2.12.2014

I’m Gunna Make This Hut My Home

Living Room: Before (already mid-painting in December) and After (Last Week)

It’s somewhat humorous that my first apartment/house to call my own was not in Chicago, or even in the U.S. for that matter, but rather in Cameroon in a village of 5,000. Before the Peace Corps, I lived in University apartments with roommates where basic furniture was provided, water and electricity were free, and the rent for the whole year was included with my tuition. Never before have I had to furnish, decorate, repair, and pay for a house all my own. While this is a feat in and of itself in the States, it’s really a whole different ball game here in Cameroon. Here’s a bit on my experience transforming my barren concrete house into my home for the next two years.

Rent and Utilities

Nothing says ‘grown up’ like having monthly bills such as rent and utilities. I’m hoping this means that at the ripe old age of 22 I can finally claim to be an adult. I lucked out and had my house paid in advance for my first three months in Lomié, but starting in March I’ll have to start paying rent, which is 70$ (35,000 CFA) a month for my house which has two bedrooms, one bathroom (ehem, indoor latrine with a ‘throne’), 1.5 kitchens (I count my empty, spider-ridden outdoor kitchen as half a kitchen…because let’s be honest, decent food cannot be made on a mud floor), and one living room. That’s a steal compared to Chicago where you are lucky to find an apartment this size for less than $500 a month! Water is free, technically, but in reality I pay Alfred, my groundskeeper, $14 a month to do various tasks for me (which he takes his dear sweet time doing), one of which is fetch me water from the well because my head and spine are not built to carry water buckets. I also have to pay my moto friend, Moussa, to fetch me separate, cleaner water from across town for me to filter for cooking and drinking, which costs about $1 every week. Electricity is usually $4 a month, another steal, but it doesn't feel like it when I pass the money to Papa Patrice and realize I could eat for 4 days on that $4.

Construction

The house I am sitting in this afternoon looks nothing like the house I moved into on December 1st. I remember the first night I arrived in Lomié, when I had to break in my own front door because the lock fell (it’s a bit scary how easy it was to break into my own house) and as I shined my headlamp onto the spider and cockroach-ridden concrete floors. Over the past three months I’ve been getting on my landlady about making the improvements she promised Danny would be done before I arrived. Since December, I’ve painted my living room and kitchen (the kitchen on my own dime), gotten tiles placed through nearly all my house (minus the bathroom and guest bedroom), and had my front door re-cemented so it’s less easy to break in (or so I hope). My landlady, mama Rosalie, initially promised to buy paint for my whole house, which is now not going to happen. She also has yet to put window panes in my windows – there are only mosquito nets on my windows right now, which means that dust gets everywhere and neighborly noise is very loud in the early morning hours. She also has promised to place a non-flushing western-style toilet in my latrine, which I’m in no huge rush to get since the ‘throne’ has some character and bucket flushing requires a crazy amount of water. The past three months of construction have been a bit of a headache for Miss OCD me, particularly watching a group of drunken men spill cement all over my newly painted walls and floor. Despite all that, my house is now more comfortable to live in while still being very ‘Peace Corps’ – I still have a latrine, no running water, spotty electricity, and a mouse, spider, and roach problem. But I consider my house a nice happy medium. I have the amenities and décor I need to feel like my house is my home, while still living simply and having a very ‘Peace Corps’ experience.

Bedroom: Before (mid-December) and After (Late January)


Furniture

My house was empty when I arrived in Lomié, which I consider both a blessing and a curse. This is a blessing because everything I make is to my specifications and taste; however, it is a curse because furnishing a house is not cheap. It also doesn’t help that my anxiety and OCD tendencies don’t allow me to focus on work until my house is all set up and I have a place to go and feel at ease. If you remember, the first piece of furniture I put an order in for was my bed, which took a week to finish and cost a pretty $75 (far too much for a bed in Cameroon). The bed was ruined by a drunken pousse man who goes by the name of 33-40 (I’m not kidding, that’s his name), who decided it was OK to drop my bed on the muddy ground outside my house and leave it there in a storm because I am, in his words, a “cheap white girl” (cue the tears while sitting alone at dinner at an omelet shack). Nonetheless, the bed is still functional and looks a bit better after I re-varnished it.

Keen on not being ripped off by the Lycee Technique again, I found my good friend, Yackouba (I’ve given him the nickname Yacki), who makes bamboo and rattan furniture. Not only is he a trustworthy and a genuine man (a rarity here in Cameroon) but he is also quick, hardworking, and knows that Peace Corps Volunteers don’t have much money, so he doesn’t rip me off. He always tells me “Karen, you are my sister, I know you don’t have much money because you are a volunteer. I work with the Lions Club, I know!!”. I also love his furniture because they are truly works of art. Some days I go to Yackouba’s shop and watch him quickly peel off long strips of bamboo with a very sharp knife for hours on end and then weave them together - a task which, might I add, would make the average person’s hand bleed within 5 minutes. Yackouba made me a living room set with a 2 person sofa, a 3 person sofa, a chair and a coffee table for $140, a wardrobe for $60 (which, to my discontent, doubles as a rock-climbing wall for Métis), and most recently a 4-person kitchen table for $70. In the future when I have some money he has promised to make me a bookshelf for $16, end tables and nightstands, and a personal work desk. 

I went from sitting on the floor eating breakfast every morning in December, to eating at my coffee table in January, to now eating at a proper kitchen table in February. Petit a petit. The furniture has really made a huge difference in making my house feel like a home. It hasn’t been quick, easy or cheap getting to where I am now, but it feels good to finally have it done!

Kitchen: Before (end of December) and After 

Family

I’m not one who likes living by herself. Of course it has its perks, such as being able to dance and sing around my living room to my heart’s content or being able to obsessively clean my house every day. But all things considered, it does get lonely! I’m endlessly grateful to have two postmates who spontaneously drop by throughout the day for games and smoothies, otherwise I’d likely lose my mind. But PCVs are busy and my postmates travel a lot and Grant is COSing in November and might not get replaced. The whole month of December I was alone at post since both my postmates were on vacation. After an entire month of having conversations with myself around my house, I decided for my sanity's sake that I needed some type of living thing in my house so my neighbors don’t think I’m weirder than they already think I am. It was then I decided to bring Métis home, who was one of the 5 kittens born from the Bertoua case cat. Métis despised me for a week, but quickly became accustomed to his posh life in Lomié, with his brother Snaps living just down the road with my postmate Danny. Having a cat, while being quite stressful at times such as when he decides to treat my untiled floors as his liter box, has been my saving grace here. During the days when my postmates aren’t here, I keep company with my kitten. He keeps me warm during the chilly nights and protects me from…nothing…although I hope eventually he begins to eat those pesky mice, spiders, and roaches. In Spencer’s words, I’ve become “the crazy cat woman of the East region”.  Sadly, that’s a fact.

Living the Domestic Life

All in all, transforming my empty house into a home has been quite a roller coaster of a learning experience. Despite the many headaches, backaches, empty wallets, and the occasional tears, it has been rewarding to watch my house slowly come together over the past three months to the point now where it’s nearly finished, with just the creepy guest bedroom yet to finish and a few pieces of small furniture to add. It’s rewarding to know that my house transformation has been all my doing and all my own hard work. Not only that, but the whole experience has taught me a valuable lesson on patience and persistence. Now life is settling in and I spend my days being impossibly domestic. I wake up, exercise, make breakfast for Métis, then make breakfast for myself, then spend the next few hours doing dishes, sweeping and mopping the floors, hanging up decorations, doing laundry (I don’t let Alfred touch my underwear), installing lights, and doing odd and end minor construction work. Life is beginning to settle into a rhythm. In December it felt like I’d never reach this day. While there is still much work to be done, I am amazed at all I’ve been able to accomplish during these first three months at post.

Bed frame: $70. Living room set: $140. Kitchen table: $50. Wardrobe: $60. Having a place to call my home away from home for the next two years: priceless.


** As a side note, today marks 5 months since I left Philly for Cameroon – what?! It seems like just yesterday I was eating at Chipotle with Spencer and Rachel and others who I consider my closest friends. Despite the endless sicknesses, the rough travel, and the occasional harassment, I’m endlessly grateful for this amazing experience and the inspiring and dependable friends I have had the pleasure of making. Here’s to making the next 22 months even better than the first 5!

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