Thursday, February 12, 2015

This One Time in Cameroon edition 2: Bus Business

So this one time in Cameroon I was on a bus, right? I was crowded in, four to a three-person bench, feeling my spine twist in ways it never should, when the guy next to me jerked his leg and looked down. Oh god, I thought. Something had clearly skittered across his foot. He continued looking agitated, adjusting his legs and trying unsuccessfully to peer in between the mass of legs and luggage to see the floor. My mind quickly tried to come up with worst- and most likely- case scenarios. Most likely, I determined: cockroach. Worst: mouse. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of middle ground which became somehow comforting. I tried not to think about it.

Some minutes later, a guy a few rows up similarly flinched, and remarked aloud. That’s when the man at the end of my row spoke up. Oh! Arrangez ma chèvre! S’il vous plait!” (Please, position my goat.)

Because in Cameroon, when you think it’s a cockroach, it really might be a goat.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This One Time in Cameroon edition 1: Hey good lookin', whatchu got cooking?

So one hot afternoon in the beautiful city of Bafang, I stopped by my favorite palm wine bar to greet the palm wine mama and sip on some of the good stuff. This lady is super nice – really amazingly so. So I’m sitting there and drinking this palm wine and I look over to my left and see a big pot on the fire. “What’s cooking?” I asked, half-hoping she would offer us some (as she is known to do). “Oh that?” she replied, “that’s just a sacrifice for the ancestors.” She went on to explain that she was cooking goat meat as an offering to her dead ancestors. You have to do this from time to time.  How often? I asked. Maybe around once a year, but it depends on when they ask.  I expressed my confusion. Now how, exactly, do they ask? Apparently by causing trouble in your life. Maybe you have money trouble or maybe you get sick, and this can be the ancestors’ way of letting you know that it’s time to pour them out another goat stew sacrifice.

Ancestor worship: it’s what’s for dinner.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I Had a Good Day

                It wasn’t an extraordinary day.  It was simply a perfect day.
                From the moment I woke up to find my cat on my lap in exactly the spot he went to sleep, nothing could go wrong.  It was one of those days where I threw the door open, filled my lungs with the fresh air, felt the sun on my face, and was overcome by a surge of gratitude for my life and the opportunity to live in this beautiful and strange place.  It was one of those days where I finally started to tackle the reorganization of my disastrous kitchen.  One of those days where the birds and chickens were singing for me.
                For lunch, I got koki at the Carrefour.  Man, I love koki.  It costs thirty cents for a filling and delicious meal.  It’s hot!  It’s spicy!  It’s so cheap that I feel richer when I eat it.  So I was sitting there with my post mate, Becca, eating this delicious koki and thinking about how I wish we had it in America, when the guys sitting near us start talking to us.  It’s the same conversation I’ve had hundreds of times already.  Am I going to find a Cameroonian husband?  Will I stay here forever?  Do I like it here?  But this time the tone of the conversation was somehow different.  Like they weren’t asking just to be obnoxious, but like they actually wanted me to stay.  And we started talking about all the things I like better about Cameroon than America.  How natural it is here, and how welcoming people are.  How life is simple.  I have grown to feel deeply appreciative of this country, and with only seven months to go in my service, I’m starting to really feel how much I’m going to miss it after I leave.
                In the afternoon I went to the office to talk to my counterpart, the beautiful, hardworking, forward-thinking, truly special Essoh.  I’ve only seen him once since getting back form America, and it was very brief.  He is an amazing man and would be in any country, but he’s especially a stand-out here.  Throughout the course of our conversation, I felt ridiculously happy and/or touched several times.

Essoh and me

                First, I love him for how seriously he takes his work.  Because you don’t really need to in this country.  But he sat me down and told me how we should start planning for this summer’s camp if we want to get sponsors and ensure it’s the best it can be.  Then he told me his idea for youth day.  We’ve been working in the muslim neighborhood of (my Christian-majority) town for the past few months.  He told me that for the youth day parade, he wants to get them a banner to carry that says, “The youth of Quartier Hausa say NO to Boko Haram.”  It put a lump in my throat.
                Essoh may be remarkable, but he’s still Cameroonian, so I wasn’t surprised when he made a comment about how I hadn’t brought him back anything from the US.  I told him I had a gift, but it’s at home, and it’s very small.  “No, Antonia.  No gift is small.  Especially not when it comes from the heart.  But the greatest gift of all is the time we get to spend together.”  Couldn’t you just die?  Meanwhile, some random fucking lady I’ve met one time complained that the candy I gave her from the US wasn’t enough, and don’t we have like laptops and cameras over there?
                So you’re already all thinking how great Essoh is and how nice our discussion has been.  But it’s just warming up!  He then proceeds to tell me that some of his colleagues from Bangwa, a neighboring village, have asked for our help running a camp like the one we did in Bafang!  MY camp!  My biggest, greatest project!  Essoh explains that we should invite them to come to Bafang so that we can train them on how to run a camp of their own, and maybe soon all of the sub-divisions can have their own Discovery Camp!  And my legacy will spread throughout the West region, if not the entire country!
                For those of you who don’t know that much about Peace Corps and development and the kind of projects we do, this right here is the dream.  This is the definition of success – to have a project that is community-supported, community-operated, sustainable, and expanding.  It’s struggle enough just to get people to accept your project, sometimes.  I think I can honestly say that that was my proudest moment of my Peace Corps experience.  Like I can just drop the mic and COS in peace.  I tried to hide from Essoh that I had tears in my eyes.
                So that was remarkable.  But the rest of the day was unremarkable!  I walked through town and greeted a bunch of people that I hadn’t since my trip to America in December.  My tailor told me how much she’d missed me and I believed her.  I felt like such a part of the community.  I felt loved, and liked.  When I walked home, school had just gotten out.  I slipped against the tide of blue-uniformed students of Lycée de Bafang Rurale.  “Good morning,” “Bonsoir,” “Yamelah?”  They greeted me in three different languages.  And although I’ve only worked with a few students from that school, many of them knew me, and greeted me by name.  “Good evening, Madame Antonia!”  (God, I’m going to miss being called that.)
                When I arrived at the carrefour to enter my neighborhood, I saw a few of my friends hanging out at the carrefour bar (John, Patrick, and the Anglophone delegate of water or education or something).  They all lit up to see me, and I lit up to see them, and I sat and joined them for a drink.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I love these guys.  They’re smart, and thoughtful, and funny and carefree.  The delegate shared some of his opinions on American politics.  John told me that when I leave, he’s going to cry for at least two days.  We were all laughing, and, in the words of one of the other Anglophones who showed up, “sipping, and enjoying, and discussing freely.”  We had one of these conversations that I absolutely love because it becomes seamlessly bilingual, switching between French and English based on who is addressed or any other linguistic trigger.  And this might seem like a weird thing to feel happy about, but I was the only woman in a group of about five male friends, but they never hit on me or make me feel uncomfortable or unsafe.  And that’s worth a lot.
                So I just sat there thinking about how comfortable and at home I feel here.  How lucky I am to have kind and caring friends who will miss me, and to live in a beautiful place in a little-known country.  And I felt the looming pressure of my August COS date.  Why I would I want to leave all this behind?  I am already prematurely feeling the loss of my friends and life in Cameroon.  Life my never be this simple again.  But I know that even if I were to extend my service for a year, a year would pass and I’d still leave everything and everyone behind eventually.  What kind of masochistic impulse drove me to spend two years falling in love with something I will inevitably lose?
                After a couple of drinks, we went to the delegate’s house to watch the Cameroon vs. Mali soccer game.  Although we were highly favored, Mali scored first and it wasn’t until four minutes to go that Cameroon scored to tie the game at 1-1.  So it wasn’t a win, but we all celebrated not losing.  I rode a motorcycle home, between two friends, and went to sleep to end my simply perfect day in Cameroon.
Hope you all don’t find it too early to start pre-nostalgic entries about how soon I’m leaving.  Because I am already anxious about making the most of every remaining moment here.

In the words of Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Is it ju ju or Ju Ju?

     Bruce the cat, bless his heart, has become a ferocious killing machine. He left a headless bird in a heap of feathers on my second floor. Later Luca found a bloody baby mouse tucked behind some shoes. And dammit, I love him for it, because it means he can double as my protector and I can hopefully one day stop feeding him altogether.
     Two nights ago I opened the front door to discover what looked like a crime scene. There was blood all over the front porch in streaks showing where some hapless animal was dragged back and forth and all around. It was a lot of blood! And it was streaked all over the porch area! Since it was after dark, I decided not to clean it or look for remains until the morning. Instead I just screamed in terror and then locked the door.
    The next morning I went out to try to find the poor victim. I followed the trail of blood left, and right, and left again, and into the corners and tucked-away niches of the courtyard.  But I found no body.
    That night, Luca was telling the other Italians about what happened. "... so it was either the cat or some kind of fetish," he concluded.  In French/Cameroon, a fetish is an item of bad luck or sorcery. For example, people with farms near the side of the road will hang fetishes, indicating that their farm is protected by some voodoo magic, to scare people away from stealing their crops.  I'm sure Luca meant it as an offhand joke, but it got me thinking. Something here doesn't add up. Where was the body of the animal, after all? Anything that could produce that much blood is probably too big for tiny Brucey to eat in one sitting. "Plus," Luca pointed out, "the cat was white as ever without a drop of blood on him." Another good point - if he spent all night terrorizing a poor animal and making a huge mess in my courtyard, why did he remain spotless?
     Now of course, I don't believe in sorcery. But all Cameroonians do. And I do believe that if someone is trying to scare us or perform black magic rituals on our house, that that can't be a good thing. So I thought more and more about the possibility. The gate was open at the time of the attack (not that that would matter to an experienced sorcerer).  When I came home today, I noticed something else: a piece of red string tied to the bottom bolt of my gate. Actually I had half-noticed this weeks ago, and figured a red piece of clothing had gotten caught and lost a thread while I was walking out. But after stopping to think about it, I don't have any clothes that color. Also, tying a red string is a common type of fetish - around your corn stalk or bike means "steal this and you'll be cursed".  Have we been targeted by a sorcerer for weeks and I only just realized?
    Suddenly Lucas's off hand joke seemed like the only possible reality. Someone is trying to curse us. And after considering it, how did Bruce even kill that bird on the second story when there are bars and glass slats on the windows?  He didn't drag it up because there were feathers only in that room. Could this be more sorcery?  Could sorcery have caused the random spontaneous blisters that appeared on my body a week and a half ago with no explanation?  Could it explain why all the produce we buy always seems to rot before we eat it?  Or perhaps why my rosemary seeds never germinated last year? Or where the other earring in that one pair went?
    So was it the cat or was it black magic?  Well, I don't really know. I may never know the explanations for these strange occurences. But I can tell you one thing: I have never before so hoped that I live with a murderer.

*cue X-files theme music*

(The explanation for the title of this entry: "ju ju" refers to all things witchcraft and sorcery and those who control them. It is also, by no coincidence, what Valerie's 16-month-old daughter calls my cat.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Interview with the Bilingual Club

I've been doing a bit of work with one of the local high schools, Lycée de Bafang Rurale. The librarian there - a natural teacher who is amazing with the students - came up with a plan for me to come in as a special invitee to speak with the bilingual club, so that they could get a chance to chat with a native English speaker, someone with an accent and mannerisms different from Anglophone Cameroonians.  He also wanted it to be a kind of cultural exchange so they could ask me questions and learn about America and American culture.  I went in today and immediately drew a crowd of fascinated students, who followed me from building to building as I looked for the room we'd be in.

The librarian had told me several times that he was going to be very selective and only allow about 8 or 9 girls to participate, so that it could be a more intimate conversation. But my blanche celebrity status just did not allow this to happen! We ended up with about 30 students in the room, who were encouraged to ask me ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING - to learn about my country and practice English. Well, it turned out to be a ton of fun, because all the students who came actually wanted to learn and practice English. Plus, their curiosity about my culture went way beyond the standard small talk I encounter in village!

Some of the questions they asked, I expected :

  • What is your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • How long have you been in Cameroon?
  • Do you have any children?
  • Are you married? Will you marry my brother?
Some were a little more interesting:

  • Can you tell me about the seasons in America? (Ah, this one made me nostalgic...)
  • How is the government structured?
  • How are American schools different from Cameroonian schools?
And a couple really made me laugh:

  • Why do you Americans like dogs so much?
  • Why do you always say "cheese" when you take a picture?
The last one had me cracking up, because I had to explain that we like it when people SMILE for pictures, unlike most Cameroonians who will sternly stare into the camera for every photo op.  

The whole experience was fun for me, but I felt especially touched when the librarian made a little speech to the class about how he wanted them to see me as a role model. "You see how she speaks French and English? You can be like this too! You can be bilingual too! and she is only 23 years old but she has done all these things and come to live here in Cameroon, so hurry up with your studies so that you can also accomplish this much by the time you're 23."  It put a lump in my throat.  I spend a lot of time here feeling unqualified for the teaching I'm doing, undeserving of the "honorable position" I am often given, and like I'm just messing around having fun abroad while my friends are advancing their careers.  He made me forget all that and feel pretty good about what I'm doing. 

At the end of the day, after we ate some rice and drank some juice that the librarian generously offered, we took a group picture and everyone shouted "CHEESE" before breaking into fits of giggles. 

It was awesome.

I didn't completely forget about this blog, I swear!

I haven't updated my blog in a million years for a number of reasons:

  • I've been here a year, so if I go to the market, or take public transport, or teach a class, it no longer feels like "OMG," but instead more like "yeah, life". So I don't feel compelled to tell you about eating plantains and koki and cous cous, or riding motos and cramming into bush taxis, or seeing so many green hills and palm trees and banana trees, or doing maybe a really good job of negotiating a price down. 
  • I have wifi, so instead of planning ahead for blog entries when I'd have good Internet, I'm just on it every day and don't ever think about it.
  • After a little time passes, suddenly the thought of recounting g EVERYTHING from FOREVER seems daunting so I put off the task
         Which is why I'm going to stop telling my every meal and daily activities, and start sharing random anecdotes from life in this wacky country!

First of all, I never officially introduced this guy: 

Bruce and I met at a party in a town about two hours from my house. When I first saw him I thought he was a rat. Well, he turned out to be a super friendly, evidently abandoned kitten that everyone kind of wanted to take home, but only I (in my mourning, reboundy post-Colby state) was crazy enough to actually commit to. During the whole party he sat on my shoulder as we danced and played drinking games and chatted with friends.  Since we shared so many of the same interests, I figured it was meant to be. I crammed him in my purse, zipped it almost all the way, and took him on several long bus rides til we got home and started our happy life together. He's a real sweetie pie and keeps me company and is almost done peeing and crapping wherever he pleases. 

But yeah stuff is still good (see entry: I'm singing in the rain). Bafang is still the best post ever (see entry: Post Announcement). I like my friends, I like my town, I like my students, and I'm feeling pretty good about my work situation between the women's school, youth delegation, and local high school.  I now have not one but TWO awesome roommates (one human, one feline)!  I get to travel! I'm near friends! My small monthly salary is still more than adequate for the cost of living here! Can't complain. 

Listen to these songs

African music is good, and much more like American top 40s and less like Ladysmith Black Mambazo than you might expect. 

Pala Pala - - this song makes me feel a little pala pala every time I hear it
Eminado  -

They're both wildly popular and wildly catchy - I dare you to listen to either and not start dancing!