Saturday, September 24, 2011


Turning 25 in Africa went a little like this...

The weekend before made a special trip into Bertoua to celebrate with Michelle whose birthday was on the 8th. To her credit and my ever-growing opinion of her, she actually wore the birthday sash and pipe cleaner tiara I made her out and about in Bertoua! Though i've seen a lot of crazier things that nobody bats an eye at. This picture is not only to show you this, but also to proove to my mom that short of promising her to burn my jeans my 25th birthday present to myself bought in her honor was a pair that fit.

Was I a bit nostalgic for home? Naturally so. I did wonder what my first-world self would be doing for this particular milestone. Two birthdays away from home now and there are no complaints that the next one will be in America with friends and family there :). On the actual day organized a scavenger hunt with toys, candy, and dyed eggs for the kids of my muslim women friends. Had a wonderful evening with my friend Idrissou who came over to my house with food and presented me with an embroidered/traditional boubou!

For the handicapped youth that I work with i've expanded my lessons not just into english, but art and science as well. On this day it was our first art day so those present decorated nametags as to give me a glimpse of hope in learning all their names. Thanks to birthday packages was able to celebrate my birthday with them as well. Remnants of birthdays past and a birthday sign that has made its appearance at many parties of mine growing up will now be passed on to Batouri's next generation of kids. The young girl squatting in front is deaf and mute, and one of my favorites who has completely stolen my heart.

Waited until the weekend to have a dinner party so Jessica and Julia could both be there. The menu? Philly "cheese" steaks. Africans, at least Cameroonians, will tell you they don't feel its a meal unless there is meat. Being somebody who does not eat a lot of meat nor cooks it at home, I did give myself a mental high five for all the compliments I received for it. Woke up early to be at the meat market first thing in the morning waiting for the fresh meat to arrive and assure the best cut. Waiting for it to arrive, I perused the rest of the meat market. Meaning amusing myself perusing around to see that days daily selection of bush meat. Typical choses to choose among are viper, pangolin, rat, antelope, and bush cats (a.k.a. bushpussy -yes it amuses me too). Monkeys are not as common, but i've seen my fair share of them.

Right before everybody came electricity went out so immediately got the candles and kerosene lamp going. By this time it doesn't even make me skip a beat. Did not mind at all the ambiance of eating dinner with 12 guests in my house by candlelight - though still will be awhile before I think any romantic appeal for it is back!

Lights came back right in time for cake. Yeah for birthday packages, it was yummy! Blew out candles over the writing of Happy 25 J*Nell after being sung happy birthday to in English, French, and Fulfulde. Barka da Sallah to me!

Beautiful birthday bouquet.

Now for an amusing story of how I tried to make the best of male harrasment, but first a bit of a back story. So moved was I from a girl I knew and her, frankly, preventable death last month to malnutrition that I was inspired to search out projects in town that help in its fight. Now every Tuesday and Wednesday morning I am helping the Catholic Health Center in its malnutrition project. Tuesdays are vaccination day and Wednesdays they give out enriched flour and do some nutritional education. Both days the kids are weighed and their arms measured to be able to chart their progress.

Aaannndd now the story. So a man who thinks he is my friend showed up on my porch one afternoon. He wanted to call a photographer to take a picture of me and my hands and feet painted up, but by then it had all washed off. He persisted that he take me out for drink, but I informed him I was really "occupied" with my sister Jessica at the moment. Having to drag her out of my house to proove it. He then took out a 5,000 CFA bill ($10 USD) telling me to use it to buy myself a drink when I was free. One drink is 500 CFA($1 USD)! We argued over my refusal to take it for about 10 minutes on my porch. Me telling him I was uncomfortable about it and him telling me he was offended I didn't take it. The issue was resolved when I told him it would become a donation to a malnutrition project.

So thank you sir. Your derangement allowed me and Denise to buy food and for once not just talk about nutrition but have the ability to demonstrate in front of their eyes that a recipe with a lot of nutritious components is possible!

It was a one pot meal. Can't remember all that went in, but know some of it included the red (unprocessed and still somewhat nutrient rich) palm oil, dried fish, sweet potatoes, peanut butter, and then we cracked eggs in it at the very end. I promise you, it was tasty.

Knowing the back story makes this picture quite amusing to me.

A five month old being weighed. She is now in the care of her aunt because her mom died two weeks after giving birth to her and after her father ran off. Five months old, less than five kilos (12 lbs). She will be placed in the care of another family if this keeps up because her current track is not sustainable.

This boy was being readmitted. He had fallen back into malnutrition (seen by the circumference of his arm falling into the yellow/danger zone), a point the nurses definetly lectured his father on. With this photo you can see the ledger in which I was noting down weights, arm circumferences, etc.

When kids are admitted their height is measured and their extremities (feet in particular) looked at to evaluate if swollen and if so by what degree.

Update (10/1): Since I wrote about this earlier in my Health is Wealth post, thought to come back in to offer a quick update. Julia's 12 year old houseboy Abdul unfortunately continued to go downhill after leaving Batouri. As of this past Monday he is no longer with us. When taken to a better hospital in the CAR he was correctly diagnosed with hepatitis, but by then it was too late. While I can surely vent on my even more lowered opinion of hospitals here, despite everybody's best efforts - particularly mine and Julia's -nothing could be done.

I have found that these kind of things are something I wouldn't mind at all to remain innocent in. Nope, not one bit. In the way that when all is said and done, I think dealing with these situations will be the toughest part of my African adventure here because it's the part that is just not fun. Not fun because i've never been exposed to them in the way I am here, and what's more the hardest part I feel of my experience thus far to convey back to America. These kinds of situations just are not dealt with there or atleast one can find more proactive care. À la santé !

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ramadan 101

What is Ramadan? Here are a few quick facts to introduce you it.

1. The start of Ramadan is determined by the moon so its exact start is often up in the air until just before it begins.
2. The date changes every year. Islam functions on a lunar calendar. So while Muslim holidays are always the same day on the Muslim calendar, they happen on different days on the Gregorian calendar –typically moving 11 or 12 days earlier each year. In 2010, Ramadan began on Aug. 11. This year it started on July 31 or August 1 I forget.
3. During Ramadan, observers are expected to abstain from food, drink, and other pleasures from dawn to dusk. Removing these comforts from daily routine is intended to focus the mind on prayer, spirituality, and charity and to purify the body and mind.
4. In countries where Muslims are the majority, Ramadan has a drastic impact on daily life. Egypt pushes the clocks back an hour during the holy month so that the fast feels like it is ending earlier and the evenings are lengthened. Work days are made shorter during the month to accommodate the additional time spent in prayer and in enjoying festive meals to end the daily fast.
5. Several different groups are excused from fasting during Ramadan: pregnant women, people who are mentally or physically ill, and sometimes women who are breastfeeding. Children are not obligated to fast until they hit puberty, although many choose to observe the fast at least part of the month in preparation for later years.

My favorite part of Ramadan ironically was the eating! From time to time I helped my muslim friends break their daily fast in the evening by partaking in the fast-breaking staples of bouille (a rice or corn drink) and beignets (fried dough), and then whatever other food was prepared as well. During the day if I was eating or drinking water in front of a Muslim I tried to be respectful by asking first if it would bother them. For a non-muslim, like myself, the best part is the fete at the end to celebrate its completion. Lots of food is prepared and men spend the day visiting each other and inviting others to eat at their house. Everybody is dressed to impress! Jessica and I spent the afternoon with our Muslim women friends and their families and the evening at the home of our close friend Idrissou.

Spent the morning before with a bunch of other muslim women getting my hands and feet painted. They typically do this anytime there is a celebration or marriage.

Close friends that do alot for us. Jupiter our Anglophone friend, Abdoulaye the accountant at my bank, and Idrissou the head of one of the bus companies here. They only look this serious because I tried to get them to stop making faces.

Day afterwards, made the 120k (3 1/2 hour) trek out to Kentzou to see Julia. She is an English teacher like Jessica, and a person I am continually grateful to have in the East.

Prison bus travel, crazy huh? The partition separating the cabin from the back is how it got that nickname. One of two travel/vehicule options for me and the only option from Batouri onward. They are found only in the East and Adamawa regions where travel can be on rural dirt roads. Since we are currently in rainy season the roads are a lot less dusty than it was when this was taken back in February during the dry season. Thus I am not arriving with my otherwise typical "orange glow/fake tan." Typical outfit when embarking on this prison bus travel - head scarf, check. Glasses-check. Jersey-check. Here I am arriving on Julia's porch.

And as I look at that date, better not forget to say...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Health is Wealth

Ugh. It’s been one of those months. Not going to lie, August was not my favorite. In truth, in a way coaxed myself into writing because I didn’t feel I had too many positive things to say about it, but (shrug)what is a blog if not informative. There were no false pretenses that this would always be easy.

First let me orientate you a bit more to this East region I call home. Of the ten regions in Cameroon the East is by far the biggest but the least populated. Of the two major roads, most people live on the main road heading up North. The only one that is paved, save for a few small stretches. This road was completely paved from the Adamawa region on upward (if I understand the story correctly) by the UN to help facilitate aid supplies into Chad. The rest of the East lives in small villages scattered around the second major road, which remains unpaved save for a (whohoo!) 1 km stretch through the main part of Batouri - this up and coming town en brousse (in the bush – more poetic in French).

With its bounty of natural resources the East is the richest yet, ironically, remains the most underdeveloped. In my view I would say this because of a blend of the local population’s mentality and their inability to seize on this opportunity and an ode to Cameroon being one of the most corrupt countries out there. Opinion is still forming on any role in logging/mining companies and corporate social responsibility. Gold is what I see here the most as it is mined in the surrounding area and passed through local hands to people who sell it on up to those who will melt and transform it. Logging is always present as I live on a logging route. Diamonds are also mined, though I do not know of their abundance and have yet to see some myself. Recently, the world’s biggest supply of cobalt was found in the southeast close to the Congo border.

Ok back on topic. Africa and sickness, some would put them as synonyms. Indeed I have seen enough to not refute that. It’s a lot more up close and personal and this month too close for comfort. I kind of admire the way they so easily accept death as a part of life when we in the west do so much to fight against it. It took me awhile to adjust to people so casually mentioning their family members who died, sometimes constantly seeing preparations for funerals in my neighborhood, and just in general the death I have seen. This month I have had my fill of this for a long time to come. It’s something else to now have lived here long enough to know close friends who have lost loved ones and know people who have died.

I’ve seen a fair amount of malnourished kids. It has become easy when I see those with a swollen belly too differentiate between worms and malnutrition – trick is to look at the size of their arms. It’s disheartening to see because although the east is not a breadbasket to Cameroon we have food. We don’t deal with the food security issues in the way that the north does with its more desert/arid environment. It angers me because of lot of malnutrition comes from negligence and lack of education. Now to know of a small young girl who has died of this first thing in August is sad, and definitely makes one think.

Also at the same time I was in town when Julia’s houseboy, a young boy 12 years of age, approached me. He had come into Batouri by himself from a local village to meet up with Julia who was passing through, but they missed each other. Only a glance necessary to know he was really sick. As soon as he showed me his village “herbal” remedies he was taking for Malaria/Yellow Fever I took him immediately to a pharmacist who referred him straight away to a doctor. They didn’t hesitate to hospitalize him for the night to undergo further testing. I’m still left with the image of leaving this sick, tiny young boy with very dark hauntingly yellow eyes by himself in the hospital overnight. Thankfully he recovered right away and blessed to have gotten him to the hospital before it got even worse. We went around getting him his medication before I sent him back to his village and back to his mother. The diagnosis was a severe case of typhoid. However, having him solely rely on me and being responsible for his health, food, and travel (even if for only a day and a half) stressed me out at bit and was a bit of heavy stuff I was not prepared for.

The owner of the boulangerie here in town never takes vacation. He is a self-admitted workaholic and a good friend of mine. As is the custom, when a woman gives birth a lot of times they go back to their village to do so. His wife who he married just over a year ago in May gave birth to their first child a baby boy. We had been discussing her and their son’s soon return to Batouri in a few days, needless to say he was excited. He had invited me to his house to meet his wife and son and told me his wife was informed of this. The next day when I went into the boulangerie was shocked to see it was not him working. His wife had died early that morning and he had taken the first available bus out. He is taking it very bravely and explains that this happens in life, though disconcerting to see him return without a wife and a baby that has been sent to be raised by his mom.

In my previous post about visiting the Northwest, do you see that man sitting to my left under that canopy and that same man standing to my right when I talk about that woman who showed me around Kumbo? That family took me under their wing for the week I was there, and if I lived there felt they would be like family. They opened up their house and took excellent care of me. Calling me their adopted daughter and promising to find me a young man so I would stay and come back to Kumbo. Only in his mid-40s, in the middle of August, he died of a heart attack. It is devastating to his family and to his legit organization, which sponsors local athletic youth to compete in international events.

Family and friends, I would love to tell you I took it all in stride. However, after I found out he died of a heart attack I did reach a breaking point. Just TOO much went down in the first part of August that I felt I could deal with all on my own. I was a bit overwhelmed, one day in particular, into the worst homesickness I feel I have had yet. Not what I had imagined, nor anticipated, a quiet time at post by myself to be.

Things starting taking a turn for the better with the arrival of visitors!!! Visitors are awesome because for a place that sees few outsiders they help validate my presence and for a brief amount of time make my life less of a spectacle, the things I do a bit less bizarre. There can be a constant running commentary and knowledge of when I leave and return to my house, what I buy in the market and who I buy it from, who I hang out with or am walking with, and what I wear etc. With visitors I can get away with a lot more. When they see me with them in town people actually are more likely to leave me alone since they see me otherwise occupied with my “soeurs et frères” (brother and sisters) and if they haven’t seen me for a bit not pester me about abandoning them. The most comments I hear are that they are happy I found another of my kind and especially if I am walking with a man if there would be harassment it becomes dialed down to a bare minimum.

Hanging out in my house.

For a region that no other volunteers have to pass through to reach Yaounde (there is a train that connects the city to the North), visitors are few and far between. If they do choose to take the road they usually spend the night in Bertoua and continue on. In one year we have had three visitors, two of which weren’t even PCVs! Two guys from England passed through on their around the coast tour of Africa. The other spent a night on a quick tour of the East. So it was a nice treat to receive the same amount I had in a year in one visit. The other 5 East PCVs not included. Ben, John, and Jenny were heading into the jungles in the deep East close to the Congo to check out a WWF wildlife reserve. A place few PCVs , even easties, have ever ventured. Of their courageous feat they said they were glad to have done it, but would never do it again. Days of prison bus travel on dusty roads is an achievement in itself.

Ben, Jenny, and I in Bertoua celebrating the first people from my training group to come visit me!

During this trip to Bertoua, I was able to welcome two new volunteers to the East! We spent a few days in Bertoua where I showed them around, introduced places to eat, and helped them buy materials for their houses. Justine took me up on my offer to help one of them move to post. It was the easiest one I have done yet. The two big rooms of her house were virtually empty and were a breeze to move into and set her up in Diang. Michelle had more the move to post to Dimako that I could empathize with. Her car got stuck in the rain, mattress soaked, no electricity, lots of cleaning, and she slept on a hard bench. Two years looked overwhelming right then. Seems just yesterday Julia was outside my house giving me a shoulder rub because I was overwhelmed with the cleaning I had to do even before moving in and we were trying not to freak out from losing a giant spider in my room before going to bed! Only advice I could give to Michelle was to give herself credit for what she had done thus far, not everybody could even make it even to that point.

Justine,me, and Michelle hanging out in Bertoua.

Things continued to pick up. Went out en brousse to see two villages and the work the World Food Program does with Cameroonians and Central African Republic (CAR) refugees and with whom I will work with. Next step is to meet the groups and discuss what I can teach them! I then celebrated the Fete du Ramadan with Muslim friends and made a trip to Kentzou (small village on the CAR border) to see Julia. Thankful the month ended on a good note, but, happy to say, goodbye and good riddance August 2011! No matter what,the show must go on, and I have been reminded this month how much of a blessing that is.

P.S. America thank you for the bon-bons! :D

They showed up on my porch with flowers for me.

I shall end with a quote I've especially identified with this month. "A man falls down a well and calls for help. A passing missionary hears his pleas and drops a Bible down the well. Next an aid worker stops and drops down some money. A Peace Corps Volunteer hears the man screaming, drops down a bag, then leaps into the well. “What are you doing?” asks the startled man at the bottom of the well. “I’ve come to live with you,” the PCV replies."