Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Progress Report

For the past two weeks, I have been visiting schools and communities that I am responsible for between Batié, Bapa and Bandenkop, and checking up on there progress in library readiness.

École Publique de Famgoum I - Batié
École Publique de Sim Tsela - Bandenkop

Much to my surprise, the schools were mostly very engaged and are making significant progress in getting things off the ground. Granted, there were definitely drama. One of the schools had absolutely nothing done even after I gave them a warning a month ago. The principal and the team of administrative were obviously corrupt. During the 5 minutes that I was in the office, they asked me about the computers 3 times. I yelled at them and said, "computers are secondary. This is a project about building libraries, not getting computers. You are off the project." and left.

They were feeding me ridiculous excuses about parents not cooperating, blah blah blah. Which I know is utter nonsense. Between the 10 schools that I am working with, no one has any problems getting the PTA to construct shelves and pay for the in-country transport. The schools are all in the same community, which means there must be an overlap of parents. To feed me that excuse was just stupid. Instead of arguing with the corrupt people, I saved my energy and accepted a wait-list school at the last minute.

If nothing else, executing projects in the Peace Corps definitely requires you to think VERY fast on your feet! All in all, the project is progressing. We submitted the order form for 19,000 books and 7 computers to Books For Africa last week. If all goes smoothly, we should receive the shipment at the end of January! For more pictures and updates, follow our Facebook Page!

This one is too cute! École Publique de Nso'o-Batié (preschoolers!)

Celebrating Old Age

This past weekend my rich neighbor had a BIG fête! My moto guy is a family member of this rich neighbor and they live in the same concession. He informed me of this rare event that occurs only once every 5 years or so - a fête to celebrate the elders in the family that reached 70 years old.

For weeks, the rich neighbor's house have had workers layering bricks on the cement barriers, and all sorts of other work. The event was a 3-day ordeal. Friday evening was the Bamiléké traditional dance where villagers not only got out their outfits, but also the animal skin, horns, the works! Most of the neighbors all gathered to see the event, especially the kids.

The next day, I was invited to the mass ceremony honoring the elders. When they told me mass, I thought they meant we'd all meet and then go to a church. But oh no, how wrong I was. They meant they'll bring the church to their gigantic courtyard - and they did. It was mighty impressive!

The makeshift church - pretty legit looking!

Church Choir was there - all pretty in... pink?

People like my neighbor makes me realize that people here have A LOT of money. However, the distribution of wealth is all off (kind of the case everywhere in the world, right?). My motor guy, Emmanuel, who is a part of the family, does not enjoy any of the wealth and he works all day on his moto and gain a measly pay.

Anyway, I attended the mass and then the big dinner afterward. It would have been fun to stay and dance with people, but with all the guests (more than 500), I was pretty lost among all the people I didn't know. So instead of sticking around, I retired to my house soon after dinner. This is when I really miss having a buffer. When Juliette was in village, we would go to things like this and hang out with each other while have a blast with villagers. Unfortunately without her, it's not quite the same, and doesn't feel as safe...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Rolling Hills of Batié

Last week I visited the schools that I am working with for the Books For Cameroon project to check on their progress. On the way back, my moto guy, Emmanuel, took me on a different path home, and I saw a new side of Batié that I have not seen even after a year here.

The day was gorgeous. The dry season has finally settled, but it's only the beginning, so not too hot. We rode through the rolling hills on his moto and the views are simply breathtaking. Photos absolutely do not do the view justice. I love and hate that because while I am so glad to be able to partake in this incredible nature, I hate not being able to share it in its entirety with others.

This past week, I was getting pretty fed up with life here. After 15 months, I've finally reached a point of "ugh this is enough". The novelty of living without running water and shotty electricity was fun and made good stories to tell - but after 15 months, enough is enough.

I am also tired of not having an active social life, and missing my material possessions, and well, just being with friends and loved ones who get me. Having the holiday season just around the corner certainly does not help. I am not unhappy, but something is certainly missing.

Chances are, this is simply my nomadic personality at work. I have very short attention span with anywhere that I live, so I could be living in London, New York, Paris, or Hong Kong, and I would probably be sick of where ever that I live. This is how I am, and while it's all too easy to blame it on Cameroon and its not-so-comfortable living standards, I must remember that I probably would have the same complaints elsewhere... je suis comme ça...

Being out and about and appreciating the nature certainly helps. I've taken up running in the past few months and I now really enjoy getting out there and take in the nature - likely the last time I will ever find myself living in such rustic beauty.

El Campero

One of my favorite pastime back in the "real world" is to sit at a café alone and people watch. Also the same reason why I love airports. Strangers I do not know are very interesting to watch. Each possesses their own aura and have their individual stories. I can sit for hours watching people and capture their own ordinary life in that moment in time.

Here in Cameroon, I don't have such luxury as Starbucks or other cutesy outdoor cafés. But when I do go into Bafoussam for various errands, I always stop by El Campero - white people's favorite bar in Akwa. When I'm alone, this becomes the closest equivalent to an outdoor café. I usually order some brochettes and friend plantain, then sit with my bottle of coke and watch people pass.

There are always people walking around with items on their heads that they are trying to sell. We call this activity, "bar shopping". You sit at a bar, and when people pass, you browse at their items to see if there are anything interesting to buy. It ranges from food (peanuts, prunes, fruits, etc) to handbags, shoes, pirated DVDs, magazines, electronics - you name it, and there are probably someone who sells it. Sometimes if you are really looking for something specific, you can tell one vendor, and he/she will pass the words on to whomever selling the item you are looking for. Definitely one of the more amusing and rare bar activities.

Ghilain & moi on my Birthday this year

When I'm alone at El Campero, I'm pretty at ease. One of the ladies at the bar, Ghilain, is a good friend to all of us white people. When she's working, we always hang out and have a good chat. Since El Campero is the bar of choice for us, I often run into others while sitting there - Americans, French, etc. We always order food from the vendors around - salad shack, grilled fish, brochettes, friend plantains, etc. and then gather here. El Campero is a fun place and many a fun gathering have occurred at this very bar.

Radio on TV!

Two weekends ago, the Cameroon's national football (soccer) team was playing the final qualifying match against Morocco for the World Cup. The number one national sport in this country is drinking beer, and the second is watching football, while drinking beer. Naturally, this was a big deal.

I headed to Dschang to hand out with Clotilde, a French girl I know. Dschang is a really fun university town about an hour or so from me. Somehow I managed to spend 15 months in the west region of Cameroon and never made it out there, so on this day, I decided to finally pay a visit.

I arrived just in time for the match to begin. We crowded in a typical Cameroonian bar ready to watch the match on TV. I've mentioned before that while I am not a fan of football, I am a fan of watching guys watching football. And Cameroonian football fans are quite entertaining in their own special ways.

The game began, yet all you see on TV was the words: Cameroun # Maroc. And the broadcaster was relating the game in gibberish that supposedly was French. After a bit of confusion, I understood that apparently the Cameroonian national television (CRTV) did not purchase the rights of image broadcasting.

Now, imagine that. I was impressed on how calm people were. While they were disappointed, their reaction was more of a "on va faire comment?" (well what are you gonna do?) Imagine Superbowl Sunday with no image broadcasting? Serious riots would go down. I did thoroughly enjoy the comments from the men, "well, it's like in the 1960's when we had to crowd around the radio and then translate to people who didn't speak French." or "welcome to Cameroon, we have Radio on TV!"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Village Justice

Back in March, I eluded to the justice system in village, and the amusing ways that news get around. Last week, I was once again reminded just how things operate here, and how different it is from the justice system that we are so used to in the modern world.

Last Monday, on my way to Market Day, my moto guy pointed at the Gendarme car that was parked outside someone's house as we drove through. He asked if I heard the news, I said no. Apparently, the night before, a 18-year old chopped off the head of his 6 year-old brother with a machete, because someone told him the heads can get him a lot of money.

Friends, this is not a story you read in some African story book. This happened down the street from me.

I was pretty stunned by the news, but then quickly wrote it off as just another misfortune that often occurs in village. Few days later, I was on another moto, and I inquired what happened to the 18-year old. My moto friend Charlie, replied nonchalantly, "oh, we beat him until he died." Just like that. Almost as if how silly of me to even ask such question. What else would they do? Of course this kid was going to live another day after having done something like that.

This gives our death penalty debate in the U.S. a whole other perspective, huh? Yes, granted the crime committed here in Cameroon, especially in villages, are usually not very elaborate and not intricately planned to the point where advanced forensics are required to find out the offender. Yet, even if we know someone committed murder with 100% certainty, there is no way we would just "beat him until he dies" in the U.S., or most places in the modern world.

Few days later, I invited the new volunteers over for some American goodness (onion rings, ranch potatoes, salad) and one told me she heard the village story on BBC or some mainstream news. I was quite surprised. I mean, I suppose a kid getting his head chopped off is a pretty big deal. Julie told me that the news mentioned something about albino's and that there is some sort of sorcery relating to albino body parts. So later, I verified with another moto guy and he said no the kid was just a regular kid, not albino, but he was doing it for money.

Anyway, moral of the story - village justice is crazy business! Don't kill someone in a small village, because the villagers will beat you to death. And if you can't tell, moto guys are my primary source of village gossip! ahh, I will miss this sense of community, albeit crazy!

Special Thank You

After months of incessant money begging via all the desperate measures that I could come up with using my only tool - the Internet, I somehow managed to raised $11,500, with the help of Kate, Siobhan and Laura. This is a special post to thank all of you that have helped me in one way or another throughout this process.

The begging began in July. Since I did not come from money, nor went to a school that had a lot of really rich people as friends, I had to beg strangers - a lot of them. I began by bugging people on Facebook and Twitter via my status updates. Then, I sent out press releases to local papers and journal in the St. Louis area where I spent the last 10 years of my life.

Desperation makes you do really crazy things. I wrote emails - countless number of them - first to personal friends and acquaintances, then to teachers of schools that I went to, organizations from my university, companies in the St. Louis area, etc. When those email didn't seem to yield the result that I was looking for, I began using social media tools, posting individual messages on 300+ members on CameroonVibes, individual messages on 500+ members who had committed to blog for the International Literacy Day, 600+ individual messages on my friends' Facebook wall, and thousands of individual messages on random RPCV's page on Peace Corps Connect, to the point of slight trouble.

All the effort became worthwhile when the project was fully funded on October 28th. Through it all, I came in contact with really supportive individuals that have offered their support in one way or another. Yesterday, I submitted our order form to Books For Africa for a shipment of 19,000 books and 7 computers. In addition, the Cameroon Studens Association is giving us 4,000 books. This leads to a total of 23,000 books that we will distribute to over 30 libraries across Cameroon. In the name of full disclosure, you can see how we will make this happen through a very colorful spreadsheet and flowchart. Okay, I really just wanted to share that!

Anyway, thank you all again for your immense support through the past few months! Please follow us on our Facebook page as the project progresses, and I'll try to be good about uploading pictures!

Past. Present. Future.

Yesterday, I sent off my graduate school applications to my European schools of choice. Today, I feel free for the first time in a while to think about updating this neglected blog. Even though I still have three more applications to sent for American schools, having done those three felt like a major step forward - this is really happening, the next step is not just a cloud of ideas in my head.

Recently, I've been in more frequent contact with those French friends who made my first three months at post such wonderful bliss. I've been thinking back on those times a lot as of late - they were carefree, exciting, and the connections I had with that particular group of friends were so immediate and intense that even a year later, the memories are still fresh in my mind. I thought perhaps I am feeling nostalgic because now a year later, I am still in the same place, but with less magic happening in my daily life. However, in the past few weeks, conversations with Juliette and Gary have proved that I am not the only one reminiscing that period in time.

With just a little over 8 months left of my service, I am at a strange place. Things on the work front are going relatively well. I have plenty of tasks to accomplish during my remaining time in this country. Socially, while I am no longer having fantastic parties or going on wild adventures, memories are still being created via the daily village life. Some days are still lonely, and dull. But I am attempting my best to soak in each present moment, and take it for what it's worth.

The future is fast approaching. I have applied or am applying to six graduate programs, three in the U.S. and three in Europe. If all these fine institutions accept me, I will have the opportunity to spend the next two years in either Paris, London, New York, Bologna/D.C. or New Have, CT. And let's all cross our fingers and pray at least one of these fine schools will grant me acceptance, if for nothing else, that they take pity upon the fact I just spent two years living without running water. I've decided to take the "go big, or go home" route, and in a very literal sense. None of my schools is a "back-up", so either I get into one, or I go home and live with my parents in St. Louis... oh my god...

On this November day, I reminiscent on this past year in Cameroon with nostalgia, appreciate life in the present with gratitude, and look forward to the future with great anticipation.

Monday, November 2, 2009

GRE in Cameroon

October came and went, and as I indicated in the previous posts, I've spent most of the month cramming esoteric vocabulary words into that tiny brain of mine, and also remembering how to do 7th grade math.

This GRE is a re-take for me. Last time I took this painful exam was in the U.S., at Saint Louis University in a testing room with my own computer. The test was computer-adaptive, which means it was half the length, but the question gets harder as you answer them correctly. Also, the computer version of this test gives you the pleasure/horror of finding out the test score right away.

Since I am living in a developing country, I was able to take the paper-version of the test. The experience was so amusing that it deserves its own blog entry.

Rewind to the night before the test - about a dozen other volunteers were also suffering through this experience. We all found ourselves cramming last minute words and math concepts at the Peace Corps transit house in Yaoundé. People had flash cards, and a general sense of exam stress linger the air. At one point of the night, I sat down with Trevor to go over problems from a practice exam. To be very honest, I was glad to face with that healthy level of academic stress again. It felt good, and I felt my brain churning; though it would be better if I was cramming information that actually matters. I suppose if nothing else, this indicates that I am ready, at least mentally, for graduate school studies.

Test day rolled around, we left in groups for the testing center. The rain came in a downpour so most of us were half wet by the time we reached the American Language Center in Bastos. Then, there were all the Cameroonians who were also taking the test. Cameroonians were all dressed nicely in dresses, slacks, some even suits, for this grand event. Where as the dozen of us Americans all came in jeans and other form of comfortable clothing.

I was brought back to high school era of taking the ACT/SAT. We filed into the rooms with number two pencils and ID. The process of getting everyone situated took a while. Although people who had taken it at this testing center had warned us about the horror of people taking 2 hours to complete the bubble scantron with personal information.

The proctor came in and was following direction on the book rigidly - really quite funny because I don't think she really knows what is suppose to go on. Anyhow, the process didn't take as long as the horror stories, but it was still amusing to see people struggling to figure out how to fill in their names/address and the corresponding scantron bubbles. We've all been taking scantron tests since probably second grade, can you imagine if that was the first or second time you've ever done that? I am pretty sure the guy next to me did not complete his scantron the right way...

Finally, the exam began. For the next 3 and a half hour, my brain cells were on overdrive. The first hour or so was the essay section where I had to write them by hand in a booklet. It brought me back to the days of college exams and blue books. It's been over a year since I had written anything by hand; my ability to spell or even construct sentences without spell/grammar-check had declined significantly since being in the Peace Corps. By the end of the essay section, my hands were so tired. We had a break and while I was lining up for the bathroom, some guy said to me, "you wrote a lot!" I thought, "um yeah... that's what you are suppose to do."

I can't imagine taking this test as a Cameroonian. It's tough for us Americans, imagine what it's like for them. When the proctor calls the 5-minute warning on each section, there was always a general gasp/groan coming from test takers. Anyhow, two hours and two math and verbal sections later, the test was over. Now, we wait patiently for the results...

I am just glad 3 of the schools I am applying to are in Europe and do not require the GRE.