Friday, December 21, 2007

In-Service Training

December 21, 2007

Last week was In-Service Training, or IST, a weeklong seminar that’s scheduled for volunteers and our Cameroonian counterparts about three months after being at post. If you remember from one of my blogs from Pre-Service Training (PST), we had created a petition asking for IST to be combined so that Small Enterprise Development and Education volunteers would meet at the same time. Well…it worked. We were all really happy to be together once again. There were only 31 instead of the 36 of us that signed the petition because 4 decided to end their service early and one was medically separated, but those of us that were there had a great time. One reason – it was in the #1 tourist town in Cameroon, Kribi. Located in the South Province, Kribi has some of the most beautiful golden beaches I’ve ever seen. It made you feel like you were in a screen saver.

Because we knew the sessions were going to last until 4pm most days, 6 of us decided to go a day early. We got in at about two, found a not-too-expensive hotel on a secluded beach and then went to check out the town and get some dinner. We had a nice meal, most people getting their first taste of crocodile, and then headed back to the hotel where we could sit on the beach. We did more than sit, though. We made a fire and ate s’mores as the waves crashed into the shore.

The next morning we enjoyed the sun and the ocean until about noon, get omelettes from someone making them on the beach, and then headed to the hotel where we’d be staying to meet our friends and our counterparts as they came in. We had a nice dinner that night at the hotel and started the sessions the next morning.

Overall, IST felt useful and well organized. A lot of things from PST were reinforced and we got some new information too. Some examples of some of the sessions were the roles of our counterparts and ourselves, designing sustainable projects and where funding is available, problems and solutions we’ve run into at post, and info on the different volunteer committees that we can join. We also had free time to go out each afternoon and evening and three birthdays happened to fall that week, so go out we did.

It was a great week that ended too quickly, so instead of leaving on Saturday morning, a dozen of us decided to stay an extra night. That’s right – one on the front, one on the end. We headed to a different beach and took a hike to the Chutes, the only waterfalls in the world to fall directly into the ocean. It was gorgeous! Then we hired a couple of guys to paddle us back in a large dugout canoe all the way to the beach where our stuff was. Because we argued them down to a really low price, we bought them each a beer when we got to shore.

That night there was a music festival on the beach strangely similar to what you would see in the US. Every restaurant in town had a booth there selling food and drinks and there was a huge stage with bands planning all night. At one point I noticed a random white person dancing on stage. She actually wasn’t random, though. It was Tara. When we figured it out, four of us went to watch her make a fool out of herself. Unfortunately, though, we got a little too close to the stage and they pulled us up too. We already feel a little like celebrities, everyone watching us all the time solely because we’re white living in Africa. But here we literally got our five minutes of fame dancing on a stage for a Cameroonian festival.

Not what I expected when I left Baltimore, but I’m having a pretty good time.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007


As far as the blog goes, the creative juices aren't really flowing. I thought I'd put up some Thanksgiving pictures from the beach instead. If anyone was discouraged from visiting after reading about how sick I got early on in training, this might change your mind.


This probably looks pretty random next to the beach pictures, but they're both bodies of water. This was the small lake in my house that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, November 26, 2007

La Vie est Dur (Life's Hard)


Thanksgiving was last week and coincidentally fell on our three month anniversary at post. We don’t normally celebrate anniversaries of our time at post. Three months is a milestone only because of a silly rule that the Peace Corps created. We’re not allowed to use any vacation days or travel anywhere that would leave us away from our post overnight for the first three months. With this ban being lifted and Thanksgiving falling on the same day, a few of us decided to head toward the beach.

Joe and Debbie are a retired married couple that are teaching Computers and English about 20 minutes away from Limbé, one of the two beach towns in Cameroon. They were incredibly welcoming saying that they would host anyone that made the trip. My and Tara’s trip was only three hours, Alyssa’s was about the same, Brad’s was six h ours, Abby’s was an hour and a half, and Bill was only about 20 minutes away. From the time we got there until the time we left, it felt like being in America and was an amazing getaway.

Limbé is in an Anglophone province so everyone speaks English. They have a thick accent and some only speak Pigeon English, but it’s English. This made it a lot easier to argue prices and just communicate in general. It was also a little hard to remember that people can understand us when we’re talking amongst ourselves.

In terms of buying, eating, and drinking, we lived extravagantly. The first night we went to a restaurant where the meals cost six dollars. We went to a store with all American products from soaps and shampoos and moisturizers to barbecue sauce and syrup and peanut M&Ms. They even put all of your purchases in Wal-Mart bags when you check out. For our Thanksgiving feast, some things were bought from the American Store and others were sent in packages from the states. Joe baked five whole chickens, we had mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, devilled eggs, and pumpkin pie. To drink we had Merlot, Chardonnay, Absolut, and Bailey’s (all either incredibly hard to find here or incredibly expensive). For the next morning in addition to having leftover pumpkin pie, Joe made his famous banana cake and Alyssa made cranberry apple walnut scones – both amazing!

If all that wasn’t enough, we also went to the beach. Now we’re not talking 5-Star hotels and surf shops. We’re still in Cameroon. But it was pretty nice. It was a secluded beach (nobody but us), fine black sand, hammocks in the shade and beach chairs in the sun, palm trees, and warm water. We also had someone that would bring us cold drinks. We were reminded once where we were when a couple of fishing boats beached at our shore, but it really felt like heaven on Earth.

It was an absolutely amazing trip that I’ll never forget. None of us wanted to leave. In fact, we’ve already made plans to come back for Christmas. La vie est dur en Afrique!

Your Suffering African Brother,

p.s. Check back and I'll try to get a couple pictures.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Restaurant Woes

November 21, 2007

Last Sunday, market day in Nkongsamba, I was buying things for myself as well as helping Tara buy things for her new house (She just moved out of Yune’s house and into an empty one of her own). We make a pretty good tag team when it comes to haggling prices so it was pretty fun. We had just about finished and decided to get something to eat for lunch.

Restaurants, in my opinion, are Nkongsamba’s weakest point. For the siwe of the town, there are hardly any. There are two that are good but too expensive, charging 4-6 dollars per plate not including drinks. There are a couple others that charge 2 dollars, a little bit more reasonable, but the food’s not that great. Then there are a couple omelette shacks where you can get out for about 60 cents but there’s never any selection.

Constantly frustrated by these facts, Tara and I decided to go exploring for other restaurants we hadn’t seen or tried before.

The first place we went was where we had seen a sign the week before. The sign was on the side of the road with an arrow. We didn’t know whether the sign had been moved or not, but we went where the arrow was pointing. It didn’t look like a restaurant and when we asked, we were told that the restaurant wasn’t there any more. “Oh, you should take the sign down.” I said. They just kind of laughed at this comment. Why did they laugh? Because the two silly white people were the only ones that didn’t know the restaurant had shut down. If everyone else in Nkongsamba knew, why bother taking the sign down?

Marketing isn’t quite the same here. Just as there are restaurants with signs but don’t exist, there are also restaurants that exist but don’t have signs. One reason is that it makes your business look healthier and you might end up paying higher taxes. So how do you know where they are? If you’re a Cameroonian, you either just know or you don’t go to restaurants. If you’re American, you go exploring. One thing we were looking for were white sheets hanging in the doorways. Most smaller restaurants have them. The only problem is a lot of hair salons have the same white sheets. Tara and I took turns peeking inside the white sheets and asking if they were restaurants. One of my funnier experiences in Africa was when Tara peaked inside not a restaurant, not a salon, but someone’s house. The conversation went like this:

“Is this a restaurant?”
“Okay (short silence)…You live here?”
“Okay (short silence)…Have a nice day.”

What people think of us I have no idea. By this point we had found a couple more omelette shacks and one somewhat sketchy hole-in-the-wall place with only one choice on the menu which was very meaty (still a vegetarian). We were about ready to give up our search when we found a lady walking around with a huge bowl on her head selling rice and beans. It cost us 30 cents per plate and was probably the best rice and beans I had ever had. The only problem was that she was walking around and we might never see her again.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Landslide, Lake, and Workstuff

November 13, 2007

Yikes! I just looked at the date of my last entry. If there’s actually anyone that still checks my blog every week, I’m sorry. I’ll try to write more often, but you were warned from the beginning that I felt like I might have been biting off more than I could chew saying I would write every week (Reminder that I can take incoming calls for free on my cell phone. Email me for the number). Part of the problem is that I don’t feel like I have any coherent ideas to write an entry on. Sure little stuff happens here and there, but it’s not enough to fill up a blog. So this one might jump around a bit, but I figured it would be better to get something out.

Three or four weeks ago, there was a landslide in between Kekem and Bafang. The road was completely taken out. This is a big deal because this is the road between Douala and Bafoussam, the first and third largest cities in Cameroon. Nkongsamba, my post, is also on this road. The day it happened I got text messages on my phone from different Peace Corps employees saying that any travel plans should be rearranged. I already had plans to go to a credit committee meeting in Bafang the next morning. I decided to meet my counterpart first and see what he said. After talking to him, we decided to see how far we could get. Most of the cars were already taking alternate routes so we had to find cars that were going short distances, just to the next town. After three short trips we made it to the landslide. It was pretty serious. The road looked like it just dead-ended at this monstrous pile of dirt. There were people everywhere – Some just came to look, others were crossing over it, and others brought their market goods to sell because there were so many people gathered. There was also a new market for boot rental as some areas were extremely muddy. We started to make our way across and after about 20 ft. decided we needed the boots. It cost us the equivalent of 50 cents to borrow the boots and have someone walk with our shoes behind us. It seemed like a lot to pay by Cameroonian standards, but we ended up paying it so I guess the demand was high enough. When you first got to the landslide, you couldn’t tell how wide it was, but we ended up walking for about a quarter mile before reaching the other side. When you got to the road on the other side and looked back, it was about the same – a road dead-ending at a huge pile of dirt. But on this side there was a palm tree perfectly transplanted by the landslide to where it looked like it had always been right in the middle of the path where the road would continue. We made it to the meeting, albeit a little late and had a story to tell all of our friends.

Last weekend the new group of Agro and Health volunteers who are in training had their site visits and so were let loose in the country for a week to see where they would be working for two years. Yune and Ben and the volunteers replacing them, Abby and Dan, came over to Nkongsamba along with Tara on Friday for a hot shower and another one of our soon-to-be-famous “enchilada nights.” It was a full house and we all stayed up playing Suggestions late into the night. The next morning we woke up to find that a small lake had formed in the house. My entryway and hallway were flooded – some areas weren’t bad, but others were up to your ankle. Instead of a sewer system Cameroon has concrete channels about a foot and a half deep on both sides of most the roads. The one right outside my house had gotten clogged and all the rainwater from the storm that night had come flowing in right under my front door! I did all I could to get as much water out as possible, but the stream also brought with it a lot of dirt. It was a mess, but when my neighbour came over to do my laundry, she also helped my by cleaning all the floors and even doing all the dishes from enchilada night (no small task by itself).

I’ve been doing a lot of contemplating recently on what my role should be in working with ADAF, my host institution that supports and audits all the surrounding microfinance banks. I’ve started to realize that the work I’m already doing now and what I’m learning how to do is essentially the work of an ADAF employee. That’s not why I’m here. I’m supposed to be building capacity – that is, making the institution function stronger when I leave then when I came. If I’m working just like an employee, not only am I taking the work and possible salary of a Cameroonian, but they’d be worse off after I left not having anyone to do my workload. After talking to my APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director) and counterpart we all agreed that ADAF didn’t need much help with capacity, just the huge workload. So my first task now is to see if we can get another employee in the Nkongsamba office (right now it is only me and my counterpart). Beyond that I’m looking for more work to do in the community, which I’m finding somewhat difficult. I’ve already started teaching a management class at the Girls’ Center in Baré but beyond doing that I don’t feel like I’m meeting the kind of motivated people that I want to do any other work with. I’m beginning to think that starting another management class for entrepreneurs in Nkongsamba would be the best way to start meeting those people. We’ll see. I’ll keep you updated on what my “professional life” turns into.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Living Alone...But not so Lonely (Finished, with Pictures)

October, 13, 2007
October, 21, 2007

So I'm living in this big house all by myself. I'm the only American living in the quite large town of Nkongsamba (I'd say at least 100 000 people). Everything that we heard before we got here told us that we would be, well, lonely. There would be lots of down time - time for self-reflection, for wondering why we're here. We would read loads of books. The closest volunteer might be two hours away. So far...Not true. I do wonder why I'm here quite often, but it's not because of all the down time - I don't have any. In about 4.5 months time, I've only read 1.5 books and the one I finished was the last Harry Potter which is pretty hard to put down. I'm constantly moving and don't feel like I even have the time for the self-reflection I would be doing in the states. So why am I not lonely? Let me see if I can shed some light on the matter.

First of all, let's be honest. I'm not living alone. From the second I got to Nkong, I've been sharing my aparttment with numerous ants, cockroaches, mice, and lizards. They don't really keep me company, but they definitely keep me occupied. If I don't bleach the countertops after every time I prepare food, thousands of tiny ants come marching in from who knows where. The cockroaches are pretty hard to get a handle on. One of the downsides of having this place already furnished before I got here is that they already have hundreds of hiding places. I'm constantly finding them in places when I think there's already nowhere else for them to hide. I don't like killing them so I don't spray insecticide. When I find one, I trap it and toss it outside. The mice don't really creep me out as much as the cockroaches when they catch you off guard, but they can be destructive. I kind of chase them from one hiding place to another too. They've taken up residence inside both bathroom doors, a bookcase, and a wardrobe. I even found them nesting under my mattress! I don't know where they are now, but I feel like i have the upper hand and they might be leaving soon. Lizards don't bother me so much. They're usually just on the walls outside but occasionally they'll run through.
Thousands will come for the tiniest of scraps
One by one I toss them outside
A cozy little mouse dugout in my bookshelf
Another one in my wardrobe
What I saw when I lifted up my mattress one night
They've got no fear

So other than critters, I hang out with Americans all of the time. There are two volunteers in Baré which is 10 minutes away. I teach a management class every Friday at the Girls' Center there. Tara also teaches there as she is an education volunteer, so I see her at least once a week on her turf. She comes to Nkongsamba at least every Sunday, which is market day, to stock up for the week. Nkong is also the closest place she can use the internet and it's where she does her banking. Yune, the other Baré volunteer is gone a lot because she is helping with the training of the new Agro and Health volunteers right now, but she is going to be replaced by someone we'll probably see all the time. Ben lives in the bush not too far from here and stops through Nkongsamba every time he travels. Autumn lives about 45 minutes up the road and does banking here at least once a month. There are also others that find excuses to come hang out. And why wouldn't they? It's a cool town and I've got a great house (especally with the addition of the hot water heater). Autumn and Emily, the next volunteer up the road past Autumn, also come down sometimes for work related stuff. They are both posted at MC2s (microfinance banks) that ADAF supports. There are trainings here once a month and sometimes they come down for those. I also see them whenever I go to one of their Credit Committee meetings or do an audit of their bank. So I see Americans a lot - so much so that It doesn't even feel like my French has improved since 've gotten to post.

The last reason I'm not lonely is because I'm constantly busy. Things in Africa just take longer. There's no other way to explain it. While I'm not traveling, I only work half-days at the bank. That's because everything else that I do takes longer than I'm used to. Buying things takes longer; the bank, the internet, and other errands take longer; preparing food takes longer; doing dishes takes longer; cleaning takes longer. The idea of time and the resources available are just not what we're used to. When I got to post, I would make a list of 5-10 things I wanted to get done in a day and would only be able to do one or two. The only headway I've made on this is that I pay my neighbor to wash my clothes every weekend. I still have to wait for them to dry and iron them though.

So, lonely? Not so much. I feel like these two years will be over before I even realize it. I'm busy, but trying to make the best of it too.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Wish List

So my mom has been asking to send a list of christmas ideas. I thought I would create a separate page that I could keep updated. It's kind of funny...there's quite a lot more than the first list I published having only been in Africa for a few weeks. That being said the same disclaimer applies: DO NOT FEEL OBLIGATED TO SEND ANYTHING. DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR NOT SENDING ANYTHING. I'm doing just fine.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Cameroonian Surrealities


Things that make me say “Huh?”

  • Menards: (For anyone that has never heard of it, Menards is a home improvement store in the mid-west.) As I was coming home from a bank audit in a bush taxi, we stopped to pick up more people headed our direction. Whenever you stop, the market comes to you. People run up, slide open your windows, and try to sell you anything from pineapples to toothbrushes. The guy that came up to my window had a blue Menards shirt on. In a circle on the chest it said “How May I Help You?”
  • Trumpet: Almost every morning when I wake up I can hear someone practicing bugle calls. It might be coming from the military school nearby, but he makes lots of mistakes and plays for about an hour so it sounds like he’s just practicing.
  • Road Construchtion: There is a pretty big lack of infrastructure in Cameroon. Police don’t have cars, there’s no garbage collection, no sewer system, ambulances don’t exist, and mail can go to P.O. Boxes but not to your house…But for some reason, road construction happens faster here than in the U.S.
  • Safety on the Job: On the road going north out of Nkongsamba, there’s a one-lane bridge 40 feet over a small but raging river. Upstream, they’re constructing a new bridge. In case anyone falls in, attached to a rope attached to the current bridge is a life preserver thrashing back and forth. I said a little prayer because I was sure it would work better than the life preserver were it needed.
  • Bathroom Tile: A lot of the dead are buried in front of their family’s house. Those that have the means put up a gravestone covered in ceramic tile. It’s usually blue and white and whenever I see one, I’m always reminded of what you find in a bathroom in the states.
  • Addresses: They don’t exist here. The streets don’t have names. The houses don’t have numbers. But people ask you for your address all the time.
  • Coke: When I opened up my bank account with 2 other Americans, there was a decent amount of waiting. Either because he considered us preferred customers or because he was interested in my 2 female friends, he took our drink order and brought us 3 bottles of Coke while we waited.
  • “I’m living in Africa:” No matter how many times I say it, it still feels weird knowing it’s true.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Mix of Emotions


It’s come out in some of my other blog entries that I’ve often felt contrasting emotions at the same time. It started when I got my invitation to the Peace Corps. This week is no different. I’m starting to feel quite content with being able to live here and fit in – understand and be understood. I’m also quite frustrated. I came here to do good work and I’m still in the learning phase when it comes to all the bank work. I’ll take one at a time…and vent first.

So I was able to justify to myself for the first three months while I was in training, not feeling frustrated. I was there to learn, and when I got to post, I would start doing, well, whatever it was I came here to do. And I did learn some important cultural lessons as well as improving my French. I was even able to justify the first couple of weeks at post being primarily for learning. At least 80% of what you need to know for any job is learned on the job. Now I’ve been at post for over three weeks and it’s becoming obvious that the learning part of things is going to be going on for a while. It’s not just the learning that’s frustrating, though. It’s also what my role is when the “learning phase” is over. The obvious role is to take some of the workload off of my counterpart’s shoulders and become, essentially, an ADAF employee. But that’s not why I’m here, even if ADAF is doing a good job supporting microfinance banks that help communities and work to alleviate poverty. Number one, I don’t want to take the job of another Cameroonian, and number two, what happens when I leave? It all goes back to how it was before I got here. Where’s the sustainability in that? Creating a sustainable impact is incredibly challenging, but that’s the goal, and it’s hard to see right now how Peace Corps thought I would achieve that by posting me here.

Enough complaining, though. There’s good stuff too. This weekend I felt the most comfortable yet as far as living in Africa goes, and I don’t think it was just because I spent a lot of time with Americans. There are two volunteers that live very close and were at a conference in Yaoundé ever since we got to post. They got back this week and we had a chance to hang out this weekend. Other than making the best enchiladas ever conceived, there were a couple of instances that made me feel good about myself and like I was integrating into the community. The first was when we were all walking into town to go to the market. We passed two people in separate instances that I had met and talked to before. Both times, I saw them coming in the distance, recognized that I knew them, and came up with their names immediately so I could introduce them to my friends. Sounds like a small victory, but you’ve no idea how many names and faces I’m trying to learn right now. It’s easy for them to learn the name of the one new white guy in town, but to learn an entire community is difficult. Also on the way into town we passed loads of kids who all yelled “Bonjour Tim!” This is impressive because they all used to yell “Bonjour le blanc!” It took repeated efforts going over to them and introducing myself as Tim. “Now you can say ‘Hello Tim’ instead of ‘Hello white man,’” I would tell them. It took some repeated efforts but I think it’s finally stuck.

The second instance was going to visit a handicapped man in the hospital. One of my neighbors, a boy about 16 years old, had asked me if I would go talk to someone he knew who was handicapped. I found it a bit strange because that was essentially the first thing he said to me, but told him to come back on Saturday when I had more time. I had honestly forgotten about it preparing enchiladas with three other Americans when he knocked at the gate. I told my friends about it and we all decided to go.

He knew that one person was coming to visit him, but when he saw four, he was moderately ecstatic. You could tell that we really made his day. We stayed and talked for a little over an hour, him explaining the condition of his legs and how he loves the US and Canada because the rights we give to handicapped persons. In the end he gave me a large sack, probably 4-5 kilos, of dried soy beans (still not sure how I’m going to use them, but I plan on researching veggie burger recipes) and a letter that he had taken the effort to write in English.

When I got home and read the letter it was almost all about getting some kind of priority health card that would take care of all his medical expenses. That kind of turned me off from the whole experience as there are lots of people here looking for handouts. He was in a lot more need than the others that ask, though, so I don’t think I can blame him for trying.

I’ve decided I’d like to go back and visit him. I’ll explain that I can’t really help with the health card but I can come and talk once a week or so. I’m still learning at the bank, but it doesn’t take any training to have a conversation with a man in the hospital.


Monday, September 10, 2007

My Life as a Volunteer


As the weirdness wanes, I’m stating to see a slight glimpse of what my life and my role in this community over the next two years are going to be like. Going into the bank and starting a routine has helped immensely with both reducing the weidness and giving me an idea of what I’m doing here. That’s not to say that I can see myself making a difference or even feeling comfortable in my role for a few months, just that it’s on the horizon, almost within reach.

Because I don’t want it to be the only thing I do in the community, and because I’m not completely settled into my house yet, I go into work from 7:30 to noon, Monday through Friday. That gives me time in the afternoon to do errands and things. Everything takes longer here, so I use all of each afternoon. Last weeks’ consisted of lots of trips to the electric company to get them to finally turn on the power at my house.

My work at the bank so far isn’t really work – it’s learning. I have about 5 manuals on statutes, rules, and regulations that I’m going through. Half of what I do is to take notes on the manuals and the other half is to take notes on the technical French vocab that I don’t understand.

I don’ think I’ve mentioned too much in my blogs about the institutions I’m working with so I’ll try to give a brief description. My counterpart, Pierre, is the only employee for this regional branch of ADAF (Appropriate Developement for Africa Foundation). ADAF is a non-profit organization that audits and gives advice to MC2s (Mutual Communautaire de Croisance). MC2s are microfinance institutios that do savings and loan services for rural, poor, and minority populations (women and youth). Both ADAF qnd MC2 were started by Afriland First Bank, which is where my office is here in Nkongsamba. There are 14 MC2s in this region. Anytime one of them has a credit committee meeting, where they decide to whom to extend loans, or a meeting of the board of directors, ADAF has to be present. ADAF also does regular audits of all the banks.

Thursday, I had my first chance to travel as there was a credit comittee meeting in Melong, 20 minutes away. We left at 2:30 and Pierre told me we would be back by 6:00. I had already planned to make Mexican food with Tara, who lives in the neighboring village and that would give just enough time for dinner.

When we got there, I got a tour of the bank and the meeting only started 15 minutes late, which from what I’ve experienced and been told, is quite early. One of the first things I noticed in the meeting was that my French was not where it needed to be. It was scary how much I didn’t understand.

While the meeting started nearly on time and seemed at first to be progressing smoothly, the efficiency decreased as time went on. Disputes about whether or not to extend loans started taking longer and becoming harder to settle. As I looked at the time throughout the meeting, I started realizing that being back by 6:00 wasn’t going to happen. At first I thought, “I can be back by 6:15.” Then I thought, “maybe it’ll be 6:30.” As the meeting was almost over and I was thinking 6:45 at the latest, the youngest person there started making his way around the room asking what kind of beer everyone wanted. “Let’s be realistic...7:15.” Then they brought in the food. This is not your normal American meeting. It wasn’t even just a small snack. It was dinner. There was chicken, beef, sausage, and fish, with pineapple for dessert. It didn’t bother me that there wasn’t any vegetarian option other than the pineapple. I was more concerned with getting home to start preparing food and not keeping my friend waiting.

Pierre agreed to eat auickly and we made it back by 8:15. Things in Africa just take a long time. Proof is that Tara, who was supposed to be done with her commitments by 3:00, didn’t make it over until 10:00. On va faire comment? (What are you gonna do?)


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Start of the Next Two Years of My Life


I’m here. I made it to post. What’s it like living your first week as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Weird.

About 30 minutes have passed as I ponder how to accurately describe the weirdness. If you really want to know what it feels like, go to The application process takes 6-12 months. Otherwise, I’ll do my best to give some of the reasons.

The first is the stark contrast with training. We used to have mandatory classes 6 days a week; now we can make our own schedule. We used to have trainers and staff hovering over us to answer our questions and look out (a little too much) for our safety; now we’re on our own. We used to hang out in big groups of Americans speaking English; now it’s me, my post-mate 10 minutes away, and a lot of French. We used to eat the food our Cameroonian family served; now we make our own and do the dishes. We used to live in a family where there was always someone around; now there’s a lot of alone time.

The next thing that makes it weird are the expectations. While I’m good at not setting specific ones, I do kind of expect the overall experience to be great and to change my life. But when is that going to happen? If I were to go home right now, would I say my experience was great? Would I say it changed my life? Is there a specific time when that happens? I don’t really expect to write on my blog sometime over the next two years - Aha! It happened. My life is changed and my Peace Corps experience has crossed the line. It is now great! There’s a cheesy saying that no two Peace Corps experiences are the same - yours is what you make of it. If that’s true, then what could I be doing differently to change my experience, or what would someone else in my shoes be doing differently? Too many questions. Too few answers. It’s just weird.

The other thing that’s weird is feeling the weirdness start to slowly wear off. Is it really going to feel normal living in Africa? …Weird.

I’ll try to give some more specifics on what my life is actually like next week. I need to go to bed now because I start my first day at the bank tomorrow morning.

Stay Well,

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Through with Training


I’m sitting in bed writing the night before our swearing-in ceremony where we officially become volunteers and no longer trainees. It feels to me long overdue and while I’m not nervous, the anxiety is sure to come. After the ceremony tomorrow we pack, celebrate, try to get some rest, and the next morning pile all of our belongings into bush taxis and take off. Our belongings, while big and bulky to begin with, have grown since we’ve gotten here. In addition to our two big bags and carry-ons, we now have a bike, a footlocker, a water filter, a mosquito net, a bicycle helmet, and a motorcycle helmet. Thus piling our belongings into a bush taxi and taking off will be a little harder than it sounds. We’ll see how it goes. Plenty before me have figured it out, so I’m sure I’ll be fine.

These last few days have been great as we’ve been experiencing the luxuries in life – fine dining and warm showers. We had to take a trip on Sunday to Yaoundé, the capital, to receive our moving-in allowance and transfer the money to our post. Why couldn’t they just wire the money to our post? We didn’t ask too many questions, as we knew that warm showers and fine dining were in our future in Yaoundé. The Peace Corps transit house has plenty of beds, a hot water heater for each of its three showers, a great collection of DVDs to watch, and a kitchen with appliances and utensils to make just about anything you can’t elsewhere. The kitchen wasn’t really used much as Yaoundé has one of the best selections of restaurants in Cameroon. Some people went for cheeseburgers and french fries, others for Chinese, and some for sushi, but 3 friends and I went to an Indian restaurant. We went all out. We split samosas, fried cheese, and hummus as appetizers, all had entrees, and had a milkshake for dessert. There was, quite randomly, a kiddie park (some type of cross between an amusement park and a playground) right outside so we couldn’t resist getting cotton candy before we left as well. After walking around town for a little bit, we found a boulangerie with Italian gelatti and we filled our already stuffed stomachs just a little bit more. Back at the transit house that night we had pizza delivered. It was literally impossible to wipe the smiles off of our faces. It’s amazing how much we take for granted in a society of instant gratification, but it felt really nice to indulge in those comforts from back home for a solid 24 hours. And while I spent a lot of money by Cameroonian standards, it worked out to about 30 US Dollars.

Can money buy happiness? It bought one day’s worth in Yaoundé. I’ll get back to the goal at hand soon. Sometimes it just feels good to act like an American.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Nearing the end


I can see it now – the end of training and the beginning of my 2 years of service. All 36 of us are ready to go – even the 5 or so that haven’t yet reached their French level. While our tolerance for all the assignments, classes, and schedules is diminishing, we’re not taking for granted the fact that we’re only together for a little while longer and all get along great. Last weekend a few people organized a night of Mexican food. We had salsa, guacamole, refried beans, fajita meat, and homemade tortillas. We’ve gotten together a few times to watch movies on people’s laptops. We celebrated somebody’s birthday last night by going out to a nightclub (Boîte de Nuit in French translates literally to Night Box). And tonight I organized a night of Italian food. We had spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce (we were going to have pesto too, but the blending didn’t quite work out) and fresh baguettes to dip in garlic and olive oil. We also made makeshift s’mores in a frying pan and banana bread.

Even though training is dragging on and, on one level, I’m sick of being here, I am kind of proud of where I’ve come. The biggest achievement is my language proficiency. Being able to communicate just about anything I want in French is really empowering. While I can’t understand people who speak fast and/or mumble, I’ve come a long way, and I’ll get there soon. As small business trainees we were all assigned companies to work with in town. I’ve already given my store written reports in French on an overview of their business functions, the need to write out specific goals and action plans, the need for accounting books and how to use them, and marketing strategies. I also just finished with my cross-cultural presentation, which was 25 minutes all in French, on how to prepare Bâton de Manioc, a gummy cassava side dish wrapped in banana leaves.

For a while, life was pretty normal. Now I’m back to feeling all these different emotions at once – proud, frustrated, happy, sad, excited, nervous, ready, and scared. I also feel like my life has a purpose and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here at the same time too.

One thing I’m looking forward to is down time. I hear we’ll have a lot of it. Getting my meditation/spiritual practice back in order is high on my priority list. I think that will help a lot with getting my emotions straightened out. I know there will be hard times in the next two years, but having a better focus will help me get through them.

So that’s where I’m at this week. I hope everyone’s in good health and happiness back home.


Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Birthday Party


Last Saturday was my host brother’s 8th birthday party. He had been looking forward to it and my family had been planning it for a while. My host mom had asked me 2 weeks prior if I would make guacamole and mashed potatoes and gravy. Those were the American (and Mexican) foods we made a while ago for one of my fellow trainee’s birthday party. I was under the impression that she really liked them, so I was a little surprised that on the day of the party, her response to how much guacamole I should make was “enough for the Americans that will be coming.” Maybe Africans are better than us at pretending to like exotic foods that don’t end up tasting so great, I remember thinking to myself. Then I thought, Ca va aller (It’ll be okay). It was the time for a birthday party, not for worrying about whether my African family likes American food.

It was quite literally, the time for the party, 3 o’clock, but no one was there save the people doing the preparations. It was something to remind me that I’m not completely integrated yet. Their sense of time here is completely different. My friend that helped me make the American food and I decided to sit and wait. An hour and a half later, people started to pile in. That’s where, as an American, things felt socially awkward. At Cameroonian parties, you put all the chairs against the walls so that everyone can sit in a big circle. The circle’s too big to have one conversation with everyone, but you can’t really mingle either. The other thing that’s awkward – the word awkward doesn’t exist in French, so you can’t explain how awkward you feel.

Once the festivities actually began, though, it was quite fun. My host dad’s sister acted as master of ceremonies using a remote control as a microphone. It started by my host brother offering some words of welcome to his guests and was followed by a karaoke performance by his younger cousin (the MCs daughter). Apparently she had been preparing all week. After she finished, having danced but not sung, her mom made her start over from the beginning. I was shocked and kind of wanted to rescue her, but she actually gave a much better performance the second time around. Next there were competitions. Some were dancing competitions; there was arm wrestling, and musical chairs, too. After that there was more dancing. They start ‘em young here.

By 8 or 9 o’clock, the party had changed from being mostly kids to mostly adults. It was a lot more like parties in the states – essentially eating, drinking, and talking. Overall, I had a great day, I learned a little about the culture, and even the Africans ate the guacamole.

(sorry...I had some pictures I was going to post, but the internet cafe is having problems)


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Back to Training(and photos!)


I don’t feel like I have a lot to write this week. To make up for that, I’m going to attempt to upload pictures to the blog this week. The gist of what’s going on: I got a glimpse of what’s to come on my site visit – what I signed up for: a chance to make a difference and have fun doing it – and now I’m back in a rigorously scheduled training program. I wasn’t expecting to ever feel this “senioritis” feeling again, but I’m itching to be done with training. I feel like 95% of what I need to know is going to b learned on the job (at post). Of the other 5 %, I’ve already learned 3%. So it feels like I’m back in training for three weeks and 2% of what I need to know. Oh well. Ça va aller (It will all be okay). The one saving grace in the whole matter is that I’ve already reached the necessary French proficiency required before going to post. That means almost half of my classes, where everyone else has language are “self-directed learning.” Believe it or not, I’ve actually spent most of these classes self-directing myself to French grammar, but it is nice to know that if I want to take a nap during this time, I can just take a nap.

It’s also nice to be back with all the other trainees. We all get along great, and even though training is dragging on, this might be the last time we’re all together. We have In-Service Training in December, but we just found out that the Small Business and Education IST are not held at the same time. That was upsetting to all of us, so I decided to bust out some of my organizing skills I learned at Clean Water Action. Last week, I brought up the issue in front of all of our training staff in our weekly group meeting. The training director said he would bring it up with the country director, but didn’t sound too hopeful. This week, the country director is going to be here when we have our group meeting. I prepared a formal letter and had all 36 of us sign it. We’ll present it to him on Thursday. We’ll see how it goes.

Alright, so I’ve rambled on for a little bit. Let me see how many pictures I can get up on this SLOW connection.


The Cameroon Country Director(left) laughing at the Peace Corps Director (yes, the director) from Washington dancing at the celebration for the 45th anniversary of Peace Corps in Cameroon

The entryway to my house!

My mountain!

The path to my mountain

The bedroom window from my homestay house: This is the view I see every morning that reminds me I am in Africa

Love is in the air at my host brother's birthday party (I'll tell you a little about it next week)

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Site Visit


I found out my post the day I was released from the hospital. It was Friday. I came in about an hour late and everyone else already knew where they were going. I got some hugs from people I hadn’t seen in a few days and then was led over to a map of Cameroon with all of our names push-pinned to our posts. Someone pointed out my name. I didn’t really know what to think right away, but after learning some details about my city, I began to think it was a good fit. It is located in the Littoral Province. It’s a pretty big city that makes most of its money from coffee and cocoa, but since the prices dropped in the 90’s, they have never completely recuperated. Most peoples’ counterparts are managers at MC2s, which are microcredit banks. My counterpart works for the organization that controls all of the MC2s. That means I’ll get to travel a lot, learn the microcredit thing inside and out, and make sure the banks aren’t corrupt (corruption is probably the number one impediment to development in Cameroon). I was pretty excited.

The next day all of our counterparts traveled here for a two day counterpart workshop. The workshop served two purposes. One was to get to know the person we would be working with the most over the next two years. The other was to introduce any of the ounterparts who had never had volunteers before to the Peace Corps’ small business program and to American culture. The cultural exchanges are always the most entertaining. One example from the session: “If you have a female volunteer and you tell her every day that she is beautiful, she will take it as a come on and might feel uncomfortable coming to work.”

The workshop was Saturday and Sunday, so Monday morning we left to go see our new hometowns. I traveled with two other trainees whose posts were on the way. It was my first of many rides to come in a bush taxi. Everything between villages is “the bush,” so any ride that you pay for to get to another village is a bush taxi. They’re quite interesting. You can either get a car or a travel agency. Pretty much the only difference is the size of the vehicle. The cars are pretty much all economy size and the travel agencies have mini buses that kind of look like 12 passenger vans. Something we learned in one of our cross-culture sessions: “The white man designed the back seat of a car to fit three people. But you can easily fit four or five and that’s not including any small children, chickens, or goats that can fin on your lap.” This lesson is applied to every vehicle in Cameroon, and I think most of the rest of Africa too.

Even if you go to the travel agencies, there is no schedule for departures. You go, buy your ticket, and wait in the vehicle. When the vehicle is full, really full, you leave. Sometimes this takes more than an hour or two, but I was pretty lucky. Also, while you’re waiting to leave and whenever you stop along the way, like to pay tolls, the market comes to you. People sell anything from fruit to baked goods, candy to tissues. I’m doing my best to describe it, but I don’t think you could truly understand it without experiencing it with all 5 senses.

We dropped the first two trainees off at their posts and I did the last leg of my journey alone. I was dropped off on the outskirts of my new town and hopped on the back of a moto to go to the house of a volunteer that is living there now. She’s the volunteer I’m going to be replacing, so it was actually my new house that I went to. I don’t know how fair this is, but essentially the bigger your town, the nicer your house. I’m not complaining because I have a pretty big town. I have an entryway/dining room, a kitchen, a sitting room, a master bedroom, two bathrooms, and two extra bedrooms. I have running water and electricity, and because there have been three volunteers in this house before me, everything is completely furnished. There is even a decent library already there, too. Because I’ll still get a move-in allowance to buy all the things I already have, I’m thinking about buying a small hot water heater for one of the bathrooms. Cold showers are one thing that I don’t think I will ever get used to!

I don’t think I can explain how beautiful this town is. It sprawls out from the base of a mountain, and while there are houses and businesses everywhere, you’re never more than a couple minutes walk from nature. There are all kinds of small paths that are almost jungle-like with their tropical trees and rustling creeks. There are paths that go up the mountain too. I can’t wait to climb it.

Because it’s the rainy season, there are always clouds. Sometimes you can see the whole mountain, and sometimes they cover the peak. Other times you can’t see it at all. It wasn’t until the third day of my site visit that I realized there was another mountain! It’s a little bit farther away, and I found out that it’s actually an inactive volcano in the neighboring province. It’s bigger than the closer mountain and has two beautiful crater lakes. I’ll definitely be checking it out too.

Most of my time at post was spent just walking around and discovering the town. I bought croissants and baguettes from the bakery (not as good as France, but way better than the US) and fresh fruit and produce from the open air markets. It was really liberating to be able to cook for myself, too. Not that the Cameroonian dishes aren’t good, but the spaghetti and garlic bread that I mad was really comforting and reminded me of home. It’s making me hungry just writing about it.

While the first four nights were like a vacation, the last night was a chance to really let loose. I got in another bush taxi and made my way back to another big city where a volunteer is stationed close to our training village. I met up with seven more of our trainees. We went to a couple of bars and then went dancing ‘til late in the night.

Overall, it was a great week. It was nice to take a break from the rigorous scheduling of training and gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to be a Peace Corps volunteer and to integrate into the culture.

Until next week,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Never Again...


…will I write in my blog “Hopefully, I’ll have some better stories for next week.” I guess I had it coming to me. I just got a letter from my mom that says she wants to know it all, good and bad. Well, here you go Mom – without the sugar coating.

But before I tell you all the bad stuff, I am going to spoil the ending and share a short passage from Thich Nhat Hanh. I can’t find the quote so I’ll have to paraphrase a little.

He talked about never forgetting the good things in your life. We tend to focus too often on things that we are suffering through and not the things that we are given. He asked you to remember the last time you were sick and could not breathe through your nose. Now remember the first time after being sick that you could take a big breath through both nostrils and how good that felt. If we can be that happy after one breath, how many other things are going right in our life that we are not acknowledging?

This is all to say that I’ve taken that breath after this experience and I won’t forget it. Now, stop here if you are a fan of the sugar coating…no, really.

Monday night, I was having a hard time getting my dinner down. It definitely wasn’t my favorite meal, but I’d eaten it before without a problem. That night as I was trying to swallow my last few bites (trying to show respect for the food and the cook), I was getting a gag reflex. I managed to not let my host mother know that I was gagging on her food and even to finish the last few bites. I didn’t think much of it until I was closing my window before going to bed. I could tell my muscles were a little fatigued and my brain put it together right away: “You’re getting sick.” I’d been sick twice in the last two weeks – maybe why my brain put it together so quickly. The first time was a fever with chills that woke me in the night and was gone within 24 hours. The second time was some kind of food poisoning that started in the night with vomiting and diarrhea and continued for two days with diarrhea and stomach cramps. Each one cleared itself up on its own, but I was not looking forward to what lied ahead of me that night

I woke up after one hour of sleep and the vomiting and diarrhea commenced. I woke up every hour thereafter with more vomiting and diarrhea. By the time morning came, I told my host mother I couldn’t eat breakfast and notified Peace Corps that I wouldn’t be coming to classes. They asked if I needed to go to the hospital. I told them no, I just needed to rest. By 11 a.m. my host mom, worried by my still frequent trips to the bathroom, had called Peace Corps and they had set up an appointment with the doctor at the hospital. I didn’t realize the shape I was in until I had to walk 50 yards to the PC vehicle. I had quite a fever, and because of all those trips to the bathroom, I’d become incredibly dehydrated.

A short but bumpy ride later, we made it to the hospital, which I would describe as a cross between a motel and an outlet mall. There were lots of different buildings all connected with covered walkways. There were lots of people standing and sitting around. I wouldn’t have known where to go on my own, but the Peace Corps driver walked me slowly over to a woman sitting at a desk outside of one of the buildings. While he convinced the woman that we were going to pay and needed to be seen right away, I puked in the bushes and then sat down on a bench to wait.

After a short visit with the doctor, they decided they needed to put me on intravenous fluids and do tests for malaria. I had only seen a handful of mosquitoes in Africa and had not been bitten to my knowledge. I’m also on prophylaxis, but they always rule Malaria out first because it is so common and dangerous if untreated. The Peace Corps driver took me through the walkways and we ended up in a hospital room where I immediately crashed on the bed. It was the only piece of furniture in the room, with terribly worn out springs and an old mattress without sheets. The room had windows on one wall with a decent view but one was broken as if someone had thrown a rock through it. The bathroom was very small. There was no room to move around as there was a toilet on your left (its seat and lid sitting on the floor next to it), a sink in front of you, and a barrel on your right, filled with water to flush the toilet in case the water was shut off. There was toilet paper but no soap.

After a few minutes of being alone, a nurse came in to take my blood. I don’t know why, but she took a little bit from three different places in my arm before hooking me up to an i/v drip. When she came back, to my surprise, they told me that I had malaria. Shortly after, our training officer came to talk with me and offer congratulations on being the first trainee to be admitted to the hospital. He was helping me to make light of the situation, but it wasn’t until then that I realized I’d be spending the night.

After the diagnosis, the nurse added quinine to the i/v bag turning it yellow. I didn’t know it then, but I would come to hate that yellow bag. With the quinine comes a diminution of hearing, ringing in the ears, and a terrible metallic taste in your mouth. I think it might have also been responsible for some mild hallucinations I had later on when I closed my eyes. While the vomiting had stopped I still had very frequent diarrhea, a dull pain in my entire belly and a fever in addition to these new side effects. Throughout all of this, my host mom and Peace Corps staff came to bring me things – all of my meals prepared by my mom, sheets and a pillow for my bed, toilet paper (I ran out quickly and the hospital didn’t have extra), soap to wash my hands, bottled water and Gatorade to drink to stay hydrated, all the prescriptions written by the doctors, tape for the window to keep the mosquitoes out, a mosquito net, insecticide to prevent mosquitoes getting into the room because there was no place to hang the mosquito net, and stuff from my room like a change of clothes, toothbrush and a book to read.

By early afternoon on the second day, and already into my third yellow bag, it became known that because the frequency of my diarrhea hadn’t diminished, I’d be staying another night. From the time I finished dinner and my host mom and brother left, until 2 a.m. when yellow bag number 4 was scheduled to arrive, I went from incredibly low to rock bottom. The absolute unceasing and miserable nature of so many things had built up for too long: In the last 48 hours, I had gone to the bathroom at least 48 times. My stomach ache was intense and hadn’t let up at all from the beginning. It was the least when I would stand up but I didn’t have the energy to stay standing. Sitting added to the pain and lying down, which was the only thing I wanted to do, made it the worst. When I did finally give in and lay down it was on a terribly uncomfortable bed that had already give me a back ache. The spray for the mosquitoes was toxic and breathing it could not have done a thing to help my condition. Almost all of my interactions were in French. While I speak at a decent level now, it takes a lot of concentration, especially because my ears were ringing and it felt like I had earplugs in on top of that. I hadn’t gotten more than 1.5 hours of continuous sleep the last two nights and I didn’t expect much more for the night to come. Those yellow drips – I really despised them. With every bag the side effects got worse and I knew number 4 was coming soon. We had learned in one of our health sessions that malaria is often over-diagnosed to be extra precautious and I didn’t know if my treatment was even necessary. My stool sample was negative for amoebas yet I was taking a medicine to kill them which made the stomach ache worse. I was having to force down food with absolutely no appetite in order to attempt to lessen the pain caused by the medicine. Whenever I would try to think about my stay here in Africa, all that would come up would be negative. I became fixated on one thing – a plane trip back to the states.

When the nurse came with the i/v bag at 2 a.m., I had her wake up the doctor. When he came, I vented. I even called and woke up the Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) so that she could talk to the doctor. In the end, I had to take the 4th bag. The PCMO said she would call the other doctor in the morning and talk about changing my treatment. The doctor kept telling me that the stomach ache and diarrhea were going to be going away by the next day. I smiled and said OK. When they started the drip, I had another hour of imagining that plane ride home and then fell asleep.

The good thing about rock bottom is that things only get better from there. I woke up after getting 3.5 hours of continuous sleep…and I was ecstatic! It felt so good to get that rest. I followed up with the PCMO and we got my malaria treatment changed from the drips to pills and we added an antibiotic because bacteria wouldn’t have shown up in the stool sample. Physically I was still in agony, but I felt in control. Because of the sleep, I had more energy. I could stand longer and I was able to force myself to eat more to lessen the stomach pain. And I found a way to put up the mosquito net so I didn’t have to breathe insecticide for another night – Yes, another night. Despite my 3.5 hour record, my bathroom trips the following morning weren’t any better than the previous days and they still needed to monitor me. As the doctor said it would, though, my symptoms did start resolving themselves early that evening.

After diner, I got a surge of visitors – 8 or 9 people, 3 of whom were fellow trainees. Things were looking up, but that visit really raised my spirits. All the good things about my time in Africa started pouring back. Someone even gave me some treats and their iPod so I could listen to music that night. The visit didn’t last that long, but it was enough. After forcing some food down and taking my meds, I turned on the iPod and found the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.” It was the album I was listening to when I was packing up my room in Baltimore in preparation for coming to Africa. The second the first song started, the last of my desires to hop on a plane melted away.

I got 6.5 hours of sleep that night and was released in the morning. Things are looking fine. Right now it’s midnight. I’ve been writing for a while and am ready to get a good night’s sleep in my own bed.

Next week we go on site visit. Maybe I’ll have a good story, and maybe I won’t.


Friday, July 6, 2007

Getting Comfortable

July 3, 2007

I’m at a bit of a loss on what I should write about this week. I think that’s a good thing, though. It means there wasn’t a huge obstacle to my comfort or adaptation. From where I’m sitting right now, everything seems doable - the language, the culture, small business development. My big worry right now is whether this vegetarian will be able to resist a cheeseburger tomorrow at our 4th of July party.

If I’ve learned anything from this process so far, though, it’s to not get too comfortable. Right when you do, your world turns upside-down on you. Looking at the schedule, I would say that moment is coming next week. That’s when we find out where we’re going to be posted in Cameroon. Our counterpart (most likely a bank manager) will come to meet us on Saturday, the 14th, and we’ll go to visit our site two days later. I don’t really have any expectations or wishes for where I want to be posted, but I’m sure it’ll be stressful as the time nears. The North is mostly Muslim, more conservative, and would mean a longer dry (hot) season - 9 months without a single cloud! The East is much less developed, less chance for running water and electricity, lots of forest, rainforest, and logging. The forests are there the Baka (Pygmies) live. The South would be close to the beach, but they are very wary about posting anyone there. The West is where I am right now. It would mean I wouldn’t be changing scenery. I think it has a little longer rainy season, lots of vegetables and fruits, and I would probably be closer to other volunteers. Whatever my fate, I’m sure everything will work out.

Since I’m short on material to give you, maybe I’ll use this space to tell you how to get a hold of me. The address to send me anything is:
Tim Hartman
C/O US Embassy - Cameroon
US Peace Corps - Corps de la Paix
B.P. 215, Yaoundé
That address will work for the entire time I’m in Cameroon. Once I’m done with training (August 23rd) I’ll have a new local address, but you'll still have to send mail through the capital. I’m not really missing a lot of things from the states, but if you insist on sending more than a letter, I don’t think I could ever have too much Instant Hand Sanitizer. I carry some around with me 24/7. Some spices I didn’t bring and might want when I start doing my own cooking are Oregano, Cayenne pepper, chili powder, and curry powder. And last but not least is cheese. Most would go bad if you shipped them, but a little parmesan could go a long way.

Please DO NOT feel obliged to send a package, but if you want to, here are some tips that one of the other trainees researched to minimize theft: Red ink looks official and is less likely to be tampered with. You can address it to Brother Tim Hartman as if I am a monk. Symbols or Bible verses written on the package will keep away any superstitious thieves.

Also, I have a cell phone here. Even though I’m not getting enough money to call anyone in the states, all my incoming calls are free, so if you want to call me, send me an email first and I can give you my phone number. Obviously, emails work too. I check my account about once a week at the Cyber Café.

That’s all for now. Hopefully, I’ll have some better stories for next week.


Friday, June 29, 2007

The People/Homestay

The People

So I thought I was going to write once a week about all the things that had happened in the last 7 days. That might work later on, but as I said in my last post, there is just too much going on in my head and in my surroundings. I’m going to try to break things down, for now, into categories - this one being The People.

I started meeting my fellow volunteers on Wednesday in Philadelphia. We were all easy to spot in the hotel. None of our rooms were ready so there were lots of people chatting in the lobby among piles of luggage - big pieces, lots of backpacking packs, and everything over-stuffed. Some of us were more shy and some of us were more outgoing, but everyone was talking by the end. There were 80 of us at the hotel and we quickly found out that half of us were going to Cameroon and the other half was off to Peru. Not that they weren’t just as nice, but there were far too many people all going to Cameroon, soon to be family that we didn’t know anything about so we didn’t socialize much with the Peru group. The 39 of us handed in our forms and began our orientation pretty soon after. The sessions started with getting to know everyone, and then progressed towards preparing our minds for whatever laid beyond that 24 hour trip ahead of us. It’s been really fun to slowly learn the names, the hometowns, and little bits of information about all of my counterparts here. There are 4 “older” volunteers (sorry for the adjective if one of you is reading this) and the rest of us are in our 20’s. All of us have been to college, one even has his doctorate. Some of us are in the small business program and others will be teaching English, science, or computers. It’s amazing how well traveled everyone is too! More than half the group have lived in another country, three have been to Africa, and everyone has left the US at least once before. As we realize how similar our emotions are, it’s becoming easier and easier to share our fears and expectations.

The Peace Corps staff has been absolutely amazing as well. They’ve been doing this for so long that everything flows incredibly smoothly, they have all the answers to all of our questions, and are really invested in our safety, health, training, and happiness. That goes for the staff in Philly and Cameroon. I feel really privileged to be a part of this group and this program. I’ve made it my goal to give back as much as I receive during my stay in Cameroon…It’s becoming quite lofty.



I think I wrote already that our first 5 days in Cameroon were in a hotel in the capital, Yaoundé. The hotel was great! We had 3 meals a day served to us and there was a bar and patio where we could all hang out. We all knew we were being sheltered. We knew it wasn’t anything like our experiences to come. We knew they did it that way on purpose. And we were okay with it.

Then came Thursday, and along with it, many emotions. That afternoon we traveled to a new city for training, where we would stay for the next 11 weeks with a host family. We were excited to experience the “true” Africa. We were also scared to death. We were about ready to immerse ourselves into a culture we still barely knew and a new (for some more than others) language. We had also heard horror stories of rabid pet monkeys, over-zealous Jehovah’s Witnesses, and kids that would poke you for hours or stare at you non-stop until you physically led them out of your room. (We heard good stories too.)

After a four hour bus ride, we arrived at the town hall of a medium sized city in the West Province. All the families were already waiting inside. These were our instructions: “Line up inside. We’ll call the name of a family and the name of a trainee. And off you’ll go. We’ll see you in the morning.”

And that’s how it went. I don’t think I can convey actually how terrifying the process was. I can remember thinking “I hope I’m not first. Oh wait, I don’t want to be last either.” Rationally, we knew everything would be okay, and if it wasn’t, Peace Corps would fix it. But it was definitely one of those few moments in my life where my rationale was nowhere to be found.

In the end, everything went alright. I wasn’t taken away first or last, and the family I was paired with is quite nice. There are two parents and two children (much smaller than the average Cameroonian family). There is a 7 year old son who is very cute and an older daughter who left on vacation when school let out. I have still yet to meet her after a week. The mother is an English teacher and the father is a guidance counselor for all the schools in the town. We stay on the second story of a building with three apartments and a boutique (I consider it Cameroon’s version of a 7-11 with a small place to drink your beer). The apartment has 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room and a kitchen. There is running water, although it is only cold and quite sporadic. It can be off anywhere from 1-24 hours at a time and on average, we have water 4 out of every 7 days. We have electricity which is also sporadic. Sometimes we have water and electricity. Sometimes we have one or the other, and sometimes we have neither. It’s a way of life here and you get used to it pretty quickly. There are oil lamps to see with and full buckets of water in the bathroom to bathe with when needed. The bucket baths are almost better because the water is not quite so cold.

My room is very nice. I have a bed, a simple desk, a trunk, and a closet for my things. It’s nice to have a little safe haven to get away from our busy days, even though most of my time awake in my room is spent studying French or reading articles on business or development.

Communication right now is slow. I can generally get out whatever I need to say in a roundabout way, but understanding others is a little harder. It is getting better though. Just tonight I noticed I was understanding small pieces of dialogue on TV.

Television is an interesting thing here. I think it’s relatively new and/or a sign of status. The people that have TVs watch them. What I’ve found to be most popular are French game shows as well as soap operas from Burkina Faso and those overdubbed in French from Argentina. It’s possible I’ve got it all wrong though. We get our signal from the family downstairs and whenever they change the channel, our TV changes too.

More to come,

Monday, June 11, 2007


I made it! It would take an immense amount of words to describe everything that has happened and that I have been through these past few days. Right now, I'm pretty tired from jet lag and have a few volunteers waiting to use the computers so I'll keep it quite short.

I don't even know where to start...We met in Philly on Wednesday for orientation - a brief two day introduction to the other volunteers, Peace Corps policies, and the idea of crossing cultures. Friday we got some vaccinations and headed for the airport. The trip went quite smoothly, but obviously it took quite a while. We had an 8 hour flight to Paris, a 2 hour layover, an 8 hour flight to Douala, Cameroon, a 1 hour layover and a 30 minute flight to Yaounde, the capital. The country director met us at the airport. Everyone from the Peace Corps has been incredibly nice and welcoming. We felt like diplomats being ushered out of the airport and to the hotel. For being in Africa, things for us are quite nice. All our meals are all in the hotel, our rooms have electricity, air conditioning and hot water. All the Peace Corps staff have been awaiting our arrival for a long time and are incredibly accommodating. Our training has already started, but we are still in the hotel in Yaounde until Thursday when we move in with our host families.

As far as what I'm feeling, it's everything! Excited, scared, happy, sad, welcomed, isolated, sick and well. Even though some of these adjectives are negative, the decision still feels well worth it.

I'm going to stop for now, but promise to give more details soon.

Stay well,

Monday, June 4, 2007

Down to the Wire

I leave in two days. I should be running around frantically, but I'm not. Instead I'm pacing back and forth with nothing to do. Is it possible I was too well organized? A few minor details are not enough to keep me busy for the next forty-eight hours. It seems like every two minutes I'm trying to think, unsuccessfully, of something that I forgot to do. I sense an overarching feeling of anxiety over everything that I do. This is something I'm not used to. Anyone that knows me closely knows that I normally just will these unnecessary emotions to stop. No sense in being worried about something that might not happen. No sense in being nervous about the unknown - just take it as it comes. Not so today. I'll just have to patiently wait it out.

In the same sense of not being able to will my emotions to stop, I'm finding goodbyes a little harder than expected too. I've made a lot of quite good friends over the last few months. I have been very fortunate all my life, but especially as of late I have been happier and more peaceful than before.

One last thank you and goodbye to everyone who has ever showed me kindness even in the smallest way. We'll stay in touch. If you're trying to figure out if I'm talking to you, I probably am.


Monday, May 28, 2007

T Minus 9 Days

Welcome to my blog! This is probably the first thing most of you will read, so I hope my life turns out intesting enough for you to want to keep reading about it. My goal is to create one entry once every week. I'll be writing about my personal life and what it's like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer away from my family and friends in a third world country for 2 years. Right now there are 9 Days to go until I take off! I'll be heading to Philadelphia on June 6 for three days of orientation and of course shots before the long trip to Cameroon. In the meantime, I'm trying my hardest to get everything in order as soon as possible so I am not incredibly stressed out the last couple of days before I leave.

I haven't written in a journal in a very long time, so the words for what I'm going through right now aren't exactly flying out of my head. I have a feeling that over time, as I get used to doing this, the entries will get longer and the writing will get better. As for the most popular question right now - Are you nervous or excited? The answer is yes. Don't feel bad if you were one of the people to ask it, just know that you are in good company.

I'll try to write again before orientation.