Monday, January 10, 2011

End of 2010

My year ended with several memorable moments –
  1. The middle of December was my In Service Training (IST) with Peace Corps, meaning that it had been 6 months since I had arrived in Cameroon and 3 months since I was at post,  it was time to move on to the next phase of my 27 months of service. Training took place in Kribi, a beautiful town next to the ocean. It lasted a week. We started every day at 0800 and finished at 1700, luckily though, we still found the time to enjoy bathing in the warm ocean before heading out to dinner. Most mornings I was able to take walks along the beach and watch the rolling of the waves as the sun appeared. I decided to stay one extra day, with some of my friends, to enjoy a whole day at the beach and just to disconnect. In Kribi, the specialty food was fresh caught fish or nice, large shrimps which were then grilled over coals by “fish mommies” and eaten while watching fishermen coming in with their new catches. It was a great week, training was good, the environment refreshing, but most of all, seeing everyone again was just the medicine that the doctor recommended :-)

  2. Came back to Bambili, the 20th of December, in time to celebrate the Christmas holidays. School had ended on the 18th. The majority of the students had gone home to their families and had left Bambili extremely quiet. It was hard, for me,  to be away from the family during this period, but neighbors and friends from the village helped me get through it by extending many invitations to join them in their celebrations with their families. Their kindness and understanding were so greatly appreciated. How is Christmas celebrated in the Northwest region of Cameroon? For me, it first started by waking up, Christmas eve morning, and while making coffee, looking out of the kitchen window and realizing that there was a cow in the backyard tied to a banana tree --- when I asked our landlord why the cow, well you can guess it --- Yes, that was going to be our Christmas meal. No --- no turkey or ham, here cattle are slaughtered and eaten. Since the animals are quite large, many of those families that have the means to buy a cow will then share the meat with others as a gift. I was told that at the market there were many cows that had been slaughtered early morning. I went to just see how the butchers had cut the meat and how they were selling it. Everything is used, there is no waste. Meat inspectors were present to ensure that the animal had not been infected by diseases, amoebas, or worms. There was not only beef but pork and chicken as well. I learned that the meat inspectors examine the brain and the liver of the animals because this is where toxins accumulate and, for pork, this is where they can see if it is infected with trichinosis. So, though the pictures may be a bit gruesome, remember that all parts are used. 
  3. Christmas Eve was spent at my landlord and neighbor´s home. They had put up an artificial Christmas tree on the balcony of their house.It was the only outdoor Christmas tree in our village. No presents are exchanged at Christmas, in Cameroon, except for a special event that the children anticipate with great joy.  They excitedly wait for their parents to come back from shopping, on Christmas Eve, bringing home to them a new Christmas dress, suit and/or shoes from the stores. On Christmas day, all children wear proudly their new clothes.The highlight of Christmas is really the original, true meaning of the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth and being thankful for His coming. Together, we ate the traditional Cameroonian dishes that were excellent – Ndolé, Njama Njama, fried fish, fried chicken, pépé soup, irish, yams, and the national dish of the Northwest and a special favorite of Bambili – Achu – all well spiced with Pépé or what is a real, hot and spicy pepper sauce --- and I must admit, beef stew, which yes, I did try and it was delicious. It was a wonderful evening.

  4. Christmas day started with a celebration at church. Though it was Christmas, during the service, there were baptisms performed as well, about 20 actually. I had been invited to witness the baptism of one of my friends whose grandchild was getting baptized. Once mass was over, she then invited me to come to her home to share in the celebration of the baptism. Once again, the food was traditional and excellent, but I ate only small portions because that day many more invitations had been extended to me. Once done, I went home to change and got ready to go to my neighbors , Gertrude. There again, wonderful food was served and  I spent a great time with her, her granddaughter Sandra, who was real happy to show me their Christmas tree, her grandson Elvis, her daughters and son. Once finished, as I was walking on to the next invitation, my landlord  asked me to first come and have a drink with them – how could I refuseJ. I spent a couple of hours with them and then was picked up by the assistant director of my school to come join him and his family to celebrate Christmas --- more food, more sharing of great times- By the time I came home, Christmas was coming to an end, it was 2200. I had started the day at 0700 by going to church, I had shared the day with 4 families and had eaten almost non-stop since 1000 --- what a celebration it was!!!!!  

  5. I went to the Bafut Agro Pastoral Fair that took place after Christmas; it was like a country fair with the displaying of local products, vegetables, fruits, animals and crafts for judging. It was a nice and enjoyable diversion. It was interesting to see the local farmers, mainly women, display their crops and excitedly wait for the judges to come, look and hopefully award prizes to their products. The array of the different displays was colorful, pleasing to the eyes and smelled wonderful. 

  6. Lake Bambili was the last event of year 2010. On New Year’s Eve, my neighbor Simon invited me to go up to finally get to see the famous Lake Bambili. One has to wait until dry season otherwise it is impossible to go up the steep, red clay roads that take you up to it. He came with his motorcycle. Eva and I, equipped with our helmets, hopped on and happily looked forward to the outing. The way to the top of the mountain took much longer than I thought it would. At times, due to the steepness of the hills, we had to climb off the motorcycle so that Simon could get traction for the motorcycle to continue the climb. We came to a point where we no longer could ride and had to walk to the summit. We saw well tended farms that were outstanding and amazing. One had to remember that all was done by hand. We met a nomad woman that was tending the cattle and she took us to her home so that we could meet her family. She then offered to take us to the lake. Once we arrived we saw the magic of the place and why so many had told us about it. The lake is a crater lake. It is surrounded by mountains. It is, unfortunately, displaying eutrophication and is getting smaller as one can see by the demarcation of plant life that is advancing slowly but surely into the lake.  

      It was a hard climb, not that it was that steep, but the air was thin and I could feel my heart thumping hard, but, it was all worth it. We had left the house at 0830 and returned at 1600. It was one of the best outings that I have done since I have arrived here. Once home, we showered, changed and went to visit a few Peace Corps friends to finish 2010 together and to start 2011 as a NW group. It was a quiet evening, good food, fun games -- it was nice to be with friends.

So now it is 2011, school has started again. ENS has been declared as a standalone University for the Northwest Region, an Anglo-Saxon university, it is no longer part of the Yaoundé University (in the Francophone region) it is The New University of Bamenda and will be joined by other faculties in the near future. The fall term has resumed and it will end on the 21st of January. There will be an exam period and the start of the new term will be on the 21st of February. So, back to the routine and then hopefully time to look into other fruitful projects.
Until next time

Monday, November 29, 2010

Feast of the ram

It has been a very long time since the last update … there are many reasons … but ... to not just concentrate on the mishaps of: lack of electricity, no access to internet, a computer keyboard molding and a surge of 300 Volts burning a computer adapter --- All is well !! ...I would like to share the feast that I attended a couple of weeks ago. It was the Muslim feast of the ram – the celebration remembering when God did not let Abraham slay his son but a ram instead.
I was invited by a Muslim friend to the hills of Sabga, to participate in the beginning of the celebrations. First we started at 0900 by a gathering, out in the beautiful outdoors, for prayers and giving thanks to God.  Attending were mostly men and small boys, but some elderly women where allowed to attend at a distance. Some men rode to the prayer meet on colorful decorated horses. Young girls attended, as well, but were only allowed to stand by the cars, way out of the way,watching.  I tried to dress according to tradition but compared to the Muslim women, I was no match ;-) but my arms, legs and hair were covered.
Once prayer was over, we marched to the mosque and there I was able to witness great horseback riding and mastery of Muslim horsemanship that I have never seen before. It was so amazing and impressive. Most of the horses that were ridden were quite wild. Riders were greeted with wild applause and cheers, shown great appreciation and admiration for their riding talents in handling the animals.
I was then invited to our host, Jibo’s compound, in the mountains of Bambili. I got to meet his lovely wife that together with the other 15 women of the compound were cooking over an open fire to prepare for the feast of the roasted sacrificial ram. Jibo killed the ram. He had fasted all day and was not allowed to eat until he had sacrificed the ram. Once he did, he ate a small piece of the raw flesh to absorb part of the strength, energy and essence of the ram’s life. The animal was then skinned and cut into the desired pieces. A wooden “grill” was built and the meat roasted. The meat was fantastic and very flavorful, even though I should not of eaten it, I did taste it and enjoyed its extraordinary flavor.

It was a fantastic experience and we immortalized the event with the taking of several group pictures of Jibo’s family, Eva (my housemate),Tim (an agriculture/forestry Peace Corps volunteer near me) and I. It was a fantastic day and experience.

That’s it for now … do not know when I will be able to get back on, but know that I think of all of you and miss you very much.

Until the next time

Monday, September 20, 2010

Birthday celebration

A wonderful morning at Bamessing with Carmen and Gabe. Bamessing is a village 25km east of Bamenda.  Located on top of a mountain in the middle of a beautiful forest is The Prespot Center, a pottery center. As you can see, a vase in the making, notice the 2 straws at the bottom and at the top of the vase, these were used to make sure that the dimensions of all the vases would be approximately the same. The Center receives order from all over the world. These vases were being made for a major hotel in the US.

All pottery is made by hand by skilled artisans that are trained at least for 7 years before being allowed to produce any craft. Our guide showed us the technique they use. He pointed out that there is no access to electricity which means that all firing done in the oven, behind me, is fueled by wood collected from the forest. This is an amazing technique since desired temperatures have to be reached and kept constant to ensure proper baking/firing of the clay. The process takes usually 10-12 hours and the oven must be constantly monitored by someone. Most artisans are paid a certain sum per finished item, so during busy season they earn well, but if there are no orders then they have no work and no pay -- this, as our guide explained, gives them time to tend the farms, finish projects that are ongoing in their homes or spend more time with the family.

Just a beautiful flower :-), it was fascinating to see how it came out of its pod.

The view from what is called the Ring road -- in the distance one can make out crater lakes. It was a beautiful day, the weather was perfect, the temperature pleasant and the view fantastic.

My wonderful friend Carmen who has been extremely kind and has been hosting me since the 19th of August until I can move to my post.

My friend Gabe, who took all these wonderful pictures and bought me a great birthday souvenir mug from Prespot.

Here are more of his pictures:


Until the next time ---

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Training is over !!!!! 100% Peace Corps Volunteer

Well training is over!!!!!
I am now a 100% Peace Corps Volunteer or as we like to say a PCV --- Woohooooo

I will first describe the end of our Model School/Summer School for the children. The last couple of weeks were extremely hectic:
-          exam preparations for the students,
-          sessions to learn all the different forms that had to be filled by hand, signed, witnessed and stamped by the school,
-          practices for the extracurricular clubs to prepare for a cultural afternoon showing what they had accomplished,
-          meetings where each students in a class was discussed to determine which of them  would receive prizes for highest grades in specific subjects and a prize for the highest grade point average
-          Planning the closing ceremony of Model School
At the same time
-          afternoon technical sessions
-          final special project report on anything that had to do with Cameroonian culture
-          presentation o f special project J, I decided to do mine on “Des Recettes Médicales de Grandmères Camerounaises”  
-          preparations for leaving Bafia
-          meetings and planning for swearing in ceremony
-          final documents to be signed
-          packing
Some of my Peace Corps friends practicing
Yes, there was plenty to do.

Before the madness started though we did have some time to enjoy playing a basketball game (well, I supportedJ). The Peace Corps was invited by the Bafia basketball team to a game. It was an enjoyable Sunday afternoon. Plays were interesting --- a bit more “forward” than I am used to.
Bafia basketball team practicing

Dance Club -- Some members from the Bafia Lycee Bilingue
Our tappers
Getting ready for the performance: Tribal marks , the final touches

Included in the responsibilities of being a secondary teacher in Cameroon is being in charge of one of the extracurricular club activities every Wednesday mornings/afternoons for 2 hours. I chose to conduct the Dance Club. This club was very popular and started with 54 students, by performance time, they were 38 students dancing. It was a fantastic experience!!!! The children were very creative and together we came up with a number that mixed both African Bafia dance steps with American dance steps to the beat of “tappers” (young boys that tap the rhythm usually on drums) ,in our case, on school benches and plastic water containers, “bidons”. The best part was to see the dancers and tappers so well synchronized by just following hand cues -- It was magical!!!! I had a great time. The children were a great asset to the closing ceremony and they received many praises.

Once we closed summer school, we then had to present the research we had done for our special project. I had interviewed one of my host mother’s friends that I had observed giving herbal remedies to the family, when they had stomach cramps, fevers or aches. I realized that she was sought after for her traditional remedies and her knowledge on local medicinal plants. She and I sat together many afternoons and talked about how she was chosen/inherited the knowledge of medicinal plants, how she diagnosed what ailed her patients and how she had learned to prescribe the medicinal dosages. She shared with me and allowed me to record 50 traditional medicinal herbal remedies that never had been written down before; all had been handed from generation to generation through word of mouth. I felt extremely honored. We went on walks and she showed me the plants, some she did not know the names of, those, I collected and pressed next to the remedies. My project made me realize that I was just discovering the tip of an iceberg. I am sure that during my next 2 years here, I will get to hear and learn many more of these traditional ways of treating illnesses. I hope that I will find the time to continue interviewing local traditional health providers and add on to my collection of remedies.

The Northwest Region gang
Andrew, me, Ben, Allison, Crystal, Jake and Carmen
(plus a Jenny, not NW)
Peace Corps Country Director, Lahoma Romocki
After swearing in: from left back, Sirri, Chantale, me, Devine
bottom left, Linette, Manka and Carlos
Finally, after many meetings that helped us to understand the practical dos and don’ts once at post, the day had come for our swearing in ceremony. In Cameroon it is customary to wear “uniforms” to show that you belong to the same family/group/clan. The group buys several bolts of the same material “pagne”. This material is distributed to each member and they sew a selected pattern with that cloth, then, when it is a wedding, clan meeting, funeral, etc. all wear the “uniform” all know that they belong together --- or as they say in Cameroon --- Nous sommes ensemble. For our swearing in, we all wore the same pagne, but we decided to choose our own individual patterns that suited our style best BUT we still looked like we belonged and that we were together J --The officials of Bafia were invited, not all could attend but representatives were sent. Our interim ambassador attended, as well as, our Peace Corps country director, Lahoma Romocki and all of our Peace Corps staff that had helped us to learn and adjust to Cameroon. Our host families were invited, as well as, a corps of journalists and media.  Speeches were made. The most impressive were three speeches that were made by my volunteer colleagues that had improved the most in the languages that they had learned – one in French, one in Pidgin and one in Fufuldé – they did a fantastic job. The speeches were serious yet witty, well expressed, clear and meaningful. What is most impressive is to understand that volunteers came with different levels of French, after the intensive 10 weeks of language training all could express themselves so that they could function well in the Cameroonian society. Once a certain level of French was reached then those moving to the Extreme North were taught Fufuldé and those going to the Northwest and Southwest regions were taught Pidgin, which means that most got their 3rd language training just for 3-4 weeks. At the end of the swearing ceremony our host families joined us and there was lots of picture taking. It was a joyous time and a proud moment. My family gave me beautiful silk flowers to take with me to my post, I was touched. We then paraded down the main road and unto our temporary main Peace Corps building to have lunch with our families. I was asked to give a short speech, representing each one of us, to thank our families for their hospitalities, for showing and teaching us the ways of Cameroonian life.  The food that was served was great and the atmosphere vibrant. Once finished it was time to go and get all luggage marked and ready for pick up for our travels to post the next day. For our final evening together, most of us, stayed at a hotel where we laughed, recounted our experiences in Bafia, drank and danced to the wee hours of the morning. By 0600, I went to Sirri to give her a big hug and to thank her for all her kindness that she had showed me during my stay with her.  And true to her nature, she had breakfast ready for me to eat and a sandwich to take with me for the trip to Bamenda. Linette ran to her room to silently cry before she came out to give me a quick hug. I will miss them, but I am lucky, because Sirri is from the Bamenda area and she promised that they would visit.
Sirri and Linette
Sirri wearing traditional Northwest region dress
(hand embroidered black material)
Once underway, the trip went well. We did see several major accidents that had happened. All were devastating bus and lorry crashes where not many could have survived. Some were so recent that locals were collecting the goods that had been carried in them such as cereals, beans and whatever could be taken --- even vehicle parts. 
We arrived safe and sound at our destinations. Another adventure started, but this will take another internet session at the internet café to describe ---- Until then.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Posting and Model School

Training is moving along and is keeping us very busy.  We have learned quite a bit about Cameroon, its cultures, religions, politics, products, education systems (there are 2, a British and a French system). Most of our training is done at Bafia’s Lycée Bilingue. The students have been very curious about our presence at their school, as you can see above, especially if one of us is using a computer to take notes. Regular school ended at the end of June.

Since I last wrote, I was told that I will be posted in Bambili, about 20 minutes from the regional capital Bamenda, in the North West region of Cameroun. Bamenda is nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains (as you see on the right). The weather is quite pleasant there, luckily for me, it is not too hot or too cold. We were sent on site visit and that was the first time that we really had to fend for ourselves. The way up was still somewhat protected since we travelled with counterparts (persons that are our first contacts at our new sites --- unfortunately I do not have one yet). We took a local bus company, a bus that looked like 2x the size of a 1960’s VW bus; we were 30 persons that sat into 5 rows – you got the picture. The bus picked its momentum going down hills (no brakes applied) to insure the climb up the hills. The trip was 5 hours to Bafoussam and then suddenly we were told to leave the bus that the driver was going no further. All luggages on top of the roof was taken down, we had no choice. We finally understood that we were being switched to another bus that this time was really the size of VW 1960’s bus. Thank God 10 of us had been dropped off along the way (irony!!! ;-)) But, though another 2 ½ hours passed, I arrived at Bamenda with cramps and aches where I did not think one could get them, but  safe and sound. Once there, I had to find my own way to a volunteer stationed. She had the key to the apartment that I was to stay at. It took a little patience and orientation to finally connect with the person and to arrive at the apartment that I was to occupy for a week. While in Bamenda, I opened a bank account where my monthly living allowance will be deposited, I went to the markets, ate street food, haggled with bush taxi drivers over taxi fares, met other volunteers within and outside of the Peace Corps, found out where everyone meets on Friday afternoons to blow off some steam and visited l’ école normale supèrieure at Bambili where I will be teaching and observing young to be biology and chemistry teachers. I also met school inspectors that are going to need help going to the different schools in the region to see how science teaching is faring. So, the week was rewarding and productive. The way back to Bafia was done totally on my own, even standing in line at 0645 to buy a bus ticket that would guarantee me a window seat on the bus to Yaoundé that would leave at 0900 (there were only 3 seats left) The bus departed at 1030. All in all, no major events occurred and the trip was a smooth one.

Back in Bafia, Model School was inaugurated with the presence of high officials from Bafia. Model School is where all education volunteers will practice teaching the Cameroonian syllabus to summer students that want to get a head start into the coming school year or need some support to understand what they missed in the last school year.  During the week, after inauguration, we spent time observing our Cameroonian colleagues or other volunteers (that have been in country 1 year) teach and now this week we are teaching. We also have staff meetings, we are responsible for extracurricular activities after school, giving final exams, grading, parent meeting, and all à la Camarounaise.; sometimes our view from our classroom windows can be distracting, as seen above. We teach until 5 days before our departure to post in August. This first teaching week has been extremely busy but rewarding.
That’s it for now, until the next time

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Peace Corps Introduction and then to our families

I got to Philadelphia with no major problems and I spent 3 nights there. One and a half day was spent getting to meet the other Peace Crops volunteers that had arrived from all different corners of the US ( I should correctly say trainees, we are not volunteers until sworn in on the 18th of August). We are a total of 43 persons. This group consists of Education - TEFL, Computer and Science teachers and of Small Enterprise Development trainees.
We were reminded of Peace Corps' values and the mission that we were to accomplish. More forms had to filled out and discussions of what to expect within the next few days, such as receiving a yellow fever vaccination prior to our being driven to JFK by bus. The picture below shows a fourth of all the luggage that we had with us -- think 43 times 3-4 pieces of luggage :-)

The trip went well. One trainee did have too much weight  in her luggage but all helped in spreading her things  into suitcases that were under weight. One trainee, unfortunately, fell ill while waiting to check in in New York and had to be transported to the hospital. She luckily was able to join us 5 days later.
We arrived in at Yaoundé airport quite exhausted, but picked up energy quickly when we were greeted by the new appointed Peace Corps Director and her assistant that held a Peace Corps sign. We had finally arrived. Our passports were taken and while they were being examined and stamped, we were shuffled through to get our luggage pieces -- all of the 43*4 pieces. Believe it or not, only 1 person had a piece of luggage missing, which she received 1 week later. When all was in order we boarded a bus and went to our hotel where dinner was waiting for us. Here are a few pictures of Yaoundé from our hotel window.

While in Yaoundé our levels of French speaking was tested so that we could get grouped according to language skill levels. Myself and a girl from Haiti tested very high, so we are getting private lessons on Cameroonism. I have now even have been asked to conduct the pedagogies class to the trainees since they saw that I had taught aspiring teachers before. I have also been asked if I would be interested to be sent to a post that would allow me to teach aspiring Cameroonian teachers. We will see. I have an interview coming up where this will be discussed.
In Yaoundé we also received our first living allowance of 25 dollars, it felt like hundreds. We were not allowed to leave the hotel until the third day where; if we were 4 persons together; we could leave for 1-2 hours. It felt great, except that it was a Sunday and all was closed. We also received power surge protectors, telephones and SIM cards. We learned a lot about certain health issues, such as, boiling, filtering and then adding bleach to our water before drinking it. We learned about not putting any of our freshly washed and dry clothes on us, unless they have been drying for 3 days or ironed (including underwear) so that we do not suffer from the mango flies' eggs hatching (google it) AND more vaccines for Typhoid, Meningitis, Hepatitis A, B and now undergoing a series of Rabies vaccines. Yes, malaria pills are being taken.
After 3 intensive days, we boarded a bus and after 2 1/2 hour we arrived at Bafia where are "mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters" were waiting for us.

We were all excited, them as well as us. My "mother" is a single mother and is an English teacher at the Lycéé Bilingue de Bafia, she is also the school's disciplinary. She has 2 daugthers, 4 and 6 years old. She also has taken in a neighbors daughter who is 12 and an orphaned girl of 15. She is very nice and tries very hard to make sure that all food is prepared in such a way so that I will not get sick. Life is different here and she must make do with the little salary that she gets and the responsibilities that she has. Here are a few pictures of how it is. All cooking is done outside, except for mine, which she cooks for me separetly. I am

I am not allowed to cook yet, nor fetch my water or do my own laundry. I have learned in my class one can not refuse help on the first offers, but that I can gradually ask them to show me how to do things so that I can take care on myself once I am out at my post alone.