Sunday, January 25, 2009

The North, Part II - Christmas in Garoua

January 17, 2009

After spending a couple days in Tourningal in the Adamaoua, Genevieve and I headed back to Ngoundéré and then took a bush taxi to Garoua, the capital of the North Province. Garoua is supposed to be the hottest city in Cameroon. It is surrounded by mountains that trap in the heat and humidity. But there was not much heat and no humidity. We heard it was "winter," but knowing that the Adamaoua has a much more temperate climate, we were worried about what the North province had in store for us. We were told that as the bush taxi winds down the road off of the Adamaoua plateau, you can feel the temperature rising. We did feel the temperature go up slightly, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. What caught our eye were the Hermitan winds that bring the "winter" weather, or at least proof of their existence in the form of dust. It didn’t gust or feel that windy. It was just dusty. Visibility was probably around a half of a mile creating an eerie feeling and not allowing us to see the landscape around us.

While it wasn’t hot outside, it did get quite hot in the bush taxi. The majority of the people in the taxi were already used to extreme heat and they preferred it over the dust, so the windows stayed closed for most of the four and a half hour trip to Garoua. Thirty people crammed into a small bus with no circulation was not exactly pleasant, but we eventually made it. Angie and Stephanie met us at the agency and we went for dinner at a place around the corner that had fresh fruit smoothies.

Our time in the North ended up being an interesting mix between touristy, cultural stuff and American time. There were two reasons for this. One is that there are four Peace Corps volunteers in Garoua and lots more in the surrounding area, most of them from our training group. The second is that it was Christmas time. Christmas is one of those holidays where you want to be reminded of home and your own traditions, and being surrounded by Muslim culture, we stuck together a lot.

We arrived on December 23rd, so the way that we were introduced to most of Garoua, the fourth largest city in Cameroon, was in buying things from markets and boutiques to get ready for our own celebrations. On Christmas Eve, about 15 volunteers got together at Angie’s house for a great dinner. We had bruschetta, two chickens, vegetarian chili, mashed potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin pie (actually squash pie) for dessert. Dinner was served under the stars by candlelight with Christmas music playing from a collection of people’s iPods as we ate on a huge straw mat. It was a great ambiance. Then, Christmas day, everyone went to Stephanie’s house. The crowd grew even more as there were probably 30 volunteers at the party. Stephanie actually lives in a primary school. It’s a little surreal, but worked quite well for the party. There were plenty of chairs and tables (even if they were meant for people one third our size) and there was space for everything that she had planned. One room was set aside for Christmas movies, another was for board games, and there was even an area for crafts where people decorated a Christmas tree taped to the wall and cut snowflakes. The food was once again amazing - a potluck with green bean casserole, cheesy spinach dip, hummus and homemade crackers, salad, mashed potatoes, rice and vegetables, Christmas cookies, pumpkin pie, and a lot more that I can’t even remember. We even had a white elephant gift exchange later on in the evening. Because we had partied well into the night on Christmas Eve, this day ended up being a lot more laid back.
Christmas Eve Dinner

The day after Christmas we headed into the Grand Marché so that I could buy a boubou (pronounced boo-boo), the traditional men’s clothing in the Grand North. I can see them occasionally worn in the South, even by non-muslims, but it’s not as common and I had never worn one. For anyone that doesn’t know what a boubou is, it’s a pair of loose-fitting pants with a loose-fitting top that goes down a little below the knees. The top is embroidered around the neck and sometimes other places. One of the reasons I wanted to buy a boubou was because I had brought mostly shorts and t-shirts readying myself for the heat not realizing that they weren’t really acceptable in the stricter traditional standards of the North. But the main reason was just for the experience. When in Rome, right? When we got to the market we found two long rows of tailors making and selling nothing but boubous. It was quite a sight. Not knowing at all what a good price was but having acquired a love of haggling, I spent a long time going up and down the aisles talking to each shop. I finally got to the point where I found a boubou that I liked and told the man in the shop how much I wanted to pay. He had to call the owner who, he told me, was coming right away. I took the fact that he had to call the owner to mean that I was asking for a really good price. During the time I was waiting for the owner to show up, though, I found someone else that was trying to convince me not to buy one pre-made, that he wanted to make my boubou himself. I would be able to pick out the fabric, it would be tailored to my size, he could have it ready by the next morning, and … he could do it cheaper. Though a little bit skeptical, I agreed. It turns out he was a genuinely nice guy and a great businessman. He took me on his motorcycle to two different fabric shops to pick out exactly what I wanted, got me a good deal, and kept his word by having it ready first thing the next morning. It was dark green, almost exactly like the one I was about to buy except I was able to have the embroidery done better because I had saved so much money on the fabric. All that and at two thirds the price! Genevieve ordered something at the same time as me and he’s already picked up orders from at least three other Peace Corps volunteers. He does a great job and his good service is already paying dividends. If you’re ever in Garoua I’m pretty sure his shop is number GI-47 at the corner of the market.

The experience of wearing the boubou is another story all its own. I was amazed at all the respect and attention that people gave me. It was partly because they were proud that a foreigner was embracing their culture, but also because of the importance of appearance and what it represents as far as your social standing. People everywhere were calling me El Hadji which is a title for someone that has made the trek to Mecca. They probably knew that I had never been to Mecca; it was just a way of showing respect. Some people called me El Hadji Nasara. Nasara means white man in Fulfuldé, and while it’s often heard chanted from little kids or done just to solicit a reaction from you, this was very respectful. One of the days that I wore my boubou we all went to Lagdo, a town about 45 minutes outside of Garoua. I remember on one of the legs of the journey, as we were cramming seven people into an economy size car, it was insisted that El Hadji Nasara sit in the front. That is the seat reserved for the most important person. I usually don’t even like sitting there. They fit two people into that one front passenger seat. I would rather be one of the four people they squeeze into the back three seats. Three fourths of a seat is better than one half, right? But this time, the other person that was next to me in front was giving me as much space as humanly possible. He was like an acrobat almost on top of the stick shift giving me pretty much the whole seat to myself. While I felt uncomfortable having people go out of their way for me and judging me solely on the way I was dressed, it was an insightful experience into not just northern but Cameroonian culture. While I don’t necessarily like or agree with the practice, I can definitely see how if I had grown up here, every day I would dress to impress and not for comfort. I remember hearing in our training over a year and a half ago that people will wear the best clothes they have and take pains to keep up their appearance. I saw that it was true, but now I have an even better understanding of why.

The Lagdo trip that I had the VIP treatment for was pretty amazing. In the middle of this desert climate is a town profiting from a hydro-electric dam that creates a lake and some pretty incredible scenery. When we arrived we went straight to the dam. On one side is the lake and nearby hills extending right to the waters edge. On the other, hundreds of feet below, the river continues through a trail of fertile, green earth among the rest of the dry region. At the bottom is also a home for a few hippos that we could see lounging in the water and the afternoon sun. They were pretty far down and all we could see were the tops of their heads poking out of the water, but after seeing one yawn it brought back the reality of what we were seeing. His enormous head hinged open at least ninety degrees. After the dam, we went to have a drink at the Blue Lagoon, a small resort on the waters edge. The serenity of the resort with groups of small huts and buildings scattered on the hillside overlooking the lake made it the perfect place to sit down and soak up the scenery. We took our time, took a few pictures, and then headed back to Garoua.
The lake at the top of the dam

Hippos at the bottom

View from the Blue Lagoon

At the Blue Lagoon (the boubou has an affect on Americans too)

Once back in Garoua, we got a good night sleep, woke up early, and took the first bush taxi of the day into the Extreme North…


*Don’t forget to check out the photos I just added to the last post.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The North, Part I - Adamaoua

January 7, 2009

I just got back from my trip to the north of Cameroon. I feel like there’s a lot to write about, so I’ll split it up. The “Grand North” of Cameroon is made up of three provinces – Adamaoua (pronounced a-da-ma’-wa), North, and Extreme North. I’ll designate a blog to each one.

The Grand North feels like a country of its own (In fact, I see Cameroon as three countries – Grand North, Francophone South, and Anglophone South which includes the Northwest and Southwest provinces). There are several reasons for this. The first is that every single road that goes into the Adamaoua, or the southernmost of the three Northern provinces, from the rest of Cameroon is horrible. The only reasonable way to get there is to fly, which is expensive and the flights aren’t always running, or take the night train, which is what everyone does. The second reason is the culture. The grand south, the remaining 7 Cameroonian provinces, is predominately Christian while the grand north is predominately Muslim culture creating an entirely different feel to the region. The climate and landscape set it apart too. The Sahel is a much hotter and drier desert climate.

First – the train. The train from Yaoundé to Ngoundéré, the capital of the Adamaoua, is infamous among volunteers and Cameroonians alike. The reason is that it’s a pain in the ass. Getting through the corruption at the station is your first hurdle. Anyone that’s ever had one before will tell you that a couchette, or a sleeper car, is the way to go. The only problem is that your reservations might mysteriously disappear. Being the only reasonable way to get north, the train’s packed every single night and the couchettes are always hard to come by as even well-to-do business men and politicians are waiting in line. Even if you show up first thing the morning of to buy tickets, you shouldn’t be very surprised to find that there is only first class left despite having already made reservations for a couchette. I ended up traveling with 11 other Peace Corps Volunteers who were down for a conference. We reserved 12 couchettes and only got 4 despite Sally making the reservations for all of them. Sally is a Cameroonian Peace Corps employee that knows all the right people, knows the system, and is the person you go to when you need to get things done. That the reservations she made ended up being given to someone else is a testament to how difficult it can be. So, I ended up sitting in first class. The seats were really not that uncomfortable. I would say that it’s similar if not a little better than coach on a plane. The only problem is that it’s a night train and you want to be sleeping, not sitting up. Also this is probably not the only leg of your journey. You might have traveled for hours already to get to Yaoundé and you might need to travel for hours more once the train arrives in Ngoundéré. The other pain is that the train is supposed to leave every night at a little after 6pm and arrive the next day a little after 6am. A 12-hour train ride is bad enough, but it rarely, if ever, leaves on time and rarely, if ever, takes just 12 hours. I’ve heard volunteers posted in the north complain to no end about having to take the train and was not looking forward to it. For my first experience, we left the station at 9pm, three hours late, made lots of stops where there were no stations, and arrived the next day at noon making it a total of 18 hours! As far as Peace Corps stories go, the longest anyone I know has had to wait was 30 hours because of the train derailing, but it’s been in the news that it’s taken 3 days on the worst of trips! Hope they packed some extra food.

My travel plans for the entire two-and-a-half weeks were incredibly vague to begin with. I knew I wanted to spend a night or two with my friend Ali, a health volunteer in the Adamaoua, Christmas in Garoua, the capital of the North Province, and New Years in Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North Province. Beyond that, I just wanted to hang out with my friends and get a better understanding of the entirety of the country in which I’m serving. It just so happened that Genevieve, a friend from my training group, was taking a trip to the north on the exact same dates and had planned even less than me. We decided to do just about everything together. So when we arrived in Ngoundéré, we got some lunch, met up with Ali, and headed out to her post on the prison bus. Yep, you read right…kinda. Something the Adamaoua Peace Corps Volunteers pride themselves in is that it’s the only place in the country where the bush taxis look like prison buses (think old school gangster movies where they load the crooks in the back and slam the door). There are definitely some similarities. It’s a big boxy truck that you load from the back, there’s not much in the way of windows that open, and there is a barrier with bars between the passengers and the drivers. I’m not sure if they ever used to be real prison buses; it reminded me, personally, of a bread delivery truck, but I decided it best not to say anything at the time. Ali, Genevieve, and I luckily got the last three spots on the bus and took off for the dusty hour-and-a-half trip to Tourningal.

Ali had stressed to me at Thanksgiving that I had to spend at least a night in the Adamaoua in order to get a taste of Fulbé culture. Fulbé are the Muslim ethnic group that makes up a lot of the Grand North. They tend to be taller, thinner, and lighter skinned than the other ethnic groups and they speak Fulfuldé. Their highest concentration is in the Adamaoua, probably close to 100% in Ali’s small village of Tourningal, and the farther north you go the sparser they become. While Christians and Animists become more dominate moving north, the Fulbé imprint on the entire northern culture is undeniable. Remember how I said the North had a predominately Muslim culture? It’s Muslim culture, not Muslims. I’m pretty sure I remember reading somewhere that the Grand North doesn’t even have a majority of Muslims, yet you would never know it just from looking. The architecture is different from the South and there are mosques everywhere. You can hear the call to prayer in any city you are in, and the bush taxis even stop at scheduled prayer times. The style of dress has a much more Muslim and conservative feel to it as the men wear traditional boubous and the women almost all have some sort of cloth covering their head. And then there’s the language. Cameroon’s two official languages are French and English, but if you want to do anything beyond tourism in the Grand North, you’d better speak Fulfuldé. You need it to get good prices at the markets and for moto-taxis in any town, and if you live in a village like Tourningal, 95% of your interactions will be in Fulfuldé. The majority of people there don’t even speak French. What about school, you might ask? Tourningal’s school system recently added middle school grades, but for anything beyond that you would have to go and live in a bigger town like Ngoundéré. Ali told us that last year there was one student from Tourningal that passed the Baccalaureate, the High School exit exam, and that everyone was really proud of him.

Me and Genevieve in Tourningal

When we arrived, we went to Ali’s house to get cleaned up, got a quick tour of the village (it doesn’t take that long), and headed over for dinner at her family’s house. This family essentially adopted her for her time in Cameroon. It’s a polygamous family and the wife that she is the closest to just happens to be the best cook. The wives take turns cooking for the husband and all the kids, but each wife usually prepares for herself and any other possible guests even when it’s not her turn. When it’s not her turn, the kids usually go to Ali’s mom after their dinner to see if there is anything better-tasting left over. She is a really good cook. While we were there we ate two different leafy green sauces with rice couscous, cassava in fresh sweetened milk, steamed squash, fried rice cakes, and doughnuts. There was always sweet lemongrass tea, sometimes with fresh milk. I think we ate breakfast lunch and dinner there for two solid days. It was wonderful and there was always more than could imagine eating. The biggest difference in the food for me was dairy. In the south there are hardly any dairy products while in the Grand North, cattle are a huge part of the economy. You can see them being herded everywhere and they look a lot healthier than the ones you see in the South. The opposite is true with fish. It’s everywhere in the South and very expensive in the North.

Ali and her adopted family

If eating food with dairy in the bedroom of one of the wives in a polygamous compound wasn’t enough, the other thing to throw me off a bit was the language – not only how little French Ali’s mom spoke, but also how well Ali spoke Fulfuldé. She kept trying to be modest and say she wasn’t very good, but not once did I hear her struggle to get her point across or understand what someone else was saying. And this is where Genevieve and I started trying to pick it up. Luckily, unlike a lot of other local languages in Cameroon, Fulfuldé is pretty straight forward. You pronounce everything pretty clearly, it’s not a tonal language, and there are only two sounds that don’t exist in English. We learned our basic greetings and thank yous, and then I asked her for a phrase that really helped me throughout my vacation – A ho’okan am na’ay noy, jay bangugo mo? It means ‘How many cows will you give me to marry her?’ I had a lot of fun with it. Fulfuldé is spoken everywhere in the Grand North, but it’s much more possible to get by with just French the farther north you go and in bigger cities. Some of the Peace Corps Volunteers that I met up with later on in my vacation didn’t even know what I was saying when I tried to sell them to their friends.

There was one other thing that we weren’t expecting – the cold! The north is supposed to be HOT. The Adamaoua Province is on a plateau and not supposed to be as bad as the North or Extreme North, but Ali had to lend us some fleeces and we were still shivering wearing socks to bed and sleeping under blankets. Volunteers in the North are glad to tell you their sob stories about it being 140° in the shade, but I had never heard anyone tell me they had a winter! That’s actually what they call it. The Hermitan Winds pick up for about 6-8 weeks in December and January cooling things off a lot. In the South, it’s the middle of the dry season and the hottest time of the year. In the North, it’s their coolest time of the year. To be fair to all of the sob stories, the coolest in the North is not that far off from the hottest in the South. To me, the days still felt like summer and the nights like fall. The other difference in the climate was the dryness. Dry season in the South means no rain, but it’s still sticky and humid. In the north there was no humidity – zero. For not being used to it, the dry air felt like it was going to give me a bloody nose every time I breathed. My lips became instantly chapped. And while I didn’t have any skin problems, Genevieve, who’s African-American, was putting on lotion 10 times a day.
No water or electricity at Ali's post (and notice the fleece a couple sizes too small for me)

Soaking up the Fulbé style of life (and the good food) in and around Ali’s post, we decided to stay an extra night. While we were there, we ended up seeing three different waterfalls, the ranch of the former president Ahidjo, and a town called Idool. Idool is a very interesting place. It’s a very traditional and conservative Fulbé village. It’s unique in that the founder was into city planning. All of the roads are straight and lined with trees, everyone lives in walled compounds, it’s kept very neat, no one litters, and we even saw a lake in the shape of the map of Cameroon. Another interesting note that I probably wouldn’t have even realized had Ali not pointed it out was that we never saw any women. It is so conservative that women either aren’t even allowed out of their houses or have many chores to do.


Waterfalls of Tello

The touristy stuff like the waterfalls were great, but the best part of our stay was just experiencing Fulbé village life. I completely agree with Ali that to fully understand the culture of the Grand North, you need to spend some time in the Adamaoua. We really enjoyed ourselves there.