The Soundtrack to Peace Corps Life

Many of my most memorable moments in Cameroon have occurred with the backdrop of some popular Cameroonian or Nigerian song. Car rides to and from post, laying on the beach in Kribi, sitting at shack-like bar, on the train to and from Yaounde - no matter where you are in Cameroon, there's always music playing. 2014 had some 'unique' songs and some really great hits. To give you a glimpse into what's usually playing on the radio here in Cameroon, I've compiled a list of what I believe to be the top/most-played songs of 2014 here. But if you aren't satisfied with these few songs, check check out the Top 10 Cameroon songs of 2014 over at OkayAfrica, and also the Top 10 Urban Artists to Watch Out For. WIth no further ado...

Mani Bella's song "Pala Pala" was probably the most played song in Cameroon this year, without a doubt. While she was a huge hit in the Grand South, she was even quite popular up in the Adamawa - so much so that I often catch my neighborhood girls singing "Pala Pala" while fetching water. 

Rapper Stanley Enow's song“Hein Père" was released in 2013, but it was still a huge hit in 2014. He even gave a concert in Lomie! His song was so popular, that now shirts, t-shirts, and motos are branded with the phrase "Hein Pere".

Coco Argentée's “Fallait Pas” enjoyed much radio play this year, much to Cameroonian's pleasure. Sadly, I found this song highly obnoxious, and I hated it even more when I got punched in the face while this song was playing on the car ride back to Lomie one night, which was the incident that forced me to be evacuated from my village. But, despite that, it is still a much loved song of 2014.

Okay, okay. Chidinma is Nigeria, but part of Cameroon is practically Nigeria, so let's just consider her one of our own. I think this song is super catchy, and the video quite adorable. 

Again, Davido is Nigerian, but his songs are well-loved in Anglophone Cameroon and in Douala and Yaounde. "Skelewu" is most definitely one of my favorites of 2014.

  "Aye" is another Davido song, but it was an often played song at the end of 2014, and once again - one of my favorites.


"Dorobucci" is a collaborative song among various popular Nigerian artists. The song gets much airplay in the Grand South of Cameroon. The word 'Dorobucci' means "anything that is fun, cool, awesome, or fantastic", according to Don Jazzy.

And I can't talk about Cameroonian music without repping the entire Grand North of Cameroon - whose music is drastically different than the Grand South. Pretty much all Fulfulde music sounds exactly the same - it's all extremely auto-tuned, all high pitched, and nearly all music videos are the same, which feature weddings and people sticking money on performers' foreheads. The song above is your stereotypical Fulfulde song that plays constantly on the phones of all Northerners.


A Visit to the Modibo

Modibo Sali's Compound
Last week, Ishmael, dressed in a nice boubou with a Saudi scarf draped around his shoulders and another wrapped around his face and head like a mummy, walked me down Ngatt’s main road amidst the early morning dew and cold. We slowly ambled along the side of the road, drinking in the brisk air and the rising 6:00am sun as men began taking their cows out of their concessions to let them graze on the roadside herbs. Ismael and I were heading to a man I had wanted to have a one-on-one chat with for a while: Modibo Sali. 

Modibo Sali is a regionally well-known Islamic scholar who has seen me out and about Ngatt on many occasions. A few weeks ago he walked me home one afternoon merely so he had time to converse with me in my limited Fulfulde. As he dropped me off at my home he told me, “Now I know where you live, so you have to come visit my house soon”. I figured he was just a kind, wizened Fulbe man who wanted to be hospitable, which is not uncommon in Ngatt. But a few days later, I passed him again, and Ishmael and Oumarou informed me he was a well-known Islamic scholar, and the most prominent person in Ngatt. Another few days passed and I saw Modibo Sali sitting on a roadside log with my landlord, conversing in rapid Fulfulde and watching cars pass (one of the most preferred pastimes in Ngatt). When I approached, he exclaimed to me in Fulfulde, “You still haven’t been to my house!”. I laughed and joked with him a bit, and then we arranged a meeting for me to come to visit him. “Does 6:00am tomorrow work for you?”. Sure! I was so excited to finally have a meeting with Modibo Sali. Given that I'm aiming at getting a Ph.D. focused on insurgency and terrorism, getting a better handle on Islam is definitely of interest to me - not to mention I knew Sali is Nigerian, so I was interested in getting his take on Boko Haram. I spent the night prepping questions should the conversation turn in that direction. I’m such a nerd. 

So there Ishmael and I were, walking to Modibo Sali’s house, which is fairly close to my house at the edge of Ngatt. We approached outside the greeting room/Quran study room. As we neared the doorway, Ismael and I greeted with “A-Salaam Alaikum!”, emphasizing the last syllable while bringing our right feet forward to meet our left foot and stomping it lightly against the dirt and sand floor. We took our shoes off and entered the small hut and settled down on the fuzzy prayer mats with pictures of Mecca’s Grand Mosque on them. After a few minutes, Modibo invited us into his home/bedroom where it was less drafty. 

We migrated to his other house/room, took our shoes off again, and sat cross-legged on the floor as one of Modibo Sali’s kids brought in a pot of burning charcoal for us to cozy up next to. We put our hands out over the charcoal to warm up and began getting to know each other, as BBC Hausa played on the small radio in the corner. 

Besides being an incredibly genial man, Modibo Sali is also knowledgeable and interesting. Modibo is from Yola, Adamawa, Nigeria - a town menaced by Boko Haram. Modibo Sali looked into the burning embers with his arms outstretched in front of him as he shook his head in sorrow and said in Fulfulde, “Boko Haram are bad, and they threaten my dear home”. In his youth, Modibo Sali moved to Kano, Nigeria (another town frequently the victim of Boko Haram attacks) to study Islam under Imam Ibrahim Niass’ family. 

Imam Ibrahim Niass is the leader of the Tareeqa al-Tijaniyya al-Ibrahimiyya branch of the Tijānī Sufi order within the Sunni sect of Islam. Ibran Niass is from Senegal, but his branch of Islam has spread past the borders of the senegambia and throughout North and West Africa. On one of his trips to Mecca, the Emir of Kano Nigeria at the time, Alhaji Abdullahi Bayero, decided to become a disciple to Niass. At this time, Imam Niass gained a huge following in Northern Nigeria that has since spread throughout the Grand North of Cameroon. Now his picture with his bushy white chinstrap beard is posted on stickers in nearly every taxi in the Adamawa. 

Thirty years ago, after studying under Imam Nass’ family for a decade, all the while learning Hausa and Arabic, Modibo Sali decided to travel to Cameroon. He traveled around the Tibati area and realized there was no Modibo (Islamic scholar) in western Adamawa. When he visited Ngatt, he fell in love with the village and decided to stay. Now Modibo Sali is the most prominent Islamic scholar in western Adamawa, and all the Imams come to him if they have questions. In Ngatt, Modibo Sali has the largest Quranic school and our mosque’s Imam studies under him.
Modibo's Compound

Time was running short before his Quranic class began, so Modibo Sali and I didn’t talk as long as I wanted (which would have been all day), but he invited me back for more tea and discussion when I return after the holidays. Even though our discussion on Boko Haram was kept short this time, he told me a bit about the micro-level response to Boko Haram where he’s from in Northeastern Nigeria. He explained to me the about the dambanga, who are the traditional vigilante forces in Northestern Nigeria and the Grand North of Cameroon. 

In Ngatt we have the chief dambanga of all western Adamawa, who coordinates the vigilante response to any security threats. In Ngatt the Dambanga survey the town at night, making sure no mischief is occurring, they take care of the road bandits, and they make note of foreigners in Ngatt. If anyone arrives in Ngatt that looks like they are outside of the Tibati area, the dambanga alert the sous-prefet. The dambanga were created a little over a decade ago when road banditry was at its apex, and now that banditry is less common, they now deal more with thievery and protecting from Boko Haram and any problems the CAR refugees bring with them.
The dambanga in Ngatt are nearly the same thing as the vigilantes fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria. Where the government falls short in terms of security and protection, the village responds by sending out the dambanga. Given that the Nigerian government and military are both severely lacking and under equipped, the vigilantes step in. 

While it’s a bit strange that the military isn’t effective in protecting against Boko Haram despite their guns, tanks and what have you, the dambanga have what they believe to be a more effective weapon: blendé. Blendé is a traditional witchcraft-y ‘remedy’ that is found in the forest, which the dambanga collect and rub all over their body, smoke, and grind to drink. This ‘remedy’ supposedly makes the dambanga ‘invinsible’. During the bandity days of Ngatt the bandits would drop their weapons and surrender at the mere sight of the blendé-protected dambanga. My landlord and friends argue they’ve seen knives bend when someone tries to stab a dambanga. Bullets, grenades, knives - all these are supposedly useless against the dambanga, or so all the villagers say. 

Modibo Sali explained this all to me, and how this is making the dambanga “effective” in combating Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria - at least when compared to the government army. He also explained to me that it is a common belief among both Cameroonians and Nigerians that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathnan is behind Boko Haram in order to induce chaos in the North to discourage voter turnout in order to turn the election in his favor. They claim Jonathan fears stability and development in northern Nigeria because it would threaten his hold on power and his interests, and while Jonathan might not like Boko Haram’s ideology, he is using them opportunistically to secure the February election. 

While the validity on all that is debatable, although not absurd, it was interesting to hear a local interpretation on the root causes of the conflict. Modibo Sali explained to me that “President Jonathan, poverty, lack of education and misinterpretations of the Quran” are at fault for the creation and strength of Boko Haram. Modibo Sali is a treasure trove of information and opinions, and he was enthusiastic to share his knowledge with me. Around 7:30 children began filtering in the study room with their small chalkboards with Arabic written on them, and they began to sing verses of the Quran. We took that as our cue to leave and bid our goodbyes to Modibo. 

I look forward to the next 9 months I have to pick Modibo’s brain and to learn about Islam and Nigeria. The more time I spend in Ngatt, the more and more I learn that while it is a small village, it has a cast of very interesting characters.


Post-War Sierra Leone and Ebola: The Perfect Storm?

Level of Urbanization in Freetown, Sierra Leone April 6, 1985 (left) and February 9, 2011 (right)
The Pink Areas Signify 'Urbanized'/'Built-Up' Terrain and the Green Represents Forested Terrain
The rate of urbanization in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is increasing rapidly. Urbanization is defined as changes in land-cover and land use of a predefined area from being considered ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘developed’ or ‘built-up’. One of the drivers of this rapid urbanization is the fact that many people who once inhabited rural areas are now migrating to the cities for (perceived) better pay and more opportunities.

In 2008, half of the world’s population was living in towns identified as being ‘urban‘, and it's estimated that between 2000 and 2030, urban populations will grow by at least 175%. Furthermore, although this rapid urbanization is occurring worldwide, the fastest rates of urbanization are occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Statistics show that in the 1950s, Africa’s urban population grew 15%, while in the 1990s it grew 32%, and it is projected that by 2030 between 54% and 60% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population will live in urban areas.

Urbanization has many benefits for those seeking better living  standards and increased access to income generating opportunities, but as the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has shown us, increased urbanization also has significant risks and drawbacks. In the area of public health, increased urbanization aggravates existing health problems and increases chances of contamination of contagious diseases. In small villages, contagions can be quarantined and controlled, but in urbanized areas, disease is much more difficult to control.

I’ve been reading up on the West Africa Ebola outbreak over the past year, not only because it’s the biggest public health problem of the day, but also because I lived and worked in Sierra Leone on 4 different occasions and I still feel connected with the country that sparked by interest in Africa. Ebola has significantly changed Sierra Leone from the country that I knew during my most recent visit 3 years ago. Since the Ebola outbreak, my Sierra Leonean friends have changed their lifestyles, lost loved ones, and in the case of my friend Bella Baldeh, changed occupations from being a maternity nurse to owning an Ebola care and supply center in Bo, Southern Province.

It seems as if Sierra Leone makes the news only when misfortune hits. For those who don’t know much about the tiny West African country, it has a population smaller than New York and a landmass smaller than the state of South Carolina. The capital is Freetown and it sits on the Western Area peninsula.  Sierra Leone suffered from a decade long civil war, which ended in 2002. Both during and after the bloody civil war, many people fled their villages to Freetown in order to escape their destroyed villages and in order to have increased access to more opportunities in the capital. 

Most Affected Provinces in West Africa via CDC
However, Freetown's urbanization was hasty, which resulted in the development of shoddy permanent residences and a plethora of of decrepit slums. For public health, rapid and haphazard urbanization results in poor health and unsanitary conditions, which makes it difficult to control contagious diseases, as evidenced in the 2012 cholera outbreak during my last visit to the country and the current Ebola outbreak.

After the end of the civil war, Freetown’s population continued to steadily rise and so did it’s level of urbanization. But how has this urbanization affected the Ebola outbreak? Sierra Leone is now the West African nation with the most number of Ebola cases (over 10,000 and counting), and Freetown (the Western Area) is the hardest hit area of Sierra Leone in terms of confirmed cases. So it begs to be asked: if the civil war didn’t encourage such hasty urbanization, would Sierra Leone have fared better in this epidemic?

While many geographers are concerned with urban sprawl in the developing world, few, if any, have studied Freetown, Sierra Leone. Back in college, I chose this case study to explore, which showed significant increase in urban sprawl and built-up areas between each set of dates, particularly in the post-war period between 2000 and 2011. For example, between 1985 and 2000, the city built the peninsular road, which runs along the western coast of the Peninsula and is evident in the image to the left as the green line extending along the coast. Also between 1985 and 2000, there has been significant development in the Lumley area of Freetown, which can be seen in image to the left as a large green swath depicting positive change in the upper center of the peninsula. The area of growth and development is estimated to be around 995,029 square meters.

Between 2000 and 2011 there was a significant increase in developed settlements on the interior of the peninsula, in the area known as Hill Station and New Freetown. This change is shown in image to the left as the large blue area of change in the upper center of the peninsula, which is next to the development in Lumley discussed in the previous paragraph. The area of this recently built-up portion of the city is estimated to be around 5,832,076 square meters – in other words nearly five times the size of the built-up area of Lumley that occurred between 1985 and 2000.
Freetown Urbanization 1985-2011

It should be noted that both of these settlements and much of the large land changes that occurred did so along the periphery of the city limits, often being built on formerly forested land. It can be assumed that land is being built-up on the periphery because the interior of the city is already densely inhabited. Furthermore, the hilly terrain of the capital makes building in many areas dangerous, especially with landslides. The built-up areas that developed in Lumley and Hill Station have encroached on the forested mountains of the interior of the peninsula, encroaching closer to natural landmarks like the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It can be argued that if Freetown’s urban sprawl continues as it has in the past three decades, then in the coming decades, some of the peninsula’s biodiversity may be lost or in danger from development and the conversion of forest and mountainous areas to built-up areas.

As a result of urbanization and urban migration, Freetown is being pushed to the limits, both in terms of physical size and in population. The ever increasing population hastens construction and creates unsanitary living conditions, which aggravates contagious disease. I'm sure that even if the war never occurred, Freetown's population would have nonetheless increased. However, due to the mass arrival of people in the post-war period, construction in Freetown is lackluster and the city planning is poor. Had Freetown's population growth been better planned and at a slower pace, perhaps the city would be cleaner and better developed, which would arguably mean that Ebola would not have been so easily spread. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. Let this serve as a warning to other cities experiencing rapid urbanization in the developing world. One of the many lessons the current Ebola epidemic teaches us is that urbanization and city planning need to be taking seriously in public health. If further neglected, this may not be the last unnecessary public health tragedy.


Have Yourself a Very Kribi Christmas

Happy holidays from Cameroon! I'm writing from my lovely beach side hotel in the coastal town of Kribi, South Region as the waves crash against the shore and the air is filled with the scent of salt water. Oh, I love it! I'm one of the few (only?) volunteers who isn't traveling out of Cameroon during their service and won't have family or friends come to visit me either. I'll be the first to admit that it is very hard. I'm homesick, miss my friends and family, and also just get a bit tired of the same old same old here in Cameroon. Seeing as I've also been completely stationary at my posts besides traveling for banking or my beekeeping conference last August - I haven't traveled around Cameroon at all! 

So as a Christmas and New Years present to myself, I decided to chop a lot of money and spend the holiday season sipping tequila sunrises on the beach with a good book and surrounded by a few of my closest friends. I deserve it after the year I've had! While I could wax poetic about the garlic curry shrimp and French cheese pizza I ate, or the colorful cocktails I drank, or how warm the ocean water was, I'll save my breath and instead focus on doing mostly a photo post for this one. 

On one of the beaches there was this cute little spot to eat fried breadfruit, drink coconut water out of the coconut, and eat freshly caught shrimp. After drinking a sufficient amount of boxed white wine on the beach all day, we decided it was best to hydrate and go for the coconuts. Hot damn, nothing tastes as good as that - and if you needed proof, just check out Liz in the corner of this picture with her face stuffed in her coconut.

Our Kribi Christmas group. That's Brian, who is in Ngaoundal, Liz in Danfili, and I. We represent half of the best cluster in Cameroon (perhaps I'm biased). I couldn't ask for better friends or clustermates - I'm so lucky! If one needed proof as to how amazing my cluster is - when I got stung by a jellyfish on Christmas day (what more of a Christmas present could I have expected given that I always have some health problem here), Liz immediately cracked open the box of wine and melted dark chocolate for my immediate consumption, knowing that was the best remedy, and Brian offered to pee on my leg, not once, but several times. Seriously, what better friends could one ask for?!

Brian led us on a shoreline hike from our beach to Lobe falls. Along the way we found neatly decorated ship.

Kribi is the tourist hub of Cameroon now that the Extreme North isn't safe. As a result, there's an abundance of art and handicrafts for sale. While they're all knockoffs, the African art history nerd in me was eating up the visual feast while impressing the vendors about my knowledge of Benin bronzes, Yoruba twin figures, and Congolese headrests.

This warrants a bit of a story. This ship is from Lagos, Nigeria and was pirated by Nigerian pirates off the coast of Cameroon. Sadly, the boat was already in bad shape, so the pirates were easily caught and brought ashore. Liz and I went to go take some photos of the boat, and after about 5 minutes of taking pictures in front of a gendarme, he decided only as we were walking away to tell us that taking pictures is 'forbidden' - as if the fact that I was taking pictures would be the only proof there is piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. Ha, he wishes.

Some nearby Cameroonians chewed the self-important gendarme out, and I whipped out my now rusty East Region sass (which was aided by the half a box of wine Liz and I shared shortly beforehand) and I gave the gendarmes a piece of my mind. He wasn't pleased. He made me open my camera and delete all the pictures, but I was sneaky and kept this one. The next day, there was no gendarmes patrolling the abandoned ship, go figure. 

A beautiful view of Lobe Falls, which are far more beautiful when I saw them last dry season. A perfect end of the Christmas portion of the trip. Up next: Kribi New Years with Pax and Amy!


The Magic Lake in Mbella Asso

Hollowed out log pirogue
I've been pretty stationary in and around village, and haven't yet traveled much or done any sightseeing in the area since I've been so busy integrating, getting settled, and getting projects launched since my move. But now that I'm finally getting everything in order, I want to start exploring my beautiful arrondissement and region. The other day it was my friend and clustermate Liz's birthday, so I made the dusty trek out to see Danfili (her village) and fete with her and two of my other amazing cluster mates (Alex in Mbakaou and Brian in Ngaoundal). Danfili is a large village compared to Ngatt, but it is still without electricity; however, their food options are far more extensive than Ngatt. Danfili reminds me a bit of my old village in respects to size.

Since plans were rescheduled at the last minute and because all the food I had pre-made had gone moldy (yikes!), I woke up at 3am, worked out, and remade the banana bread cake and a Moroccan salad then grabbed the 7:30 bus to Danfili. We had arranged a picnic out at a lake in Mbella Asso, the village just next to Danfili. In the afternoon heat, we motoed out to Mbella Asso and whipped out the food. Unfortunately Liz was a bit sick, so we took it easy and relaxed in the adorable, tranquil gazebo that sits on the water's edge.

The scenery was gorgeous and calm. All the savanna grass around the lake was recently burned in order to avoid a forest fire, so the ground was an ominous, scorched black. Cattle herders walked their cows back and forth between the gazebo and the brousse and children who had just finished fishing with homemade rods began to gather around the gazebo and stared at us until they got bored, which was a bit too long for our liking.

Mbella Asso is also known as the "Magic Lake", though we aren't sure why. It does have quite the magical feel with the scorched earth, fog/smog from the savanna burning, and the mountains that flank the lake (which were obscured by the fog during this trip). The lake is also known to have a hippo population, although sadly we saw none on this trip. However, a week earlier, a family who were fishing on a homemade boat were killed (and eaten) by a group of hippos, so perhaps the hippos merely weren't showing face because they were still full.

Cattle Walking across the Scorched Terrain

We chatted, ate, promenaded around the waters edge, did some bird watching (much to Brian's dislike), and observed the cattle herders and fisherman in their hollowed out log pirogues. The highlight of the afternoon was probably the drugged Fulbe cattle herder. Yes. You heard me.

Liz and I recently discovered from our counterparts that there is this pill that the Mbororo cattle herders take, which makes them, um, enjoy their day long walks en brousse. While the drug might be temporarily 'fun' to these herders, it is actually quite dangerous, which I guess could be said about most drugs. Around Ngatt, there have been several deaths recently where fishermen have died because their boat had capsized and, because of the drugs, they didn't have the wherewithal to get to shore. There have also been reported deaths by cattle impaling the herders, which have again been attributed to these drugs. The drug (whose name I'm forgetting) is secretly sold in most boutiques around town, but it's highly illegal. But it's not like anyone is going to catch the store owners who are selling them, because there is no police force in or around Ngatt.

Such Tranquility

Anyways, this Mbororo man was walking around near the gazebo and he was clearly high on these drugs. He was walking aimlessly around, usually in the opposite direction of his cattle, and he kept spontaneously breaking out in dance. Not just little dance moves, like, I'm talking a full on dance. At one point he continuously danced for 7 minutes straight. At first we thought he was perhaps dancing to get our attention, but then we realized he didn't even so much as glance in our direction. He had no idea we were watching him. He was just in the zone and enjoying having a big, open dance floor to himself. We joked with Liz that we got her a stripper for her birthday because right after this dancing fiasco, the man stripped naked and waded into the Lake, which probably wasn't the smartest idea given the combination of drugs and deadly hippos, but, to each his own!

When our entertainment was over, read: when the dancing cattle herder left, we decided to head back and call it a night. It was a really beautiful day which reminded me how lucky I am to have such an amazing cluster and beautiful region.

Beginning to Dance. I Call this Dance Move the 'Wheres-the-Latrine?' 

Where'd He Learn the Macarena?

And He Just Keeps Going...

Bird Watching

Vibrant Lily's on the Lake

The Adorable Lakeside Gazebo