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.