The Adventure Isn’t Over

This post is a difficult one to write. I should probably begin by sharing that I write this post not in Bertoua, but my hometown of Manhattan Beach, CA. I was medically separated from the Peace Corps last week and made the impossibly long trek back to California on Thursday night. To some, this may seem completely out of the blue, but in reality this separation has been a long time coming. My separation came about for a myriad of reasons that I will not go into here. I am very sorry to have to leave as early as I did — I really thought I would be able to stick it out for my second year of service. I am not quite ready to dismiss the idea of Peace Corps service, and would love to re-apply in the future after further education and professional experience, but I had to remove myself from Peace Corps Cameroon. I met some truly incredible people over the past year, and whatever issues I may have had with Cameroon or with my service in Cameroon, I will always fondly look back on my fellow PCVs. My partners in crime. It breaks my heart to leave them this soon.

However, I could not be happier to be home. This is where I need to be right now. It was a difficult decision to make, but I have no doubt in my mind that it was the right one. I am still trying to figure out my next steps, an adventure in its own right. This is the first time in my life that I have not had a clear next step, which is terrifying and exhilarating. Peace Corps had been the plan since I was in Middle School, but somehow in all those years I had never really managed to plan past it. I am glad I didn’t set a plan for myself before leaving for Cameroon, because my academic and professional interests have definitely taken a new turn as a result of my experience. I intend to apply to graduate programs in Development Management or Public Administration (recommendations are encouraged) for next fall, but in the mean time I hope to continue my work as a Youth Development volunteer back here in Los Angeles, giving back to the community that made me the person I am today.

And so I say the adventure is not yet over. I sincerely hope that it never ends. I have just switched out one jungle for another. Switched out over-packed cruisers and bush taxis for sig alerts and LA rush hour traffic; and la poussiere for some lovely asthma inducing smog.

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The Sacrificial Generation

The title for this post comes from a comment a friend made to me while discussing troubles with youth development in Cameroon. We were talking about the lack of employment opportunities for Cameroonian youth, particularly those with university degrees, and he explained to me that, basically, the first generation of Cameroonian leaders worked only to establish what infrastructure and development was necessary to ensure their own comfort and power. They did nothing to provide for future generations, and now, realizing the stagnation, are calling on this new generation of youth to work tirelessly to overhaul the system they created for free. There are calls coming from all over the country to put an end to the corruption and to work together for progress, but no one, not even the government is willing to finance it. Government agencies, regional authorities, and local leaders all rely on outside funding (from the UN, the US, France, Germany, China, etc) or young people with no jobs to work for free. As frustrating as this situation may be, I am pleased to report that there are many, many young Cameroonians who have managed to rise to the challenge and are willing to take on all this work without reward to ensure a better future for Cameroon.

Volunteerism, as a rule, is not terribly popular among Cameroonians, but from what I have seen the new generation is starting to embrace it. Let me give the example of my friend Zack, who I have already mentioned in this blog. Zack graduated from the University of Yaounde with a degree in Political Science in 2011 — almost exactly like me. Unfortunately when he returned to Bertoua he was struck with the lack of decent employment opportunities for university graduates; basically his choices were go back to village and farm/do nothing or work at a “boutique” selling bread, sugar, and beer in Bertoua. However he decided instead to go the volunteer route tutoring and starting up his youth association and theater troupe. He and all his friends that work with me on my library project are very enthusiastic about volunteerism, but sadly very pessimistic about their fellow countrymen. Every time we discuss the need for donations from members of our community here, they give me a look as if to say,”do you really think a Cameroonian is going to just help you out of the goodness of their heart? No. They need a financial incentive to want to help us…” Which I find rather funny considering each of them has put in hours and hours of work and even some money already into a project to make Bertoua a better community for all out of the goodness of their hearts. However, they do have a bit of a point talking about older generations, sadly. For example, Zack was telling me just the other day about a conversation he had with his mother about some of the volunteer work he is doing. He has just started taking care of a friend’s kids (because the friend does not have enough money to pay for school, etc.) and his mother asked him why he was doing that… He wasn’t making any money off of his friend… and so he tried to explain to his mother that it was just the right thing to do, to which she responded “but there are white people to do that.”

Cameroon’s youth has their work cut out for them. They are up against 50 years of solidifying the current regime/system, a generation of leaders hesitant to yield power, and a society reluctant to take responsibility for its own welfare. The worst part is that they may never see the fruits of their labor, although I pray they do. I believe in the youth of Cameroon.

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National Girls Forum

The National Girls Forum is OVER! I have been stressing out over this event for MONTHS, and could not feel more relieved (or exhausted) now that it is all done. I realized as the forum started that I don’t think I ever really explained the forum to everyone back home. So much is happening over here, that it gets very difficult to update everyone on everything… especially considering the frequency of my updates (despite my constant promises to improve on this). So, perhaps now would be a good time to fill you all in.

As you all know, the Youth Development program in Cameroon is brand new: my training group was the pilot stage and we have spent most of our service designing the program at the administrative level. To celebrate the successful first year of the YD program, Peace Corps Cameroon wanted to host a national girls empowerment event, and designated my program manager as the coordinator. The poor man has way too much on his plate already, so he reached out to us and formed a committee of four volunteers to help him organize the event: one from each region YD works in. I was the representative from the East, Shanna Beech from the Adamaoua, Sarah Jennings from the Extreme North, and Georgia Gootee from the South West. We had our first meeting back in May to decide on the structure and substance of the event and one meeting in June to decide on participants, presenters, and the schedule; but due to the distance between our posts, we had to do about 90% of the preparation independently, coordinating a national forum with nothing but iffy internet and spotty network coverage. Needless to say, it was a struggle. I found myself spending entire days on the computer at the Bertoua office working on spreadsheets and coordinating with presenters. I cannot say that it was always pleasant, but it was certainly a great learning experience! All of the frustrations I encountered were valuable lessons in event planning, cultural exchange, bureaucracy, and most basically in French.

So what was this National Girls Forum? Exactly that. A platform for the sharing of personal experiences and best practices for individuals and organizations (local, regional, national, and international) that work in the realm of girls empowerment. We did not want a didactic conference or a training. More than anything, we wanted the forum to be a networking event. In Cameroon (as in any developping country, I am sure), there seem to be a gazillion and one aid organizations, most of which are doing the exact same work but with no communication or collaboration. There are local organizations that are limited by lack of funds and huge international organizations that have no idea where or how to invest their money. This becomes incredibly frustrating to watch as a PCV… So we designed the forum to be as interactive as possible, calling on many participants (Americans and Cameroonians) to present on projects they have undertaken in their communities around the country and even included a networking fair where larger organizations could set up tables with information on resources they have available.

Overall, I think it went quite well. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a first in every way possible: first girls forum in Cameroon, first event for YD, and definitely a first for me. I learned a lot and can’t complain. I really hope we have the chance to do something like this again before we leave. At this point Peace Corps Cameroon wants to have this event every two to 4 years, but we are in the process of fighting for it to become annual. I can also see myself doing similar work after Peace Corps. As stressful as it was, it was so gratifying to see the forum come together and to meet all the Cameroonian counterparts that came from all over the country.

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Everybody Poops

This past week has been quite an eye opening experience. As I mentioned before on this blog, my program manager in Yaounde asked me a few months ago to start working with UNICEF in the East as part of the new Peace Corps UNICEF collaboration country-wide. I tried months to get in touch with UNICEF to no avail (including a failed attempt to bring a UNICEF representative to a water and sanitation conference in April), and now all of a sudden this project has taken over a good portion of my time in Bertoua. I got a call from a PCV in Yaounde who extended her service for a third year to work with UNICEF on Tuesday of last week, saying that a water and sanitation workshop is planned to take place in Bertoua on Wednesday, and both UNICEF and Peace Corps would like me to attend. EXCELLENT! Sure, I had a few meetings planned for exactly that time, but they were easy enough to reschedule for the next day. I make arrangements with all the necessary people, and show up on Wednesday at the prescribed location (a hotel in the center of town) only to be told that UNICEF left yesterday… Odd considering I spoke with the person in charge of the event the night before and he confirmed the time and location for Wednesday. Now, I have been in Cameroon long enough to take this in stride. This is not the first time a major event was changed at the last second and it certainly will not be the last. Just about the time that I’m ready to give up on the workshop and reschedule my meetings yet again, I get a call from Mr. Tchoualla, the Bertoua UNICEF representative in charge of the event explaining that there was a last minute (understatement… the workshop was supposed to have begun already) venue change to the Nursing Training College. Not a problem. I hop on a moto and make my way out there, but this could not have been a clearer indicator for the way the rest of the worskshop was going to go…

The subject of the conference was Assainissement Totale Pilot√© par la Communaut√© or ATPC (in English Community Driven Total Sanitation), a waster and sanitation program begun in Bangladesh in the early 2000s. The program centers around the lack of latrines in rural areas in the developing world that leads to high rates of waterborne diseases like cholera. Clearly the need for latrines is too great for any organization to meet alone or in collaboration, so the point of ATPC is to motivate the community to build its own latrines. Granted these latrines will not meet international sanitary or hygienic standards, but even non-conforming latrines are better than nothing. The participants were comprised of representatives from various delegations (health, communications, water and energy, and basic education), a few nurses, and representatives from development NGOs (like me! Although it goes without saying I was definitely the only white person). All I knew going into this was that a water and sanitation (WASH to Peace Corps and UNICEF) workshop was scheduled to go from 9-3:30 on Wednesday… However, to my surprise it turns out that the workshop is four days long. The first and the last were to be held in Bertoua, but the middle two were to be fieldwork, going out to nearby villages to give small WASH presentations and establish community latrine building committees. To my even greater surprise, I was supposed to co-facilitate.

On paper, a REALLY cool workshop. I leave the conference on Wednesday really excited, albeit a bit nervous, for the week ahead. Unfortunately, due to sheer lack of organization, the workshop went from inspiring to nightmarish faster than I could have ever thought possible. Even Wednesday had been incredibly trying — with sessions beginning an hour and a half late, no respect for the agenda we were given, and only eating lunch at 3pm — but I had written that off as a side-effect of the last minute venue change. We were scheduled to leave for our village site visits at 7:30 on Thursday morning, but by 10am we were still waiting at the cars for the UNICEF and ministry representative who were responsible for facilitating the workshop. It was about this time I took it upon myself to go find the people in charge… When I found them, they were preparing the materials for the day’s presentation. This already ridiculously late preparation was further slowed by the fact that no one had brought scissors to cut up the construction paper so each paper was getting ripped individually by a group of people that clearly were in no hurry whatsoever. I couldn’t believe my eyes… here we are TWO AND A HALF HOURS late to leave for the villages and the people in charge were just taking their time, gossiping to each other as they ripped up their props. So I took over… I sent someone to go get scissors and whipped out my swiss army knife (which, trust me, got a reaction) and started cutting up everything that needed to be cut more quickly than the group of four originally working on this project. That out of the way, we finally head out to our first village at 10:30 (yes, three hours behind schedule). Even after dividing the group so we could give two presentations at once (my idea, yet again) we did not get back to Bertoua until after 5pm… at which point we finally got to eat lunch. Let me tell you, low blood sugar, dehydration, and an absurdly full bladder (remember we were sent out to these villages because there are no latrines, let alone toilets… and no one would let the white woman use the sketchy latrines available in some of the villages) do NOT help with the language barrier. Facilitating the last presentation of the day was rough to put it lightly.

Anyway… this is how I managed to get myself on a poop tour of the greater Bertoua area. Part of the presentation was a community mapping exercise so the villagers could show us where people pooped if they did not have a latrine. Most people would assure us that their family only poops way out in the forest, away from their house, but obviously that could not be the case all the time. What about when you get diarrhea at 3am (and trust me this happens… chronic diarrhea is often not even considered a problem, but part of life)? After making the map, we then took the villagers on what we called the walk of shame, where we literally walked around the village to point out the poop that was everywhere in the community. In some cases there was poop right behind houses. My mind was blown. Of course I had known this had to be the reality — if you don’t have a latrine you have to poop somewhere — but it was very different to see it in real life. A majority of the gastro-intestinal (GI) problems that reek havoc in Sub-Saharan Africa (like cholera and typhoid fever) are caused by the fecal-oral cycle, i.e. contamination of water sources and food by human fecal matter. This sounds extreme until you see piles of poop near a river (what happens when the rain comes?) and near houses (ever seen a fly land on your food/drink?) and you realize just how easy it is for this contamination to occur. There is fecal matter literally everywhere here, even if you’re not looking at a poop itself, there are traces of it on everything. To illustrate this, we took a glass of water — clean water straight out of a bottle — and passed around to villagers to drink. Then we took a small stick and touched it to poop we found on our tour, and then put the stick into the glass. The water still looks clear and if the group had not just seen the poop stick touch the water with their own eyes, they probably would have drank the water on the spot. The stick is meant to represent one fly’s foot… and flies have six. They also have a nasty habit of vomiting up a bit of whatever they ate last when they land somewhere. The villagers were mortified.

Even if most of the villages we visited did not understand the connection between deadly diseases like cholera and open-air defecation, they understood that they did not want to keep eating their own poop. We designated a committee that would oversee construction of latrines in each village we visited and invited three members to present a three-month action plan in Bertoua on Saturday — the last day of the workshop. Everyone came, even the least receptive villages, and even though it was made clear that UNICEF was not going to give anyone money or materials for the project. Although it was not the most pleasant four days of my life, I can’t say I regret participating.

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Two days after landing in Yaounde, I was back to work. Thank goodness I had my recharge in the states, because all of my projects seem to be picking up at once.

1. The National Girls Forum is only weeks away and has become a source of constant stress as the rest of the committee and I scramble to make sure everything is in order and all of our speakers have the proper presentations. (Although this sounds simple enough, I would like to see you tell UNICEF that they can only present on a fraction of their mandate and to respect a 30 minute time limit.)

2. Speaking of UNICEF … the project I have been waiting on since March is finally coming together exactly when I do not have enough time to take it on — go figure.

3. My library project is taking off! This project was one of the things that made me look forward to coming back to Cameroon. I have never met a more sincere and devoted group of people or known a more deserving cause. As it stands now, Bertoua, the regional capitol of the East has not a single bookstore or public library to its name. Perhaps fitting for the capitol of the most under-educated and under-developed region in the country, but not acceptable. My postmate (who sadly just left to go home!) and I have made a lot of progress working with ASPOSS (the local youth association) to lay the groundwork for an overdue library/cultural center meeting with the Urban Council, the Youth Delegation, microfinance institutions, the post office, etc. We are finally starting to see the light at the end of this framework tunnel and are about to get to the fun part: filling the library! We have already contacted a number of book donor organizations that make shipments to West Africa, and are in the process of filling out the US Embassy Self-Help Fund grant application.

There is also an American organization called the World Computer Exchange that donates refurbished computers to developing countries that has just sent a shipment to Cameroon… although by “donation” I mean sold at a super reduced price. The organization contacted Peace Corps and made a number available for PCVs like me that want to bring computer technology to the youth in our communities. I have requested 5 computers to get the library started (1 for an office, 1 for catalogue/circulation/front desk, and 3 for research). The World Computer Exchange is charging $73 per computer delivered to Douala (so a total of $365 for 5). This is where I need you guys back home. The World Computer Exchange has an online fundraising option. If you go to this website click “DONATE.” Just make sure to indicate that your donation is for the Peace Corps Cameroon Shipment and mention my name. Check out the website and definitely feel free to bug them with emails. They have been very timely in their responses to my questions thus far.

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On Being an American Abroad

I will have to admit I was not the most patriotic American before I left the US in September. I was often more critical than supportive of US policy both at home and abroad, and certainly had no qualms with vocalizing said criticisms. I am not sure how it happened, or when, but somewhere in the past 10 months I have become serious ameriphile. I find myself getting defensive when Cameroonians assume that I am European, and giving long sermons to my counterparts how orderly, efficient, diverse, advanced, and awesome America is. I even have an American flag on the wall in my living room, which is something I had never anticipated doing. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, and over here that distance is both literal and figurative. Bertoua is thousands of miles and seemingly countless light years away from Los Angeles. My life here and the life I left back in the states belong to two completely different worlds.

The moment I touched down at LAX, it was as if I woke up from a dream. My life in Cameroon belonged in another dimension, and I was astounded at how quickly everything became normal again. I had to keep reminding myself that everything I have done and seen over the past 10 months is indeed real. I saw my American lifestyle in a different light and registered things I had always taken for granted before, but nothing really felt foreign. It was almost like finding an old favorite shirt at the back of the closet: it feels familiar and yet somehow new again.

However,the moment I touched down in Nsimalen Airport in Yaounde. The smells, the sounds, and the instant stickiness woke me with a start and I was heart and soul in Cameroon again and America felt like a distant memory.

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african travels

The friendly reminders to update this blog have reached the critical point where I actually follow through on my promise to write a little something. I apologize for being MIA, but everytime I make plans to have a blogging afternoon, life seems to have other plans. Since my last post, Mom came and left. I think I can safely say that I gave her an experience she will NEVER forget. I put her through a lot, but she took it like a champ. I am really proud of the way she handled everything. I got frustrated from time to time, but had to keep reminding myself that it has taken me 9 months to get as comfortable as I am in my new home… and I gave her 9 days. I’m pretty sure if my first few days were at all like hers were, I would have terminated my service (“ET’d” as we say here) long ago. It was an especially rude awakening for her after our 5 days of Paris where our least impressive meal was at one of Saint Germain’s most famous brasseries, Cafe Lipp. After the fact, Mom kind of resented that we did not organize the trip in the reverse order so that we could both freak out at how wonderful and clean Paris was, but selfishly I am extremely grateful that we did Paris before bringing her back to Cameroon. It would have been far more difficult to come back here alone. Not only did I have someone to show around (which is always fun and gives one a feeling of purpose), but I got VIP treatment from all my Cameroonian friends, because everyone wanted to impress my Mom, and I could finally afford to eat at the restaurants that I wanted to try in Yaounde and Bertoua. Cameroon is a dramatically different place when you live on an American salary.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I recieve a stipend to cover food, lodging, travel, and some extra for odds and ends. It is actually possible to live quite comfortably on the money we have, and I know that my bank account is considerably better stocked than many of my neighbors. The whole point is to integrate into the community: eat what and where the locals eat, do as they do, suffer as they suffer. This is a fundamental difference I have seen between Peace Corps and many other development agencies whos employees interact only with other expats and live in crazy walled compounds with food shipped in from home. (The only aid workers I have seen here so far who are more “bien integre” work with this French organization that works in the Catholic church in Bertoua. There is an American there who, God bless her, has managed to forget English in the year she has been here because she interacts only with Cameroonians.) The last time I was in Yaounde, a group of PCVs were invited to a house party thrown by a couple Embassy employees. When we arrived, we just could not get over this house. It was HUGE! My house is big by Peace Corps/Bertoua standards and I’m pretty sure the whole thing could have fit in the living room. There was a pool out back, a guest house, and FOUR REFRIGERATORS. This house for a family of four has one fridge per person. Most of their food is apparently shipped in from the states, so they need the freezer and fridge space because the shipments only come like once a month. They served all kinds of food and drink that even if we saved up several months worth of paychecks, we could never afford in country. Bottle after bottle of nice red wine — the kind that we might splurge on every few months for special occasions (and we would be buying the cheaper variety). They had cupcakes, lemon squares, lettuce wraps (WHAT?), pizza, and so much more. The sad part is that the Embassy employees think this kind of life is still really cheap. What I now consider to be obscenely overpriced is reasonable to Yaounde expats. When we stayed at the Hilton after flying in from Paris, Mom and I almost got into a fight over the beer in the minibar. It had been a rough flight (thunderstorms over Yaounde, so we had to make a couple hour pit stop in Douala until they calmed enough to land a plane), but I refused to let her buy one of the little beers. See, when I go to a bar in Bertoua, a 65ml beer is 500-600 francs CFA… these beers were 30ml and cost 2000 francs CFA. Less than half the beer for 4 times the price. Mom asked me to translate that into USD… and I had to admit that it was roughly $4. Not exactly the obscenity I was making it out to be. It was actually very difficult to see this side of Yaounde. I definitely experienced worse culture shock at the Hilton than I did in Paris (although, as Mom can attest, I certainly experienced my fair share there as well). This was not the Cameroon I know, and not the Cameroon that 99% of the population knows.

The illusion shattered after Mom got on the plane back to the US, and I had to head back to my funny little house in the jungle once more and get back to work. At this point I had spent 3 weeks away from post, but 4 away from work since I spent Mom’s visit showing her around instead of teaching at my youth or women’s center, so “going back to work” was easier said than done. Both centers were “en stage” when I got back, which means that the second year students were working month-long internships in town, and the younger students were put to use as manual labor cleaning various delegation buildings etc (my favorite…). The teachers at my youth center decided that clubs did not make sense while half the students were not there, so I had neither class to teach nor clubs to run. I used this opportunity to try to seek out other organizations in the area, but unfortunately ran into far more dead ends than possible collaborators. My UNICEF project that had gotten me so excited in March was starting to look like a ruse. After months of emails and calls by the Health program manager and myself, we still had no word from UNICEF. They failed to show in Bamenda and seemed upset with Peace Corps for switching volunteers on them without following protocol. Very much like back in December/January when I made my sundresses and quilt, I began to read compulsively. After finishing 4 books in 5 days, I was starting to get depressed, but just in the nick of time, I found a new organization.

ASPOSS is a national youth association with branches in each of the 10 regions. Each branch has its own identity depending on the leaders of the group. Bertoua’s ASPOSS is basically a theater troupe that puts on shows of traditional Cameroonian stories in an Aesop’s Fables kind of way. They often work with the missionaries at the Catholic church, putting on shows with the kids and tutoring after school and on weekends. Their dream is to build a public library/cultural center in Bertoua to encourage literacy in Bertoua’s youth and create a forum for arts and culture. As they pitched their idea to me my jaw literally dropped. I could not have come up with a more perfect youth devlopment activity in this community. I had noticed the lack of libraries, bookstores, and well literacy in general when I first arrived, but did not think I could create a sustainable program by myself — and suddenly here is a Cameroonian youth association that is willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The leader of the group has a very clear vision of what he wants this project to become. To hear him speak about youth development in Cameroon and Bertoua’s deficits, you would think Peace Corps gave him a script. The best part about all of this is they do not want any money from me. They know what Peace Corps is and they know that is not what we do. They understand the concept of sustainability and the dangers of dependence on foreign investment. What they want me for is help in drafting proposals and doing Project Design Management (PDM), and honestly to come as arm candy to meetings with officials.

The sad reality in Cameroon is that having a foreigner (the more caucasian looking the better) on your team gives you a weird ligitimacy in the eyes of the government. You are more likely to be seen by the people you need to meet with, more likely to get things done in a timely matter, and WAY more likely to get resources. My postmate who is from Haiti was brought to a meeting by her Cameroonian friend recently, and the receptionist found herself in a rather awkward position by first telling the Cameroonian that the person they were meant to meet with was not in, and then telling Grace that she would be seen in just a few minutes. Grace was not connected to this porject at all… but her friend begged her to just come sit in the corner so he could be seen. It worked.

As always I return to my rollercoaster analogy. Bertoua, Cameroon, Africa, the Peace Corps… all of it… life here is full of surprises good, bad, and ugly. For every progressive mind like Zack who is the leader of ASPOSS, there is a corrupt official or a masogenistic, polygamous wife beater, and so on and so on. There are ridiculous treasures like the ape reserve in Belabo we visited last week, or the crater lakes I hiked to in the SW, but you have to be willing to push yourself to the limit to get there. Whether you have to start hiking at 2am or sit 5 to a row in a van with a small child on your lap and a goat under your foot for 5 hours, travel is always a trial here in Cameroon. I have never felt so surpremely happy as I have here, but there have also been moments I have never felt so low. It is wonderful and exhausting.

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