Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Next Blog

December 16, 2008

I'm going on vacation over Christmas and New Years to the three Northern provinces. This is where it's hot. The hottest days of the year get up to 140F in the shade! As long as I don't melt, I'll tell you all about it when I get back.

But...if you want something before then, help me out. I think one of my best blogs, or at least one with the most reaction was when I responded to questions from my mom's book club. So how about Round II? I should have internet access where I'm going and it's less work for me if you all come up with what I'm supposed to write about. I'm also curious who's reading. I've been told by countless volunteers that their mom reads my blog. And I know that it's a lot more than Peace Corps moms. I recently installed a counter on the site and the statistics are interesting. While it wasn't so much a 'surprise' where a huge number of the hits came from - Surprise, AZ is where my parents are living - some other details caught my eye. Eight percent of my readers are in the UK, and there are others from Ireland, Australia, Kenya, France, South Korea, and plenty of other countries (Cameroon was actually hardly existant on the list). In the US, a lot of places were predictable like Arizona, Indiana where I grew up, and Maryland where I went to school. And there were other places that caught my eye either because it seems random, like North Hero, VT or Lilburn, GA, or because I have friends there that I've lost contact with for a long time.

So partly because it's easier for me if you choose the topic, and partly because I'm curious who's out there, send me a line! Ask me a question, or just let me know you're out there. You can comment to this blog or, if you're shy, you can email me at thartman2pccam@yahoo.com


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Piggy Bank Project

December 10, 2008

The Piggy Bank Project that has lived in our heads for so long now has finally been carried out. Our plan was put into action around the Thanksgiving holiday and was an absolute success! And now I’m spent. It was a lot of work.

The idea started over a year ago. Autumn and Tara both had very good experiences with starting piggybanks for some kids in their neighborhoods. For some of the kids it was a place for storing some of the money they earned doing chores for the Peace Corps Volunteer; for others it was just a place to deposit a little change that wasn’t spent on candy or other unnecessary purchases. It was an idea that the kids took to very quickly, but as we soon found out, saving was a concept that many were not exposed to as children. It seemed like something easy to teach, inexpensive to implement (the piggybanks started out as empty jars), and able to make a pretty large impact. When Tara and I found out that her carpenter friend next door could make piggybanks, a simple wooden box with a slit in the top, for about 60 cents was when the idea for the project began to take form.

The idea was to bring piggybanks and the concept of saving to as many kids as possible. We decided to organize a series of savings seminars in all of the high schools in the area. We would open each seminar to the first 100 students and give each one of them a locally made ‘piggybank’ in hopes that they start applying the knowledge right when the seminar ended. Already going to all of the high schools in the area and wanting to make the seminars as fun as possible, we decided to tap the help of the other Peace Corps volunteers in the littoral province as well.

Our next problem was funding. While in the grand scheme of things this was a fairly cheap project, hundreds of piggybanks and transportation all around the province was pretty much impossible on a Peace Corps living allowance. So we posted the project on Peace Corps Partnership site where anyone can give a tax deductible contribution to partially fund a Peace Corps volunteer’s project (https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.donatenow&) and at the same time looked for funding from the communities here. You all did your part funding 75% of our project in about 2 weeks, and we didn’t have to look very hard here coming up with the last 25%. The MC² microfinance banks that almost all small business volunteers work with gave the rest. The seven towns where we held the seminars all had an MC². Each one of these community banks chipped in about $20 and we gave them a slot in the seminar program to talk about why it was better to save at a bank in lieu of at the home and to do a little public outreach to the students who could end up as future clients. At this point we placed an order for 700 piggybanks from Tara’s neighbor.

Through with almost all of the hurdles, the last thing that we needed to do was schedule the seminars in a time that worked for all the volunteers in the province. From the planning to the implementation, one volunteer switched posts within the province and another switched posts leaving the province confusing matters. And there was another volunteer that simply couldn’t schedule time away from her work. That left 5 of us to carry out the project. We picked a schedule for the seminars, and then changed it about four times finally deciding on the last week of November and the first week of December.

Tara, Autumn and I set up the final logistical details with each of the schools’ principles and towns’ bank directors the week before and we all crossed our fingers that everything would work out as planned. On November 24th, we all met at my house to iron out who was going to say what and when in the seminar, and the next day we traveled to Manjo to do our first seminar all together.

In all, we did seminars in Manjo, Baré, Kekem, Melong, Nkongsamba, Loum, and Njombé. This is roughly what happened at each one: First we all had to find bush taxis to our location and someone had to bring two very large bags with the 100 piggybanks to our destination. We would meet quickly with the school administration to make sure that the communiqué was read inviting the students and that there was a room designated large enough for the seminar. For the schools that had one available, we asked for a sound system so we could talk into a microphone and save our voices for the two weeks. We had piggybanks for the first 100 students, but we let in as many as wanted to hear the seminar. There was only one town where we didn’t have 100 students – Njombé had about 75 in attendance – but in Nkongsamba we ended up with about 500 easily making up for it! I would say that the others averaged about 200 to 250. When we got to the classroom/hall the first priority was order. We needed to give numbers to the first 100 students so that they could claim their piggybank and, in general, just keep everyone calm. Dan was great for this. For those that don’t know him, Dan is about 12 feet tall and graciously accepted to fill the stereotype and be our bouncer. The seminar actually started with Tara giving a description of Peace Corps, why we were there, and introduced each of us. Then Abby and Dan (Sandrine et Gilbert) would put on a sketch of two students, one who saves, and the other that ends up learning from her example. I would then take the floor and give an analysis of the sketch which gave three reasons to save – to follow your dreams, for big purchases, and for unexpected expenses. There were Donahue references made as I would often go into the audience with the microphone soliciting some brainstorming help from the students. After me was Autumn, who did an activity with the kids. She had them list all of their purchases for a week and find out how much of that was non-necessary. Then they multiplied to find out how much they could save in a month, in a year, and until they turned 18. You could see some of their faces light up as they realized that all of this information could actually apply to them, that little by little it really starts to add up. Next was the slot for the bank director to talk about the importance of saving in a bank and anything else they wanted to add. And the last thing before giving them their piggybanks was to pump up the energy and make fools of ourselves at the same as time. Tara taught them a song and dance on savings. We took a popular Cameroonian pop song and modified it to remind them to save their money. The kids loved seeing us all sing and dance, and we often heard them singing it as they walked home toward their respective houses. Then, miraculously, we had them leave in an orderly fashion as the first 100 collected their piggybanks on the way out.

It was incredibly fatiguing, but we couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. This is one of the memories I will always take with me from my time here in Cameroon. I’ll try to get some pictures from the project into my next post.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the success of this project!


Monday, November 17, 2008

And the answer is...

YES! Saki's ears will, and in fact already have, gone up. I know it's been a question on the minds of many of you out there. I hope you haven't been losing too much sleep.

And because I was already uploading one photo, here is what's possibly only the start of the "Saki and the..." series.

Saki and the Snail

Saki and the Centipede

Saki and the Ant (it's there, I promise)

Saki and the Preying Mantis

Friday, November 14, 2008


November 12, 2008

I mentioned a couple entries ago that I wanted to start up a club in high schools that would follow the book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” I thought I’d give you an update on where I am with this project to date.

So far I’ve started two clubs. One is in Bare and is in collaboration with Tara. The other is here in Nkongsamba. They were both launched the same week by making an announcement in the classrooms of students in the second cycle – the equivalent of sophomores, juniors and seniors. We gave a very brief description of the objectives of the club and told motivated and interested students to meet us after school. The description was that it was called club Success, that we were going to talk about what it meant to succeed, and how that related to ourselves and our relationships with others. We also mentioned that there would be homework each week to better process what we had talked about. And just like that, it worked! Motivated, intelligent students showed up – not too many, but not too few.

We called it a club because it’s after school and it’s voluntary, but it’s actually more like a class with a lot of participation and discussion. Unlike other clubs, we don’t meet on Wednesdays, there’s no president or secretary, and there’s no fee to join. And, of course, there’s homework. Each student has a notebook in which they can take notes and do their homework – essentially a journal entry about what we talked about and how it relates to their life. The notebooks are probably my favorite part. I get to take them home over the weekend, read them, and give my own feedback. I end up having a bunch of private conversations about the lives of Cameroonian high school students and the problems that they face. When I’m writing in their notebooks I feel the highest sense of purpose since coming to Cameroon (that doesn’t mean to stop sending books☺).

So far we’ve had four classes and we haven’t even gotten to the 1st habit. We’ve been talking a lot about principles and paradigms still following the introduction of the book. But moving slow doesn’t mean we’re not accomplishing a lot. In fact, because it’s going so well, I’m planning on starting up a couple more clubs in Nkongsamba while it’s still somewhat early in the school year. It’s something I really look forward to every week.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reading Follow-up:

October 15, 2008

I wrote a blog on reading in Cameroon in which I described how reading, whether for business, learning or pleasure, is just not common here. I talked about how it’s not promoted in school, but also showed that the price and availability of books here make it nearly impossible for someone to get into reading in the first place. Then, I asked you, my readers, to send me books. For those of you that have already sent books, thank you so much!!! I wanted to give you an update on what I decided to do with your contributions.

A few weeks ago, I headed to Tiko in the Southwest Province. It is rather small town in between Doaula, the commercial hub of Cameroon, and Limbé, one of two popular beach towns. It is also the home of my friends and fellow Peace Corps volunteers Joe and Debbie. Looking at my options for where to distribute the books, it had to be in one of the Anglophone provinces, so either the Northwest or the Southwest. I didn’t want too big of a town, because of the smaller scale of my operation and because bigger towns already have more resources. And the last of my criteria was that I wanted to go to a town with a Peace Corps volunteer. I needed to have a lot of trust in someone that knew their community well and would have good ideas about how to distribute the books and to whom. Tiko seemed the perfect fit. So I packed a small bag, gathered all the books that were sent into one big box, added a few of my own to give away, and jumped on a bush taxi for the 5-hour trip.

When I arrived in Tiko, Joe met me on the road leading to his house and we hopped on a moto because the box of books was pretty heavy. I think I’ve talked about this before, but Joe and Debbie’s hospitality, their house, the fact that they live where people speak English – add it all up and it’s just really easy to feel at home there. I always like visiting them. The first day, it poured non-stop. And when I say non-stop, I mean for 24 hours straight. When that happens, nobody does anything but stay in their house. We had a very relaxful day with great food. We read and napped, made crepes for breakfast and enchiladas for dinner, and in the evening we watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics (when the rain didn’t cut out the signal).

The next day, when the rain finally died down, Debbie and I set off to donate the books. We had already decided who we wanted to give them to. Joe and Debbie had two good ideas when I arrived. One was to give them to the library in Tiko – small, a little run down, and in need of more books. The other was in Ombé, a town nearby, that has an orphanage Debbie had visited a couple of times. The decision came easily to donate the books to the orphanage. The library already had some books, it just needed more. And it takes a lot of initiative to walk into a library for the first time, probably never having been in one before and not knowing the system. The orphanage gave us a chance to put the books into someone’s living room. But it wouldn’t just affect one family. There would be 50 or more kids of all ages with more continuing to cycle through. Then there’s the fact that they’re orphans and they have so much working against them already. I really liked the idea of being able to give this opportunity to those kids. And any time I went back to the area, I would be able to see the kids, talk about which books they’d read, and get an idea of the impact they’re having.

So Debbie and I set off to Ombé, to the Rhema Grace Orphanage. The taxi drove us to the door and there were already some kids there waiting for our arrival. They love having visitors! They set out all the chairs in their main hall and greeted us by singing dancing and drumming. Some songs were religious, some were traditionally African, and a few were literally saying ‘welcome to our home.’ After the festivities, we passed out the books. I’ll try to get a picture or two up soon. The books were of all reading levels and the kids were of all ages, so it worked out great.

Let me give you some details on the orphanage. It’s the Rhema Grace Orphanage in Ombé, in the Southwest Province of Cameroon. There are 53 children living there at this moment. Of the children, 9 are babies (0-2), there are 5 little children (3-7), 11 minors (8-11), 10 major girls (12-16), 7 major boys, 3 big girls (17-20), and 1 big boy. Two are mentally handicapped, one is deaf and mute, three are legally blind, and one is HIV positive. Beyond the older children magnificently looking after the younger ones, there is Mercy. Mercy and her daughter Gloria run and live at the orphanage. They are incredibly compassionate souls that essentially decided to stop everything else in their lives to create and take care of this giant family.

The children gathered in this orphanage are incredibly lucky to have Mercy look after and take care of them. And now thanks to your help, they have the beginnings of a library. I believe that this small step will encourage them to excel in school, increase their creativity and critical thinking, and eventually lead more productive lives. I was really nothing more than the middle man. Thanks so much for your generous contributions! This is something that I am incredibly passionate about and would like to continue doing throughout my service here in Cameroon. So please keep sending booksJ I might give a few more to the Rhema Grace Orphanage, but am looking forward to finding other places in the Northwest and Southwest that could benefit from a donation like this. Once again, here’s the address:

Tim Hartman
C/O US Embassy
B.P. 215, Yaoundé


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Puppy Love

October 22, 2008

I promise the blog on the book donations is coming. It is half finished; I have just been busy with lots of other things. We’re finalizing details on the Piggybank Project (with details to come once we’ve finished), I’m starting up my 7 Habits club in two different high schools, and I’ve gotten some French books that I’ve distributed in Nkongsamba and in the West Province. I’m also working on getting a well in a tiny town with an orphanage and no water where people walk miles to a river every day. That’s all in addition to … Sac à Puce (flea bag), or Saki as we call him. That’s right – I got a puppy! I am a dog person and had resisted getting a dog in Cameroon for the longest time because I didn’t know who I would leave it with or how to bring it back when my service was over. I still haven’t found that person and I’m not planning on taking him back, but I gave in. I figure I can leave him with another Peace Corps volunteer when it’s time to go. It’ll be hard, but I think the time with him will be worth it.

So while you’re already waiting for the book donation blog, I’ll give you something else – photos of the cutest puppy in Cameroon.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What's Wrong with Cameroon IV - Mentality

October 3, 2008

I have already written three blogs on what is holding Cameroon back from being a developed nation. This, the fourth and last installment, has been in my head since the beginning. But…it won’t be the same as if I had written it months ago. My view of Cameroon, as well my view of the US, my own life, and even the universe are constantly changing on this rollercoaster ride called Peace Corps. There were times in the past months where I knew that I couldn’t write this blog; I knew that it would be nothing more than a list of complaints and a way to take out my frustrations. In fact, maybe that’s what the first three were. But I knew this one was different, that it got to the heart of the matter. Mentality is something deeper and more important. The way that people think about themselves, their family, their neighbors and countrymen doesn’t just impact the development of a country, it is the development. In fact, for me to say that the mentality of Cameroonians is holding them back is to say that Cameroon is undeveloped because it is, well, undeveloped. Mentality manifests itself in many ways throughout a people and a country. It can be seen in ways that people traditionally think of as development, such as leaders elected, the education system, health care, and infrastructure. But it is also seen all the way down to family life and peoples’ hobbies and pastimes. Development and mentality are one and the same.

Thinking about these issues, as I do often as a ‘development worker’ in Cameroon, leads to the question – What is the best way to develop Cameroon? And what follows is – Is what I’m doing effective? What impact, if any, am I having? When I think about ‘the development question,’ all roads eventually lead to mentality, which is a Catch 22. You can go in circles asking yourself how to develop a country, or the equivalent of asking yourself how to change the thoughts in peoples’ heads.

The current Peace Corps approach to development, at least for the Small Business Program that I am in, is not to go in and develop, but rather to help others develop themselves. At first glance it sounds great. It shows that we know it is not our choice to develop a country – to change the mentality of the people. The approach is to provide the tools, resources and trainings necessary for those who have already decided to change their mentality. But going back to our Catch 22, if they have already decided to change their mentality, they are already developed. The assumption that is made here is that they have already made the choice to move forward but need someone to show them the best route to take to get to where they’re going. My argument is that if they had the right mentality, they would be able to find that route easily, even without the ‘development worker.’ They would be able to find, or even create, their own tools and resources. And if they have not already changed their mentality, as was assumed, that would mean that the ‘development worker’ is just chasing his tail, running in circles trying to fix problems that he has no control over.

Then, what should the role of the ‘development worker’ be? My opinion is that development agencies should focus almost solely on education. They should insure that every child has the opportunity to go to school, and that the education he or she receives there is the best possible. This would allow the greatest possibility for people to develop themselves. They would have a better idea of the options available to them, and focusing on youth is a more realistic approach as to who will be making tangible changes for their country in the future. It would also start to get rid of the mentality that the ‘white man’ is here to give us stuff, that he and his stuff are the answers to our problems. Thinking about this makes me look back to the business classes I taught. At the ceremony to present their certificates, there was an impromptu moment when everyone stood up and said what they gained from the course and how it was going to help them. It was very motivating at the time. But I have to ask myself, now that a few months have past, how many people are gaining in the ways that they said? How many people are actually using the skills that I presented? My guess would be that out of the 20 people in my class, the 1 or 2 people that are actually using those skills would have had no problem in finding them elsewhere were I not around.

So where does that leave me? The conclusion that it sounds like I am coming to is grim. And in fact, so has been my outlook for the past few weeks and even months. I felt helpless in trying to find the people motivated enough to gain from what I was offering, only to find that they were the ones that didn’t need me in the first place. I came very close to deciding that I would be able to have more of an impact in the US and ending my Peace Corps service early. There was even a rumor spread through Peace Corps volunteers to every corner of this country that I was quitting.

While on vacation a week ago, thinking about where I would be happiest and why, I came back to mentality – not that of Cameroonians but of myself. Let me share a story that Eckhart Tolle puts in his book “A New Earth.”

A wise man won an expensive car in a lottery. His family and friends were very happy for him and came to celebrate. “Isn’t it great!” they said. “You are so lucky.” The man smiled and said, “Maybe.” For a few weeks he enjoyed driving the car. Then one day a drunken driver crashed into his new car at an intersection and he ended up in the hospital, with multiple injuries. His family and friends came to see him and said, “That was really unfortunate.” Again the man smiled and said, “Maybe.” While he was still in the hospital, one night there was a landslide and his house fell into the sea. His friends came the next day and said, “Weren’t you lucky to have been here in the hospital.” Again he said, “Maybe.”

We too often feel like the world is happening to us, that the events that take place in our lives are responsible for whether or not we are happy. It is not the events, but our reactions to them that determines our happiness. And it is not enough to choose to have positive reactions to negative events. That, in fact, is impossible to do all of the time. What is necessary is to detach oneself from outcomes, to realize that happiness is not out there in the first place. I’ve gone a bit astray from the subject, but I’ll get back.

This realization brought me to two conclusions. The first was that I could be happy in Cameroon. No matter what happened to me there, what people said, whatever I did or didn’t accomplish, however many times my patience was tried, I could be happy. And, in fact, learning to be happy in an environment like that would only continue to develop me as a person. The second conclusion was that mentality isn’t just the equivalent of development, it goes beyond that. Mentality leads to happiness. And it isn’t just development that Cameroonians want. They, like everyone else in this world, want to be happy above all else.

So if a change in mentality that is necessary for development can’t be made from an outside source, then how could I promote a change in mentality that would lead people to be happy? The obvious answer is that I can’t, that the change needs to be initiated and come from within. The one missing link that I still see here on the ground in Cameroon, though, is books. Remember my first installment of What’s Wrong with Cameroon? It was about reading. For me personally, I’ve been able to grow immensely from books. They lead to creativity and critical thinking skills, but they also share others’ trials, tribulations, errors, and points of view. I feel like I have become a happier person and developed personally and spiritually because I had the opportunity to read so many books and gain from others’ experiences. I expedited my own search for happiness through reading.

And that is where I am left in Africa – with a strong desire to give others the same opportunities that I had. I’m not talking about opportunities to go to prestigious universities, or to own a car or a nice house. I’m talking about the opportunity to be happy. My plan, as I complete my two years in Cameroon, is to share that opportunity with as many Cameroonian youth as I can.

The first part of my strategy is to get books in people’s hands. This is what I wrote about in my first installment of What’s Wrong with Cameroon. I’ve already received some packages of books that I have distributed and I’ll tell you about where they went and my experiences with handing them out in my next blog. But I want to restate my request. Send me your books! The short of it is that there aren’t enough available here and they are too expensive for people to afford. You can send anything you want. There are no guidelines, but if you want me to be more specific, send books for all ages; page-turners, or books to get people to enjoy reading are great; and books that have inspired you or helped you along the way will fit in more with my mission.
Tim Hartman
C/O US Embassy
B.P. 215, Yaoundé

The next thing I am going to be working on is to start classes/clubs for as many youth as possible that will be centered around the book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” If you haven’t already read it, it’s much more than how to be a successful businessman. It talks about how to lead a principle-centered life. Being proactive and managing your own life is balanced with having effective relationships with others. It is a book that has helped me and that crosses all religious and racial boundaries. I’ll start the first club with Tara in Baré and create as many as possible on my own from there.

The last thing I have in my head right now is to work on giving scholarships to high school students. Enrollment is only 10 dollars per year and lots of kids either don’t go to school or skip years because they are needed to help raise money for the family, usually working in the fields. I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the logistics or sustainability of this idea, but I’ll have more details and might be soliciting funds in the near future.

Sorry it’s been a while since I last wrote. I had a lot on my mind. Next up is how I’m distributing your book donations, but don’t wait for it – send them now!


Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Club Quetions

July 31, 2008

My mom recently printed out my entire blog as a book for her book club. She sent me a list of questions that they all came up with after reading it. I figured the answers would be interesting for anyone that reads my blog. So, here you go…

1. How well do you like being in the Peace Corps?

It’s a huge roller coaster ride. People told me before I left that I will wonder why I’m here. I thought “Yeah, maybe.” The correct thought would have been “Yes, I definitely will.” The highs are just as high as the lows, though. It definitely takes a certain type of person to be a Peace Corps volunteer, but I wouldn’t change the experience that I’ve had thus far for anything.

2. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I know that service to others is an important principle. It leads to humility, a reduction of our ego and our own self-importance. It is something that I strived towards in the states but found hard to do. The main reason I decided to join the Peace Corps was to dedicate myself, for two years of my life, to this principle. I also like to travel. We live in a very diverse world and we can’t pretend to understand it just with television and movies. Peace Corps gave me a chance to broaden my horizons and go somewhere that I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. The last reason was for the experience. I had talked to quite a few returned Peace Corps volunteers and heard only positive things. I went into it knowing that this experience would change me, not knowing how, but knowing it would be for the better.

3. Why Africa?

I told my recruiter that I wanted to go somewhere hot, where I would never have to wear a winter coat, and that I wanted to learn French. Those were my priorities and I knew exactly what they meant – Western Africa. I was alright with that. One of my best friends recently lost her father. He was an amazing, kind, and loving man. And he was obsessed with Africa. His parents forced him to go law or med school even though he didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer. After law school he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in West Africa, never to lose this fascination. When he got back he used his legal expertise and the help of a few good friends to create a fund that would invest in up-and-coming businesses in Africa. He was able to travel to Africa regularly, work to help the conditions there, and do a job that his parents could be proud of all at the same time. Hearing him talk about his work, I think a little bit of the fascination rubbed off.

4. What are some of the misconceptions you had about Africa before arriving?

I tried my hardest not to have any preconceptions about where I was going. I knew that whatever I thought, I would probably be wrong and/or disappointed. That didn’t mean I tried to open or clear any preconceptions. That meant “Don’t think about it!” Any time I did, I tried to go back to ‘knowing that this experience would change me, not knowing how, but knowing it would be for the better.’
Hmm…If I were the one to ask this question, I would probably think the response I gave was a cop-out. Maybe it is. Read the next question. I guess I fit into the category of ‘most Americans’ too.

5. What other misconceptions do you think most Americans have about Africa?

I think the biggest misconception is lack of diversity. It’s even in the wording of the question. An entire continent is seen as one homogeneous entity. Yes, pretty much everyone here is black. Yes, there is a lot of poverty. But beyond that, the country of Cameroon, let alone the entire continent is incredibly diverse. In Cameroon there are over 140 languages because there are that many different ethnic groups. Most everyone speaks French or English or Fulfuldé, but in addition to that, everyone also speaks their local dialect. Economic and social levels, while bottom heavy, are just as diverse. You can see people and even villages like American TV commercials that ask you to sponsor a child, but in the same day you might see someone drive by in a Mercedes wearing an expensive Italian suit. There are Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Animists, and Atheists here. I haven’t seen too many Jews, Hindus or Buddhists, but my friend actually found a Mormon church to go to in Douala. It is religiously diverse, too. If when someone says Africa, you think of a safari, there’s a whole lot more. The landscape is as diverse as the rest. Just in Cameroon, there are beautiful beaches, mountains, forests, jungles, plains, and savannah. Some areas are unbearably hot and humid. Others are unbearably hot but completely dry. In some towns, you need to wear a jacket regularly and wouldn’t even think about sleeping without a thick blanket.

6. What is the average Cameroonian person's perception of the U.S.?

For the average Cameroonian? One word – Utopia. It’s the same with developed countries in Europe. I’m constantly telling people that, while not at the same level, there is poverty and hardship in my country too. Some of them refuse to believe me. Others start to realize that they were thinking a bit idealistically. The majority of Cameroonians’ only opinion of Americans comes from the development workers and ex-patriots in their country. People doing development work are for the most part giving grants and computers and building roads. The conception is that they have way more than they need in their own country and so they are giving to others. This is somewhat true but it doesn’t apply to all Americans or ‘life in America.’ For ex-patriots, or people working in Cameroon, a meager American salary can go a long way here. They see the average ‘white man’ living in luxury a bit like their heads of state. Are our salaries larger than theirs? Absolutely, but one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that the cost of living in America is that much larger as well.

7. How do you experience corruption, if at all?

Just wrote my last blog on it. Check it out.

8. How effective do you think the Peace Corps is in promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding between the U.S. and Cameroon?

At times, I think the only, or maybe the most worthwhile thing that I am doing here is creating relationships, having conversations, and sharing culture. It’s so hard to see results for the other work that we do. Whenever you run into someone that says they were affected by a Peace Corps volunteer, they don’t talk about the well that was built in their town or their new understanding of health or agriculture. They talk about their relationship with that volunteer and how that changed their desires and motivations in life.
What would be different if there were no Peace Corps? Is the budget from American tax dollars worth it? I have no idea. The budget is just a drop in the well compared to all the other things we spend money on, but so am I compared to all of the other volunteers and staff so how would I know? My opinion, if I were forced to give one, would be that we do very little for the development of countries, but way more than an embassy ever could at exchanging culture and giving a positive view of Americans.

9. What do you personally hope to accomplish in Cameroon?

End up a better person.

10. Do you or other Peace Corps Volunteers worry about your safety when you are critical of the Cameroonian people and/or their government?

I would say I worry about my safety a lot more when I’m in a bush taxi (sorry to scare you mom). I did send the blog that I wrote about the strikes to the Peace Corps Country Director before I posted it. I wasn’t sure at the time what he would say, but he said there was no problem and that gave me a little more confidence in posting some of my other blogs, like the “What’s Wrong with Cameroon” series. I can be somewhat critical about Cameroonian culture. The main reason is that I found myself making excuses for behavior saying it’s just the culture. In my opinion there are some things that shouldn’t be excused, like hitting children. Please be reminded that I’m critical of my own culture too. I hate how consumer driven and material we’ve become, how all Muslims are seen as terrorists, and I critique the current US president often.

11. Do Cameroonians ever take offense at your efforts to make things better?

While I did hear about someone taking offense to the reading blog, I don’t think anyone has taken offense at my work on the ground. If anything, people want me to do more. A lot of people have requested to be a part of the next business classes, for me to teach computers, and to help with lots of projects that I don’t have time, money, or expertise for. Peace Corps’ approach is to offer time and expertise, not money. This is the contrary to the majority of the other ‘development players,’ so I do have some people that are disappointed that I’m not here to bring them money or fix their roads.

12. I wondered if the PC owns the houses in which they house their volunteers?

Each volunteer, when they leave, gives a recommendation of whether they think they should be replaced. Because the towns where there are volunteers are constantly changing, every volunteer house, at least in Cameroon, is rented.

13. Why is there a fee for enrollment in your business class - is this to make it seem not too free and easy for the students?

Yup. I could choose to enroll students however I want. What I chose to do the first time was to charge $10 for the class, which consisted of 12 two-hour sessions. I gave a discount to women and youth, charging just $6. The fee was to cover the cost of photocopies, marketing, and the classroom. It was also, probably most importantly, to make sure I had people who were motivated to come each week. I had a decent amount of money after the class to pay for a nice ceremony to give them their certificates. I think for the next run of classes, I will discount women and youth down to $4 and make more of an effort to market the class to them. I had three women and a two people under 30 out of my 20 students the first time.

14. It seems to me that you have to generate your own ideas for development -- is this true?

The Small Enterprise Development program of Peace Corps Cameroon has a detailed project plan. There are things like developing your host institution and the people in it, teaching business skills to entrepreneurs and in formal classes, creating resource centers, and creating linkages between micro-finance institutions, NGOs and community groups. Because I found out that my host institution didn’t actually need my help, self-starter has taken on a whole new meaning in my job description. There are some people that hardly ever work outside of their host institution (mostly micro-finance banks). I do have that project plan to get the wheels turning, but all projects start with me and my motivation. Creativity is definitely important in finding ways to initiate projects that will be appropriate, effective, and fun.

Thanks for the questions! You can add comments to ask more questions or follow up on any of my answers.


Monday, July 21, 2008

What's Wrong with Cameroon III - Corruption

July 21, 2008

Here’s part three in my series. And here’s the Disclaimer: I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in stating my opinions of what I see wrong with Cameroon. They’re just that – opinions. I’ve been living in Cameroon for about a year now. I’ve been living a little better than the average Cameroonian, but no where close to the luxury of the average ex-patriot. I’ve been living among and working with Cameroonians on a day to day basis and this is what I see.

In 1999, Transparency International called Cameroon the most corrupt country in the world. They repeat the study every year, and since then we’ve moved in front of some 30 other countries, but we’re still just a few tenths of a point from the bottom. It doesn’t take much to notice it either. Even a tourist coming for a week could see plenty of examples.

Probably the most visible examples are police and gendarme traffic stops. This is where police are set up on the road stopping almost every car that passes. They are set up under the guise of making sure that the vehicles and drivers have proper documentation, but they don’t try to hide anything. What the driver is expected to do is to get out of the car, walk over to the officer, pay him 500F (one dollar), and be on his way. If you don’t pay, the officer will ask for your documentation. He will go through it very slowly and probably tell you that you’re missing something (even if you’re not) or that something is expired (even if it isn’t). I’ve been in a bush taxi multiple times where a driver was being held up and another passenger voiced his frustration saying “Just pay him already!” or “It’s only 500 francs!” Occasionally they’ll make all the passengers get out and show their ID cards. As a Peace Corps volunteer I have a Cameroon-issued visitor card, but I’ve heard of other Americans that had to pay a bribe because the officer wouldn’t give them back their passport. The Peace Corps stance is to absolutely never pay a bribe, so one American that works in the office told me he always travels with a book. Whenever he gets stopped, he whips it out. The message you want to send is “I’ve got all day.” he says. As annoying and downright wrong as it is for law-enforcement officers to be demanding bribes, it can also get expensive. They’re usually set up outside of every decent-sized town, sometimes on both sides of a town. You might run into four of or five in an hour making it hard for a driver or travel agency to make any money.

Law enforcement is not only corrupt on the roads. The entire legal system has problems. We take a lot for granted in the US. Here it’s your neighbors that look out for you and mob justice that dishes out the punishment. There is a system set up and channels to go through, but lots of people along the way can be paid off. I know an American that came to Cameroon to volunteer for an orphanage. It was a bad sight. The woman running it was using it to get foreign donations. She maltreated, underfed, beat, and allowed the children to be sexually abused. My friend found a way to have the kids legally removed and created his own orphanage. The government was helpful at first, but then started saying he couldn’t legalize the orphanage, that he stole the kids. He started getting death threats. The woman at the old orphanage had money to give to the right people and had friends in high places. When the Cameroonian government actually came to remove the children it took a call from the US Ambassador to make them change their mind. You can check out more at www.greeneyesinafrica.org.

Government officials and lawmakers also find ways to steal money. Money for projects that goes through five different people might lose 15% at each step of the way. Many people in high places see it as their right to do favors on the side and under the table. I had another volunteer friend that used to hang out with a ‘grand’ or ‘big man’ in his town. His friend would always pay for food and drinks when they went out. He never thought too much about where the money was coming from until he was in his office when one of these transactions took place. The “client” handed over a large stack of 10,000F ($20) bills. When the big man asked where his friend’s part was, the client handed another stack to my volunteer friend. He stood there stunned holding the money until the client left and he refused to accept it.

I talked about corruption in the education system a bit in my last entry. In short – money, sex, and connections can get you a long way. But these actions don’t just help those that use them; they hurt those that work hard. One of my business class students recently took the test to get into a specialized school and was anxious about the results.
“How do you feel like you did?” I asked.
“Really good, but I’m still worried.”
“Do a lot of people pay to pass it?”
“Yeah, I know someone who’s aced it three times and not passed.”

Banks are one area where you would assume there would be no corruption but even they aren’t immune. That’s the main reason people don’t trust them to save their money. Conflict of interest doesn’t have quite the same meaning here. Employees and members of the board will often give themselves and their friends loans that don’t get paid back. And the president of the board of directors of one bank where there used to be a Peace Corps volunteer was also the chief of the village, owned the building the bank was occupying, and made sure no one ever said no to him.

Lastly, corruption has worked its way into the development and non-profit sector. A lot of local non-profits are created not to do good, but because there’s money to be had. This happens especially with HIV/AIDS projects and groups. There are a lot of foreigners willing to give money but not do the legwork. Unfortunately, not very much of this money gets to the cause. A bank manager in a neighboring town went to the European Union Development office in Nkongsamba looking for money to buy a car so he could visit his lenders and do more publicity. The EU told him no, that they only give money to Community Groups. The advice a Cameroonian friend of mine gave him was: “Start a Community Group.”

It’s the way of life here, a cycle and a Catch 22. The country can’t advance with this much corruption, but everyone thinks they need to join in to get ahead.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Arriving in Cameroon – Take II

June 17, 2008

Last week I had a chance to relive the excitement and fear of arriving for the first time in Cameroon, this time on the faces of others. Tara and I were chosen to be the two volunteer hosts that welcome the incoming group of trainees. That means we would greet them at the airport and stay with them for their first five days in the hotel in Yaoundé. It would also mean lots of work and responsibility.

We showed up in Yaoundé a couple of days before their arrival to start getting ready. What tat meant was stopping by essentially every Peace Corps staff person in the office and figuring out what they needed from the trainees. It was anything from the IT guy needing them to sign off on guidelines before using Peace Corps computers to immigration forms so that they could get national identity cards. There were also three things that most of them would want/need their first week in country. They would need their US dollars changed into CFA. \The banks here don’t like to do it and/or charge big fees, so we needed to figure out who in the office would be going to the states and wanted to buy dollars. Cell phones – for safety and to be able to talk to their loved ones, we went out and priced phones at the two big competitors. Voltage regulators – you don’t just plug an iPod or a laptop into the wall here because of the power surges so we went and priced these too. During any free time, we stalked the new kids. Peace Corps gave us photos and résumés for everyone so we could start getting to know them and almost half had already found each other and started a group on facebook.

Saturday night they arrived. We met 38 trainees at the airport with the Country Director and lots of other Peace Corps staff. I was surprised at how excited and alert everyone was after 24 hours of traveling. It’s interesting, what I remembered from my arrival in the airport exactly 1 year ago was fear, but what I was seeing on their faces was excitement. They looked ready to go. There wasn’t a single bag lost during the trip so we loaded up everything and everyone on a big bus and headed to the hotel. We all had dinner at the hotel, and despite everyone’s excitement, everyone went to bed right after.

The next day was set aside for relaxation and recuperation. Most everyone took advantage of the free time to do some very small-scale exploring of the capital. Because they had arrived at night, this was their first chance to see Cameroon – people selling things balanced on their heads, what the shops and bars look like, and Yaoundé’s crazy style of driving (which looks normal to me already). While everyone with jetlag was out exploring, knowing how busy the week would be, I took a nap. That night everyone got fancied up for a nice catered dinner at the Country Director’s house. The US ambassador, Cameroonian government officials, and Peace Corps staff were there to welcome everyone to Cameroon. The food was great, but there were about 7 people that got sick later and the speculation was that it was this dinner. If getting sick was something they were afraid of, they got that out of the way early. Welcome to Cameroon?

The rest of the week, for the trainees, was filled with training sessions. They were getting more shots, learning about diarrhea, getting an introduction to Cameroonian culture, and getting ready to move in with a Cameroonian family. For Tara and me it was nonstop all over Yaoundé and the Peace Corps office. We exchanged their money, bought the things they had signed up for, filled out forms, gave a couple of the training sessions, gave back the Cameroonian money that was still owed them, and answered innumerable questions at every step of the way. It was all stuff that we knew we were getting into. We were the ones that had requested the job. And while it was worth it and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, it was way more tiring than we could have expected.

Thursday morning everyone repacked their bags to be loaded on two small buses and prepared to leave the capital for the training village and their home-stay families three hours away. Thinking back to how I was a year ago, words like naïve and clueless come to mind. I remember looking at our volunteer hosts and thinking “Will I really be that integrated and comfortable after one year?” They might have had the same thoughts going through their minds, but it didn’t come across to me. It was a great group. They all seemed mature, adventurous, and ready to take on anything. I think they’ll all make great volunteers.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

What’s Wrong with Cameroon II – Upbringing

May 6, 2008

The first blog in this series got a lot of reaction. In the states I heard of and from lots of people inspired by my “call to action” that plan on sending books. And I even got reactions from Cameroonians. One of my fellow volunteers told me that someone in his village in the extreme north approached him wanting to argue against the points I had made. I was flattered. It means he takes pride in his country. But whether any or all of what I said was right or wrong, starting up a conversation about these topics could only be helpful. This blog’s topic: Upbringing. I’ll repeat the disclaimer. I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in stating my opinions of what I see wrong with Cameroon. They’re just that – opinions. I’ve been living in Cameroon for about a year now. I’ve been living a little better than the average Cameroonian, but no where close to the luxury of the average ex-patriot. I’ve been living among and working with Cameroonians on a day to day basis and this is what I see.

People have written books on nature vs. nurture – whether it’s your genes and biological makeup that make you who you are, or whether it’s the way in which you were raised. I think everyone can agree that it’s some combination of the two, and while I’m not going to argue which is more important, I’ll be sticking mainly with nurture – the way that children are raised.

Also to be noted is that a lot of what I might see as negative, someone else might see as just a cultural difference. Are these things actually impeding the development of the next generation of Cameroonians or am I just refusing to step out of my own perspective? I don’t know (not an expert, remember). I guess what I’m trying to say is that there are good things and I feel bad writing a lot of what I’m going to say, but these are the only things I can rationalize as causes of what everyone can agree are actual problems in Cameroon. Okay, I guess I’ll just jump in.

“A child is not only raised by its parents, but is a product of the entire village.” This is a concept that exists to my knowledge all over Cameroon. At first glance, it sounds great, like lessons and principles are taught by more than just the two parents. But if this idea is used to justify diminishing parental responsibility, it quickly becomes negative. What happens when parents don’t know where their children are or what they are doing? Tara’s two-and-a-half-year-old neighbor who can’t even put together a complete sentence wanders over to her house all the time. When Tara leaves the house, she follows and would be content to walk around with her anywhere in the town were she not led right back to her house each time. Another example is when Tara and I caught a 6-year-old girl smoking. She had found a still lit, half smoked cigarette in a pile of trash and was actually taking drags off of it. We were stunned. We told her sternly to throw it down and not pick it up again. After we walked by, we turned around and noticed that she had picked it up again and smoked some more. We ended up asking her where she lived and dragging her back, kicking and screaming, all the way to her home. When we got there we realized that her dad lives and works in another city and her mom had been away from the house for the last week. Who was taking care of her and all of her other siblings? Her oldest sister, about 15 years old.

Also to do with parenting is the way that children are viewed by society – their parents and others. There are different degrees of this, but a lot of times children are viewed as property whose role is to do chores and fetch things. If someone is sitting in a bar and wants some corn that is roasting across the street, the first thing he’ll do is look for a kid walking by that he can send to buy it. The kids lack identities in many situations too. Before they can talk, there name is bébé (even to most parents). Until they’re about 12, they’re most commonly referred to as petit. With most parenting styles they get little to no positive reinforcement. If they do something wrong, they’ll hear about it and probably get hit. Do something well and they won’t even know. In general, affection is just not shown to kids. In the US, we put a huge emphasis on education – life lessons and classical education in schools. The idea is that the generation below our own will be running the country and aspects of our lives when we get older. It just doesn’t feel like Cameroonians have this same mentality. This is probably an extreme case, but I had one Cameroonian tell me that he didn’t understand Americans’ obsession with their pets. “Once all your kids have grown up and left the house, Americans get a dog or cat to keep them company. But what happens when your wife is at the market? The dog can’t get you a beer.” He told me that when his last born leaves the house and gets married, that child will give his first born child to his parents (in lieu of them buying a dog).

Nutrition plays a role as well. This has mostly to do with poverty. If a mother can only afford starches with hardly any nutritional value and little else while she is pregnant, it can create learning disabilities and other problems with the developing fetus. Learning disabilities happen in all corners of the globe, but they seem more prevalent here. And once the child is going to school, not eating breakfast in the morning or not having money to pay for lunch often creates problems concentrating in class and on tests. Outside of class if the child is busy doing chores and working in the fields, they don’t have time to do their homework.

That leads to the education system itself. First problem – class size. Classes in any grade can easily get up to and over 100 students. This makes distractions more prevalent, makes it harder to hear the teacher and see the board, and takes away individual attention to the students and their questions. One other thing it probably takes away is the ability of teachers to plan dynamic lessons. Most of the emphasis in Cameroonian schools is placed on memorization and passing standardized tests. Most students are never taught critical thinking skills or encouraged to be creative. One example of a lack of creativity was Tara’s English class on Halloween. She taught them about the American holiday and made a short trick-or-treating skit that each student would reenact asking for candy and telling what they were dressed up as. They were encouraged to be whatever they wanted and to ask for the word in English if they didn’t know it. Of her 90 student class, all but 2 said they were dressed up as a witch or a princess (even boys) which were the only two examples she had given in class. The other two, if you’re interested, were a doctor and a Christian. Maybe also because of class size, class control and discipline are big problems. Although it is illegal, the most common forms of discipline are physical punishments. Students are hit all of the time. Some teachers carry around a rubber strap that they use to strike the kids with and just about every education volunteer has a horror story about someone coming into their class and hitting their students. Most teachers that refuse to hit their students make them kneel on their knees on the concrete floor for the rest of the class. Kids are also given cleaning and yard work responsibilities for misbehaving. Last but not least within the education system are payoffs. I’ll get more into corruption in my next blog, but this is one place where it happens. Money or sex for the high school exit exams, college entrance exams, and other things are not uncommon. This reduces students’ motivation to learn and doesn’t bring them to the realization that hard work pays off.

I wish I had a way for everyone back in the states to feel good about doing something to help some of these problems like I did with the reading issue. But I think the best way to go about dealing with most of these issues is for people to start having open conversations here in Cameroon. You can agree or disagree with anything I’ve said but the truth is that Cameroonian kids are the future of Cameroon and we should always be thinking of ways to mold them into better educated and more capable leaders and citizens.


Monday, June 2, 2008

Business Classes

May 30, 2008

Yesterday rapped up my first full round of business classes. I taught business and math skills at a girls' center in Baré early on, but it felt more like a warm-up to teaching. There were a couple of girls that I was proud to have taught, but a lot of them would talk, not pay attention, sleep, or just not show up. For the classes that I just finished, I did everything from start to finish. I marketed them, I found the classroom, I enrolled local entrepreneurs, and I taught the classes, adjusting preexisting Peace Corps-provided lesson plans to the needs of my community and my own teaching style.

There were 12 classes, each one lasting two hours. I only once a week, so finishing up a project that lasted 3 months felt like a pretty big accomplishment. The classes covered entrepreneurship, feasibility studies, goals and action plans, cash books, inventory, budgeting, marketing, income statements and balance sheets, leadership, financial services, and business plans. Planning the lessons, even already having lesson plans, was pretty time-intensive because (shhhh!) the majority of these things I’ve not even done in the US.

The last class was a couple of weeks ago, before my trip to Yaoundé, but last night was a reception that I planned so that I could give my students certificates proving completion of the course. Everyone paid $10 to take the class to offset the cost of photocopies and the classroom as well as to motivate them to be there each week. Photocopies are pretty cheap so there was a lot of money left over. It paid for a great spread of food and a room for the reception at my neighbor’s house. She runs a catering business and was the perfect person to know for the occasion.

For the vast majority of our work here as PCVs, we don’t get to see the fruits of our labor. Development is a slow process. Occasionally I’ll run into someone who’ll talk about a volunteer 10-15 years ago who changed their life, but in the here and now, we just have to hope that we’re making those kinds of positive impacts in peoples’ lives. So the reception last night was a rare and special occasion for me – an opportunity to receive positive recognition for the work that I’m doing here right now. There was even an impromptu moment where each of my about 20 students stood up one by one and shared why they thought the class was so important to their individual lives. I think the words that spoke to my the most were when someone stood up and talked about how those who have the means tend to leave the country for Europe of the US. The general thinking among far too many Cameroonians is that those living in Africa are suffering while everyone in the developed world is just living it up. This student was saying that my class empowered him to realize that he could succeed right here, that his hard work would pay off – the American Dream in Cameroon if you will. It was great to hear.

After everyone finished eating, I handed out the certificates one at a time and then we took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures – more than I took at my high school graduation. I even took pictures with the photographers that were there. This is a very Cameroonian thing to do and you just get used to it

So after about a year living in Cameroon, this was a nice boost to motivate me to continue doing what I’m doing. Next week when I pick up the new volunteers at the airport I’ll have one more positive experience to share.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Two Weeks in the Capital

May 18, 2008

Sorry about the hiatus on the blogs. My last blog got a lot of reaction and I’ll get back to that series in a short while, but I wanted to keep you updated with what I’m doing.

Last Thursday, I wrapped up my business class that I was running in Nkongsamba. It was a pretty rewarding experience. I think everyone really appreciated the information that was imparted and there are a few people that are already actively looking for ways to put it into practice. The class was 12 weeks – one 2-hour class per week. I taught business startup and feasibility studies, basic accounting, financial planning, and leadership among other subjects. When I head back to post, we’re going to have a small banquet and ceremony with the proceeds of the enrollment fees where I give everyone that passed a certificate from Peace Corps.

The day after my last class, I headed to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital. This is where the Peace Corps headquarters is and where I and 15 other volunteers are planning the training for the next group of volunteers that get here on June 7th. The first week we spent discussing and making improvements to our own training. Then we put together the 11-week schedule and figured out who was going to teach what sessions. The program directors and other staff help teach, but it’s mostly current volunteers that run the sessions. We also put together arrangements for the incoming volunteers’ first few days in Cameroon. Tara and I were chosen to be “volunteer hosts” and will be greeting them at the airport, answering their many questions, and trying to help things run as smooth as possible.

This week, my second week in Yaoundé, will be spent doing “Training of Trainers.” This is where Peace Corps training staff will try to impart to us knowledge about learning styles, adult learning principles, and methods to make our sessions as effective as possible. These two weeks of seminars have so far been productive and well-organized, but exhausting.

It’s nice to be able to get out and relax when we have free time, but Yaoundé is expensive on a Peace Corps volunteer’s salary. I had a rather depressing moment yesterday as I went to a full-fledged supermarket for the first time in 12 months. The variety and selection were amazing, but so were the prices. Pretty much everything was imported and about twice the price of what I was used to in the states. All this while I’m making about 10% of my small non-profit salary I had back home. I ended up getting balsamic vinegar and a couple of soup mixes and forcing myself to pass on the incredibly tempting, endless varieties of cheese and ice cream.

Restaurants are expensive too, so we have been trying to make one big meal that everyone can chip in for each night. Enchilladas and soul food were the highlights, and we’re trying to put together some pizzas tonight. Staying in the volunteer transit house here in Yaoundé is nice: there is a washer and dryer, hot showers, lots of kitchen supplies, and a great DVD collection. It’s kind of like a little slice of home, but it gets old pretty quickly too. It’s kind of like a Peace Corps version of a frat house. There is a decent amount of drinking, people don’t get to bed until late, and keeping the place tidy is a constant struggle.

So that’s what I’m up to. Sorry for taking so long. I’ll try to get back to being more regular with my postings.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What's Wrong with Cameroon I - Reading

March 25, 2008

The national crisis a couple of weeks ago pushed back my “What’s Wrong with Cameroon” blog. So here’s the first installment. I’ll add the disclaimer again: I’m not professing to be any kind of expert in stating my opinions of what I see wrong with Cameroon. They’re just that – opinions. I’ve been living in Cameroon for almost 10 months now. I’ve been living a little better than the average Cameroonian, but no where close to the luxury of the average ex-patriot. I’ve been living among and working with Cameroonians on a day to day basis and this is what I see.

Reading, or lack thereof, is a problem with Cameroon. It took me a while to realize. It was actually another Peace Corps Volunteer, Autumn, that brought it to my attention first. In America I remember having existential conversations well into the morning about God, the meaning of life, and why we’re here. Autumn and I have similar feeling conversations about what’s wrong with the Country we’re living in and the best theoretical “fixes.”

“Cameroonians don’t read for pleasure.” She said. And right then I realized, she was right. I just doesn’t happen here. Whether for pleasure, for current events, or to further their own knowledge, Cameroonians, or the vast vast majority of them, don’t read. Autumn, although a Small Enterprise Development volunteer like me, has been teaching English classes at her local HS and trying to promote reading to her students. Most know how to read and write. That’s taught in schools, but once they’re out, and even while they’re in school, there are no books in their hands. That’s right, not even textbooks. They’re too expensive for most to afford. They average Cameroonian class consists of the teacher reading their notes and the students copying them down, essentially creating their own textbooks that they can study at home.

The only way to buy books in my town is from people on the sidewalks with 4 or 5 large stacks (and this is a big town – 200,000+). Most are “textbooks,” all used, all outdated, and all too expensive. Looking for something to help teach my business management classes, they didn’t have what I wanted and they wanted too much. Ten dollars is what he started at. I probably could have gotten him down to six, but for a used, outdated, 150 page softcover textbook in the developing world, it was too much. 20¢ for 5 tomatoes but $6 for a crappy book?

Let me jump back to my midnight conversation with Autumn. I was showing her a book that my mom had sent me in a package. It was a new release paperback that cost $14.99. Taking an average Cameroonian salary of $1920 (80,000F/month is estimating high), a 15 dollar book is 0.78% of their annual income. Taking an average American income of $30,000(estimating low), 0.78% is $234.00! Would you pay $234 for a new release paperback? No wonder no one reads and no wonder there are no real bookstores outside of the two largest cities in the country. To sell that book at the equivalent price in Cameroon based on the income difference would be to reduce the price to 96¢. Not only would that be impossible for publishers to do, but no one is accustomed to reading, and so they probably wouldn’t even pay 96¢ for a book.

That brings me to my business proposition, the 100F Bookshop, the final result of my midnight conversation with Autumn. My plans for after Peace Corps might include starting up a non-profit. The idea would be to collect used books in the states, ship them over to Cameroon (to one of the Anglophone provinces), and sell them for 100F (20¢). The books would be donated by average Americans, anything from trashy romance novels to quantum physics textbooks. The money to ship them would come from tax-deductible contributions. And the booksalses would pay the salary of a Cameroonian working in the shop. Everyone that I’ve talked to so far, Cameroonian and American, seems to like the idea.

And here’s where you come in. Beyond whether my idea is economically feasible or not, I want to know what kind of impact it can have. I want to get some experience putting books into people’s hands. So if you’ve got the money to ship them here, give me your books!

You can send ‘em here:
Rev. Tim Hartman
c/o US Embassy
B.P. 215 Yaoundé

Cameroon’s got some things wrong with it, but maybe you can help me slowly get things going on the right track.


Saturday, March 15, 2008


March 6, 2008

You probably missed it, but there was a national crisis in Cameroon last week. It was bad enough that Peace Corps in Washington almost evacuated all of us. It started Monday, the 25th, with a strike of all the taxi and moto drivers because of the price of gas. It should be noted that this halted probably 95% of transportation as only the rich own cars. After the drivers decided to strike, the rest of the population soon followed. They decided that the cost of living had gotten too high and that they would strike too, to lower the price of soap, cooking oil, and other products – prices all controlled by the government. So on Monday morning, everyone was on foot, and by the afternoon, all businesses were closed. At this point, Peace Corps told us that we were on ALERT status, meaning we shouldn’t travel (not like we could), we should be keeping up to date with the news and letting administration know what was going on in our towns.

Dan, who lives in a tiny town in the mountains, was planning on traveling to Baré that day. He never got the ALERT from Peace Corps on his cell phone, so he tried to travel anyway. He got all the way to Nkongsamba before realizing he couldn’t get any further so he ended up crashing at my place until it was all over.

The next day, the strike continued. It was kind of creepy to see the country on lockdown. There were a few people on the streets, but no stores were open. Talking with my Cameroonian friends, everyone was mad. They weren’t happy with their quality of life and were ready to tell you about it. This kind of frustrated me, being a political organizer in what feels like another life. The real strike was for gas prices, something that, while controlled by the government is totally dependent on foreign oil prices. Cameroon has oil that they drill and export, but don’t have refineries big enough for changing it to gasoline. Therefore, they import all the gas and are at the mercy of the foreign market. Not a great reason for the whole country to go on strike. They were demanding lower prices for other goods, but the movement wasn’t organized. It was just angry people on the street airing their complaints to TV station cameras without any leader to actually talk to the government.

Cameroonians do have real reasons to be mad about their quality of life, though. One of their actual problems is that the salaries of public servants (anyone paid by the government) were cut by half or more in the ’90s. Public servants, including teachers, represent the vast majority of non-entrepreneurial jobs in Cameroon. If they had double their salary, they wouldn’t have as much trouble paying a little extra for soap. Another problem is corruption. Cameroon just moved up from number three to number one. We’re now the most corrupt country in the world according to a study from a couple of weeks ago. So gas and soap…I didn’t get it.

That afternoon, Tara and Abby, with the help of a friend with a car, got a ride from Baré to my house. The logic was that the house was safer and that we could worry all together about what was going to happen. With this addition, we were now four in the house.

The next day, according to Cameroonian news sources, the gas prices had been lowered to where they were two weeks ago and a lot of taxis were back on the streets. The reduction of about 17 francs worked out to about 10 cents/gallon. What I saw on the ground was very little taxis operating and only a few businesses open, the ones selling essential food products. BBC was reporting that there were burnings of some government buildings and some deaths during the previous night. Peace Corps told us to stay put; they were working on plans for what to do if things got worse. That night, the president addressed the nation saying that the streets were not the place to have this discussion, that everyone should go back to work, and something else about sorcery that I didn’t understand.

The next morning, Peace Corps moved from ALERT to STANDFAST status, meaning pack a bag in case we have to CONSOLIDATE in a few strategic places around the country and/or EVACUATE. Cameroonian news was still showing taxis back on the streets, but the night after the speech that didn’t include any acknowledgement of the struggles people were going through, was when most of the violence took place – looting and burning of buildings (not in Nkongsamba, even though there was a rumor that the mayor’s office was burnt down). For Nkongsamba and elsewhere, that morning was when things, strangely, started going back to normal. Shops were open, taxis were running, and only a very small military presence which in Nkongsamba is normal because of the military base here. People were on the streets and going about their business. Talking with my Cameroonian friends again, everyone was happy. This frustrated me again. They were livid just a couple of days ago, they didn’t get what they wanted, and now they were acting like nothing ever happened. When pressed, they would say “We’re a peaceful country. We didn’t want a war.” But I didn’t get it. They didn’t even get cheaper soap. Peace Corps wasn’t convinced either. There were rumors that more riots were going to take place on Monday. They decided to take advantage of the calm and the available transportation and CONSOLIDATE everyone on Saturday.

Mickie and Autumn, from Kumba and Kekem, came to consolidate with the four of us here at my house in Nkongsamba. Kumba was where the riots were probably the worst in the country. Mickie heard gunshots and helicopters as he was going to bed one night. But by now, as I said, things were getting back to normal. My neighbors didn’t even understand why everyone was at my house and not going back to work. The situation worked out in our favor, though. The markets were open with everything we needed and we weren’t worried about our safety at all. It was like a little vacation – a CONSOLIDATION vacation. We relaxed, played games, read, and ate great food. During the vacation we had two pizza nights, a lasagna night, an enchilada night, and a movie night where we had popcorn, peanuts, and cookies for dinner while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Everyone did their share of keeping the place clean, and while we spent a pretty penny on cheese for all of our dinners, I think it was a big success.

Monday rolled around and there was no change, still peaceful. Tuesday, the same. On Wednesday morning, Peace Corps gave the all clear for everyone to go back to their posts – catastrophe averted.

While it was a fun vacation with friends, it gave me a lot to think about too. I didn’t want the Cameroonian people to go to war and force me to evacuate, but I did want them to fight a little harder for a better life. If they’re not ready to work for it, then what am I doing here? So that’s what’s on my plate – figure out what I want to give and get out of the rest of my service. Tim

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I'll be back...promise

Sorry about the short hiatus. Some thoughts have been circulating in my head about my next post, and I think it's going to be another longer one about what's wrong with Cameroon. There are plenty of resources and Peace Corps has been here since 1962, so why haven't we succeeded yet. I'm not an expert but I'll give my analysis on what I've found in my first eight months. Thanks for being patient.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mount Cameroon

January 17, 2008
Updated January 23, 2008
Updated January 29, 2008
Finished February 5, 2008

After Christmas, I spent a few days relaxing with Joe and Debbie in Tiko, and then met up with four friends (Anne, Angel, Rachel, and her boyfriend Thomas from the States) to climb Mt. Cameroon, the tallest mountain in Cameroon at 4090 meters. I think that works out to about 12,000 ft. or 2 miles high. At the time it seemed like one of the fun touristy things I needed to do before I left Cameroon, but it turned out to be probably the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever put my body through.

We met in Beaua (pronounced boy’-uh) on the 28th. Beaua is the capital of the Southwest Province and a very short ride from Tiko and Limbé. That’s where we planned our hike. There were several different options for paths to take and days to spend. We were told by others not to do the 2-day hike as it was just up to the summit and back down the same trail. We decided on the 4-day hike. It goes up to the summit on the same trail that everyone takes, but then goes down through volcanic craters and an elephant jungle and ends up on the beach. The only problem was that 4 days starting on the 29th would mean us reaching the beach on New Years Day. We thought it would be better to get to the beach a day early and celebrate the countdown to 2008 on the beach, so we decided to do the 4-day hike in 3 days. In hindsight, I think I would have done the same thing again, just packed more socks.

Day 1:
We woke up in Beaua early in the morning on the 29th. Feeling, at this instant, more refreshed than we would for the next couple of weeks, we headed to the ecotourism office to meet our guide and porters as well as to take care of any last minute business like buying food and snacks. The guide and porters are not only essential, they’re required. We had five porters, one for each of us, and our guide’s name was Simon. He helped keep the pace, lead us in the right direction, and most importantly cook the food each night. All packed up and details taken care of, we started walking at about 9am – uphill. It seems silly to mention. We’re climbing a mountain. Of course we’re going to be going uphill. But unless you’ve ever climbed a mountain this big, you’ve never walked uphill this much. I’ve been on plenty of hikes, some with inclines like this, but normally you go up and down, usually ending up where you started by the end of the day. Our target for the end of the day was Hut 2 – about 2/3 the way to the summit.

The hike started on a trail going through farms, but quickly made its way into the forest. As we walked I couldn’t help but notice that one of our porters walking in front of me was wearing flip-flops a couple sizes too small so that his heels would actually touch the ground with each step. This made me feel a little better about doing the journey in tennis shoes. After a few hours we reached Hut 1. It was a relief to see. It meant a decent sized break with water and snacks. It was also the first milestone that we reached other than the change from the farms to the forest which was at the very beginning. Knowing that we were only halfway to our refuge for the night, we continued on, quickly reaching the tree line. Here the landscape changed from forest to magnificent fields of what looked like grain blowing in the quickly cooling mountain breezes. When we got to the tree line, Simon told us we needed to do a ritual dance. We each held a branch of a particular bush in each hand, danced while he sang, and then threw the branches behind us on his word. Mt. Cameroon is a very active volcano, or group of volcanoes, that erupted most recently in 1999 and in 2000. The rituals that they perform have apparently stopped lava from ever reaching any town around it.

The new landmark (and break) was New Hut. I don’t think people usually sleep here. It was created mostly as a water stop for the runners. Once a year there is a race to the summit and back down. We asked our guide and porters multiple times “Are they still running at this point?” and the answer was always yes. Who would or even could do that to themselves, I have no idea.

After New Hut was the “magic tree.” It is a tree growing all by itself way above the tree line. It sounded like a magnificent site and we were looking forward to hearing the legend behind it until we got there and realized that it wasn’t the only tree above the tree line. There were plenty more, even higher up. When we asked Simon, he told us that it was actually a German runner that named it the magic tree. It wasn’t called magic because it was above the tree line. Apparently the first time you see it, it doesn’t look that far away, then you go for a while and look up and it hasn’t gotten any closer, go for a while, look up, and it hasn’t gotten any closer. Then all of the sudden it’s right in front of you. The story was a little disappointing to us, so we continued on.

I’m not sure if this last leg of the day’s journey was any steeper, or if we were just already really tired, but it was grueling. When Hut 2 finally appeared around the bend, it was a sight for sore eyes. There were a couple other groups that had started before us already there, one from Canada and the other from South Africa. The three guys from South Africa were actually in the middle of motorcycling all the way up to Morocco. When we got to the hut, the first thing we did was to take off our shoes. Then we waited for the food to be prepared. Then we put our shoes back on – it was quite cold already and when the sun went down it only got colder. Rachel actually had a thermometer that she checked as we were shivering in our sleeping bags. It said 50° F. I’m not sure if it was broken or if we had just already habituated ourselves to the tropical African climate, but it felt a lot colder.

Maybe it was the cold, maybe the altitude, or maybe the hard wooden shelf where we laid our sleeping bags, but no one slept particularly well that night. When Simon told us it was time to get up, the general reaction was “It’s about time!”

Day 2:
When I sat up for the first time in my sleeping bag, the room spun. I didn’t know what was going on. Every time I moved my head I would get dizzy. I asked around and found I was the only one having this problem – probably the altitude, most everyone agreed. In actuality I’ve decided it wasn’t the altitude, but a calcification in my inner ear. The same thing happened to me about 4 or 5 years ago and you just have to wait it out – about 2 to 3 weeks. It was manageable, but still thinking it was some kind of altitude sickness made it a little bit scarier to continue upward. Three to four hours to the summit, though. It seemed well within reach, so we got moving. What we thought was the summit down in Beaua had been replaced by a new summit that looked not too far off, giving us the little burst of energy that the sleeping accommodations did not.

While there was never any actual climbing, a need to use you hands to pull yourself up, this path between Hut 2 and Hut 3 was the steepest. Each step seemed to be the equivalent of 2 or 3 stairs high and it just didn’t let up. Every time we stopped to take a breather we would look back at Hut 2, where we had spent the night. Each time it was a little bit farther and a little bit smaller, but never small enough and never far enough away.

Eventually, what we thought was the summit disappeared and was replaced just like the last one. Whether it was the real summit or not we didn’t know, but below it was a kind of ridge. It reminded me of the outcrop that hut 2 was hiding behind and I was sure that this one was hiding Hut 3, which would mean a decent break before the last 45 minutes to the summit. I poured it on, for the next 30 minutes, to get to the top of that ridge. And just like the summit that kept moving further back and farther up, my inclination about the location of Hut 3 was wrong too. When the rest of the group caught up (they weren’t as foolish as I to think it was “just around the bend”), we took a short break. Breaks by now, it should be noted, no longer entailed sitting, but rather lying on the ground. This was not only because we were dead tired, but also to get behind a bush or outcrop and out of the cold mountain wind that whipped around ceaselessly.

While Hut 3 wasn’t just around the bend, it wasn’t too, too far. We hit it pretty soon thereafter and crashed once more. I remember wrestling with whether or not to put my head all the way back against the ground because it kept making me dizzy. I ended up putting up with it though, and I think I even snuck 5 or 10 minutes of sleep too.

At this point, knowing there were only 45 minutes to go, we saw what we were absolutely positive was the summit, even a path going up it. Yet when Simon pulled us away from our repose, he led us off to the right. We’d been duped again. The path was probably for geologists studying the volcano.

We were told that the trail from Hut 2 to Hut 3 was the worst and that the final trek to the summit was quite mild in comparison. That could’ve been true, but it felt all the same to us. The terrain did change though, to small porous lava rocks. You could hear them crackling against each other with each step. You also had to pick some of your steps carefully. If you walked where there was no vegetation growing whatsoever, it was a little like walking on sand – two steps forward, one step back.

Eventually, we got to a point where Simon pointed up and said “That’s the summit.” We actually had to ask him to repeat himself. Compared to all the other “false summits,” it looked rather meager…until we got to the top.

The view from the top of Mt. Cameroon was magnificent. The clouds impeded your view a little bit but also made it that much more majestic. Looking around you could see some rocky peaks in one direction and weathered volcanic mounds in the other. It felt incredible too – a great sense of accomplishment as well as the knowledge that everything from here on out was downhill!

Partly because Simon was pushing us to continue and partly because it was really cold, we only spent about 10 minutes on the summit before heading on – downhill. It felt so weird to our legs at first. We were using muscles that had been resting for the last two days. There was also a skill to it that we had to learn. The two steps forward, one step back going uphill became two steps forward, slide a bit farther going downhill. We ended up almost running, spanning about six feet with each step. It was quite fun and a great change of pace; we just had to take breaks more often to get all of the volcanic rocks and dust out of our shoes.

Because we were going downhill and because we were sliding with every step, we were covering lots of ground. It was pretty amazing to look back every few minutes to the summit, where we were just a little bit ago and realize how far we had come, literally and figuratively. The terrain quickly changed from tiny broken-up volcanic rocks to solid hardened lava. This slowed us down quite a bit. It was very jagged and you felt like with every step there was a chance to sprain your ankle.

The solid lava lasted about two to three hours until we got to some more grasslands and took a break. At this point the summit disappeared from view and soon after we found ourselves on the surface of the moon. The landscapes at the broken-up rocks and at the solid lava fields were quite alien, but this area was somehow distinctly lunar. The clouds and fog rising up over the rocks only added to the effect. I have a 5-second video that Thomas took with his camera that you’ll have to ask me to see when I get back. It’s pretty funny.

After the moon and some volcanic craters, we made it to more grasslands. This is where we actually twisted our ankles. On the solid lava we were careful with every step. Here it was hard to see where you were stepping because the grasses were so high. Also, the grade wasn’t very steep, so Simon was pushing the pace. None of us rolled our ankles that badly; they didn’t even swell that night, but once you twisted it that first time, it weakened and made it that much easier to do again. I think it happened to me four or five times.

After 9 hours of hiking, we made it to the Mann Springs hut. It was right under the tree line and before we could even see it we could hear the porters shouting/singing words of encouragement. They had taken a shortcut not going all the way up to the summit so that they could have dinner ready by the time we got there. We cleaned up and then ate li_ke we hadn’t seen food in days. Dinner both nights was a vegetable stew that we poured over rice. It was pretty amazing. There was also fried fish for those who ate it.

Right after dinner we crashed. As the sun was setting, four out of the five of us were already in our sleeping bags. Thomas stayed by the fire listening to a rather heated discussion in Pigeon over the actual price for a Honda engine block. He said he didn’t understand that much, but that it was entertaining. Apparently one of the porters paid too much but he wasn’t convinced. “No rich! No rich!” he kept saying (I didn’t pay too much).

Eventually, everyone else went to bed and we actually slept very well that night. The next morning we woke up to more talk about engine blocks. The porters had restarted the fire and apparently also rekindled their dispute over whether he overpaid.

Day 3:
The last day of our hike, down through the elephant jungle and to the beach, is kind of a blur in my mind. Because we had to cram the last two days of the four-day hike into one, the pace was blistering. Simon told us that morning that if we walked quickly enough, we would get to the beach in 9 hours. Every time we stopped, in fact, he would give us two times – one if we kept the same pace, and a longer one if we slowed down. Although the sights were quite amazing, shortly after we started, most of us just wanted to be relaxing on the beach already. We kept aiming for the shorter of the two times.

Mann Springs, where we stayed the night, was right on the tree line, so the day’s hike started at the entrance to the jungle. Throughout the jungle, the terrain changed a lot. It was mostly downhill but there were some short uphill sections. At times there were huge old trees spread out, other times it was more dense needing a machete, and occasionally there were open clearings and lava fields. The lava fields were beautiful and very different from the ones we saw the day before. All of the sudden you would step out of the jungle and be looking at an underwater seascape. It looked like we were on the ocean floor but without the water. There were lichens covering the lava rocks and tall skinny plants that looked like algae poking up through crevices.

As for animals, we were promised monkeys and elephants but only saw millipedes, other insects, and a rather outgoing mouse in our hut that morning. We did see a few porcupine trails pointed out by Simon, some with snares set up by hunters. One time, going down a steep incline, Simon stopped abruptly, shushed us, and pointed way in the distance at trees probably 300 yards away. We stayed for a while, stared, moved to change our vantage point, and stared some more. Apparently there was a monkey in one of the far away trees that dropped down out of view. We took Simon’s word for it. One of the porters said he saw it too. As for jungle elephants, we saw plenty of evidence but never the real thing. We saw elephant droppings in a few places, some only a day old. We saw some of their trails and where they brushed up against trees. We also saw a camp of wooden tent frames that was trashed by them. The camp was being used by scientists that were tracking the elephants. It was torn apart the day after they left. Simon was actually a part of the expedition.

We were told that if elephants were to charge us, that we should run up the nearest tree. The fact that we weren’t able to just “run up the nearest tree” scared us a little at first but after some probing we found that we weren’t actually in that much danger. The only time they usually see elephants is right after the rainy season starts and we weren’t to the end of the dry season yet. Also, while Simon had been up and down the mountain hundreds of times and seen plenty of elephants, there was only one time with tourists that he had to run and they ran behind, not up, a big tree. One really neat thing that we saw, and our best chance at seeing any elephants, was a crater lake in the middle of the jungle. It’s the watering hole for the elephants in the dry season. We took a small path off the main trail for about 30 yards downhill not realizing we were already walking down into the crater until we saw a beautiful, perfectly round, emerald green lake in front of us. You could even make out a couple of paths that the elephants took on the opposite side.

By the time we had seen all these things, we were salivating at the thought of being at the beach already. We had passed where would have stayed the night had we not shortened the hike by a day and so were past halfway. I don’t think anyone had serious problems with their feet after the first two days, but 30 minutes into the jungle and we were already sloshing in our tennis shoes. Dry season doesn’t mean no dew in the morning, especially in the jungle. All that water created extra friction and we could feel exactly where blisters were forming. I picked up a walking stick very early on in the day and that helped way more than I would have imagined. When you’re walking that much, any weight that you’re putting on a walking stick is weight that’s not on your feet. By the last bit of the hike, I had both hands on that walking stick and was walking, literally, like a 92-year-old man.

The last two hours to me felt like days. I wanted to walk faster and get there quicker, but all I could do was hobble along. When we got out of the jungle, the trail met up with a very old road built by the Germans through a palm plantation. Germany had colonizing forces in Cameroon just before the British and the French and this was one of the few remnants of that.

The road lasted longer than we wanted, but finally…we reached the end of our hike. I wish I could tell you we saw the Atlantic Ocean and fell on the sand like someone who’s ship-wrecked and just found land, but that’s not what happened. Instead of the beach, we made it to a road. The beach was another half-mile farther and not where we were going to spend the night, so we decided to wait at the road for the next hour trying to find a taxi. The wait gave us time to change into flip-flops and compare blisters. Finally we, well, Simon found a car that would take us a few miles down the road to Madison Park, where we could relax on the beach and rent a tent for the night. The five of us crammed into the car with one other lady while Simon sat on our packs in the trunk.

Soon enough, we were there – relaxing on the beach, watching the sunset, and playing in the ocean with energy we didn’t think we still had. And celebrating. It was New Years Eve. As we were all in bed before the sunset the night before, I wasn’t expecting anyone to make it to midnight, but we all did. We got some food from the nearby town for dinner and made a small fire on the beach to sit around enjoying the end of 2007.

This was an absolutely amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Except, maybe, for the same experience with more socks.