The Link between Fishermen and HIV/AIDS

My time has been completely consumed lately by my HIV/AIDS project that I’m getting started. I’ve been attempting to link my HIV/AIDS sensitization curriculum to all the other groups I’ve created and work with on a weekly basis. I’ve been going village to village to educate people on the basics of HIV and why they should be tested; and I’ve been busy at home drawing posters, making pre- and post-test counseling sheets, and creating an HIV Support Group Curriculum and Manual for the support group that I’ll create after my testing event, but also for future PCVs to use. Needless to say, my free time that I used to spend reading, studying for the GRE, or researching PhD programs has shrunk to nearly nothing.

Thankfully, however, I love work. While I value free time, I like being busy, having deadlines, and being under a bit of pressure. I function best in that environment. I’ve been trying to delve my heart and soul into this HIV/AIDS project not only because I want to do one big project such as this during my service, but more importantly because it’s extremely needed in my community.

Ngatt, while being a mostly conservative Muslim and Fulbe small village in the Adamawa, is a bit unique in its high HIV prevalence rate. And while official figures are lacking, I’d even hazard a guess that the area around Ngatt has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the Adamawa, mostly likely comparable to the areas around large transit towns like Meiganga (near the border of the East Region and the Central African Republic) or Ngaoundal (the 2nd largest train stop between Ngaoundere and Yaounde). 
Pirogues in Wandjock
Why is the Ngatt area so affected by HIV if it’s not a very populated area? The population of the Ngatt health area is at most 5,000, and Ngatt proper’s population is around 1,500, with half of those being children under 12. And why is the prevalence rate so high if the culture is relatively conservative? The answer lies in the area’s largest industry: Fishing. The Ngatt area has a lot of cattle, and our cattle market is well-known throughout the area, but fishing is where the real money is, where the layperson can make a good wad of cfa during a few months of the year when Lake Mbakaou is dammed and open to fishing.

Lake Mbakaou is the largest lake in the Adamawa, and it supplies fish all throughout Cameroon. Besides Kribi, Lake Mbakaou is arguably the second largest supplier of fish. From around January to end of April, Lake Mbakaou is dammed and all the fishermen (both men and women) come from around the Adamawa (and Cameroon as a whole) to catch large tilapia, mackerel, and capitaine. From August to November, fishing in the lake is forbidden so that it isn’t over-fished. When the lake is finally dammed and opened to fishing, the lakeside village’s swell with an influx of fishermen food and alcohol vendors and prostitutes.

The Ngatt health district's HIV prevalence rate is between 10-12%, around 3 times higher than the overall Cameroon average of 4.5%. Cameroon has many groups that are considered ‘high risk’ populations, including prostitutes (in many cities, prostitutes are just a dollar), military, and truck drivers (because they are often stuck en route and find comfort in the arms of a warm prostitute). What is often missing from the list of ‘high risk/at risk’ populations is fishermen, which is very relevant and important to explaining my area’s high HIV prevalence. 

The link between fishermen and HIV isn’t new, but it is significantly lacking research. In fact, some of the earliest recorded HIV cases were around the Lake Victoria area in 1982. Yet despite this, many organizations have failed to consider fishermen among groups whom they consider at-risk.

While there is still much research needed to be done, many organizations have set out to begin researching the link between fishermen and HIV prevalence rates. The findings are somewhat shocking, but would explain why the Lake Mbakaou area has a high prevalence. Research has begun to show that in low and middle-income countries, fishermen are between 4-14 times more likely to have HIV than the general population. In studies conducted in Kenya, Uganda, and DRC, HIV prevalence rates among fishermen were on average 25%, which is around 5 times higher than the prevalence rates of the general population. In the same study, researchers discovered that HIV rates (in prevalence and in absolute numbers) were much larger in fishermen than in truck drivers, a well-known high risk group, and other at-risk groups including injection drug users, military, and prisoners (see graph).

According to Ann Gordon in the report “HIV/AIDS in the Fisheries Sector in Africa”, there are several reasons as to why fishermen are more at risk of HIV. A few of these reasons include:

·         Fishermen are normally young adults (15-35), which is the age group most vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases. And ISTs increase one’s chance of getting HIV.
·         Fishermen are migratory, and therefore are less constrained by traditional social and family structures. For example, the Lake Mbakaou fishing season is February-June, so those who participate in fishing are away from their ‘home’ for many months and are more likely to participate in risky activities, such as prostitution.
·         Fishermen are considered as having a sizable disposable income and time off, which allows for plenty of opportunities to drink alcohol and participate in risky sexual practices.
·         In fishing communities, it is common for a small number of women to have sex with a large number of men, which increases ones chance of being exposed to HIV.
·         In fisheries where women participating in the catch, it is not rare for women to trade fish for sex.
·         Gender inequality and poverty make it difficult for women to insist on condom use.
·         Given the remoteness and seasonality of fishing communities, the availability of condoms and sexual health resources in fishing communities is often limited

The effects of HIV on fishing communities are multifold. For fishermen who contract HIV, they are no longer as productive, especially if they don’t adhere to their ART treatment and fall sick frequently. For families with an HIV+ member, many of their resources will go towards the care and treatment of their sick family member. And for the country as a whole, when entire fishing communities are ravaged by HIV/AIDS and the problem is large enough, then access to fish decreases, which then increases food insecurity and hurts the national economy.

In order to lower the prevalence of HIV among fishing communities, there needs to be better prevention, more access to testing/care/counseling/and ART adherence and better mitigation of poverty. I’ve created my project to address all three of these criteria in hopes that this project will actually make a difference and be sustainable. For increasing prevention methods, I’m addressing this by educating all the fishing communities in my area during their most-active season on the transmission and prevention of HIV as well as the importance of voluntary testing. With increased education among this at-risk population, I hope they will adopt the practices of using condoms and getting tested on a regular basis.

Furthermore, the access to condoms is non-existent in my area. If you want to buy condoms, you have to travel to either Tibati or Ngaoundal, which is an expensive trip for the average person. I’ve started a small condom stock at the Ngatt health center, which they will sell at normal market price (3 condoms for 20 cents). While condoms won’t be available in all villages, it’s my goal to make them at the very least accessible in Ngatt, where everyone from all the villages come at least once a week on market day to buy food for the week, sell their fish, or go to the health center for treatment. With condoms readily available in the Ngatt health center, everyone should be able to buy them if they want them.

Secondly, to address testing/care/counseling/and ART adherence, I’m leaving my health center with a supply of HIV tests so that they can continue an annual testing campaign. Furthermore, I’m creating an HIV+ support group which will meet bi-monthly to discuss mental and physical health and to monitor their adherence to their ART. The support group manual I’m creating will ensure the sustainability of the project so that my health center staff has a list of lesson plans and resources to ensure the longevity of the group.

Finally, my HIV campaign will address the mitigation of poverty by teaching various income generating activities to my HIV+ support group. They will learn and adopt these practices and teach them to other women who work in fishing communities so that the income disparity between men and women will begin to shrink, which will allow women to turn away from prostitution and empower them to use condoms.

Addressing the problem of HIV among fishing communities in my area is imperative for the continuation of the fishing industry, and also for the continuation of a healthy population. I’ve got my fair share of work cut out for me, and the majority of it won’t be easy since it deals with behavior change and communication. By the time I leave Cameroon, my project will just be barely getting its feet off the ground, but I hope that at least the ball will be rolling and perhaps a decade down the road my health center will start noticing the positive changes.


Spreading the Word (HIV Campaign: Phase 1)

Sensitizing Nyongock Village on Transmission of HIV

After three months of being deplacé because of a myriad of medical problems, I’m finally back at it in Ngatt: Eating gombo sec and couscous, talking about HIV, and kicking butt. My PEPFAR grant money finally arrived (it took a few months longer than expected). I went to Ngaoundere last week to pick up the nearly $2,000USD from the bank, and then I went on a huge shopping spree where I dropped nearly that entire sum, but not on anything fun like pagne or leather wallets, but rather on condoms, 1,550 HIV tests, syringes, gloves, and seeds for the community garden that the future HIV Support Group will create.

My testing campaign will be a protracted campaign, not a large 1 day event like the annual Race of Hope testing day in Buea that happened on Valentine’s Day. My campaign will go to 8 villages around Ngatt, and we’ll test about 2 villages a week over the course of 3 weeks. My campaign is more of a no-thrills villageouis campaign since none of the villages will have electricity and resources here are limited. There sadly won’t be music or videos to pump people up and get them excited about testing themselves for HIV, no, instead they are stuck with me, who will be trying my best to get people excited through low-resource games and a dozen hand-drawn pictures about the immune system, transmission methods, prevention methods and stigmatization. 
A Group of Fisherfolk and Gica
My campaign will start with a 2 day testing event on March 26-27 in Ngatt, and given the 26th is a market day and the 27th is a prayer day, we are hoping for a big turnout. Thankfully, Spencer is coming up to help with the testing in Ngatt, but his secondary job will be to keep me sane. Then on the 28th we’ll head to the somewhat large fishing village of Wandjock, which sits at the edge of Lake Mbakaou. The lake is currently dammed, so all the fishermen throughout the Adamawa come to catch tilapia, mackerel, and capitaine, and hope to not get eaten by a hippo in the process. But the influx of fishermen also means the influx of femmes libres and bordels - yes, prostitutes.  Women come from near and far to sell gin, vodka, and whiskey sachets to the fishermen (and women) during the day, and then other women come out at night and sell a very different service to the inebriated men.

Wandjock is the largest fishing village, but it isn’t the only one. We are also going to test Mbizor, a village a little further to the west on Lake Mbakaou, Nyongock, a bit to the east of Wandjock, and Ngaoumere, which is right near Nyongock. In addition to these at-risk fishing villages, I’m also doing a testing day in Kandje, a village between Ngatt and Danfili, and a cluster of Mbororo encampments that have a history of rampant STIs and HIV (Gan Laka, Mayo Solla, and Djaro Garga).

It’ll be an exhausting campaign and I receive mixed reactions when I tell locals about the campaign. Some people reply with “Yes! We need this! I’ll be the first in line!” to “Nobody will show up to that, especially if they know they are at risk of being HIV positive!” This gives me the difficult task of convincing everyone that it’s better to know your status, get started on the free ARVs, join my support group and increase their chances at a long healthy life, and to remind them that not  knowing their status will only make their lives more costly and short. While I’m hoping for the best turnout possible, I’m also trying to be realistic and remind myself that this is Cameroon, and things never quite go according to plan. Thankfully, in a two hour long village wide door-to-door survey my translator conducted yesterday, we got the names of at least 200 youth who will show up on the Ngatt testing day, not counting adults and children.
Lake Mbakaou in Mbizor
Even if all 1,550 tests don’t get used, we are leaving them at the hospital so that people can come on their own and get tested. I also figure that at the very least, if not everyone gets tested, at least the conversation about HIV and STIs has been started and is hopefully less of a taboo subject, which, I hope, will  encourage people to talk about risk factors and prevention methods.

In order to get the word to each village that they have a free testing day coming up, I traveled to Wandjock, Mbizor, Nyongock and Ngaoumere to give a brief education session and to inform them on the date of their testing day. I traveled by moto with Gica, the security guard at the hospital who I have a love/hate relationship with. I love Gica because he can translate for me and does good work when he is motivated. But far more often I get frustrated with Gica because he whines about not being compensated, is a bit too over-the-top for most Fulbe to appreciate, and he is 80% of the time drunk.

After scheduling our sensitization day for last Friday, Gica blew me off to get drunk at 8am. We rescheduled for Saturday and headed out to Mbizor. Mbizor is a small fishing village, with a mostly Gbaya population. Our sensitization went well. We had about 60 total men, women and children show up to learn about HIV/AIDS and the importance of being tested. After our presentation, we headed down to the Lake where I watched the fishermen as Gica pounded back some Gin sachets, claiming that he drives the moto best when under the influence of alcohol.

After a brief lecture by me about how I don’t want to be driven around by a drunkard, Gica finally decided to stop drinking and get back on the road. Our next stop was Nyongock, a small little fishing village of only perhaps 2 dozens people. We educated around half the village, and they got quite a kick out of my condom demonstration on my wooden penis. The by now tipsy Gica tried to help me convince people they need to get tested by sharing his own personal story, which went something like this: “HIV is like playing a game of chance. I’ve had sex with over 10 women who’ve died from HIV and I still haven’t gotten infected! I’m starting to lose faith in my blood now, so we’ll see what my HIV test says in a few weeks! If it’s positive, then I’ve lost the game of chance. If it’s negative, I would argue that I can’t catch HIV!”
Amadou teaching about HIV
It wasn’t exactly the message I wanted spread. First of all, Gica was somewhat promoting risky behavior by claiming he has had sex with 10 HIV+ women. Secondly, he was making it seem as if certain people are immune to HIV, which is also not the message I want to be spreading. When one man asked why he knew a man with HIV who died, but his wife never became infected, Gica told the man that some people are immune to HIV. I quickly tried to backtrack from Gica’s damage by explaining that we don’t know if the married couple was having sex, or if they were using protection, etc. But Gica kept interrupting me telling them that she must’ve just been immune.

After I scolded Gica a bit about doling out false information, I talked with the village health mobilizer about getting the word out about the testing dates. He agreed, wished me luck, and sent us on our way to Ngaoumere.

Ngaoumere is a village that is nearly non-existent in non-fishing season, but now it is a bustling little fishing town. Gica and I stopped to say Sanu to the female chief of Ngaoumere before heading to the education sessions. Gica by this time was pretty inebriated, and started to take off on the moto before I was on, resulting in me getting my right calf a little burnt. After a far more serious lecture from me about how I have no faith and confidence in him anymore, we took off far more slowly.

In Ngaoumere we had a very large turnout. I met with the women first in a small little room. There were about 20 females overall, with about 10 being adults. When I finished the meeting with the women, I went outside and educated the nearly 25 men milling about before prayer. The message was widely received, although one man tried to argue with me telling me that the condoms I was using for my demonstration were not the “originals” and therefore less effective…whatever that means.  

It was an exhausting day of educating somewhat difficult populations in the hot dry season sun, but overall it was a good start to my campaign. We educated nearly 200 people on the transmission and prevention of HIV as well as the importance of voluntary testing. While Gica was more of a nuisance than a help, I’ve recently found more motivated and sober men to translate and work with. Here’s to an exhausting but hopefully successful month!
Part of the Men's Group I Sensitized in Ngaoumere


The View from Rabat, Morocco

Kasbah de Oudaïa
I apologize for the large break in communication throughout January and February; I was on ‘med-hold’ in Yaoundé for the entirety of January, as local doctors attempted to decipher my 10-month-long mysterious malaise. When my health problems boggled every specialist in existence in Yaoundé, Peace Corps decided it was best to send me to our regional medical office in Rabat, Morocco, to see if they might have any idea what has been plaguing my right arm for half the year.

So, with a mix of trepidation and excitement, I flew to Rabat in early February. Since I arrived in Cameroon, I haven’t left the country and nobody has visited me, and I didn’t have a trip planned either; so needless to say, this trip to Morocco was quite unexpected and nerve-wracking.

Why nerve-wracking? Well, after 17 months of no interaction with the outside world, one can become a bit…villegeois. For example, back in September I had my first interaction with an elevator in over a year, and do you know what happened? I got lost…in an elevator for goodness sakes! In my defense, it was all very confusing given that the buttons were located on the outside of the elevator, so what ensued was me joyriding on the elevator for a good 5 minutes before I realized I had to get out, select a floor, and then step in. Needless to say, after an experience like that, I was very concerned about what would happen when I stepped back into the outside world.

Thankfully, my travels weren’t too eventful. I was terrified of the flight, as always, but I only made one faux pas on the plane ride when attempting to order coffee. I got only temporarily lost in the Casablanca airport before the security officers in the international departures terminal turned me around and redirected me to the arrivals terminal (but not before I already had made it through security). A local driver holding a sign with my name on it greeted me and as soon as I made eye contact, he was off running in the direction of the car. Baggage laden, I jogged behind him and it began to set in that I’m not in Cameroon anymore.

If it hadn’t set in at the airport, it sure set in during the car ride from Casablanca to Rabat, Morocco’s capital. First of all, the air was crisp and cool instead of heavy,
humid, and hot; everything in sight was clean and trimmed; the road was full of nice Peugeots instead of agence de voyages buses; well-fed European-looking cattle grazed in the fields accompanied by horses and donkeys; electricity was everywhere; there appeared to be traffic laws; and there was an absence of goats and street-side credit vendors and beignet mamas. While Morocco is on continental Africa, it really couldn’t feel any further away from the Africa that I’ve come to know after years in Cameroon and Sierra Leone.

I immediately went to the Peace Corps Morocco office, which is a million times more beautiful and modern than the Cameroon office, and was sent directly to three different medical consults with various specialists. I was poked, prodded, MRI-ed, bloddied, and questioned, and finally in the evening I was released to eat and relax. I met up with some Morocco PCVs and we went out for Chinese food and gelato. We spent hours talking about the differences between their Peace Corps experience and mine, and the two could not be any more different.

Polychrome Fountain in the Kasbah
Unlike PC-Cameroon, PC-Morocco has several PST training sites of just a few volunteers at each site, rather than our large 50-something person joint PST. Morocco has only one section (Youth Development), and all volunteers live in relatively large cities, and all have electricity, and most have running water and wifi, and every post is accessible by train or paved road (what?!) - even in the Sahara, and fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant everywhere (grapes, passion fruit, persimmons, figs, mandarins, dates, nuts, eggplants etc). While Morocco is leaps and bounds more developed than Cameroon, the volunteers still struggle with many of the same issues as Cameroon PCVs. Lack of work and/or sense of fulfillment seems to be a common thread amongst all PCVs, regardless of the country. 

Morocco Female PCVs also claim to deal with a good deal of (sexual or verbal) harassment, although after telling them some stories from my life in Cameroon, it seems as if Grand South female PCVs in Cameroon face a bit more harassment. After a week and a half in Rabat, I only had one harassment incident, and it was a 12-year-old grabbing by butt as I walked off the train - which is unacceptable, but also quite minimal compared to what I deal with in Cameroon (for example, today in Yaoundé I had a taxi man ask me if my vagina was small, claiming that if that was the fact he wanted to have sex with me). If I spent the same amount of time out and about in Yaoundé alone as I have this past week and a half in Rabat, I would’ve experienced men groping me, reaching their hand up my skirt, general derangment, and incessant comments such as: “Go back to where you came from” or “I want to have sex and make mixed babies with you”. Thankfully, Rabat has none of that, but from what it sounds like based on female PCVs, the harassment gets worse outside of Rabat. I’ll say it once and I’ll say it a million times again, life as a female PCV can be extremely rough, both physically and mentally. However, Rabat has felt like a paradise compared to Cameroon, and I’m quite grateful to have a mental/psychological break from the wears of Cameroon.

While Morocco is more developed, and some might say ‘Posh Corps’, that means the volunteers have a whole new set of problems to deal with during their service: doing development work in a pretty well-developed country, and also attempting to have a ‘typical peace corps experience’ while also having amenities such as wifi, electricity, and running water. Many volunteers I spoke with said they love having electricity and access to internet, but it also distracts them from work and becoming integrated, which is hard enough for many females. While I look at their experience in complete envy of all they have and by the fact that they live in such a beautiful and diverse country, they look at my experience and say that they wish their experience was more ‘typical’ by living in a small village with no amenities. I guess the grass is always greener…

When not in doctors offices waiting for my next consult, I got in a fair bit of sightseeing and food tasting. Man oh man, I have been starved and deprived for far too long in Cameroon. Right before I left for Morocco, all that there was to eat in Ngatt was corn couscous (a big blob of mashed and balled corn, mind you), oil for a sauce, and weird bottom-feeder fish occasionally. I don’t know about you, but that is not my definition of healthy or delicious. And while Yaoundé has some international food options (Pizza, Chinese, Lebanese), the pickings are slim.  Rabat, on the other hand, has every international cuisine known to Earth (Thai, Syrian, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, etc), not to mention an overabundance of all fresh produce. Fresh-squeezed juice bars are on nearly ever street and there are fruit and yogurt stands for crying out loud!

And as a former barista, I believe good quality coffee and tea are necessary for a properly functioning body, and besides chai, Cameroon offers little decent coffee or tea. In Rabat, however, cafés line every street and men (and some women) sit, sipping their mint tea, sage tea, or espresso while reading the newspaper and watching people pass by. I’ve been heavily caffeinated ever since my arrival, and I’ve enjoyed every last sugary sip of the mint tea, or whip cream topped cappuccino, almond/date/avocado smoothie, or strawberry orange juice. That will all be hard to give up to Cameroon.

Rabat’s café culture is not the only thing that is reminiscent of Europe. In fact, one of the things I appreciate and love most about Rabat is that it is a wonderful mélange of European, (North) African, and Middle Eastern. The European influence is strong, evident in the ubiquitous cafes, large plazzas, creperies, and large boulevards and tiny winding side streets. Moroccan Arabic (Darija), the smells of the spice markets, the plentiful date vendors, and the daily call to prayers are some of the many reminders that you are indeed in the Islamic world. And a venture outside at night reminds you that yes, you are still in Africa, as the Senegalese and Malian street vendors come out selling their pagne, masks, phones, and other knickknacks. Turkey is often cited as being the crossroads of the East and West, but I think Morocco is the under-appreciated intersection between the East, West, and South. It’s an interested and beautiful mélange of cultures.

But if you are tricked for too long into forgetting that you are indeed in Africa by the timeliness of everything, the friendly customer service (or just it’s mere existence), and by the clean streets, you are reminded when the Sub-Saharan migrants and/or refugees emerge in the afternoons and evenings and sell their merchandise. For being a part of Africa, Morocco is severely racist against Sub-Saharan Africans. I was immediately confronted with the racism against Sub-Saharan Africans in my taxi from Casablanca when my driver and I had a conversation that went as follows:
Taxi driver: “So in Cameroon there are only Africans?”
Me: “I don’t understand…yes, Cameroon is part of Africa…so everyone is African”
Taxi driver: “No, I mean, is it full of blacks? You know, Africans. They aren‘t white like us.”
Me: “Oh, um…yes, I suppose so.”
Taxi driver: “Oh, sorry. They are barbaric”

And so it continued. This conversation was then repeated on several other occasions with coffee shop waiters, scarf salesmen, etc. I hate to remind Moroccans that they too are African, seeing as they seem to pride their white skin and close proximity to Europe as a carte blanche for being better civilized. One man in the Medina told me, “Africans are barbarians. You should leave Cameroon and move to Morocco. We are more civilized because were are next to Europe. Those Africans in Cameroon are just too barbaric because they are too far from Europe”. All in all, the racism is pretty evident, and Moroccans don’t really attempt to hide their thoughts and feelings towards sub-Saharan immigrants.

My two weeks in Morocco were refreshing, on all levels. While I still frustratingly remain a medical mystery, I’m grateful that I got the chance to visit such a wonderful city. Since my 3am return to Cameroon, I was rudely reminded of the challenges this country poses. But I have 10 months left and I’m determined to stay healthy and be productive in the time I have left. My trip to Morocco reminded me just how diverse both Africa and Peace Corps service can be depending on where you are posted. Overall, I found Rabat to be diverse, welcoming, and relaxed - in the next post, inch'allah, I'll be sure to update on some of the sites I was able to see throughout my trip.


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.