On June 17th, Better Family Foundation’s Marriage Seminar began. It lasted four days. This program was offered to married couples that wished to learn how to “improve family life and society, become [crusaders] for good family life and HIV/STIs in the community, and learn how to manage one’s family well” (Expectations created by the participants). There were many people that applied for the program, so we had to turn some away. Along with couples, there were 10 teachers accepted so that they could take the information that they learned back to their villages and spread knowledge about marriage and sex. It was very exciting to see that so many people were interested in openly speaking and learning about sex because that is pretty much taboo here.
Our role in this seminar was less involved than it will be for the youth seminar (10-20 years old). We observed and took notes each day, and we provided information about different cultural practices and beliefs in the United States regarding marriage and sex. The newest volunteer here at BFF, Abdallah, chimed in about what marriage and sex is like in Egypt, where he is from.
Having this seminar about two weeks before the youth seminar (which starts July 4th!) is really helpful for us, because it has given us an idea of how to teach and improve our seminar.
Generally, this is what the day looked like:
From 8:00-8:30, people would arrive. The seminar did not actually start until 9:00, but the BFF members expected that people would arrive late. Around 10:45, the couples would have a 15-minute break. From 1:00-2:00, there was a break for lunch. Rose made the food for around 45 people! For two of the days, she made fufu, and the other two days, she made rice with a tomato sauce/stew and some meat. The seminar ended around 4:00-4:30, and we would have a meeting after to talk about what went well and what did not that day until about 5:00.
The seminar took place at the Divine Lodge Hotel. We set up tables and chairs the Sunday before the seminar started.
Today, the seminar was scheduled to start at 8:00 am, so we arrived at the hotel at 7:00 am. First, one of the BFF members, Emmanuel, had everyone introduce themselves, then two people were given roles as the time keeper and note taker. Someone volunteered to lead the prayer and another person started singing a song (This happened every day).
Side note: Another thing that happened every day, which seemed to bring people together were the different claps we had every time someone finished presenting. There was one clap where people rubbed their hands together and with their right hand, sliding off the left hand, they directed the clap to the presenter.
Emmanuel spoke about the rules and expectations for the seminar, which included things like: “Show hand before you answer a question, active participation, and no sleeping.”
We talked about what marriage is and how in Cameroon, it occurs when a man and woman love each other, while in America, one would describe marriage as something that happens when two people love each other. Also, in Cameroon, polygyny can be practiced.
The couples and teachers participated in many activities. In the first activity, the men and women were split up into groups and were asked to write down the roles of women and men in their society. In the second activity, the men and women were again split, and they wrote down what they liked and disliked about the opposite sex (for all of these activities, they had someone from each team present). In another activity, women and men present about the duties of husbands and wives.
At our meeting after, Morgan commented that she did not like how in each activity, women were put in a more negative, weaker light than men. Simon said that by the end of the fourth day, their goal was to change this view, but they could not immediately tell the participants that their views were “wrong.” For example, when the women and men were ready to present, Simon asked, “Who will present first?” People responded (women included), “Men, because they are superior. Women should follow.” Simon then said, “No, women go first.” (Nathalie, Morgan, and I cheered, which also shows a cultural difference).
Today, the seminar was scheduled to start at 8:30. The participants had homework from yesterday. They were split up into four groups of men and women and asked to create sketches/skits of normal arguments that happen in the home between man and wife. So, today, the seminar started with the groups presenting their sketches. The first one, for example, presented a man giving his wife money to buy ingredients for his dinner. When the husband leaves, the wife takes the bulk of the money to buy clothes for a friend who came by saying she needed more money. The wife uses the remaining money to buy food, of a lower quality, for her husband. When he comes back home to have his dinner, he is angry and yells at the wife for not doing what he told her to do with the money. In another skit, a fight breaks out between husband and wife and neighbors come over to help/see what the commotion is about. We talked about the cultural differences here and how in Fundong, each community member is everyone else’s keepers, while in the States, generally people’s business in the home does not extend to people outside of the home.
We had 3 hours of free time (1 hour for lunch and 2 hours for free HIV testing in the hotel). After, Emmanuel spoke about menstruation.
For most of the day, Esther, another BFF member, spoke about violence and rape. Mainly, (though they did briefly say that it way not always the case, she spoke about the male being the attacker. She asked the participants what they thought husbands and wives could do to prevent violence in the home. For husbands they said, “Be peaceful, submit, provide needs, and know your wife.” For wives they said, “prepare good food, know your husband, dialogue, and love husband” among other things. They also discussed the causes of violence. This topic is very important, so it was nice that BFF devoted the day to discussing its problems and possible solutions.
Eunice, who is another BFF member, taught about family planning. Just an interesting comment that one participant had…She said that when she was younger, someone told her that if you sleep with a boy, you can drink something after to kill the sperm. To continue, the participants talked about the duties of the family and then the importance of sex in marriage. It was really cool to see how the people developed throughout the seminar. On the first day, sex was brought up once, which was already a huge surprise for BFF members, since talk about this topic is so hidden in this community. Another day, there was an activity where men and women split into groups and wrote down what husbands and wives did at every hour of the day. Instead of saying “sex,” they would say “first, second, and third round.” By the last day, the participants were very involved in the conversation of sex, which was a great accomplishment. Simon spoke about the sensitive organs in men and women and how to prepare for sex, which provoked a very lively, amusing conversation (with pictures taken by Luke).
At the beginning and end of the seminar, Simon said that we must “break the silence.” Now we hope that it will become a topic that more people will be interested in and open to talking about with each other and their children, so that the silence surrounding sex will remain broken.
A hill wrapped in mist, vibrantly green with a path of red earth torn through it. Scraggly trees dot the ridges and folds of the hill, cows with massive horns munch placidly on grass, and the occasional goat bounds bleatingly into the bushes as you pass. Streams weave their way from the top of the mountain down to the foot, but you would not know that water passed there except for the thick tangle of undergrowth that weaves around the water, marking its passage with a deeper hue of green. In the morning, the sun alights cheerily on the landscape with its small villages tucked into the surrounding hills like an English pastoral scene (except the houses are made of corrugated metal and mud). But by afternoon, the whole hill side is wrapped in clouds and rain falls, in small plops at first, that quickly gather themselves resoundedly to bombard the red earth, our skin, and the lucky few who remembered to bring raincoats. This, then, is where we spent our first week in Cameroon working on the water project.
Part of the money we raised this past year went towards a water project that Better Family Foundation (aptly abbreviated to BFF) has been putting together between three villages in the area. There is a spring at the top of the aforementioned hill that the organization determined to harness and use to bring water to the villages of Alim, Bougie, and Ameng. Before, people in the area would either have to walk several kilometers carrying jugs to various springs in the area or rely on unsanitary wells for their water, but with BFF’s eighth water project in the area, they will now be able to pull clean, filtered water from standing pipes much closer to the villages. To do this project, they performed a feat of logistics: mapping out with string and rough calculations the path the pipes would take down the hill, buying the pipes, connectors, glue, concrete, and rocks needed to make the projection an actuality, and mobilizing the people of three villages through the good, old-fashioned mechanism of word of mouth to dig a many kilometer path (a foot and a half deep thorough out) down a steep hillside to three separate villages. While we helped financially support the project, we really just came in for the final push of physically carrying it out. As we discovered when we arrived, the real work of the project was carried out before we got here by BFF, who performed an organizational miracle in the minds of four American kids.
Three moments and people that should be shared—
Joe and Rodrigue: A Peace Corps volunteer borrowed from South Cameroon and Colorado, Joe came to the Northwest to film the water project and create a video for BFF to put on their website and extend awareness. Joe brought with him a friend, his neighbor, Rodrigue, a South Cameroonian boy who became one of our closest friends here, despite his tendency to speak French (or maybe because of that). Grandpa Joe, as he was known, was apt to wander off the only trail, cutting through the forest into the wilderness for several hours, black mambas be damned. He enjoyed using his lanky frame to climb trees and launch himself (after a sufficient running start) into a mud puddle at top speed to gently knock unsuspecting volunteers’ feet out from underneath them. Rodrigue liked to take a running start to pile on top of these no-longer-quite-so-unsuspecting, mud-drenched volunteers. He was an avid fan of the Backstreet Boys’ popular ‘90s song, I Want It That Way, and unfalteringly tried to teach us how to dance in the graceful yet energetic Cameroonian fashion and not like epileptic Americans. I can only say that the work is still in progress.
Simon and Rose: The director of BFF, Simon is always there when you need him, whether it be to insert a thoughtful, humorous, and elucidating remark into a potentially tense moment developing at the marriage seminar or pulling up in a car beside you as you’re five minutes into the twenty-five minute walk into town and it begins to rain (as just happened not an hour ago). His wife, Rose, has accompanied us on many a car journey, walk to the bar, and sermon at the church. She runs a mattress store across the street from BFF’s office, supervises the construction of a new kitchen to their house (the wall of the old one just fell down), and keeps her house fastidiously tidy, while still managing to find time last week to cook a meal each day for fifty people at the marriage seminar. The first day on the water project when Nathalie and I were covered in mud from digging in the dirt around the spring and we had not managed, after vigorous scrubbing, to remove the mud encrusted on our skin, she clambered down into the trench with us and proceeded to wash us in the water, much as a mother washes her child.
The older woman with the shovel:
The last day that we went to the project (the Friday a week ago… we’re a bit behind with the blog posts), I had offered to help a couple women covering the pipe up, when above me I heard in a yell, “Young girl! Why you no come up here and help me?” When I turned to look, I could see an elder woman waving a shovel in the air and the younger women around her giggling. With a grin, I walked up the hill and went to help her on her section, shoveling the piles of dirt and grass torn up to put the pipe down back over the pipe. I cannot claim to be much of a hand at the work for I hadn’t quite conquered the technique behind shoveling the mounds of heavy soil back into the earth without dislodging much of the hillside above it, but finally the work was done. As the afternoon rain began to fall, she turned to me with a wizened smile, and proposed to me on behalf of her son. “Then you can come work for me on my farm!” she proclaimed with a friendly cackle. “Because once you are married, you must work for your mother-in-law. And I want you on my farm!” Politely but a little frantically, I proclaimed myself betrothed to another. “Ah, we’ll see!” she said, and then, still wheezing with laughter, she walked off down the hill. So I guess we’ll see. There might still be a mother-in-law and a farm in my future. I can only just hope that it won’t be in Iowa.
It goes against custom for us foreigners to help physically with such work as this, Stephen, our Peace Corps contact in the area, told us, because as we provided the money, it is for them to make their contribution to the project by providing the physical labor. But on hearing from us that we would really like to work for the project in a physical way, he smoothed the way for this exception to the rule. So since we asked for it, work we did. Along with over a hundred people who turned out from the villages, we helped dig out a chamber for the spring, place rocks within the chamber to work as a first filter for the water, and pour concrete over the whole shebang. Then we followed the path they tunneled for several kilometers through the earth, helping further dig it out to the depth of a foot and a half. Rocks, roots, and cornfields were dislodged in the process. Later, Nathalie and Luke carried up rocks to a second filter chamber located ¾ of the way up the hill, while I helped the plumber, Johnson, lay down pipes and connect them with super glue. Then we pulled the earth we’d piled up back into the trench, so that in the end, a red brown path (nestling pipes carrying precious water) wove down the hillside. Throughout, the villagers greeted our help with enthusiasm, gratitude, and not a little bit of amusement. In a tacit way or maybe a projected one, I felt that they would hand over shovels as though they were humoring our eccentricity, they who could tear a path of meters in the time we could shovel a fraction of the debris. But they humored us with humor (and marriage proposals), so we felt very well received.
There was a point sometime on the first day, probably in between my thirtieth and thirty-first hand pumping by an excited villager that I understood—really understood—what we’d accomplished this past year. It amazed me and yet shamed me that a spare hobby back in Claremont could accomplish so much, could mean so much to people a continent away from us. Each day, they would wake up as early as the sun and climb the steep hill and break the earth and lay down pipe until the rain fell and thank us, again and again, with handshakes and gap-toothed smiles and the chattering of a language we couldn’t understand, for bringing water to their villages. I felt then, the strength of microfinance, of each of the small events that we held, each pastry we sold while thinking of the paper we had to write, each beseeching fundraising letter we wrote, all so casually, with no idea of how much the small work we did could mean to people we hadn’t yet met. I think I speak for all of us when I say that it was inspiring, heart-warming and not a little bit humbling to be greeted with such warmth and to lay shovel to earth in such a place with such a group of people and feel that this at least was something Real and something Worthwhile.
As the title obviously suggests, this post will deal with the miscellaneous goings-on within our household here in Ngwainkuma, Cameroon. This will hopefully be closely followed (or preceded) by three other, long-overdue blog posts from our team.
1. The House
I am not really sure how much you all know about our living situation here; we are living in one half of an awesome house owned by a politician named Dennis. The place is huge, and we have a dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a hallway, two bathrooms, and two bedrooms. Despite the many bugs and spiders we found upon arrival (we have a feeling Dennis hasn’t been home for a while…), the house is extremely elegant—palatial even. Ngwainkuma, the town we’re living in, is also super nice; it is kind of like a hilltop suburb of Fundong, the regional capital city where we work and hang out, and it is full of really nice, big houses/compounds. However, the only place we really go in Ngwainkuma is a bar owned by Dennis’s little brother, Ignatius; for everything else, we take the 25-minute walk/10-minute car or motorcycle ride into Fundong. So yeah, we live in a nice house in a quiet/nice/safe neighborhood next to nice people. Not a bad start, eh?
2. What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’?
We have been making some great food here (yeah, that’s right: us!), and we’d like to give you a list of scrumptious goodness so that you can eat vicariously through us. After getting food at the market daily (that should be mentioned in another blog post, I think…) we have made the following ~delicious~ meals:
-Spaghetti with homemade sauce
-Cous-cous with veggies
-Burrito bowl (with homemade salsa AND slices of these really huge avocadoes that don’t really look like avocadoes on the outside but are actually avocadoes that are about the size of a Mr. Potato Head toy and taste really good)
-Crêpes (both savory and sweet)
-Vegetable curry over potatoes
-Awesome bananas (okay, we didn’t really make these, but we put them in stuff…)
-Oatmeal with bananas (see?!) and vanilla sugar
-Cinnamon-sugar toast on honey bread
-Fufu (a soft, warm ball of really finely ground corn starch that is served pretty much everywhere) with bitter leaves and small, dried fish*
*Okay, actually made by our friend Hilary; we had no idea how to prepare bitter leaves (still not entirely sure why they were purchased in the first place…). Apparently you have to clean them, chop them, scrub them until this soapy-looking stuff comes out of them, and then boil them with veggies and dried up pieces of little, salty fish.
3. “My Eyes!”
On a related note, there are these little, tiny peppers that people call “pepé.” We use these peppers to spice up our food (and our lives). Before ever using the pepés, Stephen, our Peace Corps friend, told us to be very careful with them; they are spicy little buggers, and if one gets them anywhere near his/her eyes, one will not be a happy chef. Anyway, I (Luke) cut the pepés the first night (June 13). I washed my hands seriously like five times after the chopping, we ate our flavorful dinner, and everything seemed fine—it wasn’t. I was feeling kind of tired, ya know, and I felt like, ya know, rubbing my eyes a little bit with my (supposedly) clean, pepé-free hands. Well, things got bad—ya know? My eyes burned like a thousand scorching suns; I could not open my eyes without wanting to rip them out to stop this very unpleasant new feeling: “anything, anything, please! Anything to stop the pain!” The end seemed near for my already-less-than-precious eyes. However, out of the mist, like angels from heaven, my three friends appeared, bearing gifts of Visene and wet rags (and also a camera to kindly document the experience). After a good 20 minutes of shouting and eye-prying (ever seen A Clockwork Orange?), my eyes were miraculously saved! I can see yet again!*
*Pepés are now handled with extreme care; we have had some other close encounters with their dangers but have not seen another incident of this magnitude.
We often lose electricity at night when it rains. Our house also had an electrical issue for a while, but we got it fixed.
There was a light switch in our house that unkindly electrocuted the person attempting to operate it. Atika and I were victims. My finger still hurts. We made a duct tape warning sign. Our friend Hilary fixed it. There is no more warning sign.
6. Nighttime Movies/Shows
Some nights, we get popcorn and watch movies on our laptops! So far, we have seen: 5 episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, In Bruges, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Almost Famous.
7. Toilet Troubles
One of our toilets is broken, and we have no idea what to do about it. Johnson, the plumber, is supposed to come fix it, but that hasn’t exactly happened yet.
8. Ever seen that episode of Seinfeld…
We have no hot water in our house (unless we boil it first). This means cold showers if you’re too lazy to boil water for a shower (which we usually are). The novelty wore off after about the first three days. Cold showers. That’s probably something I won’t miss when I get back home…
We’ve had guests over to our house twice now to have a party! The first time was with our new Peace Corps friends (Stephen, Joe, John, and Alina) and our new Cameroonian friends (Simon, Rose, Hilary and Rodrique). At that party, Stephen made a delicious curry over rice, we danced, and we were merry. Our second get-together was last night. We played card games with Hilary and the new Egyptian volunteer who is also working with BFF—our new friend Abdallah. We were merry then, too.
Stephen bought us two whole wheels of Vache Qui Rit “cheese” before we arrived. We have only been able to bring ourselves to eat one of them so far. We’re trying to give it away, but no one seems to want it…
We learned how to properly wash our clothes by hand last night! Our neighbor (and Simon’s niece) Blessing taught us how. We attempted to do this chore before, but judging from the moldy smell of the house, the musty smell of the clothes, and our refusal to wear many of the items we “cleaned,” we probably failed. We now know how to wash clothes using the floor of our deck, 2 buckets, and a wad of bar soap! Watch out, world; we’re gettin’ clean!
12. An Accidental Prison
One day, Atika was feeling sick and stayed home from work. Without really thinking about it, we locked the door of the house after ourselves as we were leaving. About eight hours later, we realized that the door can only be unlocked with the key, which we had! Atika had been trapped! For eight hours! In the house! By herself! We rushed back to save her from this accidental prison; however, when we got back and talked to Atika, we discovered that, for the entire day, she had never even tried to leave the house.
One night, as we were eating dinner with our friend Hilary, we heard a mysterious knock at the door. We answered. After a lot of drunken rambling (was it English? I’m still not sure…) and arm-grabbing and pointing, we discovered that it was a man named Lambert, who had washed our stairs and our shoes earlier that day. It was a little confusing, but thanks to Hilary’s translating, we found out he wanted money. We gave him some. We went back to dinner. However, minutes later, Lambert was back! He had just walked (drunkenly stumbled?) into our house… for what, we’re not exactly sure. Hilary kindly escorted him out. The next morning, we saw him in the car. Apparently we paid for his beer the night before… Nice to know your money’s being put to good use, eh? Well, hey; now we have a new friend named Lambert.
14. House of 1,000 Corpses
The night of June 21 began like any other. We had just finished dinner and were hanging out in our living room. It was lightly raining outside, and we were about to go out to see some friends. Then we saw them. At first, it was only a few; a couple large, four-winged bugs drifting into our living room. There was some light screaming and a rush to grab a flip-flop (flyswatter), but nothing too out of the ordinary. We killed them and were about to move on with our night. But then we saw the others! They were everywhere, in every room, near every light; these large, winged monsters were invading! They were throwing themselves at our windows from the outside, tearing their own wings off as they crawled through the cracks in the sill; anything to get closer to our living room light. There were hundreds in a frantic swarm on our front porch; others were flying around erratically in the house, bumping into us as we registered what was going on. We all grabbed weapons (flip-flops) and began the counterattack: We retaliated with force, swatting the bugs (easily killed with even the lightest touch) and diminishing their forces. But they kept coming! A battle plan was soon established; we moved into the kitchen and barricaded ourselves within this small, safe haven. We were to move throughout the house, systematically killing anything that got in our way, finding the points of entry and sealing them with duct tape. And that’s exactly what we did. We swept through the house, massacring these new enemies, sealing up windows and doors and clearing the area of any foreign invaders. After the house was reasonably secure, we called Stephen and asked him what was going on. He had no idea. We then got a visit from Abdallah, and he told us (as he learned from Simon) the truth: They were locusts! They come at night after the rain and look for light. Apparently, a lot of people here trap them with a light and a bucket of water so they can cook them and eat them. I’d like to try that sometime (what better way to celebrate a victory, eh?); we definitely had enough dead bugs on our floor to feed a small army…
Well, we are all still doing well; the house is looking a lot cleaner, and we are finally getting some laundry done. I’m currently at the office and am about to purchase goods for another amazing dinner: peanut noodles! Talk to you soon!
WE ARE HERE!
Our team successfully arrived in Douala, Cameroon! As soon as we arrived, we easily passed through the airport and met with Stephen (the Peace Corps Volunteer who works with Better Family Foundation). We waited near the baggage claim, sweating and a bit tired, slowly collecting our bags as they came out. Unfortunately, while we all arrived without a problem, Luke’s bag was not as lucky – it was actually still at JFK airport in New York! We therefore began our journey by maneuvering the different airline counters, trying to get his bag back. Eventually, we got it all worked out (all in all taking probably around two hours), and it was time to leave again! Stephen had arranged for a taxi man to come and get us, so we walked down and squeezed all of our stuff in to the trunk and clambered into the car.
Here, we got our first taste of Cameroonian driving: without a blink or any hesitation, the taxi man told all four of us to get into the back of his very small car. Stephen told us that this is how driving is done in Cameroon, and we were more than happy to embrace this tradition! Until, that is, we were speeding along towards the Baptist hostel where we would be staying and we got pulled over by the police. They told us that we were overloaded and at first demanded to see our passports. Stephen and the taxi driver talked with them, and they no longer needed our passports: they asked for a small bribe and we were on our way! Getting pulled over was a bit of a shock for all of us, as were the large automatic guns that all of the policemen carried. But everything went well, and we got to the hostel a few minutes later. It was absolutely wonderful! The hostel was a compound with several different buildings and several families staying there. Our building was a little 2-story, cabin-like building with beds on top and a bathroom on bottom. Stephen had already prepared a delicious meal (pizza, pasta, bruschetta, bread, and fruit!), and we were all happy to sit down and eat: while not bad, it’s sure that having home-cooked food was well received after so many meals that were wrapped in plastic. That evening we talked and got to know Stephen a bit better (he is very nice and funny!), hung out around the pool, and finally went to bed, tired after our day of travel but ready for the next adventure.
The next morning, we woke up at 5am in order to make breakfast, pack up, and take a taxi at 6:15 to go to a type of bus stop. We all stuffed ourselves into the car again and we were off on our way. This time, in the daylight, it was much easier to see the passing landscapes. It was also a bit scarier because we were able to clearly see all of the traffic on the roads: something we’ve noticed about driving here is that there is sort of an unofficial fifth lane that cars moving in either direction can move. In addition, cars drive a lot closer to people and to motorcycles. However, once you got used to it, it was actually pretty efficient!
We arrived at the bus station. We were going to take a VIP 30-person bus from Douala to Bemenda, a 6-hour drive. We got there early and so we waited around the bus station for a while. Everyone was so friendly, and vendors were selling clothes and food. Chickens were squawking around and people were greeting and conversing with each other. There were a lot of people there, so we were able to fill the bus on time and we left around 8:40. The bus was different than any I had seen. All of the luggage was loaded on top and then covered with a tarp and tied down. There were two aisles, one with two seats and one with one seat. Then, there was an additional fold-down chair that made it so that there were four people in a row and no aisle. Everyone was so friendly and helpful. They began playing music (it was wonderful! We’re trying to get ahold of some of the songs – we’ll post them when we find out which they are, because you definitely want to listen to them), and as we slowly rolled out of town, we began to see the country side. Cameroon is absolutely stunning. If you ever get the chance to come to this beautiful country, you should definitely take advantage of it. It is not at all what most of us think of when we here “Africa” – it is definitely not a dry Sahara. Instead, everything is a bright green. There are banana trees, fields of corn, looming trees, rolling (and sudden) mountains, gorgeous rivers (at one point, it was so warm outside that I could see water evaporating from the river!)… I don’t think that any of us could truly describe what it looks like. While I originally intended to do some work and reading on the bus, I ended up being enamored and entranced by the passing scenery. We stopped once to stretch our legs for a bit. Often, when we would pass through a town, merchants would come up to the window and try to sell things – fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. People would complete the transaction through their window and off we were on our way! Six hours later, after crossing some mountains, we reached Bamenda.
Bamenda is the capital of the area and a relatively large town. From the bus station, we went to get a taxi. If we thought we were introduced to Cameroonian driving before, we were in for a new treat. In this new taxi, we weren’t the only patrons: in addition to Stephen, the driver, and the four of us there was another woman driving to Fundong. Therefore, we had two people in the front seat and four people in back. I was squished in front between the taxi driver and Atika in the front seat (poor Atika gets car sick, and we were winding our way up some narrow mountain roads at a fast pace!). Unfortunately, because of a few complications and some fears about taxes, half of us had to switch out of our car after a few minutes into another taxi, before eventually switching back to our first one. Finally, we were winding up the mountain roads. It took us about 2 hours to reach a place near Fundong. When we got out, Atika and I literally could not walk because our legs had fallen asleep, but we wobbled for a minute and were quickly back to normal. We finally got into one last taxi that took us all the way to Fundong where we met Simon, who is head of the Better Family Foundation. We had our first taste of Cameroonian food (beans and puff-puff (which is basically a fried piece of dough, like a beignet) – it was delicious! It’s currently around 4:00pm here, and I’m already looking forward to walking over and getting some more today!
Finally, we took the car to Simon’s house in Ngainkuma, where we are staying. This post is getting to be quite long and we haven’t even started talking about our project yet, so I’ll leave a detailed description of the house for later on. Suffice it to say that our house is amazing – so much more than any of us were expecting! We have delicious running water fr
om our faucet, two bedrooms with large beds, a comfortable living room, a dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, and a shower. We don’t have warm water, but I think we’re all getting used to those adventures. We’re also slowly getting used to the spiders and dead bugs that we find pretty often, but they’re quickly becoming our friends and the basis of a lot of jokes, so no complaints there.
Overall, I am so excited and happy to be here. Cameroon is so beautiful and everyone is so kind. There are a lot of things that are different culturally, but I haven’t been experiencing much culture shock. But we’ll talk more about that later. I apologize that this post was just a blow-by-blow of everything that is going on – there’s just a lot of stuff to get caught up on!
Some fun words/expressions we have learned so far (phonetically spelled)!
Toe-lie-mah – Good morning
Wah-ee-see-ma – Good afternoon
Too-jeem-ma – Good evening
See-je-ah – This one is harder to translate in English, but it means something along the lines of courage, good luck, stay strong, etc. It has a lot of different meanings!
I-ong – Thank you
(Ah-she-ah – This is similar to See-je-ah, but it is in Pidgin English.)
Talk to you all soon!
Well, we’re off! Our team met up at JFK yesterday afternoon (June 5) at around 3pm without any problems. We just got off our flight from JFK to Brussels and are waiting in the Brussels airport for our flight to DOUALA!!!
It feels so nice to actually be on our way together—in a different country. All our hard work is really paying off. Now all we have to do is make our flight to Douala on time and find Stephen—and our bags—at the airport once we arrive. Then, we’re off to stay in a Baptist guesthouse for a night with Stephen (whatever that is…all we know is it has a pool, so it has to be pretty cool). Tomorrow, we will travel within Cameroon via taxi, bus, and motorcycle taxi (!!!) until we finally get to Fundong and our house.
So I figure you all wanna know how our team is doing mentally and physically; Morgan and I slept like babies on the flight (thanks to some Advil PM and some awesome Belgian flight attendants), and Atika and Nathalie did not sleep at all. We are all pretty quiet at the moment, but—just for you—I’ll break the silence so you can hear how everyone’s doing from the mouths of the babes themselves:
Me: How are you feeling RIGHT NOW!?
Me (In my head): “I’m feeling great! Kinda want to stop traveling and be in Cameroon so we can meet Stephen and start to get comfortable, but the airport in Brussels is pretty sick, and THEY’RE SPEAKING FRENCH OVER THE LOUDSPEAKERS! ~~Chouetttttttteeeeee~~!”
Nathalie: “Oh no are you taking quotes?! Don’t start with me; start with Morgan…NOOOOO!!!! You’re joking!!!”
Morgan: “I am excited to arrive!”
Atika: “Really tired.”
Nathalie (given a chance to redeem herself and make a real comment): “I’ll think about it.”
So there you have it, folks! Doing well in the Brussels airport (and a little confused on the part of Nathalie…).
Until next time,
The Klaremont Krew
Well, we’re almost there!
We are a week away from departure and are super excited to head out to Fundong, Cameroon.
To bring you all up to date with what our team has been up to, I’ll give you a brief overview of our preparation and training methods.
1. Team Meetings
We had six training meetings when we were back at school to get acquainted with Cameroon and figure out logistical questions as a group. Each team member presented on a different aspect of life in Cameroon—history, geography, politics, water, culture, customs, etc.—in order for us to learn as much as possible about our surroundings before we arrived. We also worked on documents together, such as the Theory of Change, the Memorandum of Agreement, the Communications Plan, the Parent Packet, and others in order to finalize plans with the Better Family Foundation, the Nourish National Office, our government, and our families. These meetings were also a great time for us to get to know each other and socialize before we spend six weeks living together!
2. Nourish Phone Calls
Our International Projects Director—Jacob Fiksel—and me, the Team Leader—Luke Miller—held conference calls with Sarah Miller in the National Office every other week to go over planning and preparation for the project. These were a great way to get an outside, professional perspective on our actions and get as prepared as possible.
All of us on the team had to get some shots and take some pills while back in Claremont. The most important one—the Yellow Fever Vaccination—even came with a cool—yet strangely informal-looking—yellow card (pictured below) that is necessary to enter the country! We also took some typhoid pills, went to a strange travel clinic, and had meetings with the Student Health Services on campus. However, there are STILL more travel meds to take! We will all be taking anti-malarial pills (pictured below) throughout the duration of our stay and for a few weeks after we get back! (We also got some traveler’s diarrhea medications, but sshhhhh! That’s embarrassing to talk about!)
4. Visas (A.K.A. Stress Stamps)
We needed visas in order to travel to Cameroon, and this process was probably the most stressful part of preparation. We all had to have valid passports (pictured below), two completed applications (filled out in all caps—a problem for some of our team…*cough* Morgan *cough*), money orders (yeah…apparently those are a thing), and all sorts of other weird documents from BFF. To make this even MORE stressful, we had to mail them into the Cameroonian Embassy in Washington, D.C.—passports and all! We FINALLY got them back a few weeks before school got out, however, which made us all a little more relieved. The visa is this cool little stamped form on a passport page that has curvy writing and other little stamps on it…well worth the stress, I’d say…
5. E-mails and e-mails and e-mails, oh my!
In addition to all the aforementioned preparation goodness, there was a TON of e-mailing to do. I had to constantly send documents back and forth to Stephen—our peace corps volunteer contact with BFF—, get logistics planned with him (housing, packing, schedules, etc.), and relay all the information back to the team. However, the e-mails paid off, and we feel much more confident and connected as a group as a result of all the communication.
So now, we’re pretty much ready to go! Only some last-mintue things remain. First, we are all looking over the course materials for the safe-sex/HIV education camp we will be teaching; Simon and Stephen did a great job on creating all this stuff, and we want to be able to contribute our knowledge to the process as well. We are cross-referencing their materials with some other safe-sex/HIV documents and will be sending our revisions to BFF within the week. Second, we are working on packing and buying some final supplies! We are finishing up our packing lists and are planning out room in our bags for the long trip! Finally, we are continuing our long-standing tradition of e-mailing and forwarding e-mails to each other to get on the same page at every level before we all meet up in New York next Wednesday! We are all super excited for this experience, and we can’t wait to get over there. With all this preparation, it will be very rewarding and fun to see it pay off in a well-executed and carefully planned project. This will surely be a learning experience for all of us, and we will be sure to keep you all—our beloved and faithful supporters—in the loop about future events! Stay in touch: This is gonna get cool.
**Picture: Our very beloved supplies, the physical fruits of our pre-departure labor: incredibly valid passport with spiffy visa, Yellow Fever Card from strange travel clinic that looks surprisingly un-legit for how important it is, and 60 days’ worth of Doxycycline—just say “NO!” to malaria!
Greetings from Cameroon,
It’s been a long journey, but the project teams have arrived and are finally getting comfortable. We landed in Douala, a major port city on the west coast of Africa, on the evening of May 16 (last Thursday)… and from that moment on, it has been an adventure. We were unfortunately delayed in our departure from Douala, due to Swissport employees going on strike… our baggage and the donations did not arrive with us.
(Douala = photo cred. Maxie)
Although we were quite uncomfortable, stuck with the same clothes for… well, a week… we learned some valuable lessons about packing essentials on your carry on as opposed to hoards of American candy and junk food :] Luckily, the team persevered and gained a great bond from the communal atmosphere. “Be real about your needs.” From hand sanitizer to malaria pills.
The trip to our project site, the subdivision Oku, took at least a day’s journey. The crowded car-bus ride gave a good perspective on how difficult it can be to get around in Cameroon due to poor road conditions. It took us about 6-8 hours to get to Bamenda, the big city of the Northwest province + headquarters to our partner CamAAY, and then about 3-5 to get to Elak-Oku, the main village of the subdivision we are staying in.
Douala had us sweating in our sheets, but Elak-Oku is much higher elevation, located in the mountains around Mt. Oku (a “touristic” volcano), so the weather here is cooler. In the afternoons and evenings, it pours rain, and at night, when there aren’t any clouds, the stars could take your breath away. The intense green with the snaking brown roads draped with clouds gives the distinct feeling of being in the middle of paradise.
The flip side is the sheer remoteness and underdeveloped infrastructure of the area, but the hotel-esque flat we’re staying in fits most of our needs. Running water and electricity are patchy, but we do have toilets. Toilets are definitely a luxury here, so we’re grateful. When the water is on, the tap is fairly clear, and probably potable, but most of us still stick to the bottled water, iodine tablets, or filtration + purification systems. Electricity and working lights have been available about ¾ of the time, and the two cell phone network providers here in Cameroon usually work. It’s due to an “internet stick” that I am able to update this remotely.
(Elak-Oku = photo cred. Maxie)
Based on our experience and several interviews and meetings with community groups and schools around Oku, we’ve been doing needs assessments. With the information we’ve collected, our plan is to digitize the reports, summarize, organize and eventually make the immediate needs public. We hope that this will help other Nourish chapters and interested parties to come up with project ideas and connect resources with the appropriate people. It has been great meeting all of the community members. Oku has been very welcoming.
From day one, we began an educational campaign about menstruation, pre-marital sex and pregnancy. The Ohio State Nourish chapter partnered with Days for Girls to bring hundreds of reusable (washable) sanitary napkins to women groups here. Traditionally, these topics are taboo, but we have been able to bridge the topic and answer a lot of questions and misconceptions related to these topics. One of CamAAY’s goals is to set up regularly meeting Girls Corners to talk about these subjects and other hardships that women in particular face, along with providing a means for continuing this educational campaign when we’re gone. These groups will be in charge of distributing the sanitary napkins and, hopefully, working towards making their own here in Cameroon.
So, most of this first week was dedicated to getting to know the community, greeting officials, visiting schools and community groups for needs assessments and giving presentations on both women’s health and school partnerships. May 20 was also Cameroon’s National Day – celebrating the unification of the former British Cameroons and French region of Cameroon as the (United) Republic of Cameroon in 1972. We marched in the parade as CamAAY, promoting our educational campaign.
(National Day Parade = photo cred. Aubrey)
Finally, yesterday marked the beginning of the community empowerment center construction. It was great to see so many people come out to greet us and work on the center. We purchased materials and helped to deliver stones and sand in the heat, but the center belongs to the people of Mbam-Oku. Their dedication was impressive. Plus they plaster so much better than we do! Thank goodness no one left the construction and piping to us!
Hopefully by the end of this month, significant progress will have been made, and the center we’re helping with will be fully operational. It already serves as a temporary school and gathering area, so with toilets, and completed side rooms, it can gain significant capacity to hold other resources like books and computers.
We also visited another school to distribute the first of our pen-pal letters to begin the connection between a New Mexico elementary school, and a primary school in Mbam-Oku. We listened to the kids read their penpal’s letters and their responses.
(Mbam school pen-pals = photo cred. Joan)
I am very excited to work some more on the center tomorrow and begin the next portion of our project – seed demonstration gardens. We’ve packed 15 different varieties of seeds from Seed Programs International to test in small quantities in at least four different community gardens. The goal is that with this and our presentations, the various groups can increase their crop diversity and seed security by learning to tend to the soil needs and save the seeds. Our organic famer is super excited to start, and I am looking forward to getting in the dirt.
We also visited the tree nursery to talk with the community members setting up the different varieties (pre-germination and planning) for a water catchment project. With educational campaigns and renewal of the trees in the naturally forested areas here in the mountain, the communities will regain an important area for water catchment.
So, that’s the plan for this week. Next week or so, we should begin working on training “sports animators” for the women groups and preparing for the International Youth Camp.
Until then, feel free to leave us a message.
Hello from UNM-Cameroon,
We have a little less than 3 weeks before we all are off to Cameroon. May 15! UNM will be working with 5 students from Ohio State University, an organic farmer, the Cameroon Association of Active Youths (CamAAY) and the surrounding communities this summer.
We’ll head to Douala first and then the Northwest region, around OKU and BATIBO.
We’re still working on our visas and finalizing the details of the projects coinciding with our stay, but it looks like we’ll be involved in various things in some capacity or another alongside CamAAY:
– Women’s health campaigns promoting awareness about menstruation and safe sex
– International Youth Leadership Camp
– Sports Tournament
– Women’s seed collective groups (agricultural techniques and seed sharing)
– Construction of the community center in OKU:
If you have any resources you’d like to share about preventing substance abuse in youth, women’s health education and youth leadership, comment below! We’ll be involved in workshops and awareness campaigns related to this.
Hello there again!
Wow, it feels strange to be blogging away from Cameroon. Already three weeks have past since I’ve returned, and I’m still making small day-to-day adjustments. I think I can speak for the other volunteers when I say that there is definitely some counter-culture shock going on. It’s not so abrupt and huge as the term may suggest, but there is definitely some realizations you make once you return and are able to distance yourself from that foreign place in which you spent half of your summer. One of the most obvious outcomes is becoming more appreciative for every little thing we may take for granted sometimes when living in a place like the US. Everyday life in Cameroon was at or below the poverty level, but the people there were nonetheless happy to have what little they owned. Families were just grateful if they could bring food to the table, and sending children to school was sometimes nothing but a dream.
I learned from the community much more than I can put to words. They were a friendly group of people who more than welcomed us into their country, but also greeted us, invited us to their homes and churches, fed us, gave us gifts, and never failed to kindly say ‘hello’ and wave at us. Yes, we didn’t exactly blend into their society, but I had never felt so welcomed as I did in Cameroon. Perhaps sometimes people were a little too welcoming, if you know what I mean, but I never felt completely offended or uncomfortable. That’s just how their culture is.
Before I go on about my last thoughts on cultural differences, I would like to talk about the project. The last two weeks of the project found the other volunteers and me working on the Njinikom farm, which was, to and from, an hour and a half long hike each day. It was quite the challenge trekking up those steep, rocky mud roads each day but I always felt really accomplished at the end of a day’s work. There are about ten different groups of widows that will be benefiting from the money we brought for each of their plots of land, but we only worked alongside one group. This group was the arts and crafts group of Njinikom. Like all of the widows we have met across different groups, these women were really kind and giving. Throughout the last two weeks, our main focus was preparing the land for cultivation. Our main work consisted of clearing and hoeing the land, as well as building a propagator.
Along with the hard labor, the other volunteers and I interviewed key community members, like the president of the Njinikom arts and crafts widow group, in addition to the coordinator of the widows groups. This documentation and video recording will prove very useful and will be added to the wide variety of photos we have taken for the purpose of this project. We hope that these records will contribute to a successful project report and follow-up during the course of the months and even years to come.
The post-project part is in some ways just as or even more important than the project itself. Every volunteer doesn’t expect any sort of project completion during their stay, just project progress. Something as complex as a sustainable development project implies difficulty and lots of dedication. Sometimes that’s not enough because other factors play in, and as the other volunteers and I learned, culture is a BIG one. There’s not much you can do to influence change easily in a system that works differently from yours. It’s hard work and nothing seems to happen as planned. It’s not easy to get the results you want in the time frame you want them, but as a volunteer working for a good cause I was never expecting it to run smoothly. I was just happy to learn from my mistakes, learn from the community, and use those to help me move on and progress for the sake of the project. It took a lot of late night conversations and additional meetings to finalize some project details, and by the time we were leaving the other volunteers and I wished we could have completed more tangible work.
In the end, despite all the twists and turns, we were very content in our choice to come to Cameroon. We understood that although we didn’t accomplish much tangible work on the fields, we made a pretty good intangible impact on the people we worked closely with. I know that many of them could tell how much we cared to sort the issues out so that we can help them as much as we can. We were able to sit with Anna, the coordinator of the widows groups, and the project financial advisor, on two separate occasions before we left Cameroon to conclude the direction of the project once we were out of the picture. We feel much more secure now that we are close to establishing business workshops to be held for the leaders of widows groups. After all, teaching them a method of sustainable development is what Nourish International is all about. We hope that they will use those business skills to not only run their fruit and vegetation businesses, but to also grow and flourish these businesses. I would love to return back 20 years from now to see a Cameroon that is no longer suffering and limited as it is now.
There are few things I know I will not miss about Cameroon. Cold showers everyday, for one. Going many nights and even days at a time without electricity was sometimes unbearable, but the other volunteers and I found fun ways to occupy ourselves. The electricity was out most of the times because it rained literally everyday there, and although I do miss it sometimes especially since Texas hasn’t seen any rain since I’ve arrived, the rain made the mud roads the worst to trudge through. There is no possible way to walk through that untouched by blotches and squirts of red, thick mud over your shoes and pant legs. And it also made slipping on your bottom very likely! Add that to steep roads and long hikes, you got one big workout! Although they were good workouts, I will never grow accustomed to steep anything! I don’t mind the walking so much, but steep hills will never be my friend. It also would’ve been nice to have more connection to the world. The internet connection was extremely slow and we only averaged once a week at the lab. It was quite difficult to handle at first, but in the end, it was a challenge I’m glad I endured. It’s good to distance yourself from a little technology sometimes. Making sure to bleach or use a UV light to clean your water isn’t exactly something I’ll miss doing either. Oh, the stomachaches! I will never miss those.
But enough of the negative, there was way more positive! They are much more general but also much more meaningful. I will miss most of all the friends I made there. This includes the women we worked with, the kids I met on the street, our lovely cook, and so many, many more! They made our stay worthwhile and I thank them for welcoming us with such open arms. Trying new food was fantastic, and no matter what it looked like or what the content, I always jumped eagerly into the dishes. I loved trying the exotic food and all of it was delicious. Thanks to our cook, Zita, Emily and I have some of her homemade recipes that we can cook on our own. We want to cook our favorite dish puff puffs first! I’ll dearly miss the beautiful landscape of Cameroon. From the beaches in the South, to the bustling cities in the center, and to the mountains in the Northwest region where we stayed, every view was beautiful. And I felt like I could see almost every star at night – it was breathtaking. I’ll also miss the excitement around soccer matches there. I felt privileged to be a part of something that was so special to the people of Cameroon. That was one thing that brought all of them together, and it was a sight to see. And although French was not so prevalent in my village as it was in other parts of Cameroon, I will miss the presence of French the times I was able to practice it in the southern cities and in Limbe in our final days.
I would definitely say that Cameroon was an amazing experience. An unforgettable one that I will only grow to appreciate more in the year to come. I know that our work there and after the project will make an impact in some way for the lives of those good women. So many people we met there hope we return soon, but all I could tell them was that hopefully one day I would. I really hope to visit them again but for now I must settle for emails and occasional phone calls and care packages as our only ways to stay in touch. And finally, I want to thank all of you who stuck by me on my journey and followed my blogs. I really appreciated the support away from home. And of course, thanks for supporting a cause that’s extremely important to me.
I have allowed two weeks and three days to pass by before posting again! and well, that is just plain irresponsible. I have much to share about life and work here in Njinikom, but once again, very little time.
After being trained at Pa Sala’s farm and meeting all the widow groups around Boyo Division during the first two weeks, we finally started working alongside the widows on their farm. I cannot believe how strong the women are here. Whether the hot sun or freezing rain is coming down, they are always working, never stopping and never seeming to tire. It is incredible. Not surprisingly, it puts me to shame, though I’m pretty sure the apathetic goats eating grass off to side could do that too. Just kidding. Sort of. Like Christina said, the work we’re doing isn’t complicated but it sure of heck is difficult! However, despite being spent at the end of each day I think it is also making me stronger. The other day, for example, I meant to lazily flick a bug off of me only to watch it shoot out of existence. I felt kind of bad but was pleasantly surprised by the power of my index finger and thumb.
Aside from working at the widows’ farm we’ve also continued another part of the project at Pa Sala’s farm on the other side of the hill. (Interestingly, both farms are in valleys but on separate sides of the same mountain which we appear to be near the top of – it provides a funny sense of symmetry and a healthy amount of walking.) Other than his role as teacher, he is also in charge of growing the plantains that are to be distributed to all the widow groups throughout Boyo Division. This means Njinikom, Belo, Fundong, Mbingo, and Ashing – over 500 women in total. It is unfortunate that due to time constraints we will not be able to work on farms in these other locations but because we were able to build the propagator (Ben did most of that actually) and plant the koms (which are roots of plantains that will produce the seedlings to be distributed) we feel more secure about the success of the project after our departure.
Another thing we were able to do before our time is up was set up the business skills training for the women after we leave. To me, this may be the most important part of the project as it’s most important that the women are able to help themselves. Even if we gave them no money, if we give them knowledge then we give them the power to help themselves and not have to rely on others. The main problem here is that due to the nature and structure of society here widows are forced to be reliant on others who have no desire to take on the responsibility of supporting them and therefore they are often the most neglected members of the community. So dependency then is the direct opposite of what we came here to achieve and getting this in place allows us to overcome that. The person who will be heading the training often works with different NGOs and charities and he also mentioned that with this project we were really targeting one of the biggest and most prominent problems in Cameroon. So it felt really good to get that confirmed and in place.
Anyways, that was a lot in those three paragraphs. I could keep writing pages and pages about our project but there are also lots of other things I’d like to talk about before I run out of time or the power goes off (this post wasn’t up on Thursday for that reason).
I mentioned before that on the weekends we get to travel around the region we’re in and it’s a really great way to get a larger sense of what Cameroon is really like. One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed is that even though we’re traveling to places that are all really close together, almost everywhere we go we encounter new cultures. On the surface things don’t seem all that different but after a bit you can start to get a sense for what makes this certain part where you are unique, just like the differences you might feel between Dripping Springs, Austin, and Dallas. I remember reading in my guide book that Cameroon was like a smaller version of Africa because it has so many different groups and tribes in it. Even though I haven’t left the Northwest Province I can definitely feel how that is true.
A really good example of that was when we went horseback riding just this past Sunday. We traveled to Fundong in a taxi and then trekked up into the country to where we’d be meeting our guides. Our guides were Fulani, a Muslim group of people in Cameroon that typically live high up in the mountains and herd cattle. I couldn’t believe how hospitable they were and just how much fun we had. Ben fell of the horse, I slammed my knee into a tree, Christina couldn’t get her horse to gallop, Stephanie didn’t have stirrups or a saddle, and of course we were all feeling rather chaf-tastic afterward but it was hands down one of the greatest experiences I’ve had here.
Anyways I’m out of time. This will probably be my last post before leaving Cameroon. Sunday there is no access to internet, we leave Njinikom and Boyo Division Monday morning, and once we’re on the road we probably won’t have time to stop anywhere. So I’m saying goodbye for now, though I hope you check back in for my one last follow up post. Perhaps for once in that post I will be able to tell you all that I have always promised to. Until then, Ahsha (I am with you).