|A Depressing Line of Logging Trucks|
Sometimes life deals you a few surprises and challenges. Lately, I feel like my life has been an endless series of unexpected events and challenges. Tuesday, July 29, 2014 at 3:00pm, the universe dealt me another unanticipated challenge: I was emergency evacuated from Lomié.
As I previously mentioned, Peace Corps has decided to move me out of Lomié due to security issues, but I was told to return to Lomié and wait until a new village and house were found for me. They told me that I'd be in Lomié for the next month to month and a half, which was fine by me. Regardless of the daily struggles I deal with in Lomié, I enjoyed my friends and I was dedicated to my food security work there. Having a month to wrap things up sounded good to me. A month would give me time to enjoy some final get-togethers with my friends, set up a sustainability plan for my soy and beekeeping project with Yacouba, and make a few final memories. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Instead, I received a call telling me I had to pack my house and leave within 18 hours.
I guess you are wondering, 'Why the sudden change?!'. The quick evacuation was definitely not anticipated, but it came about due to a hellish car ride back to Lomié after my brief time in Yaoundé. So what happened? Let me tell you.
Friday, July 26th, I got to Abong Mbang at noon and found a private car that was going to Lomié. Once the car filled up, the driver moved me from the car and put me in an empty car as he pulled out with the car full of Cameroonians. 'Okay, fine, I'll wait for this new car to fill up,' I thought. But once the next car got filled, I was once again moved to a new empty car. Repeat this several times, and you can probably understand my frustration. I argued with the drivers and asked why I keep getting shafted. "Oh no, your car will leave right now, don't worry, just sit down", they reassured me. Of course, this was all a sack full of lies.
|The Wonderful Road|
Finally, 5pm rolled around and dusk began to arrive. I felt uneasy about taking the road at night, especially since rains have been more frequent and it was likely that I'd get stuck on the road. I thought about staying in Abong Mbang overnight with Matt, but Matt was training the new stage in Ebolowa. I thought about going to Bertoua, but I had already spent the last of my money on my non-refundable car ticket to Lomié. In the end, I was left with no other choice but to leave when the car left.
Finally at 6pm, the car was full and we pulled out. It was smooth sailing and we reached Mindarou, the halfway point at about 8pm. The passengers got out, had dinner, and a few of them drank. Me and the older, Muslim lady beside me stayed in the car since both of us were anxious to get home. After about 40 minutes, everyone finally piled back in. We set back out on the road but pulled over not too long after at another tiny village bar. Everyone but me and the Muslim lady got out and drank some more. The driver pulled one of the young women in the car to a nearby building for an hour, where the other young, male passenger claimed they were having sex. The other 5 passengers of the car were busy getting wasted from sachets at the bar. When the driver and the girl finished, they too went to the bar and drank for a while. Finally, about an hour after stopping, we got back on the road.
At this point, I knew the driver had been drinking a lot, which didn't make me feel safe, but I had no choice but to stay in the car because I was along a road where there was no cellphone reception for the next several hours and where no other cars were coming or going. Another few kilometers further, we stopped again and all the passengers bought more sachets. We stopped and waited for an hour as the men pounded their drinks and the girls danced in the road in the headlights of the car.
By this time, the Muslim woman and I were completely fed up. The car music was on full blast and the entire village was beginning to wake up. The Muslim lady had been fasting all day and just wanted to get home, and I was tired and ready to sleep, but with the blaring music, neither of us could sleep in the car, even with my earplugs. One of the young men came back to the car, roaring drunk, and asked me to have sex with him in a nearby abandoned building. I flat out denied and pretended to ignore him. He then told me that since I was not going willingly, he would follow me home in Lomié, wait outside, break in to my house, and then "get into my bed and have sex with me". I guess to him, the only logical option was to resort to rape when someone doesn't go willingly. Thankfully, the rest of the people soon got in the car, so I no longer had to deal with him.
Another few kilometers further, the car stopped again at yet another bar. Sachets were pounded, the girls danced in the road, and me and the Muslim woman were on the verge of screaming in frustration. The two young girls at this point were completely wasted and after an hour they stumbled back into the car. The young girl next to me tripped and knocked over her bucket full of water and dead fish, dispersing the fish across the floor at our feet. The car pulled away the the young girl next to me began yelling at the driver, with whom she had sex with two stops previously. She was yelling at him to turn up the music, which would not go up any further. After about 5 minutes of her screaming, the Muslim lady told her to shut up and that the music get turned down. The girl turned furiously to the mama and went to slap her in the face. I was appalled and put my arms up (since I was sitting between them) so that the old woman wouldn't get a beating. At this, the young girl became furious at me for interrupting. Something must've snapped inside this girl, because before I knew it, the girl pulled back her fisted hand and punched me straight in the side of the nose.
The driver abruptly stopped the car, the mama started screaming at the young girl, and I was crying with my fingers pinching my gushing bloody nose. One of the other male passengers opened the door and told the girl to get out. She refused and then began kicking the mama and I in the knees and legs and whipping her arms about and continuously slapping us more in the face. At this point, the other man dragged the girl out and slammed her against the side of the car. While he berated the girl and kept hitting her to get her to calm down, inside the car the old mama was yelling at the other drunk passengers. This carried on for an hour - the girl outside was still hysterical and the man kept beating her, and inside the car, everyone was yelling about respect and seniority etc. When the girl somewhat calmed down, she was told to get back into the car but she refused. After several refusals, we all agreed that we should just leave without her, but at this point, she finally got back in. When she sat back next to me with my bleeding nose, she didn't apologize, but instead she kept weakly trying to slap the mama and I. The man next to her grabbed her hands in his and restrained her for the rest of the ride.
|A Very Useful Mirror...|
The driver said, "No more stopping for drinks!", but go figure, 10 minutes later we had stopped again. It was now 1am and the driver was becoming increasingly inebriated. After 30 minutes or so of everyone drinking, we continued home. The driver was driving like a maniac - swerving in the middle of the road and speeding at what I could only assume to be near 100 mph on the bumpy, muddy, dirt path. At one point I saw my life flash before my eyes as we barreled around a curve and came out almost hitting a logging truck head on.
When we got back to Lomié at 3am, I grabbed my things and headed home, continuously watching behind me to make sure that the one young man wasn't going to follow through with his threat. When I got home, I tried to clean my still bleeding nose and waited for it to stop. I took pain pills to help with the severe pain and went to bed.
The next morning I woke at noon, dazed, confused, and not entirely sure if what I had experienced the night before was a dream or reality. When I came to my senses and could feel my nose throbbing, I knew that it had been no dream. I looked in the mirror and saw my swollen, red nose and decided to call PCMO to see if they think it might be broken. I also reported the whole incident and told my Program Manager that no girl should be sent to Lomie. After going to the hospital to get my nose checked out and briefly talking to the Safety and Security Manager, I tried to relax the rest of the day.
The Phone Call
I went around town over the next day and told people that I'd be moving in about a month and a half. Everyone was sad but agreed that it was necessary for my safety. After celebrating the end of the Ramadan on Monday, I went to go see Yacouba at his boutique on Tuesday. It was at his boutique that I received a phone call from my Program Manager.
The conversation started with "Where are you?". "In Lomié...", I replied. Then she said "Karen, you are being emergency evacuated from Lomié. We didn't call you yesterday because it was a holiday, but after discussing with PCMO and Safety and Security, we all agree that you cannot stay in Lomié any longer and risk your safety. Pack a suitcase and leave Lomié immediately. Don't say goodbye to anyone and don't tell anyone you are moving, just act like you are going to Bertoua. Leave everything at your house and in the future I will see if a Peace Corps car can go and collect a few of your things..."
|3am - Packed|
I stood outside Yacouba's boutique in shock. I could feel myself beginning to cry, and my brain couldn't manage to understand the reality of what I was being told. I told her that it was absolutely impossible for me to leave Lomié that day, as it was already 3pm and the only bus leaves at 3am, and to rent a private car, I would've needed to find out hours earlier. I also was not thrilled with the idea of saying no goodbyes and leaving like a coward like that. I also didn't trust Peace Corps to go and collect my things in my house, so I begged that I be given until the next morning to pack and say goodbyes and find a means of transportation. Sylvie agreed, and said that I was to be on a car out of Lomié at 10am the next morning.
I hung up the phone and immediately started bawling as the reality of it all set in. Yacouba wasn't in his boutique, but Carlos was there weaving our rattan veiled hats for the beekeeping conference. I told him that I had to leave Lomié the next day and he too started crying. He came up to me and bear hugged me as we cried together. "This is impossible! This can't be happening - you are my family!" Carlos kept repeating. I told him I had to get home and start packing, and he agreed to help me in any way he could. I walked back to my house, bought a few bags to pack in at the market, talked to a merchant and asked him to ask one of his chauffeur friends to arrange a car for me in the morning, and I went home to break the news to my landlady and neighbors.
I was never a huge fan of my landlady, nor were we very close, but she started crying uncontrollably at the news of my sudden departure. She agreed to buy my plates, cooking pots, fridge and bed, but then proceeded to ask for a lot of free stuff from my house as well. Didja was furiously upset when I broke the news to her, and her husband was in disbelief. I went to my house and began frantically packing and taking down all my decorations (I used so much tape that it was near impossible to get some things off my walls!). Yacouba showed up with a pousse and together we loaded my wardrobe, living room set, and kitchen table and chairs on the pousse and had them wheeled to his boutique so he can sell them all for me. I continued to pack and my house began to look like the day I moved in.
For the first time in a month, it started to storm. I called Yacouba and asked if he and Carlos would like to go to a farwell dinner on me, and he agreed. I sloshed over in my rain boots and rain jacket in the storm to Yacouba's boutique and we waited for the rain to settle a bit. When it did we went and slipped and slid through the mud on the way to Restaurant Le Sawa where we enjoyed some cold potatoes and cabbage while sitting next to a life size wooden statue that our Baka friend Remy had sculpted a week earlier. The dinner was filled with a lot of silence as we all tried to avoid the sadness of it all. When we finished dinner, Yacouba and Carlos (who linked his arm in mine) walked me home and bid me goodnight. I continued packing vigorously until 3am as Metis ran frantically around the house, utterly confused at what was happening. I collapsed on my bed and woke back up at 6am to finish the final packing, which involved wrapping up my mattress in plastic, folding it, and getting everything by the door.
|Metis Wondering Why HIS Bed is Wrapped Up|
Finally, the car arrived. When the driver stepped out of the car, I realized it was the same man who drove me to Lomié on December 1st of last year. Oh, sometimes life is so cyclical. I moved to Lomié December 1st with my things packed up in Aboubakar's car, and now it was nearly August 1st and I was repacking Aboubakar's car to leave Lomié. This offered some emotional closure to the physical closure of my post.
Everything fit surprisingly well in the car, and after just 10 minutes of packing, I was ready to go. I began weeping as I hugged my landlady, Claudia and Didja. I reached my hand out to Didja's husband to show some respect, but he opened his arms and wrapped me in a big, tight hug and said, "You've helped me so much with the recipes and ideas for the patisserie, thank you! And thank you for befriending Didja. Our friendship will continue, always, and we will visit you!" I gave Metis a big hug and then I ran to the car and broke down.
Leaving was about 100 times more impossible that I thought it would be, and I didn't even say goodbye to the majority of the people - only the most necessary! Everyone waved goodbye and the car pulled out. I asked him to stop once more at Yacouba's boutique, where Carlos was again in tears with me, giving me big hugs, squeezing my shoulder, and saying that he will never forget me - his daughter. They walked me to the car and Yacouba got in the driver seat as the driver was out buying some bushmeat. Yacouba shut the door, turned to me and told me:
"Karen, stop crying, you will give yourself a headache and there is nothing to be sad about, you have a bright future ahead of you. Don't be sad about leaving me, you will see me in a week and we will continue working together. I have family in Banyo, it isn't far from your new village, so I will visit you and I also will be working in Banyo next year. If you ever need help on a project, I'm only a call away and I can be at your new village with just a few days notice. Karen, I know you are worried about getting work done in your new village and leaving our soy and beekeeping project, but you can do the same work in your new village. You are the only hardworking Peace Corps Volunteer that I know, that is what drew me to you! You never stop working and you have so much passion and many ideas, so that is why I know you will succeed in your new village. You have a year left, which is plenty of time to do good work, but even if you had 2 months left, I know you would make the best of it. While I am loosing a great work partner and a true friend, this is not goodbye, this is merely like you going for a trip to Bertoua. I will see you soon and we will continue working together as long as you are in Cameroon. So please, don't cry. I'm so proud of you and I look forward to continuing our friendship and partnership."
When he finished, I was just a ball of tears and so completely touched by his parting words. Yacouba is so sweet and the best counterpart I could've ever asked for - there will be no replacing him. But I am confident that our work together will continue, especially since he is planning on working on a soy and beekeeping project in Banyo next year, which is just a stone throw away from Tibati, where he says he will come and help me with beekeeping, soy, and other projects.
Yacouba squeezed my hand and then opened the car door to get out and let the driver in. As we pulled out into the road, Yacouba and Carlos stood side-by-side, waving to me like sad, but hopeful parents as their child moves off to college.
The car was jam packed with my things and we left Lomié. 15km out of town there was a huge bourbier (translation: quagmire!) in the road. Cars and logging trucks were trying to get through but always needed to be pulled out. Screaming villagers were helping push cars out and were demanding 10$ per car pulled out of the quagmire. Children walked around selling alcohol sachets from cardboard boxes. When your car is stuck in the mud, I guess a good shot of a whiskey would take some of the pain away.
|Rainy Season Bliss|
When it was finally our turn to go through the quagmire, Aboubakar got out and surveyed the area, trying to calculate where the best point of entry would be, how deep the water goes, and how best to position his vehicle. After 15 minutes of surveying while villagers scream "You'll get stuck! You have to pay us 10$!", we finally tried. Of course, the second the front of the car reached the deepest point, we get stuck and the wheels spun and just dig us deeper. The villagers kept demanding 10$ to push us out, but Aboubakar was reluctant to pay. All the villagers starting calling him names, calling him cheap, and dissing his ethnic group - the Bamouns. After 20 minutes of all his ideas failing, he shelled out the 10$ to get everyone to push...which didn't work. By this time, there was about 30 logging trucks lined up in front of us, so Aboubakar went to one and asked him to tow us out, which he agreed to if I paid him 10$. Having no other choice, I handed over the 10$ and we were pulled out.
Even though we were finally out of the quagmire, we still couldn't set out on the road because now all the logging trucks ahead of us were parked in the middle of the road, blocking our exit. A big forklift-like truck that is used to lift the big tree trunks onto the logging trucks tried to cross the bourbier - only to get the big forklift things stuck into the ground. Now the road was really blocked. Logging trucks tried to tow him out, but since he was heavier than a logging truck, all the attempts failed and now everyone was trapped. (**24 hours later, it was still stuck there).
It took about an hour of maneuvering all the 40-some odd logging trucks that were now lined up to get them over to the side of the road so that we could pass but finally at about 4pm (6 hours later), we were finally on our way. The rain the night before was the first rain of this new rainy season, but regardless of it being the first rain, that boubier and others along the road will likely make the Lomié road impassable a month from now. I couldn't be more relieved that I won't be forced to take that road again.
|Aboubakar Surveying the Mud|
The next morning I woke up not sure where I was or what had happened. When I came to my senses, Didja called to tell me she missed me, and Yacouba had sent me a text message the night before making sure I had arrived safely. Everything began to settle in. While I was still extremely sad, now the excitement for what the future holds is beginning to set in. It's hard to balance the sadness and excitement, and I tend to go from feeling one to the other in the span of no time. Each day that passes becomes a bit easier and I begin to look back at my time in Lomié with not so much sadness, but rather with happiness of the good memories that I had made, and I begin to look to the future in my new village with anticipation and determination.
While I gave Lomié two chances, it was time for me to close that chapter. Now, I'll live in a brief intermission period as I live out of the Bertoua case and wait for a new village and home. Then, I'll begin a new chapter of my service, which hopefully is filled with great projects, new friends, new memories, lots of fun, and hopefully a few my best friends from my previous chapter.