10 work days left!  Let the countdown begin (I hope it’s been obvious that the work situation here has not been the best part of my experience…).  This also means less than two more weeks before I leave Bamenda and head to the savanna’s and mountains of the Extreme North.  This has me frantically trying to get a budget together for the rest of the trip (I arrived in Cameroon with just under $2,000 to get me through the summer) for living expenses in Bamenda, transport for the trip and to the airport, lodging and making sure I come home baring gifts…oy.  Oh, and that phone bill back home..and the gym membership they wouldn’t suspend while I’m like 10,000 miles away.  Awesome.  It’s tight.

Since being in Cameroon I have become incredibly cheap.  INCREDIBLY cheap.  If I can’t barter the price of a pair of shoes down to 3,000CFA (roughly $6) I won’t buy them.  Pretty much nothing here has a set price–unless you’re shopping in one of the White People Grocery Stores (that have more familiar items and price tags, all slightly higher than what you may pay if you’d bargained well…but they’re convenient) or the craft markets (where prices are also jacked up a bit).  I’ve gotten used to paying $3 for a sweater, I got a pair of (almost) brand new birkenstock’s for $6 and have managed to spend at least $100 on material at the market (but it’s SOOO gorgeous).  I think I’m going to have sticker shock going home.

Things here aren’t actually as cheap as I was expecting, though (more on the more expensive things in a minute).  Some things are dirt cheap though…I paid $96 for two months of rent (even though I moved out after one month…the money went to fund a project for youth development so I wasn’t going to argue).  Oh, which reminds me…I moved. Again.  I was getting a little exhausted having to essentially act as house mother or have mice and bugs so I relocated to my friend Courtney’s house.  It’s also nice to be living with another mid-late 20 something lady…we watch bootleg DVD’s and drink tea and have girl talk.  It’s great.  I digress.  So rent is cheap, but I’ve seen electrical and water bills and they’re just about as much as you’d pay in the States.  So is internet the internet’s been running me approximately $50 per month–for “unlimited” usage.  Basically all that means is I can upload/download as much as I’d like.  Most of the international volunteers pay about $20/month but have strict limits on how many kb’s they can use.  So, thank you MTN for helping me provide a photo-story of my trip.  Which also reminds me…I’ve been able to post pic’s to facebook, but haven’t yet figured out an effective way to upload them to the blog (iphoto links directly to facebook and actually uploads quite quickly…not so wordpress).

I don’t know if I’d mentioned previously, but essentially anything worth buying here is used…save the obvious exceptions (as in I’m obviously not going to buy leftover food, though occasionally that’s what you’re served…coughcough Azam pizza on a hungover sunday = huge dissapointment).  I’ve been informed, but am still working on locating the proof, that used clothing is Cameroon’s primary import.  If you go to town or the market that may be proof enough…the streets are all lined with stalls selling used clothing from…well, I don’t really know where but I’m going to guess all over Europe.  There are some great finds to be had.  I got a pair of Diesel jeans for $7, aforementioned birkie’s and have picked up a few other pieces of western clothing and shoes.  I’ve spent way more money, however, on having clothes made.

Material at the market generally comes in 6 yard pieces, ranging in price from $5 for the lower quality pieces to about $15 for the best quality.  And the material is all amazing.  I’m obsessed.  I’m coming home with a lot of it.  A whole lot.  Some of it will be in the form of skirts, dresses and blouses.  I’ve been using Titus the tailor for all my tailoring needs.  He’s worked with pretty much all of the Peace Corps people in Bamenda for at least the past 6 years (there’s a plaque on the wall of his workshop from the PC in 2004 for his assistance) and he’s really good.  I’ve taken in a few photos or drawings of dresses I’d like copied and they’ve all come out perfectly (see my 4th of July stars and stripes dress).  He charges, in general, 1,500CFA for a skirt ($3) and 2,500 for a dress ($5).  Take that anthropologie and you’re “exotic” print dresses for 200 bones.  I’ve already had three dresses and a skirt made and am currently waiting on three skirts, two dresses, a blouse,  some small makeup bags (surprise!  girlfriends, you’re getting one!), a few hand bags and a quilt.  Yes, a quilt.  And I am so excited about it.  Titus is more than anything a quilter.  He makes beautifully quilted bags, aprons and the like and his quilts are famous gifts for volunteers returning home.  Basically it’s a patchwork of various materials (he’s using scraps from some of my dresses in mine) and it’s gorgeous.  He charges 30,000 (~60 bucks) per quilt…which includes the material for the patchwork.  I’ll be picking up my last order on the 23rd and am beyond excited to see how it’s all turned out–if my previous items are any indication it’ll all be gorgeous.  I will definitely miss the made-to-order clothing, especially when it really only costs about $7 to $10 in total for a dress.

Food is also cheap…as long as you buy from the market and prepare it yourself (see previous post on food).  Restaurant’s, however, are a different story.  Some places have great food (but a horribly limited variety) for really cheap:  Gracey’s cafe serves salad and chips for 900 CFA ($1.75 or so) and Bob the fish guy will sell you a delicious grilled fish with carrot-onion salad and green spices for between 700 and 900 CFA.  However, the most western restaurants (translate, a little more variety) don’t really have anything for less than 3,000CFA.  Needless to say, I try not to eat out all that often (because, you know, I also like eating something that isn’t fried or cabbage every now and again).  Drinks, other than beer, are another story all together.   A bottle of water is often times the same price as a beer (in the range of 400CFA-1000CFA depending on the time and location).  And soda, particularly diet soda?  Prohibitively pricey (like $4 for a 1 ltr bottle).  Thankfully, we’ve got a water filter and I haven’t had problems with tap water (in small quantities, at restaurants) so that helps keep a bit of cash in the pocket.

Thinking about the other costs associated with general day to day activities…transport.  I take a taxi or motorbike pretty much everywhere unless I walk.  And sometimes I feel a hell of a lot less safe walking than on the back of a bike.  To get anywhere within town costs 100CFA, 150 if you’re going slightly further.  On a bike it’s a bit more expensive, but a lot more convenient because they’ll take you door to door.  I know I’ve mentioned the taxi’s before…how it’s not uncommon to get 6 or 7 people in a small sedan, and worse if you’re traveling between towns or villages.    I’ve been looking into other modes of transportation, however, in light of my big trip to the Extreme North.  Transport is going to make up the bulk of my budget (the suggested budget being about 250,000CFA, or about 500).  We’ll first bus to Younde (5,000) where we’ll pick up the train to head North.  Thankfully, there are four of us traveling at the same time so we can book a 4 person couchette (at 20,000CFA each) and have a more comfortable ride.  We’re thinking it’s a better idea to book the couchette rather than riding in, what we’ve been told, cramped and noisy “coach” conditions for a train ride of between 12 and 24 hours.  Then it’s another 10 hour bus ride to Maroua and another 5,000 or so CFA.  All things considered, it’s really not that much money…but when you’re living on a now very limited budget its a daunting prospect.  I’m looking forward to haggling up north though, so I can make sure to come home with some of the famous leather goods up there.

Speaking of haggling/bartering.  I’ve discovered that I’m actually pretty good at this.  The basic rule is that if you ask a Cameroonian vendor how much they want for an item, the real price is about half of their initial asking.  I always start really really low (ie they’re asking 7,000 I’ll offer 1,500) and usually I end up in the lower end or at the middle.  I’ve gotta say, I’m going to miss haggling over the last 50 cents or dollar to get what I want for a price I want to pay.  And paying a lot less for some nice little items.

But in less than one month (28 days…Andrew, you’re counting!) it’s back to reality, that phone bill and looking at a $170 sticker on a pair of diesels.

“I have a right!  And you have a right!  We have a right you knooooooow…so let’s get together and fight for our planet. And make a future for allllll!”

Sing with me now!  I’ve been informed numerous times since arriving that it has only very recently been discovered that Climate Change is not just the white man’s problem any more.  And it’s been really interesting to see how Cameroonians are (and are not) recognizing the causes and solutions to climate change.  The first event I went to here (see previous related posts on the Fon’s 10th/50th anniversary celebration) was partially celebrated by the Cameroon Traditional Rulers Against Climate Change, there are “songs” on the radio all the time about climate change and the environment, the rainy season that was supposed to start in early May is just kicking in to gear and the British High Commission has even sponsored a “Climate Change Road Show” (which we’ll get to shortly) to visit villages raising awareness of environmental issues.

Let’s start with the general approach to climate change here–keeping in mind that this is just amongst the general populous, particularly the members of the local community I’ve gotten to know.  As mentioned above climate change was until just recently viewed as the white man’s problem…the primary causes coming from the white (read: developed) world,  and the impacts facing the white world.  I found it interesting that the impacts of climate change were, and still to a large extent, are seen as affecting the developed world the most from Cameroonian’s perspectives.  This kinda runs contrary to much of what I’ve read, heard, seen, experienced myself–the primary impacts of any global warming and climate change so far seem to have the greatest impact on areas in the developing world (think flooding, drought, drought related famine, out of control deforestation and subsequent out of control bush fire, etc etc).  I guess that the people here hadn’t been so directly affected themselves though, and since as I said it was viewed as primarily the problem of the white world…so who cares.

People here started caring this past winter when, during the dry season, a particularly strong Sahara wind covered the whole region in a self-renewing layer of red dust for a few weeks.  And when a white fog (which they called snow?) settled over Bamenda for two weeks.  And when they planted maize in March that was supposed to sprout in early May…but didn’t until mid June.  And when their water en-catchment ran out.  And when the rainy season showed up essentially a month late.

At home we have all sorts of reminders daily about the impact of climate change…from what I’ve gathered from all of you in DC, this summer has been a super scorcher.  There are newspaper clippings, newsreels and stories from friends living within the hurricane/flood/fire zones.  However, I don’t think we appreciate how dramatically some of the environmental changes translate to major impacts on normal daily existence.

My own personal example…the water has basically been off/out for the past week.  I have no idea if many/any of you have ever experienced what it is like to live with out running water but let me assure that it is incredibly inconvenient.  Showering is not a possibility.  I take a bucket bath–which, is sometimes nice because rather than being doused with the icey water from the tap I can heat up a pot on the stove.  However, after a week of this the icey shower becomes much more appealing that a weak “bath” (read:  dumping small cupfuls of water all over yourself.  Let’s not even talk about the time/effort washing my hair takes via this method).  Not to mention cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning the house…DRINKING!  Basically we’ve eaten out ever day for the past week because we’re saving our stored water for bathing and drinking.  The water required to wash dishes (and the time and effort that goes in to the task) isn’t worth stinking up our house in the process.  And let’s not even talk about washing clothes.  I know I’ve mentioned before that we have a washing machine (that is actually energy efficient! woooah)…but it, of course, requires water.  And we have none.  And I’m running out of clean clothes.  And since there’s no water…I can’t wash them by hand either.  Lovely.

This water issue is pretty ironic since, after all, it is the rainy season.  When I went to Santa, a village about 20 minutes from Bamenda, on Tuesday for a Climate Change “Conference” a few fellow volunteers helped enlighten me on the water issue.  I should first note that the water problem is more exacerbated in Santa, where their mountain waterfalls have just begun to flow and the water catchment is frequently empty.  Apparently eucalyptus trees are one of the major perpetrators in the water shortage, sucking water out of the ground.  One of the strategies the local council is trying to implement to fight the water shortage is chopping down the eucaplytus and replacing them with more water friendly species.  Many local residents aren’t all too keen on this idea though, because apparently eucalyptus provides a good source of fire wood…which brings me to another problem.

Burning wood/fuel generally.  Nobody here cooks over an electric range, and the vast vast majority of people cook over an open fire.  Using said eucalyptus wood, sawdust (made from said wood) and charcoal briquettes as fuel for the fire.  This creates a lot of smoke. A LOT. Think of your backyard grill or a campfire operating continuously in everyone’s backyard and having a wood grill plopped down every 10 yards or so along any and all streets in your town.  Add to this smoke the smog/-ke from motor vehicles.  BIG problem #3, that is never actually addressed in any environmental awareness campaigns here.  The cars on the roads here are pretty much the rejects from anywhere that monitors exhaust/emissions.  We’re talking late 80’s early 90’s model camry’s etc with engines that have been revamped uncountable times, that completely lack an exhaust system.  Add to that giant trucks with similar lack of exhaust and dirty fuel generally and you’ll understand why I hate walking along the edge of the main roads in town—you can’t help but end up covered in black grit from the black belches of exhaust the cars and trucks spew out.  But you never will hear mention of the pollution caused by automobiles here.  Maybe it’s partly because they don’t exactly have the resources or access to be able to purchase modern and/or more fuel efficient cards.  But it’s something that needs to, at some point, be addressed.  Particularly because to get anywhere around here you’re driving.  There is the occasional large bus (ie seats 70), but they typically leave only once or twice a day on the long haul routes.  Mostly people share taxis and mini-buses…and they’re all in horrible shape.  I guess there is a positive in the fact that people have to car pool (car ownership being as costly as it is).  When I took the trip to Santa there were 9 of us crammed in to a camry (I actually got out of the 9 person one after about five minutes b/c I was so squished between two very large humans that I started having trouble breathing.  The cab I had for the rest of the ride had 8 in it, the minimum number drivers will take between towns unless you’re willing to pay triple cab fare).  Anyhow, it’s a pretty black hole in the climate change discussion.

Thankfully, public and government perceptions about smaller, more localized issues fare a little better.  The Climate Change “Conference” was actually a play, keyed in to the issues that are particularly plaguing the NW region.  Let me first say that the play was definitely the way to go.  Cameroonian’s have a serious habit of falling asleep during any and all speaking engagements that aren’t relatively interactive (see previous post on the Courts, and note that there’s a sign in our offices saying that falling asleep during meetings is prohibited).  Back to the play–this is a traveling effort, the Climate Change Road Show mentioned in the title…and it’s designed to raise awareness and educate on fighting the “monster” that is Climate Change.  It was a big, theatrical effort that concentrated on a green army designed to fight the monster.  I was diggin it, and more importantly so were the locals–particularly the older folks who were singing along and boppin their heads.  Importantly, the actors involved in the effort also presented some solutions—planting 5 trees when one is felled, and replacing unsustainable varieties with those that are more environmentally friendly; using high efficiency smoke boxes when smoking fish and meat rather than firewood; using natural fertilzers.  My friend, Philly who works for the Santa Counsel (she’s a VSO) that co-sponsored the event has been helping local students develop compost systems and new forms of renewable energy.  There is definitely progress.

However, as I think is fairly evident this is all on a very local level.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a GREAT first step…but there are some seriously flawed aspects of the broader approach to dealing with the environment here.  First, the problem with vehicles described above.  Another major issue is waste disposal.  I’ve previously mentioned that there is absolutely no system of waste disposal.  So basically everything ends up just being tossed wherever its former owner feels so inclined.  This very often means in to crop beds…and the chickens around here are most frequently found feeding on rubbish pits rather than corn or corn meal (since people here eat the variety of corn that we in the US would save for livestock.  As a side note, it’s not bad, when it’s toasted over a fire it kinda tastes like popcorn and if it’s boiled for, like, 5 hours in its husk it has a fairly buttery taste and nice toothy texture.   Anyway.)  Laborers are currently working on digging a trench for…something…alongside the road that runs basically from Doula to Bamenda.  I had noticed them working on digging when we were first on our way up here, and the effort has finally arrived at Upstation. As I was out for a run this morning, along the freshly dug trench, I noticed that every 50 yards or so all of the earth that had been dug up was actually a trash pit.   Old trash bags, yogurt containers, barely decomposed relics from some point in fairly recent history when that specific spot was used as a makeshift dump.  The problems with the trash also bleed into problems with the water, as all of the water ways through the town are overflowing with garbage rather than potable water.

Since this is my first time in Cameroon and the region I wouldn’t recognize any variation in termperature or weather patterns.  However, I must say I was surprised that during my first two weeks in Bamenda it barely rained at all–a fact highlighted by my local friends who kept saying there’s no way you could call this the rainy season.  I think the rainy season has finally settled in…it’s rained 90% of the day for 5 of the last 7 days and the temperatures have cooled dramatically.  It’s actually quite nice and fresh.  But the late arrival of the rain, and the heat that accompanied the extended dry season has left some farmers hurting and has changed the duration of some fruits seasonality.  I gotta say I can’t really complain about that last thing as there have been mangoes 5 for 20 cents since I’ve arrived.  Yum.  But Cameroonian’s have told me it’s generally shifted market dynamics and can really impact families livelihoods where most people depend on subsistence ag.  I guess on the subject of food I’ll make one last interjection–meat isn’t all too common here.  People eat very little of it (and dairy, because from what I’ve been told there aren’t really any dairy cows around and they don’t use goat milk for anything) as it’s expensive and fairly sparse.  And to be honest, being here doesn’t exactly make me super enthusiastic about eating meat generally…the beef is all string and chewy (if you saw the bony cattle you’d understand) and chicken is expensive, tough and doesn’t taste of much of anything.  Furthermore, eggs, which are a staple here are all white.  As in the yolk is the most faint shade of yellow you can think of…because rather than receiving a natural diet, the chickens eat trash.  So, relate this little foray into food and environment back up to the stuff I was talking about re: trash and the like.

Generally, I think it’s great that the developing world is starting to recognize that Climate Change isn’t just something that affects the white world.  I’m even happier that they recognize some of the aspects of living here that contribute to environmental risks and degradation.  I just hope that this thinking on the local level can extend into overarching policy and government changes.  Let me also included my little legal tree-hugger schpeel that I think trade restrictions should be eased to allow for environmentally friendly advances in technology to flow more easily and to allow for more liberalized trade in goods produced with less environmental impact.  I also hope that more people can be like the crowd in Santa and recognize that although we in the developed world didn’t exactly set a positive example for how to develop sustainably, it can be possible for other parts of the world to do so.

Anyhow…that’s my little geo-societal lesson for the week.  Sorry it took so long to get up here!  This week has been incredibly busy.  There are a few ongoing things I’ve been doing at work and I’ve had some social obligation to tend to every evening.  I’ve been meaning to sit down and write every evening this week, but I’ve been so exhausted by the time I get home at like 8pm that I’ve just been grabbing a bucket bath and hitting the hay early.  Packed social agenda ahead as well (which I totally can’t complain about):  dinner at a neighboring family friends house, Friday at the International Hotel with the usual suspects followed by some late night cabaret, Saturday showing my support for North America at a Canada party and then throwing a 4th of July BBQ at the Mansion on Sunday to help remind my British friends what they’re missing:)

In follow up to the previous post…I had a conversation with a local spiritual leader before court started the other day and was informed that if I ever married a Cameroonian man (good thing I’m already married, eh?) I’d have to give up all rights to inheritance and property because I would be the mans property.  Nice, huh?  Something he mentioned made a lot of sense though in what partially drives this mentality–men do view provision of bride price as paying for and acquiring property.  So it seems as though at least if you were to rid tradition of the bride price requirement it would be at least one step towards viewing women less as property and more as people.  After finishing this conversation up (the man was  a traditional spiritualist so his views weren’t necessarily surprising) I went to speak with the “collaborators” (I think they are the function equivalent of junior associates) in our law chambers about the issue.  I fully expected them to be of the opinion that the traditional laws are counter to equality and natural justice (which make them, therefore, counter to national and international laws to which Cameroon is bound).  These guys–relatively well off, highly educated, “liberal minded” young men–promptly told me that women will never be equal in any way, particularly in intellect, that we are too emotional, that we have an obligation to always be subservient to our husbands (thanks, Bible) and generally we have few rights.  This was coming from the Chambers which CHRAPA retains to help represent women in disputes against traditional/customary law.  Not a good situation.  In light of all of this (and my raging “emotions”, which when the men experience they call “passion”) I’m going to work with CHRAPA to establish a legal training seminar for barristers and magistrate students (judges don’t arise from the ranks of lawyers here, they study to be judges.  This creates a whole other set of problems that maybe I’ll get in to some other time).  If nothing else, these professionals need to be aware of the proper interpretation of the law–according to both international agreements (CEDAW, as one example) as well as Cameroonian law (the Supreme Court here recently issued a decision that women cannot be denied inheritance b/c it is repugnant to equality).  So depending on what all happens with that I may have more to report some time soon here.

Anyhow, today I thought I’d write about something else that arises from marriage and sex…kids.  Lots and lots and lots of kids.  4.7 per woman on average, actually.  To help put this in to perspective:  there are approximately 3 houses in the area immediately surrounding ours.  These three houses produce no fewer than 15 children (the actual number I think is closer to 20 or so, but I am never sure which children belong to what house since they are always running about randomly through the neighborhood).  And the concept of babysitting here means that the community in general will watch the kids–read:  they are free to wonder wherever they so choose, which means that very often you’ll see teeny little legs toddling along the side of the high way.

The kids here are adorable to look at, and some of them are in fact very sweet and cute and polite.  However, some of the pickin (the pidgin word for kids) are horribly behaved.  An anecdote:  let’s start by referring back to the 15-20 neighbor kids.  The range in age from about 2-15 but most of the bad ones are between 5 and 10.  They get immense enjoyment by trying to sneak in to our house when we aren’t paying attention.  Then they will steal our stuff.  Particularly food stuff.  We usually have breakfast sitting our our porch (bread with avocado, maybe cheese and sausage if we have it around).  We used to have a few types of chocolate spread–basically bootleg nutella.  However, last week when I ran inside to fix my coffee and left the breakfast supplies sitting on our porch table as per usual those pickin robbed all of chocolate spread.  Little shits. I mean this literally…read on.

These kids also make a habit of trying to play in our trash pit.  This is where all of our garbage goes–food waste (like some meat that had spoiled rotten when our fridge broke last weekend), plastic bags, old containers, and broken glass.  Side note to the environmentally conscious:  Sorry!  there’s NO recycling here.  there’s no waste disposal system in general so I mean, at least we put all of ours in to a pit instead of dumping everything into one of the streams, or into crop fields.  Because who doesn’t love corn grown in heaps of poo and battery acid!?  Anyhow, the kids that come up to play in and raid the trash actually come from just down the road (I think, but like I said it’s essentially impossible to tell what kids belong where since they are never with their parents or guardians or whatever).  Whenever they don’t think we’re around or paying attention they’ll come and start to go through everything and tossing things around.  Aside from the fact that they could totally hurt themselves (see the aforementioned bit about how there is broken glass in the trash pit) they make a horrible mess…as well as mess in the pit.  By which I mean, one of the little ones (I would guess somewhere around 2 1/2-3 yrs) pooped in the pit in front of Lars.  Lovely.  The other morning around 6:15 am I heard some rustling outside my window, which has a gorgeous view of the trash pit, and rose to find the kids farting around in there again.  So I don drive dem pickin away (I chased the kids away).  This happens ALL the time.  Lars has taken to going outside with a machete to scare them away.  He’s also spoken to some of the parents at neighboring houses about the issue but to no avail. Let’s keep in mind that these are the same kids who will come up and sit and stare at you for as long as you can stand it because they want to be your friend.  I’ve stopped being friends with them and the threat of white man ju-ju may be the next option for getting them to stay away from out stuff.

I was speaking with Aunty Jane about the situation with these kids (they are francophone) and she made the comment that the widely held opinion is that francophone children will do what they please and anglophone pickin will do what their parents and elders ask of them.  I’ve gotta say that so far I have found this to definitely be the case.  The kids in the compound down at the office are all adorable.  Every time they see me they’ll call out “Aunty Mary!  Hello! HEL-loooow!” and they’re politely inquisitive.  If you tell them to stop messing with something, they will.  They are also eager to please you, and will present you with drawings and stories and basically I want to pull an Angelina-donna and take all dem pickin back with me.

But seriously, there are a LOT of problems that arise out of having so many children, and several reasons that the birth rate is so high as well.  Let’s get to the reasons each woman births so many children first.  The primary reason is that infant and child mortality is high–8.23% to be exact (World Bank, 2008).  The child mortality rate (which refers to number of deaths per 1,000 children under age five) is 13.11%.  Compare these stats, respectively, with Ghana (5.101%, 7.61%) and the US (though, obviously there’s no comparison in levels of development here, I just want to give you an idea of why there are so damn many kids everywhere:  0.67%, 0.78%; the birth rate in the US is 2.1 children per woman by the way).  To emphasize the above point:  there are areas of Bamenda where families won’t even name their children until they’ve reached their second birthdays because so many of them die in infancy.

Another reason for having so many children is that many people here survive off of subsistence agriculture and tending farmland.  It’s fairly obvious that the more hands you have to help you around the farm, the more work can be accomplished in a shorter period of time.  However, this “solution” tends to be part of the problem with having so kids:  more children=more mouths to feed.  And when the family is barely making a living off of subsistence agriculture having more mouths to feed isn’t exactly convenient.  Moving beyond just feeding the children…schools here are not free and require uniforms.  Add school fees and uniform costs to the cost of providing food and shelter for that many people (roughly 7 people per family, though many families I’ve encountered are composed of many more than that) and you have an unsustainable situation.  This in turn leads to increasing problems with maltreatment of children and trafficking–issues that we’re here to work directly with.

Yesterday I had a first hand opportunity to became very aware of the extent of the problem with the inability to provide for children and its subsequent repercussions.  CHRAPA was called to participate in an intervention for a possible case of child trafficking (the details of the case were published in local news media on Saturday, and have been discussed on other media programming, including local BBC affiliates so there is no breach in any confidentiality issues here).  Basically the facts are as follows:  a woman was intercepted on a bus heading towards Bafoussam (about 3 hours from Bamenda, and Mbessa, the village where this matter initiated) with eight children in town.  She had transport certificates (basically bus tickets) for only three of the children.  Those three turned out to be her own offspring.  She didn’t even know the names of the other five.  They ranged in age from 6-15 years old.  The woman was subsequently detained.  The government social services representative (more on him shortly) called in CHRAPA and another local organization that deal with many cases of child trafficking to participate in the “intervention.”  Uncle Joe called me along to join him at the justice station (ie police department, detectives office) and the following transpired:

The childrens relatives were present to claim the kids (that they had sent off to be transported across the country to work) and take them back home.  They were questioned by the lead detective, state representative, Uncle Joe and Laura (the woman from the other NGO) to try and establish what sort of care the parents normally provide for the children, if the parents rely on the children to provide farm labour, if the children receive education and whether or not the parents knew what was going on.  To say the parents were evasive and untruthful is an understatement (Ex: Farm work here starts no later than 5 am–ANYbody here can attest to this–and extends until 3 or 4 in the afternoon at the earliest.  The families claimed that they work from 7am until noon.  And that the children are simply there to watch).  The parents admitted to sending their children away, but claimed ignorance to the fact that shipping your children off to provide forced labor is illegal.  This part I actually do believe–the locals participating in the intervention repeatedly referred to the village as primitive (very poor, with very low numbers of educated people).   This detail came to be very important when we went to the magistrates office for him to determine whether or not this was a case of trafficking (ie if he felt like it should be prosecuted).

So after this interrogation process was completed we were off to the magistrates office.  On the way there, the government representative from the social services office called a friend of his at the radio to tell him that he was going to try and bring all eight children in so they could speak about their experience on air.  Remember how I said these kids were between the ages of 6 and 15?  Add I think we can all deduce that they were victims of some form of neglect if not trafficking (this was a clear cut trafficking case, according to Cameroon’s law, just by the by…if we’re going by facts and evidence and what not.  Not that those things actually matter to the way this law is implemented here).  Anyhow, to me (and according to the law, as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cameroon is party) this was a GROSS violation of the privacy, interests and general treatment of these children.  Needless to say, I became VERY vocal with Mr. Government Social Services about the fact that to force the children to go to a radio and talk about their ideal was a HORRIBLE idea, not to mention illegal and completely unethical.  He responded that it was to help sensitize the public about the problem.  Right.  It was quite sick really.  Thank god it never got to this point…unfortunately the reason is that all of the children were released to their parents b/c the magistrate thinks there are too many problems with Cameroon’s child trafficking laws.

Really?  REALLY?!?!  Mr. Magistrate…your law provides for three elements which, if met, constitute trafficking.  The magistrate informed all of us, however, that if they were really to apply these laws that everybody would be guilty of trafficking because there is such a community mentality behind caring for children here.  So, although the facts of this case (woman transporting undocumented children whose names she could not give to another area of the country to work) met each of the three elements, since Mr. Magistrate thinks it’s dangerous to protect children from trafficking because that could threaten the system of child care here…this woman, and the parents are off the hook for anything.  The Social Services guy then said he would call the parents to check up on the children.

A few quick words on Social Services.  They don’t exist.  This government social services delegate is the one tasked by law for caring for the children who are picked up in cases such as this.  He however dogged this responsibility and instead headed them over to the head of their village counsel who was them supposed to provide for them.  There’s little wonder why the village counselor was thus so eager to get the children back to their families–the government provides ZERO resources to care for, feed, cloth any children who are wrapped up in such disputes.  There are (on paper) ten homes throughout Cameroon designated to provide such services…however, in actuality none of them exist.  So these children are left to the charity (or lack there of) of people whom they are shoved upon while their parents use poverty and ignorance as a defense to their trafficking.  It’s really quite despicable and the failure of the judicial system to protect the interests of the children and properly enforce a law that was enacted by their own government is generally very very repugnant to justice.  There are no social workers to visit these families, now that the children have been sent home.  So whether or not these children end up being trafficked again will essentially remain unknown.

The entire “intervention” was extremely education and informative.  Unfortunately it also left me feeling a little ill, incredibly frustrated and very disappointed in the judicial system here (well that last thing, that happens pretty much every day).  Apparently the US State Department also has a problem with the enforcement of child trafficking laws here (at least this is what I’ve been told) because they’ve poured a bunch of money in to educating people on the issue and the related laws.  Unfortunately, the judicial branch (which is actually part of the executive) is just as in denial about these problems as they are about everything else. I realize more and more every day how in denial the government is about any short comings, and how eager some of the officials are to pass the blame off to the poverty and ignorance of the public (please see past posting:  Oh, that’s just Africa).  I’m coming to the belief that no matter how much work is done on the ground the only way that change will really come to Cameroon is through a complete overhaul of the government and the mindset that supports the government.  Testimony to the fact that I’m living in NW Region I suppose.

Well, in better news…USA SOCCER!?!?!?!?!?!? WOOOOOOT!  Most of the foreign volunteers were thrilled yesterday (the majority of us being American, German and English.  The only disappointment was for the Socceroo’s who expected nothing else) and this sets up some great action for the next round.

I hope you are all celebrating and wearing fabulously awful costumes and chanting…something.  U-S-A!  U-S-A!

Going to the Chapel and I’m trading myself for pigs and Going to the chapel and we’re…

So I’ve been offline for several days thanks to the lovely Cameroonian infrastructure.  Here I was, thinking that I totally outsmarted the system where I pay for wireless and only get it at the office (so 36 hours a week) by buying the mobile broadband key.  And then my key wouldn’t connect, MTN was of course closed any hours I could possibly hope to make it to the store and I was stranded offline.  But alas.  I’m back.  With loads of fun stories.  So let’s talk about sex.

Or more broadly sex, marriage and “courtship” in Cameroon.  Let me start my saying that men here are INCREDIBLY blunt.  As in they will ask if you are a madame or miss, and if you (are stupid enough to) say that you are open and have no husband they will demand some form of contact information.  I’ve taken to telling them all that I’m married, if Lars is out he poses as the husband (for me and all of the other whiteman ladies) and I’ve gotten a ring to wear since they often won’t believe you.  Also, my phone usually needs a new sim card and doesn’t work so I don’t have contact information.  I learned the hard way after a few men who we work with or who are in the wider circle of friends gained my number.  And by hard way I mean incessant calling—beginning at 6am most days (you also quickly learn to turn your phone off until you wake up as Cameroonians of either sex love to call at day break to greet you).  If you don’t pick up they’ll call approximately 6 more times to make sure you aren’t available.

Anyhow, it doesn’t take long to figure out that you need to be married.  Having a boyfriend won’t do because men will tell you “Oh, he’s in America.  So far away.  It’s OK.”  Hah.  No.  Often times being married won’t do either.  My Cameroonian friend Nji sat down for a talk with Lars and I about the fact that most men, and many women, aren’t faithful whatsoever.  Especially not if they aren’t yet married.  So, I’m married.  And I’ve had to argue with men to tell them I’m married and therefore “closed.”  It’s fairly unfortunate because there are a lot of (sometimes overly) friendly guys here who have a lot of offer as friends who want to help introduce you to Bamenda, Cameroon and local culture.  But there’s a very fuzzy, if not nonexistent, line between engaging in legitimate friendship and inviting unwanted male attention.  I’ve found that the best way to socially interact with men here is to hang out with those guys who are also friends with my male friends and generally hang out with the broader social circle.

I have also been asked many, many, many times if it would be easy for a Cameroonian man to get an American wife.  Did I say that I’ve been asked that many times?  My response is usually that I don’t know and they would have to ask somebody who is not yet married.  However, American women–Western women in generally–are very attractive to Cameroonian men for a number of reasons the least of which is that we don’t have a bride price.  What?!?  Wait, no bride price?  Are you being serious?  No!  You are joking with me!?!?  Nope, really…we American ladies have no bride price.  Actually, OUR families tend to pay the exorbitant bills for lavish weddings.  This actually will make men here laugh.  A lot.  Let me explain briefly what a bride price is, since a few friends have gotten it confused with a dowry.  Bride price and dowry are fairly simple except for what I know of a dowry is that it’s something the brides family prepares and sends with her when she marries.  Bride price is something that the man must “pay” the bride’s family for providing for her and paying to raise and take care of her up until the marriage.

Using the word price is a bit deceptive.  But just a bit.  When I asked a Cameroonian about how much they would actually have to pay as a bride price her reply was that you couldn’t ask for money because that would be like the woman’s family selling her to the man.  Because the way that the bride price works out is actually so different (are we catching the sarcasm?).  Bride price will essentially consist of many things that the family of the bride needs (read: wants):  pots, pans, a few pigs, a cow, maybe some chickens, a fair number of cases of beer (Oo!  Which reminds me, we have a case of beer in the house.  I think I will have one), maybe some clothes or material, lots of “red oil” aka palm oil, rice, corn…and the like.

So as to not seem like a total amateur on these topics I got a very up close and personal lessons in all things relating to marriage this past Saturday when I went to–you guessed it!–a wedding!  Between a Cameroonian woman and a Canadian man.  Obviously I took it as an opportunity for some cultural tourism, and to spark conversation with some of my other local friends about things such as bride price.  Let me just say first and foremost that this was a wedding unlike any I imagine I’ll be attending anytime in my near or distant future.  I actually didn’t attend the civil ceremony–it was at 9am and Friday was a late night thanks to World Cup action (alright, Team USA!).  I actually only received the invitation on Friday night because the bride, groom and some friends who were serving as bridesmaids (more on them in a minute) were all at the International Hotel international workers happy hour.  The bride saw me with my friend Courtney (one of said bridesmaids) and decided to invite me along.  Turns out that pretty much all VSO volunteers in the area were in attendance (VSO read:  Peace Corps for Britain, Australia, Kenya, Uganda, Canada, Philippeans, etc…there are a TON of them in the area, and they’re generally much more friendly and welcoming than the Peace Corps volunteers.  Shame, but it’s been great to get to know a lot of other really wonderful people from elsewhere.  Wait, where was I?).

Ok, so the wedding was attended by all of the VSO females who I’ve gotten to know and befriend in the time here.  This includes Mavis–a whipper snapper of a 62 year old who is always involved in any dance party anywhere.  It was her birthday on Friday and she celebrated but getting a bit buzzed with all of us at the bar and during the footy match.  Wow, I’m fairly ADD today.  So the wedding.  I didn’t go to the civil ceremony but my friends gave me the run down at the reception–a fairly normal ceremony except for that three couples were all married at the same time and the vows were (from a Western perspective) quite insulting and offensive to woman.  This means that they women had to declare that they wouldn’t argue with anything their husbands asked or wanted (which, according to Cameroonian law, includes request sex.  Marital rape is still legal, and many women here will even tell you that when you get married you agree to whatever your husband wants including sex when he feels like it.  Let’s give three cheers for countries where this isn’t the case real quick.  Ok.  I feel better).  The women also must acknowledge that the man is the head of the household.  This is fairly ironic since this is a very matriarchal society in terms of who actually runs the house, takes care of the people, provides for most of the income and supplies most of the labour.  However, my friends in attendance said the women were eager to agree to all of the above.

The civil ceremony, and signing of the marriage lisence is also where decisions about polygamy are made.  Polygamy is legal here and many men (and essentially all traditional leaders) have multiple wives.  When the couple is filling out the lisence there is a box where the couple needs to check yes or no on polygamy.  No, I’m not kidding.  If the woman checks yes and later changes her mind…welp, too bad for her.  And from what I’ve come to understand from my male Cameroonian friends, if she says no and the husband wants yes..welp, too bad for her.  There is also quite a bit of contractual work that goes in to the marriage in terms of assets and property.  While it’s technically illegal for men to disinherit their wives and/or dictate that should they die their widows are passed on to family members, these practices are still very pervasive–particularly in more remote villages.  My office actually is doing a lot of work on widow/orphans rights issues, but that’s for another time.

Basically, the marriage comes down to an exchange of the woman as property, and to a large extent that is how women are viewed here.  A lot of times talking about it churns my stomach.  Co-workers in the legal field here have explained to me that it’s really important for women to be educated while at the same time explaining that no men will want to marry professional women (because they are too strong willed, etc. etc.).  Ahhhh….equal rights.  How you continue to allude us.

The wedding reception itself, which I did attend, was a total hoot.  Yes, I said hoot.  The invitation said that the reception would begin at 12noon PROMPT.  I showed up at 1 because I’ve come to understand Cameroonian time.  And, wouldn’t you know but of the 20 or so (of the approximately 150 who were there at the height of festivities) people present  at 1 pm–let me remind you, an hour late–12 of us were whitemen.  So we sat around the lavishly decorated tables in the church hall (I have photos of all of this…blast you MTN connection!  Everything is too damn slow to upload.) and started cracking open the beers that were waiting.  Finally, around 2:30 the actual celebration began.  My two friends serving as bridesmaids, Courtney and Philly, had yet to do anything (and were beyond peeved that they showed up at 8am to sit around and do nothing for 6 hours)…but finally…action!  For a whole 3 minutes!  They participated in the grand entrance, dancing down the red (yes, literally red) carpet that made an aisle under this huge trellis decorated with white, gold and green flowers to the Nigerian pop hit that I hear on the radio here at least 3 times an hour “I don see my wife” (translate “I’ve seen my wife,”  I’m actually burning it along with several other local favorites as I type).  And then that was it.  They had completed bridesmaids duties–complete with donning matching gowns.  OH!  How did I forget to mention that African attire was mandatory–people were actually turned away for failing to come in traditional regalia.  Thankfully, one of the German girls who’s recently left donated one of her outfits, and I put it to good use on Saturday.  So bridesmaid duties complete they sat with us and listened to the rest of the reception.

It was more or less run like your run of the mill Western wedding.  Except for the totally eccentric MC, who was SSS (single and still searching) and some speeches that came across as hilarious rather than serious (see, cake maker giving a 15 minutes schpeal on the symbolism of the cake and feeding it to people with love.  Uhm, maybe you had to be there.  She was sitting basically right in front of me, so when I got a taste of the cake–super super dry, like all other cake here–I got to choke it down with a smile for her).  There was the cutting of the cake, the bouquet toss with girls engaging in full-on tackle football to grab the flowers, a first dance, and to go along with recent developments in western weddings at least two changes in outfit.  After all of the speeches were complete were dug in to some traditional fare laid out on a buffet and started to toss back (warm) beer.  When the dancing really started so did the fun.  It was actually a great time.  Some friends (Lola O. I hope you are reading, you get all the credit for this) won’t be suprised but the African’s think it’s hilarious that I can dance like I’m an African and that I “don’t move like a whiteman.”  The men, and woman, aren’t shy in telling me this…and I, in turn, find that hilarious.

We were all very happy for the happy couple, who are in the process of working out the necessary visa requirements for Brenda (the wife) to move to Canada with her new husband.  The Western world is seen as a dream world here, but Brenda is certainly going to have her work cut out for her in adapting to what life is like in parts of the world where you can’t walk out your door and talk at length to any person you see—where you don’t know everybody who lives on your block let alone in your building.  The whole event really made us all think about the real challenges that go along with the happiness of marriage across cultures as different as those involved in Saturdays nuptial.  But, all in all it was a really joyous and celebratory experience.

It was only a shame that Cameroon couldn’t deliver additional happiness through a victory on Saturday night.  We all went to T-junction right in town.  MTN had sponsored what amounted to a block party.  The street was barricaded and a huge screen was set up right in the center.  I’ve never seen a reaction to any sporting event like that I experienced as part of that massive crowd when Cameroon scored first in the match.  Even at half time, when the score was tied at 1 people were singing, dancing and waving flags all over the place.  But I’ve also never seen so many people deflate so quickly as I did when Denmark scored their second goal to secure the victory.  Rather than anger the crowd was generally just filled with sadness and disappointment.  The opportunity for the people here to be really really proud of something that their country had accomplished on a global scale was over…and it was really, truly heartbreaking.  The whole wedding party along with most of those who had been in attendance were in attendance at the match watch block party…and promptly fled to seek happier places.

Eight of us moved on to the Azam Hotel..a brand new, very Westernized hotel/restaurant/bar/nightclub on the far side of town (and very close to Courtney’s house, where several extra mattresses were waiting).  After a few drinks we headed down to the Rocket Club–and out of Africa for a night.  Really.  This place was like any good nightclub anywhere in a big city in the US or Europe.  We were early (11:30) so for the first 30 minutes or so the only music played was techno, Lady Gaga and other Western dance hits.  As more locals (the really really wealthy ones mind you, as the cover price is 5,000f) arrived the music shifted to a general mix of African and Western Dance hits.  We all pooled resources for bottle service (5,000f got us entry and a bottle of whisky to share! Woo hoo!) and ended up staying and dancing until 2:45 when we finally made it back to Courtney’s.  It ended up being a really really wonderful, really really bizarre day.

And then I got back online and wrote this novel.  But really…after coming home Sunday morning at 7am I was greeted to our neighbors’ party.  That just means that they had their music turned up loud enough that I could hear it all the way from the junction (a 5 minute walk down the road) and when I got home the house was literally bumping from the volume.  This continued until about 12:30am Monday morning and picked up again at 6:30am.  Have I previously mentioned that there is no such thing as privacy/respect for others in terms of space and sound?  So, I’m a bit exhausted.  I think I’ll take the opportunity to bow out now and enjoy this evenings quiet by actually getting a decent nights sleep without earplugs. Off I go to curl up under my new awesome blanket (see, your grannies blanket from circa 1970 that I bought for $4 today) and with my horrid new pillow (all pillows here are horrid, so I’m not actually complaining).

Sweet day dreams all…

First off, let me just tell you that the World Cup experience here for Cameroon game 1 (which ended in a loss to Japan) was totally positive–with the exception of the loss and an old, completely trashed man trying to hug me and then trying to give me bananas and then trying to give me his ID card.  Slightly creepy, but the staff at the bar kicked him out fairly swiftly.  EVERYone around town is talking about the match, how the Lions let them down by not playing well aside from the last 8 minutes or so and talking about the upcoming match with Denmark (Saturday around noon our time). Moving on.

I think there have certainly been undercurrents of some of the “issues” with development and traditions here mentioned in my posts so far, particularly with the “white man” thing.  Last night a few of us had a discussion about some of the cultural sensitivity problems here–race, gender, age and it’s a really interesting subject.

To begin, I wanted to just once more touch upon the idea of race.  You are either black, white or chinese (or, as the children say “Hee-haw.”)  Black doesn’t even necessarily refer to the color of your skin.  Regina, who is Haitian-African-America, is white here.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a lady, gent, Russian or Canadian…if you aren’t African you are white.  This brings me to something that I think is particularly interesting–the black African’s here don’t speak about themselves as being Cameroonian or Nigerian or belonging to a certain ethnic group (at least not most of the time, more on this).  They refer to themselves just as Africans and consistently cite being “African” as a reason for doing things a certain way.  Even the Cameroonian Constitution refers broadly to the African peoples and solidarity amongst the African nations.  In our discussion last night we all concluded that if you were in the states and prompted to explain why the courts in Cameroon don’t have computers (which they don’t) and you replied “Oh, that’s just Africa” people would think you were insanely ignorant, dumb or both.

The constant blame people here attribute to “that’s just Africa” or “we’re African, that’s how our traditions are” is also surprising considering how vastly different traditions and cultures are not just across the continent but within Cameroon itself.  Traditions and culture here varies from village to village, much more so from region to region.  While I have not, and likely will not, have the opportunity to travel to the North of the country friends who have say it really is like a completely different country.  Beyond that, much of the conflict within this country, and within the region more broadly is between varying ethnic and national groups.  It’s like there’s an acceptance on blaming Africa for being Africa when it comes to its position in the developed/developing world scenario but an unwillingness (rightfully so in most cases, I think) to transfer that kind of unity in to domestic or regional relations.

As an outsider it’s very easy to view the blame placed on Africa as somewhat of a general scape goat for the failure to modernize and adapt in some areas of society.  I by NO MEANS mean that there aren’t a lot of very very valid reasons that some things are the way they are (see the aforementioned lack of computers, then consider the lack of resources in the courts, particularly in the NW Region which, according to pretty much all of the locals, receives far less resources because it’s part of the anglophone minority).

However, it’s difficult to see any validity in how the claim that people fall asleep in Court all the time (ie the clerks, some of the barristers) or the fact that women with high levels of education aren’t viewed by most men (with similar levels of education) as suitable for marriage is because this is “just Africa.”  It’s not that everyone here blames all of the problems with lower levels of development on the fact that this is Africa but I hear it enough that I thought it warranted mention.  While as I said there are a lot of “good” reasons this part of the world lags in development (though none of them are actually good), it seems that there needs to be a change in thinking from the ground up that the people of Cameroon can help lift themselves out of the 3rd world before it can really and effectively happen.

On the flip side, I’ve had a few really encouraging encounters with people here that indicate that the change in mindset certainly is present and active in many people.  A lot of the professionals we’ve worked with recognize that the major problem in Cameroon is with transparency and accountability in government as well as active citizenship.  I’ll write more about this in an upcoming post as the subject area generally dominates what sort of work we’re doing this summer.  Beyond the educated classes however, a visit to the Fon of Mbatu last week presented evidence that there are people working on small scales in their communities to try and modernize tradition* and thinking.  I was most impressed in the way the Fon handled a mini-uproar amongst the gathered group of community leaders relating to the treatment of widows.  Traditionally, after their husband’s death women were forced to sleep on the floor for a month (as well as be covered with ashes, be forced to stand naked next to the dead man’s body amongst a bit of other things).  There are new-ish laws in Cameroon which prohibit discriminatory treatment of widows (and orphans) but in many villages the traditions prevail.  The Fon, however, was not having it and was very forceful in communicating that they can’t expect the rest of the world to take them seriously if they can’t modernize some of the traditions.  The Fon’s attitude is really promising (although the fact that he has two wives takes away some of those brownie points) as I think a lot of the “it’s just Africa” attitude will only be changed gradually at a grass roots level.

Speaking of which…at the same training at the Fon’s palace last week yours truly was put on the spot to participate and give a speech on grass roots mobilization of women.  I think our Director asked me to do this because I’d relayed to him the work of my independent study in undergrad concentrating on women’s agency in Sub-Saharan Africa.  I had approximately 5 minutes to come up with something to say.  I think the speech was horrible having had so little time to prepare, but the Director and the other staff with us said it was very motivational and educational for the people there (Regina has it on video if you want to decide for yourself, but I think you can take my word for it).

I began by speaking about Cousin Obama and how the people in the U.S. who turned out in the greatest numbers to help elect him were women and youth.  They loved that.  I then went on the emphasize that mobilizing women and youth isn’t just something that happens in the U.S.A. and talked about the lecheria’s in Peru to give them a developing country example.  I finished up by saying that it’s more than possible, it’s a reality, to have women make up an equal share of the lawmakers in an African country and used Rwanda as my example.  I couldn’t think of how to wrap things up but then had to steal one from Barry O…after going in to some legal babble about how every woman in Cameroon has the legal right to vote, but in order to effectuate change they have to exercise that right.  That even if it seems impossible to help elevate women and young people to positions of leadership you have to believe that you can make that change and think “yes we can.”  They all definitely recognized that, and started to chant it themselves (well the pidgin version of it which is “yes we fit!”…or something).  Apparently that was so successful that my Director wants to take me with him as part of the training team when they go to lead workshops on participatory democracy.   I’ve also decided to turn part of my summer project more towards that angle and increase the legal tint of it by doing an analysis of the mechanisms in place to protect voters in exercising their legal rights.  So we’ll see what happens with it all…

In other news: after two rainy season days with no rain it just started to absolutely pour again.  I think I’ll write again soon about climate change in Cameroon–it’s actually a pretty hot topic (though you wouldn’t know it by the presence of trash literally EVERYWHERE).  But that’s another story for another time.

*This is a GROSS simplification of cultural sensativity and blame it on Africa issues.  I hope I haven’t offended anyone, and if I have shoot me an e-mail and let me know.  Thoughts on the subject are also welcome.

So a few days behind the official opening, but last night was my first up close and person experience with World Cup festivities here and I thought I should write a little about it.  First things first…my bday dinner was green bean and potato salad and beets with basil.  And lots of red wine and vodka pamplemousse.  Thanks to the small gathering for providing a very festive birthday eve.

I’ve been following the World Cup action as best as my fairly clunky internet connection will allow.  Before last night that meant getting score updates and glimpsing half shots of photos posted to world news sites.  However, last night was the first BIG GAME…England-US.  The  international volunteers–mostly Brits–had made plans to meet at Thermometer to catch the action.  Thermometer is a fairly typical, but better than average, Cameroonian sports bar.  The “outside”, which really is the entire bar since the place had only lattice work for walls, was equipped with a tiny tv and large projection screen–which of course was broken.  We enjoyed a beer or two, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive before settling in the main room in front of the big screen.  It was LOUD, and by the time the ball dropped (uhm, is that what you say?  sounds a little pubescent to me but…) there was barely a path for the bar-maid to drop off full bottles.

I was sandwiched between a Cameroonian and a Briton.  When the American national anthem played, the two other yanks, myself, Lars (who spent a year living in Indiana…of all places) and a few Cameroonians stood up to salute.  At this point I wasn’t exactly sure who the local crowd would be pulling for, aside from those few who stood up to join in with the anthem.  There is actually a very large diaspora of people from Bamenda living in and around Baltimore and DC, and since the locals here all love their cousin Obama I suppose I could have wagered an educated guess.

With the UK’s first goal within the first 4 minutes my companions all erupted and, in my dads’ words, their hearts started singing and beer began flowing a bit more freely.  For the limited knowledge I do have of World Cup level soccer, I think the game was pretty damn good up to that point, and particularly after the gaffe by Mr. Green, in the net with the goalie gloves.  (note:  I think my self-perceived understanding of soccer more or less comes from the fact that I compare it to hockey.  Yes, I know that’s ridiculous).  Anyhow, when the ball trickled in past Green a good 3/4’s of the bar flew to their feet and started swapping high fives.  Since the three of us who had stood for the anthem also stood out like sore thumbs in the cheering crowd (where everyone else was a local supporting team US) them did a lot of leaning and slapping to make sure to congratulate us as well. Good times.

I was happy that the evening was as overall happy and uneventful (which I’ll get to in a minute) as it was.  Over the past few days we’ve received warnings from the state department that Americans in Africa need to be at a heightened state of awareness, warnings that friends here who are also from “white countries” have also received.  Warnings along the lines of make sure you lock all of your doors, protect your belongings, don’t carry valuables out with you.  Since Cameroonian’s didn’t really have a stake in last nights game the mood was generally really joyous.  However, all of the foreign/”white” volunteers are definitely on alert for what may happen with Cameroon’s game.  We’re all very excited, but past events relating to Cameroonian losses to white countries do create a little cause for worry.  Apparently after said losses in the past businesses owned by whites have been looted and whites out and about have been targeted for beatings.

I feel like I should explain why many of the issues I have written about have to do with the “white” issue, but it’s hard to explain if you haven’t been in an environment like this.  VERY often, if not always, when I’m out in town I won’t see another white person.  I don’t have any issue with it, but the locals are not too pleasant about the fact that we’re “white.”  Kids will follow you singing songs about white men with long noises, during a ride in a taxi a women told me her daughter was scared of me because I was white, and often times you feel a bit like a zoo animal because of the attention being white draws (both in looks, calls and the like).  I can recognize some good reasons why not everyone is friendly with regard to the whites, but it is still a fairly uncomfortable position at times.  Granted, most of the locals are immensely friendly and kind and keeping a look out for you.  However, the warnings associated with the world cup definitely shine an ugly light on race relations here.

I don’t want to end this on a somewhat sour note…the atmosphere here is pretty much one of festivity and celebration.  Everybody is really gearing up for tomorrows match between Cameroon and Japan–which I think is at 3pm, and I’ve been told most places (aside from bars) will shut early for it.  The lions have been ALL over any of the tv’s I’ve seen, and I’m going to be on a mission to grab myself a jersey before the game.

I’m actually on the way out the door now to head to the Germany-Australia game with Lars and some of our Australian friends.  A little birdy told me that the US is the favorite to come out of their team grouping–and the best bet is that they’ll meet Germany. The residents of the mansion are eagerly awaiting…

Every Cameroonian I’ve spoken with about food says the same thing: there is more than enough food here so that no person will ever grow hungry.

Before I left the states, and during my time in Cameroon so far, many of the questions about life and culture here relate to food.  I’m admittedly a total food snob, but also have a decently diplomatic stomach and enjoy a lot of different flavors.  Even so, the food experience here has been a bit of a roller-coaster.  I’ve so far managed to avoid any very serious encounters with stomach problems (though some iffy njama-njama kept me home, and close to the WC, yesterday morning for a few hours) and I’ve enjoyed most of the food.  My housemate, Lars (a 19 year old guy from Germany carrying out his mandatory volunteer service) and I had a long conversation about Cameroon’s food culture last night as well.  So, in light of the general interest on the subject and the importance of food in society as a whole I thought I’d devote this post largely to Cameroon’s food culture.

I’m ringing in my 26th year today here in Cameroon (can’t wait to open the box of birthday goodies from Andrew:)!) and a few people have asked if the locals will be throwing me a party. The answer is that out of fear for my stomach (and conflicting offers from about 5 different people) I decided just to have a few people up to the house for beers and dinner.  A large part of the reason I’m doing a small scale thing with some friends at our house is so I can control the menu…I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the possibility of being presented with more achu soup for my birthday dinner.

Achu soup is apparently a very special meal here.  I have absolutely no idea what it’s made out of, but it looks (and tastes) a like like something that would come from your nose after sneezing.  My best guess is that’s where the name comes from.  It’s orange-ish yellow and is served over pounded coco yams.  The pounded coco yams look, feel and taste like paste–ie, not good.  At. All.  Aunty Grace, who is CHRAPA’s communications director and runs the compound where Regina is staying (the aforementioned room) served achu soup at her “tribal meeting” on Sunday.  She proudly presented us with HUGE bowls of the stuff, which were topped off with some kind of furry-ish intestinal “meat” item.  It was one of, if not the most, unappetizing things I have ever seen, smelled or tasted in my life.  Regina and I looked at each other, unsure of what to do with the stuff, before deciding to try to take it to the toilet.  Unfortunately, that furry piece of god knows what was a little too big to flush so we snuck off to find some trash.  I have photos that, hopefully, I’ll be able to post soon.

Generally, Cameroonians eat every part of any animal that they kill (see my earlier post on the whole-chicken stew).  One notable exception is that only men are permitted to eat chicken gizzards because they are “the best part” of the chicken.  I’m actually pretty thankful for this tradition.   However, everyone here–men, women, children–eat everything else on a chicken, including the bones.  They crack the joints and chomp them up, and there is no piece of meat, skin fat or tendon ever left on any plate.  Last week when we went out for dinner and had grilled fish, Regina and I both had help properly finishing off our fish from our local companions.  This is because I don’t know that I will ever get to the point where I can put an entire fish head in my mouth.  Some of the fish innerds are also left intact, and they don’t exactly provide the nicest of flavors.

I now mostly avoid meat, which isn’t a problem at all thanks to the bounty of fresh produce grown in the region. The Cameroonians definitely beat us out in access to very fresh, natural and local produce. Mangoes are three for 100f ($0.20), whole watermelons go for less than a dollar, chunks of super ripe and juicy pineapple are also about 20 cents and bananas come in at roughly 30 for a dollar.  Avocados are also hugely popular here, where they’re called pears.  They cost about 20 cents each.  For me, however, they’re free as we have an avocado tree in our backyard (along with a papaya tree and plenty of bananas).  I’ve also started eating passion fruit every morning for breakfast.  So delicious.   Many of the local specialties also consist of vegetables or grains found easily at the market or in anybodies back yard–fufu corn (kind of like a super thick corn porridge that reminds me a lot of cream of wheat), fried plantains, cassava root wrapped in banana leaves, fried “croquettes” of beans and corn.  There really is not shortage of food here.

Now that I have access to a kitchen and fridge and have some independence in what I do with my after work time I can cook!  After Court yesterday I headed down to the main food market to browse the produce and find something for dinner.

The market consists of endless stalls selling pretty much anything you could think of wanting, all fresh from the local farms.  Most people here survive off of subsistence agriculture, which provides a pretty wonderful surplus that is sold in the markets.  The North West Region is famous in the country for it’s produce, particularly vegetables–beans, carrots,numerous different types of lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, leeks, onions, potatoes, cabbage.  It all contributes to a wonderfully diverse option of eats.

Yesterday in particular I was craving some good pasta with a fresh tomato sauce.  Pasta is common here, often served as a spaghetti omelet (omeletes are also VERY common).  It’s usually fried somehow though, and I was looking for something a little lighter. My shopping list ended up as follows:

  • Bag of spaghetti:  600f (about $1.20)
  • Two pounds of tomatoes: 400f ($0.80)
  • Three shallots: 100f ($0.20)
  • Giant bag of green beans 500f ($1)
  • Huge bunch of basil 100f ($0.20)
  • About one cup of salt 100f ($0.20)

So, dinner for two fresh from the market–with leftovers–ended up costing me a whopping $3.60.  Which is about the same price as a meal out costs here, but more easier on the stomach and taste-buds.  I boiled the tomatoes to remove the skin before adding them to sauteed shallot and garlic, and finished the sauce off with a giant handful of basil.  The green beans were sauteed with a bit of butter (thanks to Lars, my housemate) and garlic.  And it was all delicious.  I’ve got a little tupperware of leftover pasta sitting on my desk waiting for lunch.

One thing I do know is that we’ll be having plenty of beer with dinner, as is the Cameroonian way.  Actually, the drink beer just about any time of any day for any reason.  There’s a lot of it around and it’s all quite good.  Mostly light lager styles, but they also really love Guinness.  Guinness in Cameroon is definitely not Guinness as we’re used to.  I’m not sure if this brew is made from the sorgum produced on the farms that Diageo-Guinness helped develop in Nigeria (an interesting sustainable development project) but it’s definitely sweeter and thicker than what we’re used to.  Beer is drunk almost exclusively warm.  Whenever we go out to eat or to grab a beer they ask if we want our beer hot or cold.  What I’ve discovered so far is that the only people who drink their beer cold are Westerner.  I asked Uncle Joe about this and he said that it’s because Cameroonians aren’t used to cold and drinking cold beer would give them pneumonia.  I don’t really know what the deal is with all that.

I do know that I will definitely have some beers tonight.  I’m still trying to decide what to do for dinner –we have tons of potatoes at home along with some leftover basil but a trip through the market could provide for any number of possibilities.  Lars suggested possibly going to buy a whole chicken from the man who runs a chicken farm up the hill from our house (which would cost about $7.50).  Meat otherwise is kept outside, in the sun, under black tarps all day and I haven’t warmed to the idea of eating that yet.  Any ideas??