Sunday, February 28, 2010

Your Majesty

After nearly two years in Cameroon, there are some things that I still don't understand about the culture, and I likely will never understand. The traditioanl chiefs that is prevalent here in the West region of Cameroon is one of such things.

Yesterday, Théo and I met with the chief of Batié who had arranged a meeting with all the chiefs of the villages who are participants of the Books For Cameroon project.

I have not had the best of experience with these traditional chiefs in Cameroon. When I first arrived, I visited my chief to do protocol - informing him of my arrival and such. I remember arriving at his house and waited for at least an hour. Reason? he was sleeping. My counterpart who brought me just kept saying, "well that's just how it is."

My thought was, "then why do you people put up with it?!" I thought perhaps over the next two years I would understand this culture better. Well, I haven't.

The meeting yesterday consisted of 9 chiefs. I explained the origin of the project, and our expectations of their roles in following up with these libraries. It's important to have someone in the community to follow up on the project because the principals of public schools are appointed by the Minister of Education. Personnel thus gets changed around at moments' notice, and for no rhyme or reason. That's the Cameroonian government for you.

Yet to be perfectly honest, I have my share of doubts on what these chiefs are actually going to do to ensure smooth follow-up. Nevertheless, it's important, and Théo, the Cameroonian from the local NGO whom I'm working with, thinks it's very necessary.

So, the meeting was scheduled at noon. We started roughly around 1pm. But only 3 chiefs were present. We continued on. For the next 3 hours, I repeated my short speech at least 3 times because more chiefs were showing up at different time.

Perhaps it's the upbringing in a democratic society, but I find the deference that people have to these chiefs to be extremely obnoxious. Yes it's a sign of respect, but WHY? What did these people ever do to earn the respect? Oh, they were born into the right family.

While the chiefs that were present at the meeting were all nice enough guys, I began thinking on how this kind of traditions prevents development of a country. There was a time in history that monarchy was prevalent in many countries around the world. But there is also a reason why almost all of them have been abolished.

The power structure in these villages that still have traditional chiefs makes getting anything accomplished extremely difficult. It took us over a month to finally get this one simple meeting scheduled. Imagine trying to get more things done with them. Adding onto it a corrupt and inefficient government, it's no wonder progress is slow. Besides, I find it extremely bizarre that in 2010, people still address others with "Your Majesty". I associate those words with the 18th century.

This all makes me the more glad that I was born and raised in societies where the most respect I need to give anyone is a polite handshake and I never would have to address anyone with such deference.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Change of Perception

The sprawling city of Bamenda

Sometimes, I feel like Cameroon has broke me. Two years in this country has somehow taken away those sympathetic ways that once was a big part of my personality. I am often annoyed when people comment "aww... those poor people" on my pictures from this experience. I no longer "feel sorry" for Cameroonians, or Africans in general. Don't shed pity on them, they have more dignity than that. Be angry for them that so many of their governments on this continent is corrupt and that the people do not have the opportunities they deserve.

Feel angry, feel the injustice, but don't feel sorry.

My first experience relating to international development was at a conference in Lawrence, Kansas where some speaker was talking about the UN Millennium Goals and later there was a pamphlet on an organization that has "child sponsorship" programs for people to financially support children in Africa. In return, you would receive letters and different correspondences. I wanted to sponsor a kid, but didn't have the ability as a poor student. This was 4 years ago.

Over these past 4 years, or more so within the past two years, I've learned and realized the power of PR work of these aid organizations to portrait a situation that perhaps isn't so grave, and turn them into a heart-wrenching picture that have you reaching for your VISA card. I know, because I did it myself to raise money for my library project.

Even still, I continue to contribute. I gave to the Haiti relief effort. I have long been a supporter of and I lend regularly to different projects around the world. Despite the fact I learn that Kiva really doesn't operate the way you think they do. Most of the pictures and stories you read or are lending to have likely already received funding. They do it for the PR and to reach and fulfill the human nature of needing a personal story. I understand. I am in no way disparaging the work of different NGOs, they are important in their own ways. I simply want to point out the difference in perception.

Recently, I received an update in my email inbox from Kiva's field fellow reporting the progress of my loan here in Cameroon. Here is an excerpt from that message:
Having spent three months in the Northwest Region of Cameroon, I’m
very pleased to share that your loans are making a big difference in an
area that has so much promise and yet is in such dire need. Despite the
strong agricultural potential of the Northwest Region, an industry that
makes up nearly fifty percent of Cameroon’s overall economy, I have
seen too much malnutrition, illness and death. Easily the most difficult
part of my time here in Cameroon has been that, within three short
months, I have attended eight burials compared to one birth celebration
and one marriage. Poverty, illness and death are much too common parts
of everyday life here in Bamenda, Cameroon, but there is hope.
I have been to Bamenda many times. It is the provincial capital of the Northwest Region - one of the anglophone regions in Cameroon, and one of the most developed. You wouldn't get this idea from reading that paragraph, however. What this Kiva Fellow describes is the image of Cameroon that I might have had 20 months ago, first arriving to this country.

But now, when I think of Bamenda, I am amazed at all the things you can buy, and how developed the city is. Also, this fellow was likely here during the funéraille season, where many funerals and parties take place, some long after the deceased has passed. To contrast that, Cameroonians have SO many babies, they cannot possibly throw a party for every child that is born. It's simply not in the custom.

Perception is relative. I am glad to have this experience and be able to perceive people's life for what it is. I don't feel bad for them, but instead, I try to see beauty in their way of life. In the Northwest and West region of Cameroon, food is plentiful, and people rarely starve. Illnesses, yes, but starvation is rare. No, they may not be able to afford the material goods that we can, but they also don't spend thousands on therapy like a lot of us do, either. Relativity, my friends. The Western/capitalistic way, isn't always the best.

Need Eggs? They are almost always free-ranged here!

How about some fresh oranges?

Public transportation? You got it!
Who needs a car when you can have motos?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Biz Class Round III

Cameroonians LOVE their certificates!

Apologies for the lack of updates as of late. A lot seems to be going on lately, a lot, for Cameroonian standard. I attempt to think back to 3 weeks before I came to Cameroon, and wonder how I managed to sleep on average 4-6 hours a night, took 18 credit hours of courses, worked 20 hours a week, and volunteered 10 hours a week. I need to somehow try to find that side of me again, or graduate school will be brutal come September.

So, what exactly has been going on with me? I finished my third round of business classes in village, 4th round if you count the week-long seminar in Yaoundé. I visited Fondonera, one of the towns that's involved in my library project. Celebrated Chinese New Year with my Chinese family. Attempting to not pull my hair out or punch the wall when translating that 35+ page of library management training manual into French. And oh, 23,000 books are coming my way next week, and many things, true to Cameroonian form, are still up in the air. I am constantly taking deep breaths and trying not to flip out on someone.

Et voilà! That's what's been taking up my time, on top of the usual everyday stuff like dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, showering - all without running water. All those things still somehow have an amazing way of taking up my day.

Anyhoo, this latest round of business class was again a success. I had 32 students enrolled and 29 of them completed the course requirement and earned a certificate! More people have already asked me when the next round wil be... we shall see!

Since pictures worth a thousand words, below are some photos taken by Kristine - my temporary boss who came to visit me a few weeks ago. These are precious evidence that I actually do do some work and not just sleep a lot and hang out. :)

Look at my students getting thithinking caps on!

This day's lesson was budgeting.

See? I do work, sometime. :) So even though I haven't been writing in recent weeks, I've been storing up some good ideas while I've been running around. I'll post them in the coming days. Stayed tuned!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Beauty of Village

Lately, my mood has been swinging between the two extremes: a.) very sad that the end of Peace Corps service is upon me and b.) can NOT wait to get out of Cameroon and begin the next chapter of my life. The mood swings are making me feel a bit bi-polar-esque. Some days I feel I'm on a standstill and extremely anxious to begin new adventures. But other days, I am reminded just why I love my village. Saturday was one of those days. And these great moments have kept me sane throughout my service, and they are keeping me grounded during these last anxious days. Unlike any other adventure, Cameroon is one place that I likely will not return for a long time to come. Must remember that. I snapped some photos on one of my walks as a reminder.

Princess Mariya, one of my current students in my class, invited me over for some Bamoun cuisine. I thought it was rather odd that she refers to herself as a Princess until I found out she is a member of the royal family in Foumban. A royal family twice removed, that is. When one mentions the Royal Family, the image that naturally rises in people's minds are the handsome Prince William and the elegant Queen Elizabeth. Not quite the same here in Cameroon, especially in the West region where every other person you meet is a chief of some sort.

Anyway, unlike the Bamiléké tribe where we live in, Mariya is from the Bamoun tribe that is heavily influenced with the Muslim culture. She invited me over to eat some couscous and gumbo. Which, if you are a volunteer reading this, you probably made some kind of ugly face. Couscous and gumbo aren't the tastiest of meals for the American/Chinese palette. Luckily the Bamoun version of couscous & gumbo is better than the Bamiléké version - less snot-esque.

The meal was good fun. We chatted about various things. Later, two more of her teacher friends stopped by, and both happened to be former students of mine in the same business class. We had some lively discussions about business opportunities in Batié, general business classes, the courses I teach, and the like. I love the sense of community here. There is an overwhelming request for me to do a final tour of business classes before I leave. It's heart-warming. Yet I must see if I will have adequate time to squeeze in another series! Despite how anxious I may be on some days to leave this place behind, I know I will be very sad when that moment actually arrives.

Winter Olympic in Vancouver!

The above photo sums up how I spent most of August, 2008. This was the tail end of our stage (training) and we spent a lot of time at Chez Pierre's in Bangangté watching the Summer Olympic in China!

I love the Olympics! And this is why I didn't hesitate when Team USA contacted me to see if I would write something about the Winter Olympic in Vancouver that's starting this Friday on my blog. They need some support because the sad Winter Olympic gets only a fraction of the coverage compare to the mighty Summer Olympic games.

I know we all prefer the sun over the snow, but there is something pretty nifty about the winter games amongst the white fluffy snow. Perhaps I'm just a bit nostalgic for winter weather since I've been living in Africa for 2 years. And besides, these athletes also spent their whole life training for the games, they deserve some attention, right? I never get into those major league sports in the USA. Last night's Superbowl did not interest me one bit, but I do love the Olympic games, and this is my way of showing a little support, and hope you will, too!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Only 10 am and my day is off to a fabulous start... not.

After my frustration yesterday, I figured I'd simply sleep on it and that today would be another day. Yes, another not-so-fantastic day.

First, my gas tank went out, again. It's only been 3 weeks since I last replaced the stupid thing. Must have gotten a bad tank that leaks. Luckily I have a fabulous moto guy who will go change it for me.

Next, I received a text message from the Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) - you know how the government loves their acronyms - informing that it is MANDATORY that I travel to the provincial capital TOMORROW to receive the H1N1 vaccine. Tomorrow?! Yes, let me just drop everything I have to do and get there. Who does that?!

On any other day, it wouldn't have been a big deal. This would have just been another chance for volunteers to get together to hang out. But tomorrow is the day that Théo and I had planned on squeezing in all these meetings with the governor's people and Cameroonian businesses for the Books For Cameroon project - something that is overwhelming me as it is. I was suppose to go to these meetings, then rush back to teach my business class.

Now I suppose I will just have to reschedule these meetings so Peace Corps can give me this vaccine that they failed to notify me in advance? PCMO says it's Washington mandate. But I'm not sure whose fault it is on the short notice. Either way, this is a prime example of the poor planning and lack of efficiency that happens.

Yes, I am likely just being dramatic and need to take a chill pill. Perhaps I should double up on the yoga today... I am just so. ready. to. get. out. of. Cameroon.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Senioritis: Peace Corps Edition

Today, at some point during my two-hour business class, the Peace Corps equivalent of senioritis hit me. It must have been the moment when I was teaching the importance of sharing knowledge they've acquired with others, since I won't always be here to teach the classes, and an annoying student who rarely shows up to class loudly shouted, "well you should just get married and stay here." I looked at him and said, "would you like to leave the classroom?" I don't care if he's 40. Don't be a jerk, or I will throw you out.

I've been getting back into my yoga practice. And this morning I did my one-hour session. But after the class tonight, I felt the need to roll out the mat again. If bucket-bathing in the latrine at night isn't such a pain the butt, I would have done another session of yoga to let it all go.

I am overwhelmed with the Books For Cameroon project. All along, I adopted the "one step at a time" approach, because if I try to think of everything at once, then there was no way the project would have progressed to where it is today. But now, almost a year later, there are still many more steps ahead, and I am exhausted.

I've begged for more money than I ever care to beg in a lifetime, not for me, but for the well-being of others. I've coordinated 10 schools within the 3 surrounding villages, on top of a few other far-reaching villages who all wanted to benefit from my project. My life would have been a lot easier if I just said no, but that's now what you do as a Peace Corps Volunteer, right? I've sent out a million emails to the team of volunteers whom, I'm sure by now, are so sick of my emails, in order to coordinate and ensure that 23,000 books get to the 35 libraries somehow.

When I met the fundraising goal of $11,500, people said to me, "well now you must be relieved, the work is done." Um, not quite, the work has just begun. I've ran around to all 10 schools to collect money, make sure they have shelves built for the libraries and that they are dedicated to the project. Then I realized I underestimated the cost of in-country transport, so now Théo and I are running around town trying to get big Cameroonian enterprises to sponsor our event. I think there is a big chance MTN Foundation will put up some money for our transportation cost. The last time I heard, the proposed figure is 1 million CFA ($2000). Crossing our fingers on that one!

Side note: Théo is the wonderful founder and manager of the local NGO RIDEV that many volunteers have worked with. I think he is the reason I have not gone insane yet with this project. The man is full of wonderful optimism and knows everyone, which makes life a lot easier. He also is aware of all the annoying protocol procedures that we volunteers hate. If it wasn't for him, I probably would've left this country with many libraries built, but also many important people offended. It was his proposal to organize a ceremony for the ministries and related officials to recognize the project. The ceremony itself does not do much for the project, but it gets in the good graces of Cameroonian officials, which is important for Peace Corps.

The books are estimated to reach the Douala port on February 22nd. So I'm working with Peace Corps and the Embassy to get this container cleared through customs with as little problem as possible. There is the logistics of how to get 20,000 books to where they need to be. Can you even imagine how many books that is?! I can't, but I suppose we'll soon find out. Who knew logistic management in developing country is a skill I'd acquire in Cameroon? Something more to go on the résumé, I suppose.

Logistics aside, the list of things to do and to think of goes on, and on. The library management training: besides writing the classes, I have to somehow organize all these schools and make sure they send the right people to come to the training. And after I train them, I have to run around and make sure they are implementing what they've learned. This is going to be a pure nightmare.

Let's not forget about the ceremony that I'm suppose to organize.... You see this is why I must go one step at a time? Thinking about it all is driving me into a freak-out moment.

Planning and organizing an event is difficult in the US, the country of efficiency. Imagine doing that in Cameroon - the country of... well, not efficiency. To be honest, I have been fairly lucky and have not ran into too many problems. But it's the sheer volume of things to think about that is becoming far too overwhelming. I suppose this offsets those first few months when I didn't do much... ça va aller...? on espère.