Friday, March 18, 2011

When We Come Down.

Meetings meetings and more meetings. I have met with many Common Initiative Groups, Schools, and credit unions for several reasons. To introduce myself. It is the natural first step when you want to do work with something. You talk to it and tell it a little bit about yourself and discuss your qualifications. Needs assessment is another reason. As a Peace Corps Agroforestry volunteer I am here to find out what problems Cameroonian farmers have. Hopefully I will know how to help them, and if not I can do research or find knowledgeable farmers/agronomists who DO have the answers. Lastly these meetings have gotten me out and about exploring the culture and livelihoods of Cameroon.

The Common Initiative Groups (CIGS) have been mostly farmers and mostly older women. They welcome me warmly and usually at the end of most meetings offer me food, palm wine, or beer. Sometimes they even sing. The needs I have identified have ranged from diseases and pests to reliance on expensive chemical fertilizers and no money for capital. Also, a lot of male farmers drink any money they made from the harvest during dry season. Thus their families starve. Basic business education, soil fertility, and better crop management training is in order. I am outlining a plan of attack with the ministry of agriculture and KFC. Over the next several months I will hopefully hold training sessions that will address the farmer's professed needs. Though immediately I am traveling to Ngaoundere for some Peace Corps in service training. Then I am off to explore the waste land deserts of the grand north.

The few schools that I have met with have shown much interest in environmental clubs and human rights clubs, though I will be focusing on environmental clubs. I have no idea how the idea of human rights clubs came about. The Cameroonian I am partnered with, Justin, scheduled a meeting with me to go over our plan of attack to start these clubs. He told me that I came up with the idea. I recall no such thing. I digress, the meeting today went really well. I met with a large group of high school students and pretty much gave them an introduction to environmental and human rights clubs. Questions were asked and giggles were had at the site of a white man. The principal at the school I met with today offered me a teaching gig. I think I will pass, for now. Since they are at the end of a term and exams are approaching work will begin in earnest next term in April.

The credit unions are small micro-finance institutions that provide loans to their members. The members themselves fund the unions and earn interest on the stocks that they buy. Money is made through the interest paid on loans taken out. Members are allowed to take loans of a size relative to their number of stocks. This ensures proper monetary amounts are given to capable members. My capacity to help them revolves around providing business training to the members. I also am researching using credit unions to fund farming cooperatives that market cocoa. This idea was actually the genesis of a Cameroonian. They are smart. Sometimes I feel like I am here to nudge their ideas along.

I guess each of these activities themselves merit more in depth discussion. Of note is my failing grasp of the English language. If you encounter words incorrectly used, it is because I have been in Africa too long.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I became sick again. Same old crap that I described before. The noticeable difference this time around was that I fully anticipated each malady I would suffer. Another day spent at a hospital hobbling into the bathroom with an IV stuck in my arm. Third time will likely be the charmer.

My forays into cooking have been mostly in the area of breakfast foods. A loaf of bread is easy enough to find as are eggs. Powdered milk is everywhere and so are oats. With these I can make oatmeal, eggs, french toast, and with various vegetables a decent omelet. Flour is also easy to find and with bananas I have made some delicious fluffy banana pancakes from scratch. Local honey or packets of jam work as great toppings. I have found maple syrup at the bare bones super market but it costs maybe 4000 CFA (eight bucks). Not buying it. Lastly Irish potatoes are everywhere. They make home-fries or hash browns. I am trying to figure out the best way(or preferred) for morning potatoes. I tried my hand at some potato pancakes. I have never had one before so I have no idea what it should have come out like. The ones I made seemed like fluffy but crispy hash browns.

I went to the local bar around 1pm this past Sunday. There aren't a variety of places one can go to do some work and be sociable. The exact amount of places people hang out at are two; churches and bars. I found myself on another typical Sunday with a little French studying and some work proposals to draft. Most Sundays this season have been full of endless blue sky peppered with clouds. Hot humid heat causes me to sweat before I even sit down at the bar. Its about a two minute walk down a bumpy dirt road through jungle. As I sat down to begin studying I noticed a particularly drunk Cameroonian stumble outside to the outdoor seating where I was situated. His half open eyes were glazed over and his Pidgin English was neatly impossible to understand with such slurring. He saw my white skin and was enamored. He stumbled over to talk to me and shake my hand. There is not much one can do in a situation like this but smile and continue on like nothing is wrong. Distractions like these are commonplace in the western world, and the world over they usually seem to work themselves out on their own. I ignored him and turned back to my paperwork. The fellow patrons of the bar naturally stepped in and played their parts. They pulled the drunkard away from me and berated him for bothering me. I was clearly doing work and he was clearly a sloppy drunk annoying the white man. Thus I was able to return to my work like nothing out of the ordinary happened. Immediately after this another patron, far too drunk for the early afternoon was attempting to start a bar fight. I watched this interesting event unfold and resigned to put off my work for some more time. The second drunkard finally left  yelling taunts back and forth at his adversary till his friend pulled him off down the road. My work was then able to start in earnest for a few hours until I met my neighbor. He arrived on a shiny new motorcycle wearing a nice suit and a dalmatian patterned cowboy hat. I had a drink with him and ate some pepper soup with plantain. It is like a spicy gravy or sometimes tomato soup with chunks of cut up and boiled plantain.

A different evening at a bar studying and working on some project drafts my pen ran out of ink. A little girl, maybe four or five years old saw this and gave me her blue pen. I plan to give her a coloring book and some crayons to return the favor. Overall I have seen many beautiful and wondrous gestures from the little kids of Cameroon. Many of the kids in my neighborhood have never seen a white man. They have learned my name and are slowly spreading it around to all of the kids in my neighborhood. It started with my omelet mama. Her daughter hangs out and likes to ask me how my day is in Pidgin. A few of the other kids also like to practice their French with me and learned my name as well. Now whenever they see me and their friends yell “White man!” they correct them. The omelet mama's shack is the epicenter of sorts, and from their I have seen my name spread from household to household and kids a few blocks away have learned my name whom I have never met. 

In recent memory my funniest occurrence was at a bank ATM. I have a new bank card and had not used it much. Nor were there any special instructions given with the card. I felt it safe to assume it they operated much the same as ATMs in the states. I entered my card and pin and requested 100.000 CFA. Almost two thirds of my monthly allowance. I figured it would easily last me well beyond the next payday in two weeks. I took my leisurely time, first grabbing the card, then the receipt, and then finally grabbing for the money. Too slow. The machine sucked it back up. I stood their, confused.This turned into amused bewilderment as I realized I could not get my money out of the machine. I walked inside the bank and told the teller what happened. She looked at me like I made a big mistake. I played the game without knowing the rules. She told me you have to snatch everything quickly, or the machine will eat it back up. I now had to write a complaint and send it to the head branch in Douala. This effectively put my 100.000 CFA in limbo. I had roughly 40.000 CFA left to make it to the next payday. This wouldn't be hard at all. One can spend 2.000 CFA per day and eat well. Thats 28.000 CFA needed for two weeks. It would have been a piece of cake. Then, as I stated before, I got sick again. Hospital bills and medication ate up that last bit of money. All would have been interesting and difficult if my friend and fellow volunteer Joe had not been around. He was able to lend me some money and help me out recovering too. That floating 100.000 CFA has been returned to my account. It took about three weeks.

A few pests have become my flatmates. We have become fast friends. A cockroach fell off the wall and onto my back as I lay in bed. I jumped up and flicked him away.  The cockroaches usually appear at night, scurrying around my bathroom or the hallway. They are disgusting. My much more amicable roommate is a small mouse that lives in the attic. He has a fuzzy tail and looks like a chipmunk. I don't see him often, he is nocturnal and possibly has agoraphobia. I only see him every few weeks, but I find evidence of his existence in the droppings of his that I find in my living room. Spiders are everywhere. Creepy spiders that appear to have more characteristics of their arthropod relatives than common web spiders. They are big, Maybe two or three inches long. They resemble crabs and are quick. I can see one on the wall right now. He hasn't moved in about thirty minutes. I await the day I wake up with a bruise and two little fang marks on my body. My favorite roommates are the lizards. Small newts, geckos, or skinks that hurry across the walls and ceilings. They stay somewhere outside or in the attic. These lizards are found everywhere in the south of Cameroon. One morning I was awoken by two lizards. They were locked in battle and fell off the window and onto my pillow, right next to my head. I grabbed one of them by the tail but he snapped it off and scurried away. I recaptured him and then released him in another room. I later found a bit of his tail in my bed. I have not the heart to kill any of these little guys. However I kill ants indiscriminately. They find my food and eat it. So I surround my stores of food with water or soapy residue. I could mix up a natural pesticide made of hot peppers, soap, and garlic. But I am lazy. It is supposedly effective.

Electricity bleeds from metal objects plugged into walls. I have shocked myself a few times from metal pieces on my laptop. A nice sharp jolt that makes you whip your hand back. The weirdest part of this is that my electric stove conducts electricity pretty well. It is cheap Chinese crap from Nigeria. Maybe 6 bucks. My most notable clash with my stove was during a breakfast session. I had my pan on and some butter melted to make an omelet. I cracked an egg on the side of the pan and dropped it into the pan. Electricity ran up the egg slime and bit me on my finger that was immersed in the slime. This was quite an amusing way to be shocked. My language tutor is also an electrician, I might have to ask him for some advice.