Well, I am here in Cameroon. I don’t have much time, so I’m gonna cut and paste a message I wrote earlier…it’s a lilttle long…
Mbalmayo is a largish town outside the capital with about 100,000 people. It’s located along a river and seems just carved out of the forest. One paved road goes through town, but the rest of the roads are red dirt, deeply pitted, and covered by a maze of trenches and tiny plank bridges. It’s a spacious place, with corn growing everywhere. Things grow like crazy here- a path you cut one day will be covered over in vegetation in a week. The weather is either hot or rainy and cool, but hovers around 80-90 degrees. The town isn’t the most happening place- there are a few nightclubs, but mostly it is a minor logging town that doubles as a bedroom community for Yaounde.
Bush meat is huge here. The “restaurants” are tiny tiny shacks with wood plank or cement walls, with one or two tables and one pot full of something- which may be antelope, porcupine, beef, pig, monkey, boa, lizard…anything. You have to be pretty careful when you order. One volunteer told his family he had never had bush meat, so the next day he came home to a whole antelope being butchered in his yard. Another volunteer’s family caught a black mamba and served it for dinner that night. The family I live with eats pretty well- we have fish most nights, and it’s best barbecued. We eat lots of fried potatoes and plantains and cassava and rice. I eat a baguetter everyday for breakfast with laughing cow cheese (the only cheese around) if I am lucky. I usually work in some beignettes and pain au chocolate in to my day. Kids run around everywhere with buckets of beignets balanced on their heads for sale for 20 cents each. We have a big kitchen, though some trainee’s families cook outside. Everything is made from scratch. Yesterday I came home to a live chicken on my porch. Jokingly, I asked if it was dinner. My family looked at me like I was crazy. Of course it was, why else would they have a chicken? My favorite thing is the pastes of fresh white peppercorns, garlic, leeks, onions and basil that they grind up on a rock and use to flavor things. Laughing Cow Cheese (la vache qui rie) and Coke are the only American food products available. The stores have almost no food at all. Everything is purchased fresh from the market. The fruit is amazing- bananas like I’ve never tasted, sugar-sweet pineapples every day, papayas, and all kinds of crazy things I’ve never seen or heard of before.
Things here are good. It’s not dirt poor. You don’t see beggars or kids in rags or anything like that (at least, not here). But there is nothing at all like air conditioning or hot water or high rises or McDonalds- even in the capitol, who’s big attractions are things like restaurants with menus. The roads are curiously quiet- you walk down the center of them and move if you hear a car or motorcycle- almost nobody can afford them. There are schools and the kids go to them, but the classrooms are little more than concrete boxes without even lights or glass windows. Goats roam aorund in the soccer fields while school is in.
I live with a host family- three adult women and three early teen boys. My family is very modern and young. In fact, most people here are pretty young- the life expectancy is only 50 and you don’t see anyone with grey hair. It’s sad, but it also gives the country a very alive and forward looking feel. I’m pretty close to my sister, who comes with me to Peace Corps parties and takes me out walking on the weekends. She’s great. Our house is a big one inside a little gated compound and I’m lucky to have tile floors and an inside bathroom. My room is big and sunny and I’ve got it fixed up really nice.
Everyday I wake up to the sound of chickens and a siren that for some reason goes off in at the nearby sawmill. I stumble in to the bathroom, stomp a few times to scatter the cockroaches, and take a cold shower. Then my sister makes me some coffee and bread. I head out to school at 7 and do one hour of one-on-one language tutoring. Then I have about two hours of French class. There are four people in my class. It is very intense work. Then there is a break where I buy a cup of coffee and a banana. Then there is a class on teaching techniques or cameroonian culture. Believe it or not, but our ten weeks of training actually makes us some of the more qualified teachers in the country. The teacher shortage here is very very intense. In tech class, we learn things like how to ground electrical outlets and build lightening rods so that our computer labs don’t get fried. The computer situation is bad- there is almost no Internet, few schools have even a couple computers and even when they do next to nobody knows how to use them. I’ve got a tough job ahead of me, but at least I can know that I’m doing something that makes some kinds of difference.
After class, we break for lunch. I have to decide if I want to go to the “bean shack”, a nameless shack behind another building that is a huge hit because every one in a while they have beans (more often it ends up being just sauce and rice, though), the boulangerie for bread and yogurt (you eat a LOT of starch here), or “the avocado place”, where for forty cents you can buy a couple avocadoes mashed up with onion, tomato, oil and vinigar and served with a baguette. Then it’s back to the hot dusty class rooms for more classes- usually more language. School gets out at 4:30 and usually I stop at a friend’s house which has a bar attached and we sit in his family’s gazebo and talk over cokes and this wonderful fruit drink called D’jino. Bars are a very big part of the culture here and are everywhere. The drink of choice, of all things, is Guiness. Cameroon is Guniess’s 5th largest market.
When I get home, I usually help my sister prepare dinner, and then spend some time doing homework. We eat dinner to the sound of the television- usually the World Cup, but sometimes Ivorian music videos, the attrocious local soap operas, the hugely popular anime channel or French TV. After dinner we talk for a while and I head to bed early at around 9:00.
It’s a grind, for sure. We are in school six days a week and sometimes I have five or six hours of language. We are all hot, sick (I’ve been pretty lucky), exhuasted and hungry (the food is really different and it can be hard for people to choke down some of it). But I am finally making some progress with French, and that is really wonderful. I can’t wait to be fluent. It can be hard because you make friends with people, but you can’t really talk any deeper than “I’m hungry”, “I like this” or “I am going to school now.” Already 5 trainees have left. But the rest of us are doing okay, starting to really connect wiht our host families and trainers, learning to like the food and staying sane with as many parties and gatherings as possible. I’m really surprised at how well I’m intergrating with the people- they really don’t seem all that different. Right now there is still a lot of socializing with other volunteers, but training is only 8 more weeks, and then it’s all Cameroonians all the time. The people are on the whole very nice, and once you get to know them they are infininately welcoming. It can be really intense on the streets though. You really stand out. People yell out "la blanche!’ at you constantly. Usually I reply “c’est moi!” People don’t follow you around or harrass you, but you really do stand out. I’ve only seen three non-PC white people here- I met some Italians who work at the local lumber mill. I hear there is an American priest out in the woods. Thats pretty much it.
Everyone here dresses beauitfully. The women walk around in beautiful colorful dresses and headwraps. There are so many ethnic groups that everyone looks different. Some men wear long robes and caps. Some women wear flowing islamic dress. Others wear a puffy-sleeved fitted dress. Still others were long loose shifts. But everyone looks immaculate all the time. I love the clothes. I have one dress already- a loose shift that commemorates, of all things, national pre-schools. It is very common here for the clothes to celebrate something- a holiday, and institution, a person…doesn’t matter. But worked in to the beautiful african prints will be stuff like 'mother’s day 2004" or “national teacher’s day”. My favorites was a dress comemmeorating the “penal system of Cameroon”.
I’ll find out soon where my post is, and then we will make a short visit to our posts (or a similar post if the post is far). Then we will be teaching classes in a summer school put on by the Peace Corps. Then it is off to our posts to be teachers.