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.