Tuesday, September 29, 2009

You just never know!

Current Mood: Uggghhaaahhh I am SO sick of begging for money.

My goal to fund Phase I of Books For Cameroon by the end of September is unlikely to happen, unless either an amazing, generous philanthropist decides to donate $3.5k in the next 24 hours, OR, if by some bizarre miracle, 700 people decide to donate their next $5 latte/beer in the next 24 hours.

I am somewhat disappointed; however, I suppose raising $5,000 within a month still wasn't too bad of an effort, considering it took 3 months to raise the first $3,000. At least, I have been learning a great deal and showing progress. That's the important thing, right? Or so I tell myself. Ça va aller.

Okay, now I got that out of my system, let's talk village life.

A journalist once asked me to describe my "typical day" as a Peace Corps volunteer. That, I have decided, is simply impossible to define. The constant surprises are both the beauty of life as a volunteer, yet also the source of many frustrations. Last Friday, I went into Bafoussam for banking and other various errands. The car ride from my village to Baf. is only 30 minutes. Yet, we stopped in Baham - a town near my village - to pick up more clients and we waited there for an hour. Unexpected frustration. I was once again reminded that time is not money here and the term "opportunity cost" means nothing for the most part.

Yet when there is bad, there is good. Yesterday, I had a pretty productive Sunday of studying for the GRE and getting work done. Late afternoon, I made my way into town. The weather was gorgeous, so I enjoyed the walk and took in the tranquility that Batié has to offer. While in town, I had a Schweppes Ginger while waiting for my grilled fish. Meanwhile, had some funny conversation with villagers. One guy was trying to give me a hard time about the fact I can't speak Batié even after a year. And everyone else in the bar defended for me saying I had to learn French, and what in the world would I do with Batié after I leave? Funny villagers.

I got home and just as I situated myself for a movie while eating my fish, Billy and Loïc came by. Apparently there was a big dance event at the rich neighbor's house that I had to go see. So I took my camera and off I went with the kids. There I saw the group of villagers dressed in traditional Bamiléké fabric and getting ready for a big dance. Turns out Le Grand had invited white people to come observe this village tradition, and that's why there were all the fuss.

Just about everyone from the quartier were there, and ALL the kids were around. They love getting their pictures taken and I created a bit of a chaos when I asked Billy & Loïc to take pictures of me and the little ones. There were ALL over me. You would've thought I was running a daycare in Africa or something. So funny.

I hung out with the kids for the most part; they are so much fun. The dances were going on with the traditional musick; not much different from the others I've seen, but extra special since it was in my village and people dancing were my friends. Later, I saw the "white people". They apparently were a group of priests from all over the world were in Yaoundé for a week, and they are friends with Le Grand's wife. I met them briefly. It was really weird, even for me, to see all these white people in Batié!

So that was an interesting turn of events to my quiet night with a movie. Today, while I was getting some work done, neighbor came to knock on the door and invited me over for lunch. You don't turn down food when offered here, so off I went! The group of missionaries was also there. Also, my amazing, non-corrupt mayor was also present. It was a mini-UN right there in the living room with English, French, German, Spanish being spoken, and people from France, Spain, Fiji, South Korea, and other exotic places. I chatted briefly with the missionaries about my work and they told me a bit about their stay. It was really cool to find such an international setting right in my village, and I got a real kick out of my mayor speaking German. And just like that, an unexpected Monday afternoon!

Since I've been utilizing the RPCV network to seek funding for my project, I've had the chance to read many profiles of RPCVs. The common theme that I've extracted is that Peace Corps is the best two years of their lives and they have very fond memories for years after. I don't doubt that to hold true for me as well, but I wonder if the experience must stop after these two years, or will I be able to continue create memories that will be just as good as these two years, if not better?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Embracing Solitude

7am. I was still asleep. Phone rings. I turned and saw an unregistered number. Reflex hit the ignored button. 30 seconds later, it rings again. This time, my conscious told me this may actually be about work, so I answered it. Still half asleep, I somehow managed to converse in French with a lady calling to see when in the world I would be visiting her library. Assuring her I didn't forget about her village, I rolled over and thought, "oh goodness".

Recently, I decided I would go back to school after my Peace Corps stint. Suddenly, I went from sufficiently occupied to actually running after time. I had actually forgotten what it was like to prioritize my tasks. At the end of October, I will be resitting for the GRE. So now I'm not only bugging everyone on the cyber space about my nutty project, I am also cramming my brain with obscene number of esoteric GRE vocabularies and brushing up on the Pythagorean theorem, and calculating the probability of coins turning face up when tossed.

With these two activities, I now currently spend more than half of my time in front of the computer. Suddenly, the obscene amount of time it takes to do dishes, laundry, shower, cook, etc becomes extremely bothersome. Before when I didn't have a lot to do, those tasks filled up my time. Now, I remember why I never cooked back in the states, other than the fact I didn't know how. I've been eating a lot of grilled fish & baton de manioc as of late, and that's going to get real old, real fast. Thankfully, the birthday package I recently received is full of nothing but food, so that should last me a while!

We are coming up toward the end of the raining season. There have been more and more gorgeous days. Today was one of them, and all day I thought about going into down and mingle with my people. Finally, around dinner time, I went into town to make the round of hellos, and I think tomorrow I am going to bring my GRE book to the bar and sit with my bar lady. That should be an experience!

It's bizarre to think I only have about 9 months left in Cameroon. I am going to miss this life. Yesterday, the power was out all day, so I spent a better part of my evening reading back issues of The Economist by the candlelight. Sometimes, I actually rather enjoy when the power is out and all my electronics are dead. It forces me to really embrace solitude. Being alone takes on an entirely different meaning here. And it's not always bad. I am alone and mostly content. I don't feel the need to fill preconceived social expectation. Friday night is just another night; I don't feel like a loser spending it alone at home, because I have no other choice. Being free from those kind of social obligations can be quite nice.

Life isn't always easy here. Sometimes I just really wish I have running water and indoor plumbing. Other times I wish I can just call up a friend and meet up for an hour over coffee. I've managed to create friendships and swiftly learning to let them go as people move onto their next adventures while I remain here in Cameroon. These aren't easy things to deal with, but on the other hand, I've had some of the happiest moments of my life here. The rolling heels of West Cameroon; the adorable kids who fetch water; the way I say "bonjour" to at least 20 different people on my way into town; the list goes on. And this list makes those very lonely nights very worthwhile.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Freedom of Speech & Social Media

Today is September 19th, and Phase I of the Books For Cameroon project still needs $4,699. Just a month ago, on August 18th, I began tracking the progress, and on that date, we still needed $8,570. I am quite pleased with the progress and hope we can raise the remaining $4k by the end of September.

It hasn't been easy raising funds, but I am glad to see the hard work paying off. Since I am stuck in a village here in West Africa, the Internet is my only tool to promote the project. My desperation drove me to employ desperate measures that included posting a message for on all 600+ "friends" on Facebook and 1,000 or more people with open comment walls on Peace Corps Connect.

The Peace Corps network was really useful and I received some really positive and supportive responses. However, I did receive an email from the person in charge of PC Connect asking me to limit my posting to appropriate groups as some people thought my message were spams. I was really discouraged by this email since this was an important network of people and I felt I was being accused on unfair ground. Frankly, I saw it as an infringement on my right to free speech.

This brings up an important issue on the ever-growing world of social networks and technology in terms of marketing. On Peace Corps Connect, members have the option to leave their profiles public, and their comment boxes open for all. But they can also choose to moderate their comments, or set their profile page to friends-view only. I utilized this tool and posted a generic comment on all members who left their comment boxes for public access. I saw this as analogous to people putting fliers into one's mailbox advertising for one thing or another. People receiving it has every right to either pay attention to it, or throw it away, which they can do by deleting the comment. Not to mention the message was about a Peace Corps project, not inappropriate content or trying to sell things.

Anyway, rant over.

On a much more positive note, through my rampant posting of messages, I reached a RPCV from Cameroon. John was very glad I had found him through Peace Corps Connect and became very involved in advertising the project through his own social network. Also providing me with a plethora of other Cameroon RPCVs from his era. Through the power of multiplicity, I was able to reached so many supporters through just one person.

Besides provide me with essential network, John also made a hefty contribution through the websites that he created. These educational websites share the same vision as my Books For Cameroon project, and I'd like to take this opportunity and share them with you.

- Online writing courses from elementary through high school
Time4Learning.com - Home-school/after-school/summer learning curriculum
Vocabulary.co.il - Vocabulary Learning for K-12, ESL & Test Prep
SpellingCity.com - Vocabulary & Spelling Games
http://learning-fun.blogspot.com - Blog on learning & fun resources for kids

3-Way Culture Exchange

Tuesday morning, I traveled back to the West with two French tourists, Laure & Fabien. They are friends of a French volunteer in Yaoundé, who didn't have time to travel with them. Laure & Fabien were going to travel alone and asked me if I knew a good hotel. I offered to take them in and play tour guide for a few days.

I must say it is quite refreshing having tourists around; it provides a new perspective. Or rather, it reminds me just how funny/absurd life is here. We get to the bus station at Binam Express and a bus was nearly full, but one of those small buses where they sit 5 to a row when it's meant for 4. We piled on and waited for the bus to depart. Every time another person gets on, Laure says, "there is no way." I tell her, "there is always a way."

We arrived in Bafoussam, stopped off in Akwa for some food before heading back to Batié. Laure & Fabien would point out things that I take for granted - the view, the warm and welcoming nature of the people, etc. They were amazed at my hole in the ground "bathroom", my Cameroonian "oven" and the fact I have Internet in a house without running water. On a day-to-day basis, I don't think about how my life here is still absolutely fascinating to many.

In one day, I took them on many "first-time" experiences - first time on overly crowded bus/taxi, first time on a moto, first time eating poisson braisée & baton de manioc, etc. The fascinating and incredible thing about being a globetrotter is the ease to form friendship with other amazing people. Three days prior, I had no idea they would even be visiting, and just like that, I now have new friends in Lyon, France who will welcome me if I ever visit. I think by the end of two years here, I will have friends all over France!

The next day, we visited the Mifi waterfall near Bafoussam, lunch in Akwa, a tour of the Market and then visited the chefferie in Bafoussam. That evening, I was going off to the joint-birthday celebration at the Chineses'. Coincidentally, it was Fabien's 30th birthday. Per usual, my Chinese family invited them over and housed them for two nights instead of letting them stay at a hotel. Once again, I was conducting a 3-way culture exchange; also acting as a translator between the Chineses' French & the Frenchies' French. I grow more comfortable with the French language everyday, and I hope there will be a chance to continue using it in the future.

Ah, Yaoundé.

Following my birthday, I traveled to Yaoundé with Jerome since he was returning to France. I used this occasion and arranged a few meetings for my projects. I had contacted someone at the US Embassy and was hoping to meet on late Friday afternoon since she wouldn't be available on Monday. Newsflash, the Embassy closes at 12:30pm on Friday?! So not only do they get ALL US & Cameroonian holidays off, they also get half day Fridays?! really? And while we are on the subject of government holidays. I passed through the Peace Corps office on Monday hoping to get my mail, fill some medication and also see my APCD. And what do you know? The office was closed? WHY? I still have no idea.

Besides the bizarre office closure, I witnessed another classic Cameroon happening. A football game took place Sunday afternoon at the Omnisport stadium in Yaoundé. This was the last game for the Cameroon club league. No, I did not go watch the game, but what I did witness was how the entire city was more or less on a standstill for this football game. Reason? The president, Paul Biya, was going to be at the game.

The Peace Corps compound is right next to Omnisport, and the French passage house where I was staying is in Bastos, apparently where Biya lives. What does this mean? All the roads between both places I wanted to be were closed. Not for say, an hour, but ALL DAY. In the afternoon, I had lunch with two friends and after were walking back to the Peace Corps compound. We needed to cross the street, but were yelled at by the angry police. So we waited, and two minutes later a parade of motor bikes, limos, big SUVs drove by - the President has arrived.

A few hours later, I attempted to go back to the French passage house and had to walk the entire way because all the roads were closed. As I walked, I observed the empty streets, and the police/army with machine guns on standby. At a few crossroads, I kid you not, there were military tanks. If you were not warned, you would have had every reason to think a war is about to happen. But no, it was just that the President is out to see a football game. This is the same president that has been ruling the country since 1982 and recently went on a $40,000 per night vacation in France. Meanwhile, I am begging for $11,500 to build 30 libraries for his country. Like many things in this country - it doesn't make any sense. And as most Cameroonians would say: On va faire comment?

Monday afternoon, I had arranged a meeting with someone at the British Council to discuss possible collaboration with the Books For Cameroon project. For some reason, I thought it would follow typical UK standards and the meeting would began on time. I arrived at 16h, and by the time the meeting began, it was 16h30. However, this guy was very apologetic and explained that he was meeting with the Education minister, and was that was running late, then the traffic was terrible. As soon as he said the world minister, I forgave him. We had a good discussion about the project and I am crossing my fingers hoping he will be able to find money in this fiscal year's budget to fund our project! We shall see.

Birthday #2 au Cameroun

On September 9th (09/09/09!), I celebrated my 23rd birthday in Cameroon and it was fantastic. Holidays end up being so much more fun here in Cameroon due to the low expectation. I should continue to adopt this attitude upon leaving here. Expect nothing and enjoy whatever comes my way.

The day began with a trip into Bafoussam. Mom had sent me a package that arrived in time and was waiting for me at the post office. It has been a while since I went to the post office to bug the ladies there and they were thrilled to see me. We chatted while I waited. I don't think I've ever or will ever have such lively conversations at the post office.

Afterward, it was lunch in Akwa, at our favorite bar - El Campero. Kate met me for lunch as well as buying groceries we needed for pizza night! I couldn't wait to open the package, and it was an ENTIRE box of FOOD. My favorite Chinese & American snacks all in one. I was impressed!

Jerome was also in town, so he stopped in for lunch and brought a bottle of wine for the evening. He couldn't join the girls for pizza, but paid a visit the following day. For lunch, we had the usual - brochettes & fried plantain. Ghilain, our favorite bar lady wasn't working that day, but she came anyway with a packet of biscuits!

Kate and I return to Batié after buying the necessary groceries from the market. I am not big on huge fêtes, so I invited a few girls over for a fun evening of food and wine. While the girls were slaving away in the kitchen making food, I went into town to drink with villagers. In most cultures, when it's your birthday, people buy you things. Here, when it's your birthday, you buy. However, it's my last birthday here so I was happy to share the occasion (& beers) with my people. They are so funny and I counted my blessings and noticed how much I had grown from the last birthday to this one. Last year, I didn't know villagers to buy them beers.

When I got home, the girls had cooked up a table of food - pizza, salad, mojito, cake, brownies - the works. Kate got me a bar of really good soap from her vacation in France, and the best part about it? It was wrapped in a yummy picture of Brad Pitt. Nura gave me reading privilege of all her unopened Economists from the last two months! It's the little things that really give you great joy here. I had a great birthday that marks the beginning of another hopefully fulfilling year!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Why Libraries?

In honor of International Literacy Day on September 8th, I decided to write about why I began the Books For Cameroon project. I am a business volunteer, but why am I building libraries? Today, I will share the story behind this motivation.

As a kid growing up in Taiwan, I was definitely an introvert. While didn't realize it at the time, I didn't have a ton of friends. Partly culture, partly personality, I passed most of my free time either fighting with my sister or relishing in books. My parents were too busy to read to me, but they bought me lots of books on tapes to listen to before going to sleep.

And then there were times when my mother is too busy with errands or work, but instead of finding a baby-sitter for a few hours, she dropped me off at the children's library near our house. I loved it there. The library was kid friendly and had hard-wood floors. I could lay on the floor and read all day long. The only thing I did not like about the library was their 3-book check out policy. I could only borrow three books at a time and I'd often finish those three books by the next day.

The hours spent at the children's library shaped me in ways I hadn't realized. I became very curious about the world and its people. Years of reading also gave me the skills to learn anything I want through a book. In college, I often said that going to classes can seem like a waste of time since I feel like I teach myself most things from textbooks. With advent of Internet, I don't visit libraries anymore. But just yesterday, while sitting in a small village of West Africa, I was indulging in the collection on international finance and development from Google Books.

My first few months at post, I was bored out of my mind. So to find something to do, anything, I began teaching English at the 4-room primary school by my house. Through my interaction with the children, I realized they can't read, at all. Even at a 5th grade level, many of the kids can't read. And then I realized most of these kids have never even seen a story book in their life. I thought how differently my childhood and life would be if my mom hadn't dropped me off at the library during her errands and busy afternoons.

Most of us take the ability to read for granted. But being here allow me to see the harsh reality that in fact, a lot of people have trouble reading. Even the adults in my business classes. While they can read, they can't read at ease. Hardly anyone in village ever read for leisure. I wanted to change this, and I thought it would be the easiest to begin at the schools. Bring books into the country, and then provide training so people know what a library is and how to utilize it.

I never imagined that I would be building 30 libraries. But since I somehow got myself into this situation, I will somehow find a way to make it happen. In honor of International Literacy Day, I hope all of you reading this will consider making a small contribution to this project (Http://www.booksforcameroon.org). I know I haven't picked the best time to launch a project like this given the state of economy. Yet, $5 isn't much to much people, and with just that, it can change lives.

We are fighting poverty with literacy; one latte at a time. Will you join us?

The Power of Social Media

The realm of social media is one among many things I never thought I would learn during my service in the Peace Corps. I have always enjoyed being connected to the greater world. Even when I didn't have easy access to Internet, I still diligently updated this blog to share my experiences with the world. My blog led to encouraging messages from many readers. At a time before my projects took shape, I was glad to still achieve goal III of the Peace Corps.

Months later, I was convinced to explore the world of Twitter, and became connected with a plethora of interesting people. My interest in social media really took off when Laurent Enzo François emailed me for an interview for his blogs in English & French. I talked about the irony of living without running water yet have Internet access. Through the interview, I began to realize I can use this connection to the world to promote my projects.

I am still new to the fascinating world of social media. After my vacation in June/July, I began exploring ways to utilize this new tool. Through Twitter, I connected with a friend from college. We hadn't talked in a long while, but since she is a PR expert, I turned to her for help with writing press releases. Later, she gave me the great idea to collaborate with classrooms and comes the creation of Classroom For Cameroon, and Campus/Community For Cameroon. Colleen talked about her experience helping Africa from her little home in St. Louis in her blog.

Last week, I read an inspiring article about Beth Kanter and her effort to raised over $3,000 within 90-minutes to send a girl to college in Cambodia. The idea was similar to mine - to motivate many people to make a small contribution. The difference is Beth has been building up her social network over the past 5 years, and I've only been on the scene for the past 5 months. Nonetheless, I was inspired. $3,000 in 90 minutes? There should be no reason why I can't raise $8,000 in 30 days.

Everyday, I am learning the struggle that comes with fund-raising, social media, and the like. Perhaps along the way, I offend a few people when I bombard the world with updates about my project. But the important thing is learning to not take it personally. After all, I am building libraries for African kids, not selling people things they don't need. Some days I have nightmares about not getting the project funded and I will leave Cameroon not building even one single library. Yet other days like today, I face the project with great optimism. With just 30 days to raise $8,000, it's lucky that those optimistic days occur far more frequently than the nightmares.