Lomié Mural Project – Victories, Vodka, and Vandalism

Lomie PCVs and Our Mural!

The East Region is unique in many ways, one of which is that each village in the East where there is a Peace Corps Volunteer, we arrange to paint a mural sensitizing on HIV/AIDS, given that one of the highest prevalence rates of AIDS in Cameroon is here, and it is also the origin of the AIDS epidemic. Fun fact: Did you know that AIDS originated near Lomié?! Over the past few months there have been murals in Batouri and Bertoua. My postmate, Danny, organized the February mural to be in Lomié given that the East region just acquired its second ever health volunteer – me! Therefore, the Lomié mural project was a co-project between Danny and I. Over the past few months we did protocol with the sous-prefet and the head of the primary school to receive permission. We already had grant money to buy the supplies, many thanks to Andy, the previous PCV in Lomié who left in July. In January I designed what the mural would look like and tried (without much luck) to organize it on a grid system in a Word document. On February 3rd, the work began.

Danny and I chose the spot for the mural on a wall on the primary school that is along the path that leads to the daily marché and centreville and serves as a backdrop to the local soccer field. This wall can be seen from downtown Lomié and will literally be seen by all those in Lomié. On February 3rd, Danny and I walked over to the wall to begin scrapping the existing paint off and sanding the wall down. A woman came up to us and asked what we were doing. When we showed her the letter from the sous-prefet which said we are permitted to paint on the wall, she gave it back to us and looked puzzled and disgruntled. Danny asked what the problem was and she said “I’m the principle of this school and nobody asked my permission”. Danny and I looked at each other confused since we did talk with the principle of the school (who wasn’t this lady) and we got permission. When he explained this, the lady told us that there was in fact two different schools, not just one, and we got permission from the 2eme Forme school principle, not the 1ere Forme principle, whose wall we were scrapping. Oops. The lady dismissively said “Well, you already started, so finish your work. I can’t stop you if the sous-prefet said it is alright”. With that, Danny and I mumbled ‘stupid protocol’ under our breaths and we continued chipping and scraping away.

Placing my Mark on Lomie
Other East volunteers soon began to filter into Lomié. First it was Kim, Laura and Melissa and then it was Kalene, Lauren, Aron, and Jennifer, who arrived midday in a bush taxi and covered in a dust tan, all of whom looked like a mangled version of Indiana Jones. Danny and I got a good laugh at the sight of them, knowing that we look like that every time we arrive in Bertoua. It was nice being the one not covered in dirt for once. After showers and lunch at Plaza, we painted the base coat of the mural before heading to bed.

Over the next three days, the mural progressed from being a plain white wall, to having chalk letters and pictures, to finally having paint. Each day we started early while the cool winds still blew and before the sun was at its peak. We’d take a midday break to swim in the watering hole in the river in the forest, or to play card games, or to watch movies while sipping on smoothies, before we’d head back to the mural at about 5pm to finish the day’s work. Everyone helped out in their own way, whether that was measuring the wall and spacing the pictures and words evenly, outlining the words, painting, or drawing. There were even those of us who taught the kids who were watching us slave way about HIV/AIDS. Occasionally, it was necessary to put a few of us on beat-the-kids-and-keep-them-in-line duty, which was needed when kids would try to steal our paint, pencils, erasers, paper, water bottles or what have you.

Showing a Member of the Health Club Where to Put His Hand

The final day we were all exhausted from the week of hard work, particularly for us hosts, who not only worked during the day, but also hosted at night – never before have I cooked for 15 people (and thankfully my Moroccan soup turned out pretty darn good)! The finishing touch on the mural was getting local kids to paint one of their hands and place it on the bottom of our second mural, which in French says “I’m concerned, are you? Together we fight against HIV/AIDS”. Putting the children’s handprints on the mural is a sign of community ownership and to reaffirm that it’s not us volunteers that will change anything here, but rather the actions of the community. As much as we volunteers might try to raise awareness of the HIV situation here, it is ultimately up to the local community to unite and do something concrete about the problem if they wish to ameliorate their situation. Given that we did the mural during Youth Week, there were plenty of eager kids milling about and willing to lend a hand (literally) to the mural. Kids pushed and shoved to get in line to have their hands painted (hence the necessity for the crowd control duty). I called the high school health club that I lead and got Hamadou (one of my counterparts), the club president, and a few other members of the club to put their hands on the wall as well, to show that people of all ages are fighting against HIV/AIDS. Even one of the nurses at the Catholic Hospital I work at managed to sneak her handprint on the wall by pretending to be part of the high school health club. Grant even managed to convince a mom to let her 6 month old put his hand on the wall! In the end, it turned out to be a diverse group of sexes and ages that lent their hands to the project. Each of us volunteers ended up putting our thumbprints next to the Peace Corps logo to show our contribution to the project. I’ve now made my first permanent mark on Lomié saying “I was here!”

High Five!

After doing the handprints we had to paint over one of our spelling mistakes (oops!) and called it a day. The mural was practically done. We all headed home and got ready for an evening out on the town. We got dressed in the first real clothes we had worn in days, enjoyed a nice dinner of steak, stir fried veggies, and black bean burgers which Danny cooked on his newly built BBQ. After stuffing ourselves we opened some classy bottles of red wine, invited the Colombian VSO volunteer over, and got to business. Once three bottles of wine were polished off, the vodka came out and the party continued. We played flip cup on Danny’s ping pong table (which took quite a beating) and played several other ridiculous games which had us sticking our tongues to paintings of elephants, fighting to reach bottles of Nutella, and which even got me to go all the way down into my middle splits for the first time in…7 years?! It was a wild night spent getting to know many of my regionmates that I haven’t spent much time with before.

Me BalancingAmadou's Pistache Rolls
Around midnight we headed to the only nightclub in Lomié – Plaza (yes, the same place where I often eat a plate full of plantains and where I frequently yell at the chef for serving Giant Pangolin, a Class A protected species). My good friend Moussa drove us on his moto to the club, we handed the DJ our American music (which consisted of Beyoncé on Beyoncé on Beyoncé) and we danced away. I don’t think the Cameroonians were overly thrilled at the music selection, seeing as many of them cleared off the floor when our music came on, which is exactly what we did when Cameroonian music came on. It was a battle of nationalities of sorts. When our music came on, we left our seats, ran in from outside, and shook what our mamas gave us. We all looked ridiculous compared to Cameroonians – our dance styles could really not be more different. In the strobe lights, spotlights, and fog machines, each of us PCVs (and Gustavo) got our freak on. Several of us, myself included, tried to do our best Beyonce dance impersonations and had a blast dancing with ourselves in the mirrors. Yes, there is really no other dancing besides mirror dancing. Let your uncertainty go and let loose on that mirror! In mirror dancing, the only person you have to impress is yourself. We looked like fools, and we loved it. At 3am we got back on our motos and rode home. After a minor motorcycle accident which involved a motorcycle stalling, tossing Kim and I off, and then having the moto roll down a hill and land on Kim and I, we finally arrived home (scratchless, might I add, mom!). The group packed their bags and walked to the gare to catch the only bus that leaves Lomié – which is always at 3:30am. It was quite an eventful end to a very long and stressful but successful week. I got to know many of my regionmates better, since most of the East volunteers came to Lomié with the exception of just a few, and I also got some quality bonding time in with my stagemates Lauren and Kim, since we spent many nights staying up to the wee hours of the morning chatting in bed. It was an exhausting but fun week.

Sunday morning I woke up bright and early to run and to make a quick trip to the mural to repaint the spelling mistake we made the day before. As I walked toward the mural I saw some kids standing and reading it, a sight not that uncommon given that the mural is new, but which nonetheless makes me happy. When I approached the mural, I saw something was not right. I found someone had vandalized the entire mural the previous night. While all us volunteers were our celebrating our success, someone decided to cross out each of the pictures we drew, slash out the words, and write something in the local patois across the Cameroon flag we painted. I walked up to the mural and collapsed on the ground in front of it, looking up with shock at what the vandals did. A little girl behind me said “Auntie, someone very mean did this to your mural. I am not sure why they would be so mean when you clearly worked so hard”. I held back tears and thanked her for her kindness and asked if she had seen who did it, which she admitted she did not. I continued sitting there and made the best of the situation by asking the girl if she knew how to read. She said she didn’t, so I read her what the mural said and she asked some questions about HIV/AIDS. After a mini-health lesson, the girl thanked me for doing the mural. As I worked on repainting the spelling mistake we made, I listened to people walk by and comment on the vandalism. People exclaimed “Those barbarians! Who would do that?!” and “The people who did that are really villageois”. While I was defeated that someone was angry (or perhaps just drunk) enough to vandalize an HIV mural, I was at least happy to see that the community was not happy it was vandalized.

The White Ex-pats of Lomie Doing Our Mock Hipster Album Cover Poses
Danny (PCV - CED), Grant (PCV - Ag), Gustavo (VSO) and Me

Clearly I'm Not a Smoker because I Look Ridiculous

I went home and told Danny and Grant what had happened. Danny was furious and admitted that times like this make him discouraged about what we are doing here. I offered to go clean the mural and Danny told me not to. If the community cares about combating HIV and showing they appreciate what we as volunteers do here, then they will clean it. If not, then the mural will stay vandalized and will serve as a constant reminder that the crappy situation in which most people here live is nobody’s fault but their own. As of right now, the mural is still vandalized. I go each day hoping to see that some kind soul cares enough to clean it up.

The Girls of the East: (Back) Laura, Melissa (Front) Jennifer, Me, Kim, and Kalene

Despite the vandalism, the mural was a great success. We got to teach many students about HIV/AIDS and correct many myths about HIV with the adults (such as men can’t get AIDS because they are strong). Here, you win some and you lose some. Sometimes you lose more than you gain. Despite the discouraging vandalism, I haven’t lost hope about the will Lomians have to change their lives. As I’ve explained my potential moringa and tofu project ideas to various people over the past few weeks, I’ve received excellent feedback and support. I think people here do want to improve their health and livelihoods, but there will always be those who will resist and fight back against our efforts just because they have nothing better to do. But this is not unique to Cameroon, it’s everywhere. So I don’t blame Lomié or even Cameroon for this disappointment, but rather I blame the system that tells people to act in their own self interests and not unite for the betterment of society. Lomié, I still love you.

1 comment:

  1. judy snyder12.2.14

    I'm so glad the little girl was there to share her dismay at the vandalism and gave you the opportunity of a teachable moment with her. You are learning to make lemonade out lemons everyday and I'm sure all of you PCVS will come out of the time there changed people! The mural looks great in the pics. Love the handprints!


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