Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Celebration

After weeks of banging my head against a wall, cursing at inefficiency, and later moving 23,000 books around, we were able to see the appetizer portion of the fruits of our labor on Friday, March 19th when a small ceremony of book distribution took place in Bafoussam.

The Books For Cameroon team - Kate, Siobhan, Connie, Laura and myself - was present at once finally. Prior to this, we've been working largely through email or meeting separately. It was great to have all of us in one space and witnessing the books going out to recipients.

The ceremony took place at the conference hall in the governor's office building. Over 100 people were present - principals of schools, community leaders, traditional chiefs, journalists, government officials, etc. I was pleased with the turnout and was incredibly touched during the moment when everyone stood to sing the Cameroonian national anthem.

The event was short and sweet. I made a speech (in French!) on the project. Théo gave a speech on behalf of RIDEV. Peace Corps Staff who failed to inform us of the Embassy policy changed was also present and made a speech on behalf of Peace Corps. The Secretary-General made a speech on behalf of the Governor (after a million meetings, I still have no idea who this guy is). Representative from each establishment came forward and we ceremoniously gave them a book.

After the speeches, pictures were taken, food was served (can't have a ceremony without feeding people in the country!) and then finally, everyone made their way to the warehouse and books were distributed. I was incredibly impressed at this process; it was nearly flawless. Most schools and communities came with trucks to carry their books back. It was amazing to see principals and community leaders in suits carrying boxes of books on their head and loading them unto their trucks. Within two hours, we successfully distributed books for nearly all 35 establishments. I was extremely proud of Batié, where the mayor sent a dump truck to pick up ALL the books that were going to the village. The efficiency during this process was mind blowing compare to the ridiculousness we went through to get to that point.

The books are out, but the real work of following up with these libraries, training librarians and making sure these resources are putting to good use is just the beginning. I held a pre-training meeting a few days ago and today I made a tour of the 10 establishments around my village. I already see the obstacles with this part of work brewing. Development work is a process, and two years is only the beginning of it. As much as I hope that my replacement will continue with these follow-ups, there is no guarantee, and that, is truly unfortunate.

However, a good part of the books went to the Limbé City Library - a well established library in the anglophone region. Resource libraries are being established at RIDEV & RELUFA , so I know those books will go to good use. I suppose even only half of the 35 establishments end up function flawlessly, then our efforts aren't for nothing.

Finally, I wanted to give thanks to everyone who made this project possible. Kate has been my rock through this and carrying me through when I wanted to punch people in the faces, which was often. She is also the mastermind behind the library management training design that are taking place and most importantly, she kept me sane and conducted phone calls and made things work when I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. Today happens to be her birthday, and I want to just take this opportunity to acknowledge her amazing ways of putting up with me through this process!

Next, Théo, the incredible man who carries the hope in Cameroon, and also the guy that made it possible for our container to finally made its way out of customs. Théo's positive energy is what we all hope for in Cameroonians and there is nothing more encouraging to see people in this country taking measures to develop their own society. Bravo Théo!

Besides these two key figures, there are naturally a million people who were there for us in one way or another. (I feel like I am giving an Oscars acceptance speech right now) Thanks again for all who contributed to make the $11,500 fund raising possible, to MTN Foundation and Books For Africa for the financial support. Also thanks to volunteers who had came to help us sort books, those who had left us encouraging messages on our Facebook Page and much more.

The success of this project will take time to measure, but I am glad we are at this stage where we will be able to take such measurements!

PS-Apparently my interview with the journalists were aired on Canal 2 last night (twice!). Unfortunately, I don't have a TV at home to witness my 15 minutes of Cameroonian fame. Today, people in village talked about it, and they were proud of me. That was fun! :)

The Ultimate Obstacle Course

I've been dreading to write this post on the difficulties and pure ridiculousness that we went through for those 23,000 books to arrive. After the past two weeks, the only thing I want to do is rejoice in the success, not revisit the frustration. However, yesterday I came to the realization that my time in Cameroon remains only 3 precious months. I became nostalgic for these past two years and frankly, quite sad. I need to write about the obstacles in order for me to appreciate the efficiency that I will undoubtedly face in the "real world". It's human nature to reminiscent over an intense experience and think of only the peachy parts, yet the details of the trials and frustration is equally important and merits documentation.

In January, Books For Africa gave us an estimated arrival date of February 22nd.

The week of February 15th, I communicated with Peace Corps staff and he informed me he received a call that the container will arrive on the 26th. A week later, he informed me there is a slight delay on the paperwork.

March 2nd - informed by the Embassy that there's been a change in policy and they can no longer clear the container for us! Attempted to meet the governor but was told to come back.

March 3rd - received a call to go meet the govt the next day. Théo in Douala finding out information on private clearance.

March 4th - hauled ass to Bafoussam so I was on time for the 9am meeting. Ended up only meeting the Secretary General, and he told me we need a list of invitees ready and the speech for the governor written. Why couldn't he tell me this on the phone and save me a trip to Bafoussam?

March 5th - no progress, but Books For Africa found out about our problem via my blog post & came to the rescue for additional fees that incurred via private clearance. It pays to blog & complain!

March 6th - Théo worked out the company who will clear the container.

March 9th - in Bafoussam by 8am to transfer money with Théo and had many phone calls to find out how to get the container/books to Bafoussam. Met with the Chief of Cabinet for the governor's office to get the key to the warehouse. No key. Was told the guy is on his way and to come back the next day.

March 10th - problem at port. Need additional paperwork from Peace Corps. Théo happened to be in Yaoundé to meet with PC people and they worked things out with Embassy people in Douala to help us out. 

March 11th - Container finally cleared through port. Still no key for the warehouse. Was told the truck would leave Douala this evening or the next morning with books. 

March 12th - Arrived to the governor's office and found out no one knows where the key to the warehouse is. Books were suppose to arrive later that day. Chief of Cabinet finally called the guy who built the building and found out they key is STILL in Yaoundé! (It's important to note that we've been asking for this key since January and time and again they assure me there is no problem.) Builder in Yaoundé sends his brother with the key to Bafoussam. We met him in the late afternoon, and he told us after the building was built, he was in Bafoussam for 2 weeks trying to give the key to whomever responsible, and no one would take it. Meanwhile, truck in Douala didn't end up leaving until 3pm. We had to reschedule our team of help 3 times. Finally decided we will proceed early the next morning. 

March 13th - 7am - we were waiting by the warehouse. Was informed that the truck is in Dschang - a city an hour away from Bafoussam. This would mean that by 8 or 9 am at the latest, the truck would arrive. No, 11 am - the truck finally arrives. 

March 14th-19th - the team of volunteers working during most daylight hours to unpack 577 boxes of books, arranged them by level and subject, and repacked them according to establishments.

So, there you have it. The mishaps during this entire process could easily be avoided by some better planning and execution. Luckily or unluckily, none of these problems were within our control, which makes me, who has a bit of control-freak tendency when it comes to work stuff, wanted to scream, a lot. The phrase I hated hearing during this entire process was "ça va aller" (it'll be okay). Don't tell me that it will be okay, tell me HOW it will be okay. Now that this is all over, I've learned a lot and I am pretty sure no problem is impossible to handle.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

O.M.G. Books!

I am exhausted. I haven't worked this hard since May 2008. After the ultimate obstacle course, which I will write about it at a later time, the 40-ft container of 23,000 books have arrived in Bafoussam on Saturday at 11am. Since then, the team of volunteers and I have been working almost around the clock during most daylight hours to sort through all these books. In total, we received 617 boxes of books. For the large majority, we had to take them out of the boxes and sort through them by subject and level.

I am so tired that I can't even rejoice in the fact that these books are all finally here. But I must say that it was an emotional moment when the 18-wheeler truck finally pulled up to the warehouse. At that moment in time, all the frustration of money-begging and Cameroonian logistics all became worthwhile.

For now, I must go sleep and attempt to write a speech in French for Friday's ceremony in between the book sorting. I am dreading this speech. Through this project, I realized I am not a fan of publicity. It's one thing to blog and tweet, it's another to be interviewed and have to make a speech in front of people, in your 4th language no less. And there I thought writing a 5 minute speech for my public speaking class was a chore. Only if I knew...

Anyway, off I go. Thank you all for the support! And stay tuned for stories of the ultimate obstacle course we had to experienced to get to this point. Ciao!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Celebrating Women's Day

The Indomitable Lions is the Cameroonian national football (or soccer) team, but the real national sport is drinking at a bar. There are more bars in Cameroon than any other type of enterprise. Even if you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with no food in sight, there will likely be a shack selling bottles of Castel, 33, or other Cameroonian favorites.

This national sport ties in conveniently to the celebration of any holiday here in Cameroon, no matter the occasion. Christmas? New Years? Bar. Youth Day? Bar. So it was no exception that this past Monday on International Women's Day, the celebration took place at? yes, bars.

As the name indicates, International Women's Day is suppose to be the day that honors women. Last year, I attended the parade where women were told to obey their husband. I figured, seen it once, seen it all. This year, being the bien intégrée volunteer that I am, I joined the majority of the women by skipping the parade altogether and headed straight for the party.

 Mama Chantal! 
She smiles a lot more in person!

Mama Chantal, my favorite bar lady who also serves as my village mom invited me over for a homemade meal at her house. After filling our tummy with food, we headed for the bar. In theory, Women's Day is suppose to be full of activities that  empower women. But in village reality, women get outfits made out of this year's Women's Day pagne and have a wicked good time into the wee hours. It's the few occasions that they can be free of their house duties and have a good time.

Bamiléké Mamas Sure Can Move

And good times we had! Dancing with these village mamas is definitely one of my favorite moments of Peace Corps. I will dearly miss these "holidays" in the future. The party went on well into the night, but unfortunately I had an early meeting in Bafoussam the following day, so I had to wrap up my share of party not long after the nightfall. Nonetheless, good times were had by all!

Just had to add in this picture
Mama Chantal's Kids. SO cute! 

Saturday, March 6, 2010



 In an attempt to remind myself why I started the psychotic library project, I decided to write about my visit to Fondonera from a few weeks ago. 

Bernadette is the queen mother of the Fondonera clan. She found out about my project online and wrote to the Peace Corps. Her email was forwarded to me and we had been in contact since. She's a teacher and incredibly committed to the promotion of literacy and her community. She contacts me regularly to see the progress of the project. I was so touched by her enthusiasm and commitment, I decided to include her village in my project, even though there is no volunteer posted there. The village is still within the West region and thus manageable.

After months of communication, I finally had a chance to go visit her community. I was overwhelmed and touched by the generosity of people and how welcoming they were of me and Laura. We were invited to Bernadette's house for lunch, and then they gave us a tour of the community space they had prepared for the library. Later, her brother gave us a tour of the village. It was a Saturday, and a big funeral celebration was taking place. So we were invited to a few more gathers and had a few more meals.

 The village is situated in a mountain, and there is no paved road to get to the village. With the funeral celebration, there were people everywhere and music playing from all corners up and down the mountain. For a moment, I felt like a character in Tarzan and that at any moment some strong Cameroonian man will start swinging between trees!

The hospitality was overwhelming. Laura and I were in a hurry to get back before dark, so we were getting rather impatient after the 3rd round of meet and eat. If I had more time, then I would have enjoyed the village more. The queen mother's brother said, "next time, you come here and we make a two-day program for you to discover Fondonera."

The culture of remote villages like this, and the loving people are why I started this psychotic library project. Someone has to deal with the bureaucracy and administration to bring books to remote places as such. Somebody's gotta do it, and it might as well be me.

American Efficiency

Four days since I found out that the Embassy had changed its policy and can no longer clear our container. Théo from RIDEV was in Douala the next day after the news to meet with someone working at the Embassy to learn the process, and in attempt to find a solution. Yet somehow, four days later, no real progress was made.

Meanwhile, yesterday I received an email from a staff at Books For Africa. Apparently a board member who follows my blog forwarded my previous post about the frustration. They contacted me to see how everything was progressing. Within the hour, I received 6 emails from every person at Books For Africa who was working with my shipment, including a very encouraging email from the Executive Director who said they will do everything they can to facilitate us in this process. They immediately asked follow up questions to the situation, offered to write a letter of support on our behalf for the customs officials and change documentation if necessary.

American efficiency, how I've missed thee.

I am beyond frustrated, and as much as I've been trying to contain this frustration, I can no longer bite my tongue. This is not the first time that I've asked myself on what planet I find this project to be a good idea. Yes, it may benefit lots of kids, promote literacy, blah blah blah. But why didn't I just enjoy the quiet village life like most volunteers and simply do small projects?

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we don't HAVE to do anything. We are volunteers after all. But when we do put forth the effort to implement a large-scale project, the support is minimal. The fund-raising process was frustrating as it was, but that was only the beginning of it. The Peace Corps staff who had agreed to help us in this process a year ago has yet contacted me with ways him or the Peace Corps could facilitate. Due to the lack of follow up on his part, I am now left with this ginormous mess in my hand and very little resource or information to resolve the problem.

If the Peace Corps wasn't going to provide the support that we volunteers need to carry out the project, then they should not have approved our project via the Peace Corps Partnership in the first place. Even if Peace Corps had told me they will play no part in the container clearing process from the beginning, then at least I would have had time to plan for private clearance. But now, we are in the worst situation possible, and I want to scream. Nothing worse than someone offering help but do not follow through. I know it's not their fault that the Embassy changed policies, but someone could have found out the change much earlier and informed us.

This is a blog on life as a Peace Corps volunteer, and this is a part of the tribulation that we face. My advice for future volunteers: think carefully before you jump into an ambitious project.

I am holding onto what little bit of faith I have left in me and believing that somehow everything will work out. How? I am not sure. But I don't have a choice, it has to work out. Hoping karma will reward us for the efforts that we have put forth thus far. Hope, that's all I have left, unfortunately.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Retail Therapy

As a way to battle with all the Cameroonian frustration that I've had to dealt with, I've taken up retail therapy once again. The markets in Bafoussam have quite the gem if you are willing to take the time to dig, and deal with obnoxious men who yell ridiculous things and grab your hand in passing. The fripperie sells clothes, shoes, handbags that come from the US, Europe and elsewhere. Most are used, and not great. But sometimes, they have pretty decent things for a great price. I was never into digging for these gems, but now that my days left in Cameroon are marked, I now have more vested interest in finding the goods to take back with me.

The items that you can find in these African markets are absolutely hilarious. They range from cheap plastic, shiny shoes from China, to big poofy, 90's prom dresses, but sometimes, brand new, expensive designer shoes that still have stickers from TJ Maxx on it marking at $29.99. Today, I bought a pair of new BCBG heels for a whopping $14. Also, two skirts from European boutiques and a collar shirt for a total of $10. These are consider more "high-end" products that are being sold in small stalls within the market. There are also vendors who push around a cart with a pile of clothes on them. They look a bit like the bins you see in stores during sales. The other day, I got a crew-cut t-shirt for a total of .... 80 cents!

For my remaining days in Cameroon, I will be spending a lot of time in the market looking for hidden gems and haggling with the bargaining skills that I've honed up over the past two years.

Oh, and if you are wondering what obnoxious things are being yelled at me, here are some examples:
  • mon bébé, viens ici, viens voir! (my babe, come here, come look!)
  • ma chérie, vous êtes belles, hein? vous me mariez? (my darling, you are pretty, marry me?)
  • la blache! la blanche! viens! (white girl, white girl, come!)
  • la chinoise! hee haw (Chinese girl! random sounds that are suppose to be Chinese)
Usually these things are yelled at me in a variety of combination. The obnoxious thing is that even with my poker face on, they'll still yell various things at me for a long time after I've walked away. I used to hate going to the market for this reason. But now I'm more used to it, and also I'm there often enough that some people know me. A good number of the vendors are actually from Batié, so we've became friends. If the guys just yell things at me, I usually just ignore them and keep walking. But the moment they grab my arm or touch me in anyway, then I would turn around and smack them. That works well and the guys around usually get a kick out of it. They laugh at the guy and make him more embarrassed. Double the effect!

Oh the quirks of Cameroonian markets! I've started to find them rather endearing and I will probably miss it in the future. I know I will definitely miss designer shoes for $15 for less!

Cameroonian Fustration

The events of this week has left me totally frustrated with the way things work in this country. I was always aware of the inefficiency, but I do everything in my power to avoid them. This past week, I've had to deal with them first hand. Let me tell you, NOT fun. I grew up in Taiwan and thus was brought up with the Asian efficiency. There were times when I thought Americans were inefficient. All this just makes dealing with Cameroonian inefficiency that much more grueling for me.

I won't go into too much detail on all the mishaps, but I'll mention them in bullet-point forms. Yesterday, it took an hour-long run plus an hour of power yoga for me to get rid of the frustration. I don't need to talk about it in detail and bring that back again. So, in a nutshell:
  • two trips to Bafoussam to meet the new governor and finalize things for the ceremony and storage space. Two trips this week, in addition to many trips before, and still no confirmation on -anything-. The trips/meetings were for the most part pointless. Nothing they couldn't tell my over a phone call. In addition, I STILL don't know who the new governor is.

  • was informed two days ago that the Embassy can no longer clear our container from Books For Africa. Apparently there was a new policy change, and somehow no one informed me. The person in Peace Corps who told me a year ago that he'd help me with the process also had no idea. Did I mention a YEAR?

  • 23,000 books are suppose to come in one week. A ceremony and distribution of books are taking place in two weeks. We still have no idea on the following: how to get the container out of customs, how much it will cost, who will ship it to Bafoussam, if we have a place to store it for sure, the exact process of getting the books where they need to be, exactly how many people are coming to the ceremony, who is preparing for the food, etc. etc. etc. So basically, 95% of everything remains a big question. Yet, for some reason, people don't seem bothered by it. 
I know things will work out, but this whole waiting everything until the last minute way is driving me insane. I am the biggest procrastinator so I know all about putting things off, but not when it involves other people. Two days ago, during one of our pointless meetings, the guy said, "but the 19th is ways away". Did he think the books will sort themselves and the caterer and everything for the ceremony will magically show up? This is precisely how so many "festivals" that suppose to take place in this country turns out to be a bust. Because people apparently feel things will magically appear and organize themselves...

During one of my rides, I finally see why for the most part, Cameroonians are very apathetic. I thought, "I would be, too, if I was a citizen here." Why bother if you have food in your stomach and enough to get by in life? There are so many hoops to jump through in order to get even the most simple task accomplished that it's no wonder people just do what they need to, and let the rest be. Can you blame them? I know there are still plenty of Cameroonians who do care and are striving to make a real difference, and for that, I have a great deal of respect.