the agence, so I got in the very long line to buy my ticket, assuming that Yacouba would arrive momentarily. In typical Cameroonian fashion, he was very late. I had already bought my ticket, loaded my luggage, and was sitting on the bus when the bus tickets sold out. It was then that Yacouba arrived. My bus pulled away, but thankfully Yacouba left on another bus just 15 minutes after mine along with a CED PCV (Brian Campos) and his counterpart Mohammad, both of whom are in Ngaoundal, which is near to my new village of Ngatt.

We arrived in Bafoussam and I met up with Kim, my fellow East Regionmate, and everyone met in the dining hall for dinner. Oh man, the West is quite abundant with food that I haven’t seen for a year! It was crazy, delicious, and probably added an inch to my waistline (thank God I’m moving to the Adamawa soon). Kim had just arrived from America and I had traveled from the East, so after dinner we were both pretty exhausted and decided to catch up and then catch some ZZZs since sessions started at 7am the next morning.

After stuffing my face at breakfast and having it be filmed by some random camera man, we finally started with the sessions. Day 1 was mostly theory and other information such as history of beekeeping, health benefits, beehive designs etc. While I already knew a lot on the basics of beekeeping, I also learned quite a bit as well, such as that African bees are the most aggressive type of bees. While my counterparts, other counterparts and I disagreed with the health information being disseminated (the PCV trainer was trying to claim that honey has the same nutrient value as white sugar - wrong!), it was overall an enlightening morning.

Extracting the Combs
At the end of Day 1, everyone headed over to a local economic community-based organization who dabbles in beekeeping. Someone taught us how to make a Kenyan top-bar beehive. After watching him make one, it was all of our turns. Unfortunately, since Lomi
é is so dang far and the road is nearly impassable at this time of the year, Yacouba and Jean-Paul decided it was better to just bring the disassembled pieces of our hive to Lomié and build it there, rather than attempting to transport it. Since we weren’t building our own, Yacouba, Jean-Paul and I walked around to help others. I paired up with Kim and her counterpart from Batouri, Pascal, and we finished with success!

Day 2 of the conference was mostly practical training on how to monitor hives, extract honey, and make wax, wax candles, and wax soap. In the morning we went to a local bee farm and watched the process of checking hives, making sure everything was in order, and taking out combs whose honey was ready to be harvested. Everyone donned their long pants and shirts and their homemade bee hats. Yacouba made him and I artisan rattan hats and together we constructed the veil out of the drapes from my house in Lomi
é. I was so excited to watch the process of checking the hives. I snapped away blindly with my camera (it was impossible to see the photos through the veil, so all the photos I took were a complete surprise). There were bees all around but none had any reason to sting…yet. Tiki, the Program Manager of the Agribusiness program, didn’t have any protective clothes on and he also has a huge fear of bees. Once the bees started exiting the hives, Tiki ran away as if he was being chased by Boko Haram.

Making Wax Body Soap
We all watched the honey extraction process for a while, and at the last hive, I decided to get up nice and close to see things better. As my fate would have it, this was the time that one of the beekeepers tilted the top-bar at too much of an angle and dropped the entire comb, causing a swarm of angry bees to gather. Kim and I started backing away slowly trying to stay calm (because bees can sense fear), as we made our way out of the hive area, we picked up the pace. Just when I thought we were in the clear, a bee entered under my veil. I remained calm and shook it out, but it then decided to enter my shirt…along with another bee. I then stopped, tried to stupidly shake my shirt to get the bee to leave, but that just ended up angering him (duh, Karen), so he bit me, and then soon after another bit me on my neck. It didn’t hurt too bad, especially for being only the 2nd and 3rd stings of my life and by apparently the most aggressive bees in the world. I removed the stingers and quickly ran out of the area. While I did get bit (which resulted in the death of those two bees), the whole experience of seeing honey extraction was completely worth the pain!

In the afternoon we headed to a beekeeping cooperative and watched the process of transforming honey (I.e. removing the honey from the comb), creative wax blocks, fabricating wax candles and wax starter sheets for beehives, and finally how to make wax body soap. It ended with us sucking on fresh honey combs, which might just well have been the highlight of the conference - and almost caused a riot over who got the last few bites of the leftover comb.

The morning of Day 3 involved another field trip to yet another bee farm. We watched as homemade melted wax was spread on beehives to attract bees, and then we watched the beehive get placed up in a tree (which apparently is better than placing it on the ground). After that we all headed down to see a series of beehives. We weren’t allowed to talk and we had to go see them in groups of 7 so as not to anger the bees. When we went down, bees landed all over us, but it was awesome because all the hives were super productive and well-populated. After many photo ops with my counterparts posing among the bees and pretending to work, we left the area. When I thought I was in the clear, I lifted the veil on my hat so I could see better. And yet again, with my awesome luck, I wasn’t in the clear and another bee came up and landed right under my lip. I tried not to move and waited for it to leave, but it wouldn’t. Then, again, I dumbly tried to get under it and flick it away - and of course, it stung me, as I should've foreseen. I ripped the stinger out as I felt the throbbing arrive to my lips. At least that would be the last sting of the conference!

Brian, Kim, Mohammad, and I (and some random dude)

When we were back at the hotel and conference hall, my counterpart and invitee Jean-Paul did a presentation on his beekeeping project with the Baka in Nomedjoh. He showed videos of Bakas climbing 50 meter tall trees in the rain forest to find honey and a few other videos showing the miraculous healing capabilities of apitherapy. He also shared his experiences and successes and struggles of doing beekeeping with the Baka. Everyone loved his presentation and learned quite a lot about beekeeping in the East and about traditional Baka methods of honey foraging.

The day ended with all the counterparts and PCVs receiving certificates for attending and completing the conference. We all gathered for one large 'family' photo and then dispersed for dinner. After sessions let out, a few PCVs and I and Mohammed (the counterpart from Ngaoundal) went to the local frip to see what we could find. After walking around the market for a while and munching on some scrumptious popcorn, Kim and Pascal (Batouri), Brian and Mohammad (Ngoundal) and I and Yacouba all headed out for some shawarma. We were the trifecta team from the East and Adamawa. Pascal, Kim’s counterpart, was extremely nice and knowledgeable, already having worked in beekeeping for some time already. Mohammad is hands-down the funniest and friendliest Cameroonian I have ever met - I’ve never known a Cameroonian to have such a great sense of humor, lively personality, nor have I known any other Muslim who goes to the night clubs and ends up dancing longer than any American. Yacouba loved hanging out with all of us, and we introduced him to his first shawarma ever. The evening was great. We joked, talked about the conference, shared our ideas on future projects, and enjoyed each others company. We all decided that we are going to work on organizing an East and Adamawa region-specific beekeeping conference that will be more specific on the climatic and local needs of our regions, and at this conference (perhaps to be held early next year), our counterparts will be the trainers. We are all really looking forward to it.

Saturday morning was spent enjoying the last of the free hotel food before everyone split off in their own directions. Yacouba was going to Foumban to visit his family, Jean-Paul was going to Mbouda to visit his mom, and Kim and I were headed to Yaounde. Thankfully, Mohammad accompanied us on the extremely long bus ride back to Yaoundé - and if it were not for his humor, the bus ride would have felt a whole lot longer. It was a jam-packed three days full of endless activity (which was overwhelming) and seeing a lot of other PCVs that I haven’t seen in a while (which was also overwhelming), but it was an amazing experience. Sadly, the freezing climate of the West gave me a bad cold which lasted the entire conference and which I’m still trying to recover from, but the whole conference experience was definitely one of my best Peace Corps experiences thus far. While learning about beekeeping was amazing, I think the highlight of the entire conference was meeting Pascal and Mohammad and getting to better know Yacouba and Jean-Paul. They are such fantastic, hardworking, and motivated individuals who are so excited to start beekeeping projects and collaborate with one another in the future. It was that aspect that has renewed my enthusiasm in my work here and gave me a much needed reminder that everything is going to be OK!