Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Grand Schedule

Some people have been asking for me to explain a bit more how Peace Corps is set up.  Or training.  Or basically what exactly am I doing with my time.  That's probably relevant to this blog and useful for anyone joining the Corps, so I suppose I'll help out.

OK, so first they flew me one morn to Philadelphia.  Bright and early.  We had a sort of orientation where we met all the folks headed to Cameroon.  We had meetings where we filled out paperwork, did icebreakers, and talked about what to expect.  Basically team building and some prep work.  The next day we drove up to NYC for reasons never explained to me and started a ridiculously long train of flights to Cameroon.

We put down in Yaounde (the capital of Cameroon and location of our Peace Corps HQ) and they put us up in a hotel there.  As I said before, we were under guard and strictly chauffeured around.  I believe we were in town for about five days.  Mostly medical and safety stuff, but also cultural lessons so that when they finally threw us into families we wouldn't get ourselves killed.

Now I am to become a Health volunteer.  Basically that means I will have a local Cameroonian counterpart, most likely at a local clinic, and my main goals will be to focus on Malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS prevention, and mother/child nutrition and health.  Those are just the three main goals of Peace Corps Cameroon; I will likely be doing... anything and everything.  Water Sanitation work exists here and I might still end up working in that area.  While I'm doing all that there are two other groups of kids training in either Youth Development and Environment/Agriculture.

So the training really got underway once we left Yaounde.  They split the Health off and we all live in a little village called Bokito.  The other two groups are in the larger, central town of Bafia.  We all stay with host families which have to pass a fair amount of criteria and are briefed on what must seem like the insanity of Americans.  I'm convinced they think I could die at any moment from the fervent way in which they make sure I sleep under my mosquito net (they don't) or drink only boiled and filtered water (the water they drink actually does kinda scare me).

Basically for eight weeks I am in school six or seven days a week.  We have all sorts of classes on health, how to do different outreaches in the community, medical, safety, and of course language.  Lots of things we already know and the real point is teaching us Cameroonian culture and perspective so we can present information in ways they can understand.  Ways that will actually cause them to change behavior.  We may be dealing with people who are illiterate or with very strange/different/wrong ideas on how disease works.  Or even pregnancy.  Actually, I keep being surprised by how different culture and knowledge can be.  For example, why don't you imagine drawing a bucket of water.  Maybe it is for an illiterate crowd to explain some water born diseases.  Did you color it blue?  Yea, well that will just confuse people here.  Water isn't blue and if you've never seen the ocean or a really big lake, you've probably never actually seen blue water yourself.

So that's what I'm learning.  Different colors of water.  We spend eight weeks training and living with host families.  In week seven we are assigned a post.  That post can be pretty much anywhere and it will be what actually defines what you do here.  All that stuff that was on my job description when they sent me an invite was pretty much irrelevant.  All the kids here had different ones.  Hell one of the Youth Development people had my exact same description.  They do use your skills they observe here or from your resume and try to place you where you can do the work you enjoy.  But so far as I can tell, you make up most of the projects as you go along.

After I'm assigned a site, we have three months where we are just testing things out, getting to know the community, and doing needs assessments.  Then we all meet up again for another training that is two or three weeks where we try to see what we can actually do for the remainder of our service with another regrouping half way through for less time.  At site, in Cameroon at least, I will be living in my own place, though it may be on a family compound or something like that.  And I will most likely be posted pretty rural, but in a region with a number of other volunteers.  It seems that Peace Corps Cameroon is trying to focus efforts on certain areas to better be able to show effects over time.  Makes sense to me.

I've a little over three full weeks left of training.  And lots of projects and presentations to do.  I have internet right now because they specially drove us out to do some research.  But I'm also going on a sweet field trip for a few days next week.  We'll be learning things related to health.  Like how to make soy or tofu or whatever.  And also how to make wine.  Which I'm not sure is super related, but it will certainly be project number one for me when I get to my own site.

Apologies if some of that was already said.  Or you knew that because we talked about it before.  As a consolation prize here is a picture of what happened when I went to a Cameroonian barber:

I'm just kidding.  That did happen, but it was entirely unrelated to the barber incident.  That was more of me trying to just ask for a nice trim and being sheered like a sheep.  That's not fair; he was incredibly meticulous in his work.  Even if I thought we agreed that I wanted it "like the picture" only longer.  And that everything, including the beard, would be the same length.  I think he was just very confused about the softness of my hair and how it kept jamming up his clippers.  Meh, we'll see how round two goes.  As my French improves, so will my haircuts.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cameroonian Foods

I don’t know shit about Cameroonian foods.  At the same time I desperately want to talk to you about it.  You just NEED to know.  The thing is, I’ve only been living in one place.  Everything I hear about food here is that it varies drastically.  They have bushmeat down south (which could really be anything, but is probably monkey) to apparently a ridiculous number of cattle in the northern center.  They have jungle down south with all the tropical fruit you could want all the way to desert in the north.  There are places in the middle where you can literally grow just about anything.  Variety is the word.

And I get none of it. 

It’s a logistical problem really.  I had a hell of a time explaining this to Mamma Alice (I really have no idea what to call the people in my host family).  She was asking me what sorts of foods I liked and ate at home.  More importantly how and I tried to explain to her that we don’t really do markets like they have here and just use the supermarket.  They have something called a supermarché and she took me.  It had one wall of food which was basically some canned vegetables, pasta, tomato paste, and margarine (is that ok unrefrigerated?).  I felt too guilty to even try to explain Harris Teeter.

They don’t have refrigerators in their homes.  Many stores have a little one that cools the drinks about to be sold, but with electricity being shoddy, it’s not really feasible to stock up like we might.  The roads are lackluster or worse; I haven’t seen a semi—much less a refrigerated one—barreling down the road.  I know they have one train line, but from what I understand it does one passenger trip overnight.  Basically what all this means is that you eat whatever is available in your area.  And since you aren’t importing anything, you eat it when it is in season.  I’m going quite mad over eating the same thing day after day, often for more than one meal.

Now, I’ve gotten breakfast decently on lockdown.  I make omelets most days.  Two eggs, bit of salt, bit of a spice mix called magi, tomato, onion, and some leafy greens (parsley, basil, whatever they have) cooked in some palm oil.  That is occasionally spiced up with a puree of avocado (the American’s most prized veggie here; we seriously hunt them and buy all in stock whenever they can be found), tomato, onion, oil, and vinegar.  Both are ALWAYS served with bread.  I’d honestly prefer not to eat either with bread, but the Cameroonians seriously cannot accept this and think it madness.  If either of those fail and I’m in a rush, I get bread mostly with chocolate or creamer… actually that creamer is a whole different sort of thing.  They have powdered milk here (so I’m told), but my family just boils water and adds coffee creamer.  Then tells me it is milk.  One of the weirder things I’ve run across, though it tastes fine.

OK, so breakfast is pretty fine.  Lunch depends.  When I’m in the larger city, it’s decent…ish.  We have some people come cater a lunch at the big training house.  They do a decent job of variety.  It basically always has fish, rice, beans, and either cabbage or legumes (both seem super overcooked and kinda gross to me).  But they will at least a couple other things, like pasta and sauce, the occasionally other meat, fried plantains, and virtually always some fruit like pineapple, oranges, or papaya (best part as far as I’m concerned).  Very occasionally they have cake, but it is almost always dry and kind just a let down for a man who loves cake as much as me (how do you make moist cake, I must know to introduce and revolutionize these people’s lives!). 

There is one other good things about lunch at the big training site: the sandwich lady.  One of the other volunteers interviewed her and asked why she served sandwiches, she said she would normally just serve anything since Cameroonians didn’t care and eat it but she discovered Americans love sandwiches.  This is true and she does excellent business.   It is run literally out of a shake thrown up twenty feet from our front door.  She stockpiles avocado and basically makes puree with beans and hardboiled eggs and puts them in a sandwich with your choice of mayo, vinegar, and a spicy sauce.  Somehow this is amazing.  It’s probably the avocado.

I can barely stand to go to lunch at our place at site anymore.  It’s just the same.  Every day.  Fish always.  Beans, rice or pasta, some sort of tomato sauce that is kinda OK but runs out, and either the cabbage or legumes.  I spent an hour today roaming the town buying ingredients to make my own replica of the sandwich lady’s sandwiches.  And it was worth it.

Home is slightly better.  For one, my family has some excellent cooks.  They can turn out the same things and they are just better.  The pasta comes out right, the fish fresher, and the plantains hot and juicy.  We do have the same sort of things.  We’ve had beef maybe twice.  The sauces seem almost identical, but they do liven it up on the occasion like last night we had something what was almost but not quite akin to pesto.  We do eat a variety of veggies that all taste sort of like potatoes.  I kinda hate them and they are always just boiled and plain.  We usually only have two things: the fish in some sauce matched with any of the other things.  But it is do-able and different enough that I don’t want to pull my hair out.

I am working on improving my situation.  I’ve picked up things at the market and brought them home so they get incorporated into meals.  I’ve had a few convos with Big Mamma and I may try to cook here.  I’ve tried to explain that while I can theoretically cook a chicken, she’s going to have to help me kill the damn thing and figure out what parts I’m supposed to keep.  I accidently told her I could make potatoes (while we’ve had tons of things that taste like them, actual potatoes are expensive and we haven’t had them yet).  I will need to figure out how to mash them or something.  Ovens seem to be an extreme rarity, we are basically cooking on a nice camping stove or at best a gas grill.  Yea, we’ll see how any of that goes…

Well, I’ve managed to stay on topic for a whole post!  How do ya like it?  A thousand plus words of yours truly complaining about food.  It’s really not that bad, but I do have moments where I just kinda panic because I just can’t get ANYTHING that I’m used to.  Hopefully these panic attacks won’t kill me… though I did make ever the slightest mistake today.  When I was out searching for food for lunch and just going into anything that looked like a restaurant asking what they had (lunch is not a real popular meal here so “nothing is ready” was often the response), I ran into a place with an ice-cream machine.  An actual soft-serve.  Now, I have to boil my water and run it through a filter so that monsters don’t grow inside of me.  Cameroonians do not do this and instead opt for the “get sick and try not to die” approach.  But it was ice-cream… and it was the five best minutes of my life.  Cold, delicious, strawberry flavored ice-cream.

Sometimes I think about food and tears literally flow from my eyes.  Right now, remembering today’s ice-cream, is one of those times.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

More random musing and such.

Right, so the internet has been down.  Aside from it being incredibly evasive and nonexistent in my village, it has been down even when I’ve traveled to the “big city”.  Now, it looks like things may take an upward swing.  Such a thing as internet USB devices exist.  Unfortunately there are three sorts and they don’t exactly work everywhere.  Until I know exactly where I’m going to be posted in this country, I won’t be making such a purchase.

I also should apologize for what you are about to read.  At the moment I’m incredibly unorganized.  I don’t really even know what exactly I posted last time.  It is quite difficult to express exactly how busy training is.  I mean anything would be relatively busy when compared with what I did for the six months or so prior to leaving the good ole US, but we are pushing things to the extreme.

Training is an all day affair, six or seven days a week (though Saturdays and Sundays have so far been half days).  They’ve kicked it up farther by starting immersion at the training house.  Meaning if we are there, we are speaking French.  They are kind enough to keep the Tech training in English though (that too will change).   This is a good idea as I imagine it would be inconvenient and damn near reckless if I only understood half of my health related training.  Needless to say, my brain is usually fried from all the French language at the end of the day.  Sadly there is nowhere to run; home is training too.  Only harder since they aren’t exactly teachers.  And they have thicker accents.  And sometimes mumble.  Or talk to each other with incredible speed.  Or address me without looking at me.  Oh, and they always second guess whether or not I understand and usually don’t believe me even when I do.  I could go on, but you get the point.  I’m not widely known as a patient man and there is only so many ways to tell an eight year old that it doesn’t matter how many times they repeat a word if I’ve no idea what the word means.  Half of home life is training children to train me.  It’s weird.

No, Mom, I’m not ready to come home yet.

I’m actually really enjoying it here.  I’ve had a few moments (read: days) where I feel kinda clostraphobic from never having a moment to myself, but all in all I’m having an awesome time.  I played soccer with the locals the other day for example.  Yes, they were a million times better than me, but I was not completely useless.  I actually impressed myself.  I did slip and fall and everyone thought it was hilarious.  In my defense, we play on packed dirt here and it is quite slippery.  Not really sure how they manage it without cleats and gear, but suppose I’ll learn.  I scraped myself up decent, but as of the moment it appears to not be horribly infected like the med people warn us about and I might even get to keep the leg.  Hizzah!  But that’s not even the best part!  I was on the shirtless team, oh yes.  While I felt it was probably unnecessary as I’m relatively easy to distinguish given the circumstances, I’m all about immersion.  I do hope someone managed a picture of all these chiseled Cameroonians and my hairy, white self running about.

More fun: we got bicycles the other day!  I might have enjoyed the whole repair training part the best.  Changing and repairing a tire is pretty simple, but I got to do things like take apart the chain and put it back together.  It’s weird how happy things like that make me.  Just doing things with my hands.  We are trying to put together a skill swap and I’d love to do some wood working, but I’ve no idea where I’d find tools, much less what exactly would be useful.  When I look around, the stuff people here use for tools are pretty historic.  They are tilling fields with shovels.   Anyway, I was super excited about the bikes and just rode around the training house while everyone got ready to go for a bike ride around town.  It’s hilly and the roads are pretty shitty in a lot of it, but it’s a great way to see the country.  I’m looking forward to exploring my site via bike.  The Peace Corps has tried to drill in the fact that the bike is for professional purposes.  Fair, but since my job title seems incredible vague and to include “evaluating the needs of a community by observation”, well that seems to imply a solid amount of freedom.

At least I hope.  As of now we are still super restricted.  We need permission to do anything and are supposed to be chaperoned if we go anywhere.  Hell, I have a seven o’clock curfew and am only allowed one large beer.  Or two little ones.  They claim the beers here are stronger.  The big ones come in .65 liter bottles and are 5-6 percent alcohol.  My favorite pub in Charleston sold 8 or even 10 percent beers by the liter for 10 bucks.  That was a good place.  The point being, we are under quite a few restrictions.  And being the upstanding sort of fellow I am, I naturally abide by every one of them.  Course I’ve yet to figure out exactly who is enforcing the rules…

I’m looking forward to site for a lot of reasons.  Certainly I will enjoy regaining my freedom (Though not all of them.  Dear God, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to watch people constantly driving motorcycles for two years and not get one myself!), but a lot of it is just wanting to start.  I’m still just waiting.  I mean I know how badly I need these French lessons, but it has been so long!  We aren’t even half way through training either.  Seems like I’ve a long way to go.

I thank those of you who have emailed me.  I haven’t even gotten to read them all, but promise I will respond when I get the chance.  It’s just awesome to know there are people out there.  I do get the whole EVERYONE is new feeling creeping up.  Like a fine wine, I only taste good with age and these people barely know me.   Hell, the poor Cameroonians can only catch the bare minimum.  I’m like a child to them and completely unable to express myself.  I actually was talking about that with the host parents yesterday.  Not that I mind how awesomely they take care of me.  I may be taking advantage of their kindness a bit… but hey, if they want to do all my chores and serve me my meals, who am I to complain?

Until next time, my friends.  The brief:  I assure you I am actually learning some French.  I like this Africa thing, though I’m living in a bubble at the moment.  The family situation continues to be interesting; the parental figures and I are starting to have actual conversations (including a really interesting one where we talked about AIDS for one of my classes).  I hope that I can actually coordinate my thoughts in a manner more conducive to storytelling in the future.  That may just have to wait till site.  Everything is so blurry at the moment.  And really, I should be working on all these outside projects they keep giving me.  I’ve no idea when they expect me to do them though.  When I feel a bit overwhelmed, I just remind myself that they certainly aren’t going to send me home.  Poor bastards are stuck with me.

Weirdest thing?  I’m kinda getting used to it here.  TIA or “This is Africa” is becoming a thing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Well, where the hell do I start?  It should be obvious now that my internet usage will be irregular.  There is some hope for when my training is complete (in two months), but I wouldn’t keep your hopes up.  There has been internet and I’ve even had free time, but, alas, the two have not coincided.  I’m actually writing this to upload later when I can connect.

First, I had a week in Yaounde (note: there will be no Wikipedia involved in the making of this blog, so expect errors).  This was the orientation part.  Or staging or some other fancy name.  We were under super tight control.  While they said there wasn’t much to be worried about, a group of 55 whites following a regular, predictable schedule and only a few of whom could speak the local language would be bound to draw attention.  We therefore basically either at the hotel or the Peace Corps HQ and chauffeured by Peace Corps SUVs the whole time.  We also enlisted the local Guandams (dammit lack of Google) armed with AK-47s to protect us at all times.  Though we mostly just used them to practice minimal French and occasionally direct traffic (seriously wonder how the locals felt about their public servants being used to move them out of the way to let a bunch of white Americans pass). 

We did manage to do two pretty awesome events during that time.  The first was a concert/dance.  Local style music which was very jazzy and drum heavy.  Loved it.  And the dancing, which I also loved, could have been considered risqué.  OK, very and I felt a bit awkward at points.  You think bouncing asses on rap videos is much?  Ha, this is Africa.  The second was a formal dinner with lots of important people.  Media and government officials and such.  I was lucky enough to sit down and eat with our US Ambassador, Mr. Jackson (my intelligence is apparently directly proportional to my ability to look shit up).  I sort of forced myself to sit with him after making a fool of myself when he introduced himself to me: “Oh, you are the important one with a nametag.”  Looks around to figure out what I’m blabbering on about, “All the tables have them.”  And he walks off.  “Yes, well, yours has your name on it instead of a title,” muttered under my breath.  I should have said plaqueard as it didn’t help that I was actually wearing a damn nametag.  ANYWAY.  I managed to be much more charismatic at the table.  He was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.  We talked about his career and I learned all about what I could expect if I ever decided to try my luck with the Department of State.  He also had told a couple of great stories about some African mix-ups I can look forward to.  And report on to you.

Basically the first week was a massive blur.  They pounded tons of safety, security, and health information into our heads.  Everything from cultural customs to how to cook your food so that you don’t have terrible monsters growing inside of you.  I’m convinced everything here can kill me and have just accepted it.  Basically, if I get nicked I will get infected and die.  And, for any of you that know me well, I’ve already managed to cut and scrap and bleed plenty.  None of which were on purpose though, hand to God.

When I wasn’t in seemingly endless meetings, I was trying to get to know 54 of my newest, bestest friends.  Since they will be the only people able to really relate to me for the next two years.  At least in a language and culture I understand.  A lot of you may recall some reservations I had about meeting a bunch of young, doe-eyed kids.  Well, while there are probably less than ten who are actually older than me, the vast majority are infinitely more experienced in… anything remotely resembling what I’m here to do.  I’d wager half of them have masters or are working on them and the rest have some other impressive claim to fame.  What’s more than that, I really, seriously like everyone in this group.  They aren’t just people that I’ll hang out with because of the situation; these are people worth seeking out in any other place.  They are intelligent and engaging and I’m probably more excited about watching them work here than I am about myself accomplishing anything.  I mean that sincerely; I’ve found them more interesting than anything else so far.  It would also appear that I managed to sweet-talk myself above and beyond again.  Being charismatic has its perks.  Hopefully, I can translate (literally) that skill into use here.

Speaking of language, I’m finally being presented with the opportunity to learn some of one!  Seriously, during the first week we had so many other things to do that all we received was an emergency survival French lesson.  They moved us onto the training sites and in with host families with a loving kick on the ass.  After a SUPER awkward night, I was happy to get to the training center the next day to learn some French… and discovered that there was still more shit to do and we wouldn’t get to language until the next day.  Awesome.  But worry not, my friends, my French is already improving.  And I can think of no better way to learn.  My teacher is incredibly helpful and effective.  I’m in a group of four students all sharing one teacher to ourselves.  So I get to monopolize a full 25 percent of the time to myself!  And being me, I probably take another 25 percent too!  The immersion stuff I did in Italy is absolutely nothing compared with this.  Though I must say, I am starting at the bottom.  I got selected in the second to lowest class.  The one where they said “oh, you seem to know some words”.  Why, yes I do.  There are like… ten or more levels and I have to get pretty high up before they will allow me to go on with my life.  I’m fairly confident I can bullshit my way through though.  I’m busy learning things that make me sound fluent, possibly to the detriment of the rest, but whatever.  I’d rather sound intelligent than be it any day.  CHARISMA, people.

How about a little bit about the home life?  I’ve been here almost a week now (HOLY SHIT, I can’t believe that’s true).  When describing my first night the day after I went with “It was OK”.  That remains to be true.  While I am improving, I’m having a lot of trouble gauging what exactly I’m supposed to do.  On the one hand they are receiving some sort of compensation for hosting me (murky on the details of that), but I still feel like I’m supposed to help out.  I’m not exactly sure what they expect of me and I seem to fail at everything I try to do anyway.  I have a mom and a dad.  Both are super nice and welcoming while at the same time giving me plenty of space and letting me do whatever I want.  Having space is a nice relief from the super structure of everything else, but I find myself in a half panic wondering what they expect me to be doing.  There are six kids from about 5 to… 16?  I should probably ask them how old they are.  I think I just got their names all down today though, so one step at a time (I should probably go write that down immediately).  The kids take care of everything.  They are like little servants running around making the world turn.  This is good and also part of the “what am I supposed to be doing” problem.  But when I, say, sweep and mop my room which is something they do every day, one of the kids will invariably tell me I’m doing it wrong and take away whatever to do it for me.  This occurs for pretty much everything.  I can’t even but vegetables properly to feed myself.  And we are not going to discuss washing clothes.  How can I fuck up that?  It is water, soap, and a bucket.  But no, my clothes aren’t clean enough; do it again.  And my shoes?  I’VE NEVER WASHED MY SHOES.  Then again, everyone here has nicer shoes than me.  The roads are dirt in my village.  Je ne sais pas.

I got sidetracked.  I’ve done so much.  It feels like I’ve been here forever.  I went with the six kids to Catholic mass this Sunday.  It was about two hours and I understood practically none of it.  There was a lot of singing, a really, really long sermon, and then after some sort of… I dunno, but lots of people got up and spoke and everyone was happy and yelling and clapping.  I hung out with my host mom at the market and sold palm oil.  It’s scary looking in its natural form and also in basically everything I eat, so… that should be fun.  I eat fish every day.  My host dad owns a poissonerie or fish store, but it seems that everyone eats fish here.  It’s good and always fried in oil.  Actually all the food has been pretty good if a bit repetitive.  It is super high in carbs though.  And oil.  Did I mention oil?  My family held some sort of big meeting in our house.  They told me it was an association of families where they pool money for things.  Not sure what things—I got that they pooled money if someone got sick—but everyone had sweet matching outfits.  So maybe they just pool money for that.  The children have learned things.  Like how to demand a piggyback ride.  They have a variety of irregular ways of saying my name.  Mostly Dev.  I should probably pick some African name, but I am rather attached to Dale.  I still don’t really know how to buy things.  Basically, I look at my family to learn how to do anything.  But to buy things, mom and dad just yell for it and one of the kids is off to the market.  I actually chased after one and went to pick up soap with him.  Maybe I am supposed to just send the kids on errands though.  Somehow that seems counterproductive though.  The piggyback rides seem more appropriate in dealing with my white guilt.

Speaking of, one of the things that has struck me as odd is how damnably easy everything is for me.  I’ve been riding on the whole white, American, male for my whole life.  We aren’t actually all white.  There are a few African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic (-Americans? Do we say that?).  Plus slightly over half are women.  And the women here have a million more social and cultural difficulties to overcome here than I.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I could put up with half the shit they do or are going to have to put up with.  Basically, just want to throw as much respect to everyone else doing this that is going to have a much more difficult time than I.

Not my most cohesive piece of work, but you gents all need something!  Know that I am doing a decent job of keeping up the ole journal, so the bits you miss will exist in print someday.  The juicy bits post-humus.  I have not taken many photos yet.  It’s an odd thing.  I can’t communicate super well to ask (and particularly explain about posting them online), plus I don’t really feel comfortable enough here to be flashing any wealth.  I already stand out enough to basically guarantee being stopped on the road for a quick chat anytime I’m walking anywhere.  Hopefully, I will be able to update more.  Most likely after training is complete.  I will likely have a bit more personal freedom.  Right now, the town I’m in does not have any internet, so the only way this will get posted is when we collectively visit the larger training site.

You guys are awesome.  It does me good to know that I’ve friends and loved ones out there.  Send emails, stay in touch.  Much love.