Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cameroonian Profiles: Salihou Bouba

Cameroun, 19 Octobre

Moi je m'appele Salihou Bouba et j'ai 19 ans. Je suis Camerounais d'origine. Je vie dans la région du Nord, département du Mayo-Louti plus précisément à Guider. Je suis à l'école de formation (ENIEG/GTTC). Je suis Guidar et la vie est belle chez moi. Tous le monde est respecter même le plus petits et les plus âgés. Le mai traditionnel de chez moi est le zazai. Voulez-vous en savoir plus sur mon pais? Dite mois comment est le votre.

My name is Saihou Bouba and I have 19 years. I am Cameroonian. I live in the North Region, Mayo-Louti Department, and more specifically Guider. I am at the education school. I am Guidar and my life here is beautiful. Everyone is respected, both the young and the old. The traditional recipe for us is zazai. Would you like to know more about my country? Tell me about yours. 

Salihou after basketball pratice

Important Vocab:

ENIEG - These are training schools for soon-to-be teachers. For would-be teachers, the curriculum for ENIEG students is typically two years long after high school. Graduates can be primary or high school teachers and can be assigned to work wherever the Ministry of Education deems necessary (as is customary for all teachers) throughout their careers. 'Affectation,' as they call it in French, is the process by which government workers (or 'fonctionnaires') are moved throughout the country to work based on the demands of each community. This means that a person from the South can be 'affected' to the North (and vice-versa). Given the drastic differences in climates, cultures, and economies between these two parts of the country, it can be quite difficult for a person to adjust to living in a different area. Think of it as being forced to move from your home in New York City to a town with one stoplight in West Texas because that is your only opportunity for employment!

Guidar - This tribe is the namesake for the town where I am posted (Guider). Given how nomadic these tribes once were in the Sahel Region (the transition area between the Sahara Desert and the jungles to the south), there are many different tribes in this area. However, the area in the north of Cameroon was long ago conquered by the Fulbé tribe and as such, most of the population speaks Fulfulde (also called Fulbé) --- though most of the Guidar still speak their language in addition to Fulfulde.

Mai - I couldn't find this in my French or Fulfulde dictionaries, but I'm assuming it is the equivalent of 'repas,' or meal.

Zazai - This is a traditional dish for the local population. Served alongside what the locals call 'couscous,' a ball of starch about the size of your fist made from corn, rice, millet, or manioc, zazai is a leafy-green vegetable that is cut up and made into a sauce with peanut paste and ocra seeds. Saihou's family invited us over to have it for lunch and I can confidently say that the bitter taste could be improved with a little more salt!

About Salihou - The reason I wanted Salihou to write about himself is that his background is quite interesting for an average American, though not all that much different from many here in the north of Cameroon. Salihou and his family come from a nearby small village of less than a thousand residents where his great-grandfather was the Lamido, a traditional leader. Given the royalty in his lineage, Salihou's Father explained that it was necessary for him to have many children --- 17 in total! While more and more Cameroonians (and Africans, in general) are becoming more progressive about family planning to ensure their children are well fed and well educated, many men still use their ability to reproduce as a sign of strength. Fortunately for Salihou, he has had enough resources to finance his education and he will eventually be a teacher, just like many of the siblings that preceded him. As you can imagine, however, not all Cameroonians are as lucky and families such as this cannot afford to adequately feed or educate all of their children. While some would attribute having many children to his family being Muslim, both Christians and Animists are just as likely to have large families here in the Grand North of Cameroon. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cameroonian Profiles: Hawaou

Salut! Je m'appelle HAWAOU. Je suis âgée de 19 ans. Je suis élève au lycée de Guider et je suis dans le Club Journal. Je vis à Guider depuis 20 mois et ma famille est à Garoua. Je vis à Guider avec ma tante paternelle et je suis en classe de terminal allemande. Nous avons fait la rentrée scolaire le 02 Septembre mais pendant la fin du mois je suis tombée malade. J'avais le paludisme sévère donc je n'avais pas le sang. Mais maintenant ça va et je vais déjà beaucoup mieux et j'ai même repris les classes. Si je passe mon baccalauréat je veux devenir journaliste.  

Greetings! My name is Hawaou. I am 19 years old. I am a student at the Guider High School and I am in the Journalism Club. I have lived in Guider for 20 months and my family is in Garoua. I live in Guider with my paternal aunt and I am in my senior year in the German section. We made our return to school on September 2nd, but during the end of the month I fell sick. I had severe malaria because I did not have blood. But now it is ok and I am already doing better and have also returned to class. If I pass my baccalaureate I want to become a journalist.

Hawaou (in red) with her extended family in Guider

Important Vocabulary:

Garoua - Located in the North Region, Garoua has a population of approximately 240,000 people primary hailing from Cameroon and neighbors to the west and east, Nigeria and Chad. While larger and medium-sized industries exist in this relatively large regional capital city, most of the population is still heavily reliant to some degree on farming and/or raising livestock.

Terminal Allemande AND baccalauréat - Cameroon has a long history of colonization before full independence more than fifty years ago. Visited and named by the Portuguese (Rio dos Camaroes, or River  of Shrimp) in the 15th century, it was subsequently colonized by the Germans and eventually by the British and French after World War I. Fifty years later, the remnants of colonization are clearly visible from the names of towns such as Lolodorf to the States' official policy of bilingualism (English and French). As a result, high school students have a relatively wide range of languages from which to choose from, including French, English, German, Spanish, and Arabic. In the case of Hawaou, she is in the German section, though she also has a firm grasp on English and is able to carry on a conversation. At the end of the school year, she will take the German section baccalaureate exam, which will ultimately determine whether she will move on to university.

Le Paludisme - French for malaria, 'le paludisme' is one of the most debilitating sicknesses one can regularly contract in Cameroon. To the frustration of all, one can only hope to prevent contraction through use of things such as mosquito nets, bug spray, proper clothing, or mosquito coils. In Hawaou's case, she was quite ill and spent five days in the hospital last month. Fortunately for her, we collectively contributed to pay her hospital bills and she received the necessary care in order to fully recover. However, many Cameroonians lack the money to pay hospital bills and thus, cannot go to the hospital, or alternatively, they seek traditional remedies.

Hawaou helping with our world map project in Guider
About Hawaou - The reason I wanted Hawaou to write about herself is that I believe she is a great example of a typical Cameroonian high school student (though her grades are quite exceptional). As mentioned above, she is originally from Garoua, but is now living with her father's sister in Guider. From a Muslim family, Hawaou is the oldest of five children and has been a critical member of the group of extended family members who provide care to her wheelchair-bound Aunt. As this is the same family with which I share a compound, I have been told stories about how strict her father was with her schooling from an early age, so much so that she had a tutor most days of the week after school, in addition to the extra exercises that her father assigned every day. This sort of discipline has translated into her earning some of the best grades among her peers and rarely, if ever, results in her being assigned manual labor around the school in the form of cleaning up trash or picking the weeds. On the home front, she shares the responsibility of cleaning the house, and can prepare any number of delicious Cameroonian dishes. Though only 19 years old, she demonstrates these fine-tuned culinary skills by turning a freshly-killed chicken into a delicious meal without writhing in disgust or breaking a sweat in a little more than an hour. Provided she passes her baccalaureate exam and can find time to become more familiar composing essays and articles on the computer, we look forward to reading what she has to report as a journalist! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Father's Day!

Hi Jack - 

I work in the Communications office here at headquarters in DC. We’re working on a Father’s Day story and thought of you and your father, since in the story that was recently published by UC, it mentioned that you both served in Peace Corps. Can you tell me a little more about how your father influenced your decision to join, and what is like to follow in his footsteps as a PCV? Have you found it beneficial to have someone that understands the experience? Has he/is he planning to visit?

Feel free to answer any or all of these questions, and add anything else you think might be interesting.



Hi Mary!

Thanks for the email, great hearing from you. No worries on the late notice, I just happened to come in this weekend to run the regional VAC meeting --- so your timing was good. Without trying to set the tone on a somber note, my Dad passed away from complications with leukemia in March 2008. This was at a time between which I had given up my career as a baseball player to come home and help with the family while also looking to move on to a career in finance and international business --- keep in mind that I was not alone in putting my career on hold, as everyone in the family made a similar choice. Believe it or not, I distinctly remember how quickly he rebuffed my ideas of doing something like the Peace Corps or Teach For America when we had such conversations in the hospital. He had seen how well my brother was doing with Ernst & Young (E&Y) and how it allowed him to get comfortable, find a wife, settle down, etc. and he wanted to see me plot a similar trajectory in my early years after school and baseball. After assessing the options, I ended up taking an offer from E&Y where after they sent me to grad school on their dime and gave me a job with a 4-year commitment. It was the day that I passed the GMAT and gained entrance to Notre Dame (and thus, earned the position at E&Y) that he passed away. He was in and out of consciousness at that point, but my family said he was very proud and happy that was to become my near future.

GLN, Liberia 1967-69 
Despite being one of the most well-read and eloquent writers I will probably ever know personally - he was a journalist and worked in public relations his entire career - in addition to having a tremendously diverse range of experiences that surprised many of our friends upon his passing, he was very humble and quiet about what he was able to do in 63 years. And it was through that time we spent together as a family in the hospital that allowed us to learn about how influential his experience as a PCV in Liberia was on his life. He certainly told stories about living in a mud-walled house with a tin roof when we were growing up, but I could never before recall him talking about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to his classes in Liberia, and how emotional of a time that was for him. Three years, one CPA earned, and countless cubicle hours later, I started thinking about his story and how I would remember such world events. Where would I be and what would I be doing when some of the most historic and transformational world events occurred in my lifetime? When I'm in my 60's and reflect on the past, was I going to look back on my earlier years and be able to recall the things I was doing at any given point in my life? In knowing that although the previous few years as a CPA were challenging and provided me with an opportunity to meet and work with some of the most talented and dedicated people in the field of accounting, I was not fully convinced that I would be satisfied looking back on these years without taking the opportunity to do something like the Peace Corps. 

After arriving in Cameroon a little more than one year ago, I have thought on several occasions that although my Dad may have not immediately warmed to the idea of leaving my job as a CPA for the Peace Corps, he would have likely been studying French soon after I received my invitation while preparing to be the first one in the family to get on the plane to make a visit. Never one to avoid a good conversation, he would have greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to discuss both the similarities and differences between his service and mine. I can just imagine him teasing me about how spoiled I am to have regular running water and electricity at my house in Guider, as compared to the few amenities he was dealt in Shelloe. And it would have certainly been a great conversation talking about the similarities I have found in teaching while helping out the occasional high school English class. 

Talk to you soon and have a great weekend! 



Monday, April 1, 2013

March Madness (Part I)

With what would have seemed like a huge mess to someone else, I vividly remember the stacks of my belongings scattered about the floor of my condo's second bedroom last May. It was an arduous task prioritizing what to bring and what to leave behind. I'd pack up two bags with yet still some important things left out, so I'd unpack and re-prioritize. Despite this vicious cycle that carried on during the days preceding my departure, the few things that never made it close to the chopping block were two baseball gloves, two balls, and a bat.  I expected to face some challenges to introduce baseball in a soccer-crazed nation (or continent, for that matter), but I was steadfast in my ambition to share the game with a population that had only the slightest understanding of its existence in the first place. But as well intentioned as this idea seemed to be, it was quickly apparent that a full-fledged baseball operation here would be nearly impossible to sustain at the end of my service given the various cultural, geographical, and financial obstacles presented.

While my first experiences with baseball in Bafia were successful in that the kids were openly curious and endlessly enthusiastic about hitting, catching, and throwing a baseball, any additional participation above the use of what little equipment I brought (or had mailed to me) from the States always left a cadre of would-be baseballers on the sidelines. Sure, we could certainly write letters and employ the help of the baseball do-gooders around the world, but obvious logistical questions stood in the way. How much would it cost? How long would it take to get here? And most importantly, would there be enough stuff for the lefties so we don't leave them out? However, the secondary questions were similarly difficult to answer and bothered me the most. Where are we going to play?  Who are they going to play against? Will the program last beyond my service?  After all of this consideration, I convinced myself that it would probably be better to get things started on the basketball court.   Do be sure to check out my 'brother's' website though, as PC Cameroon's Original John Jack has established a well-oiled machine of a baseball program up in Kaele, Extreme North --- http://diamondsforcameroon.blogspot.com/.

Getting Started

Of the two basketball courts in Guider, the one most frequented is at the largest of the three lycées and is less than a five minute walk from my house. During those first couple months at post it vaguely resembled a basketball court only because the rims were round and rested ten feet above the ground and the backboards were rectangular with a black square painted in the center. Otherwise, there were no nets, the lines of the court were badly faded, and a wheelbarrow's worth of dirt, sand, and garbage needed to be swept off of it. Then shortly after the first ball and two nets arrived fresh from the USA thanks to Mom, the local children came to enjoy the look and sound of the ball every time it tumbled through the basket and have been showing up to play almost every day of the week since then.  

Net installation
As with almost every Peace Corps project or activity, two of the most challenging aspects of our work is finding the money and generating sufficient enthusiasm from the local population. Without both of these, any project is doomed from the outset. In the case of our basketball club, it has been an uphill battle because it is unrealistic to expect that a principal with overcrowded classrooms and an understaffed faculty would pay more than an occasional visit to the basketball court. With that in mind, my request to participants was for us to be well organized in our practices while taking care of the court we have, regardless of its condition. As such, we began sharing the responsibility to sweep off the court once per week --- typically before a 6:00 am weekend practice --- and we would also emphasize the importance of showing up on time with tennis shoes. Then, perhaps after demonstrating such commitment, we could then talk to the principal about the severely slanted rim and badly faded lines on the court.    

Taking care of our business, sweeping the court
Practice Time

Four months and countless hours of practice time later, it would be hard to imagine a more enthusiastic group of young kids on a basketball court. Admittedly, it isn't the hardest thing to encourage children to play sports here in Cameroon, as it only takes ten minutes of shooting on the court by myself before ten kids are standing nearby to watch hoping to play as well, but I have found it to be quite remarkable on certain days to be walking to the basketball court before our 4:00 pm start time only to see them already running warm-up laps. In what is typically an 'African Time' mentality, in that most meetings and appointments routinely begin several minutes or hours after originally intended, many of our practices have started either on 'American Time' or shortly before that.

As was described more eloquently in a recent article about the infrastructure and existence of good coaching of basketball here in Africa --- which can be found here --- our group of kids were, and still very much are, behind the rest of the developed world in this regards. Most had trouble dribbling with both hands, could not make a simple lay-up, nor did they have an idea about how to shoot a proper jump shot. However, with that generous supply of basketballs from home, which was supplemented by two additional balls from the North Region's Sports Delegue, we started from the bottom up with drills suited for the most basic level of basketball skills. Dribbling squares, relay races, form shooting, and passing drills.

Young basketballer fundamentals: form shooting and dribble squares
One of the biggest personal challenges, without a doubt, was having to do all of this in a language that can still be classified as a type of fran-glish. Some of the most necessary and basic words and phrases are drilled into our head during our language training at the beginning of service, but teaching a lay-up drill is not all that high on the list when compared to 'where is the bathroom,' 'can you give me directions to the bank,' or 'what is the price of that giant bottle of ice cold castel be...errrr coca-cola?' Without a doubt, it has been my stumbling and bumbling in french while teaching technical basketball drills and proper fundamentals that have provided the most comic relief to the youth of Guider. How to make a bounce-pass, jumping off your left foot for a right-handed lay-up, and staying with your assigned player while on defense are only a few of the things I have had to learn in french over the last several months. However, I would be lying if I said the whole program would have been just as effective without the help of a dedicated lycée-aged student who has volunteered his time to be as much of a coach as I have since the beginning.   

David, the other coach for the young basketballers
The Teams

As is the case for young athletes back in the States, the youth of Cameroon similarly have an opportunity to play sports via two different avenues: school teams and club teams. However, it is through the regular training for the club teams that ultimately determine the best players for each of the teams at the primary and lycée schools. In the case for our club, it was decided that all of our training would work towards what is arguably the year's biggest event for youth sports, FENASSCO, the organized tournament at each of the departmental, regional, and national levels. With that in mind, the days of the week were divided such that each level would have a chance to train together in advance of the tournament.

This was a simple plan that seemingly could not be complicated by anything outside of an occasional torrential downpour or scorching heat, but I have since learned that excuses and general apathy can be present in youth here in Cameroon just the same as they are back in the States. Granted, the older of the two teams often is filled with those who generally have more homework and responsibility around the house than their younger siblings, but it was quite a struggle to have regular and consistent practices with the same group of kids. Weekend practices at 6:00 am often started late and were rarely attended by the best players --- and keep in mind that it was a 6:00 am start at their request! For any coach or teacher, their excuses must sound familiar: 'I have too much homework,' or 'I was doing my chores,' or 'my house is all the way on the other side of town.' Furthermore, it was noticeably more difficult to get these players to take any instructional tips to improve their fundamentals. Pick-up games regularly devolved into bad impressions of NBA highlights, countless three-point airballs (even though all airballs carry a penalty of five push-ups), and bickering back and forth about who fouled who. Should have figured that when I started working with teenagers, I guess.  

The lycée team
Adolescent rebellion aside, the youngest of our two teams is certainly the model by which the success of our club can be measured. With what started as a group of kids that were furious at me for kicking them off the basketball court because it was being used as a soccer pitch, we soon evolved into that enthusiastic cadre of crazed basketballers that I mentioned at the beginning. I'm not sure if it was the strangeness of finally having their own dedicated time and place on the court, as opposed to being relegated to the sidelines of the 'big boy's' game all these years (for any and every sport), but this group has shown me how much fun coaching can be when kids are willing to dive in head-first. 

Game Time

Since arriving in country, I have seen children play all types of sports such as handball, volleyball, gymnastics, and martial arts. And with the exception of volleyball, which requires a specific ball and a formally constructed net (but can still be played on a dirt surface), I can see why these sports (along with soccer) have become so popular: the barriers to entry are very low. Handball doesn't require anything more complicated than does soccer, and gymnastics or martial arts can be done with no equipment at all. As for basketball, a court with baskets must be constructed, and one must often go to a far away regional capital to find an adequate ball. And it is those barriers to entry that required each of our two teams to play only one qualification game to make it to the regional tournament --- as the two other major towns in our department do not have basketball teams.

Standing in our way was the owner of the only other basketball court here in Guider, a males-only private seminary school of about 110 students. To give some perspective, I regularly help out in english class at the largest lycée with classes in excess of 110 students. Needless to say, regardless of their selectivity in choosing their student body, both of our teams should have been able to dominate these private schoolers on size and athletic ability alone. In theory.

As could have been predicted by anyone paying attention during our months of training before my older team's game against the seminary school, my kids brought the same arrogance and overconfidence to the game as they had brought to practice. And in what was perfectly representative of this overconfidence, we nearly forfeited the match because most of the team did not arrive on time. This ended up being perfect foreshadowing for what was to come over the next four quarters, as the lure of beating the big boys from the big school drove those private schoolers to out-hustle and out-play us such that we had little chance of a comeback after just three quarters of basketball.

As one would expect with what was an embarrassing loss, blame was thrown in every direction, especially at me for making inappropriate substitutions. I would certainly agree with them in that doing so did not put the most talent on the court, but I felt it was necessary to award playing time to guys that had shown up consistently for training. If we were going to lose, I would rather do it with guys that put in the work, as opposed to those who only showed up on game day. The one parting shot to the team when I was finally able to distract them from all the finger pointing, was that in the same way one wouldn't expect to receive a passing grade on a test without studying, one shouldn't expect to win a game without practicing. Having seen the other team celebrate a well-earned victory with what was at least half of their student body watching courtside, I was surprisingly happy for them because it was apparent that they put in the hard work beforehand.

As for our younger team, its easy enough to say that they took care of business. Like their older brothers, they were bigger and more talented, however, they used it in such a way that could not be overcome by another scrappy team of private schoolers. I don't remember the score exactly, though it wasn't at all close, but our kids were justifiably elated in the victory. And while I'm not sure how many times my other coach and I said it to each other during the preceding months, it was quite obvious how far this group had come since those first few weeks of constantly missed lay-ups and inability to dribble with both hands.  So after all of that hard work and training, Guider would be sending a primary school team to the North Region FENASSCO "B" tournament for the first time.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Fête du Mouton

Looking all the way back to the end of October, the weekend of the 27th to be exact, the most distinct memory I have from celebrating the Muslim holiday Fête du Mouton, or 'Tabaski,' as it is called in many Francophone Africa countries, is the variety of different foods unlike anything I'm likely to consume after my Peace Corps service.  With what ended up being an accurate prediction that I may not be writing for whatever reason --- in this case, a busted computer was to blame --- my notes about what I ate during the fête could be confused with a buffet compiled by a Cameroonian, Forrest Gump, and a young bachelor scratching together whatever is left in the cupboard. The weekend's menu consisted of popcorn, ginger & folere juice, cake, beef, prawn chips, a dozen coca-colas (at least), rice & sardines in tomato sauce, tea made with cloves & lots of sugar, beignets, and almost every part of the mouton, including the intestines, tongue and brain. I imagine its hard to think about eating all of this, however, the cultural nuances accompanying this series of all-you-can-eat meals made me think more about how interesting it was to take part in the weekend's celebration, as opposed to trying to identify the dish that would have me running for the medicine cabinet.

As we do with most of our big events and holidays back in the States, the people here wear their best clothes and spend the day with family and friends, with the major difference being that most of the population here remain loyal to the typical five daily prayer sessions. Sadly, I missed what would have certainly been a great photo opportunity at one of the large mosques in town during the first prayer of the day when the men form a large group of organized rows and columns to pray together. Even after several months at post, I still find it very interesting to observe the concentration one has during this series of standing, kneeling and touching the top of his or her forehead on the ground while inaudibly repeating the prayers echoing from the speakers stationed high up on the mosque's minarets. And if a few lingering specks of dirt on one's forehead after the prayer aren't enough for you to identify one coming from prayer, many also have a permanent dark spot in the same place as permanent evidence of this devotion.

Collection on loan from James (pictured top right) in Mokolo, as he was smart enough to get pictures.  Very interesting to see the varying colors of the clothes, the synchronization of movements during prayer, and the elaborate outfit worn by the Lamido (the traditional chief) shown at bottom right.  

Before leaving my compound that morning, I was mid-preparation of my oatmeal when my Cameroonian family began their holiday weekend together in the area that separates our houses. And unfortunately for the mouton that had been roaming the compound freely for the past several months (pictured below), most of the activity was related to the preparation and consumption of as many parts of the animal as possible. The first order of business, however, was the dirty work of turning a live mouton into a not-so-alive mouton. As with all animals destined for a Muslim family's dinner table, each must be Halal, which generically speaking, is kind of like what Kosher is to the Jewish faith. As a result, my Cameroonian brother and the overnight guardian quietly gathered the white-haired mouton in the far corner of the compound, recited a prayer, and efficiently (and quietly) dressed the animal in a way that surprisingly seemed far more respectful and humane than carelessly grabbing something set on styrofoam and wrapped in plastic on the grocery store shelf.

Thanks, little buddy.
While this was certainly an interesting start to the day, the ensuing parade of food and drink over the next two days was something that has me counting down the days until this year's fête. Lunch at a friend's house seemed to be the complete inverse of how a typical meal is served, as cake, prawn chips, and sugary juices were served before the beef and mouton entrées. One plate after the next was an introduction to something different, all of which left me wondering why each wasn't more regularly served in the United States. After the parade of delicious entrées were finished, we took some time to visit with my friend's family. Though many Americans may find it strange the number of different branches from one family tree residing under one roof, it is more often than not to meet any combination of nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters, grandchildren, grandparents, and even multiple wives, all living together. In the case of my friend, two of his little brothers are living with him while finishing school in Guider, in addition to his two young boys and wife.  After a short time visiting with them, I excused myself so they could spend the rest of the holiday without my sloppy French and my socially frowned-upon use of the left hand while eating.

The next stop along the tour was another friend's house nearby, though this celebration could not have been any more different than the first. In what previously was a rotating menu of food and drinks alone with my friend at the first celebration, I was met with a large group of people and was served plate after plate of the most simple, yet perfectly prepared mouton --- in this amateur gastonomist's opinion, that is --- paired with round after round of cold Coke from glass bottles. It was at this friend's house where I was able to see more of the nuances of Cameroonian hospitality. Even with what seemed to be a constantly revolving door of friends and family, or the random sprinkling of people my friend admitted to not knowing at all who simply came to say 'bonne fête,' I would be surprised if even one of them wasn't offered food or drink. The rest of the afternoon was spent in a mouton and Coke-induced state of semi-consciousness, and highlighted by a twenty minute stretch whereby I was watching some of the most R-rated parts of 'Forgetting Sarah Marshall' with a middle-aged Cameroonian woman who probably understood about as much English as I do Arabic. Awkward moments foster vivid memories, that's for sure.

As for the rest of the weekend, the ensuing list of recipes shared with my family could be read by the prototypical American elementary schooler with the same amount of enthusiasm as brussel sprouts or cauliflower. If you were to tell me that sardines drenched in a tomato sauce accompanied by rice --- all of which was served on a giant platter with seven spoons --- would be the least exotic meal I would eat the entire weekend, I would have said you were crazy. Beignets and chai tea for breakfast? Normal. But add a soup made with the heard of the mouton? Not normal. Braided intestines, pieces of the esophagus, and lastly, the brain? Not normal, and no, none of it tasted like chicken. But since I've had more than enough time to reflect on everything I was invited to eat, none of which I ever thought about eating before coming to Cameroon, I would be more than happy and satisfied to have the exact set of meals for the 2013 celebration.  

Lastly, thanks to the remnants of superstitions learned from a lifetime in baseball, was the family's burial of the mouton's horns within the compound (the other mouton with horns, which was given away to neighbors, was not pictured above).  In order to ensure a happy, healthy and safe year ahead, says my newest Cameroonian Mother, it is important to fill the horns with a traditional blend of ingredients before burying them to start the clock on this year's good luck. And given the luck I received during 2012 in getting invited to work in Cameroon and finding new friends in the Peace Corps and new branches on my own family tree in Bafia and in Guider, I will probably need all the help I can get in 2013 to try and top that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Culture (and other...stuff)

Another month is in the books here at post, making for a total of 138 days in-country thus far, and daily life in Guider has taken on a fairly predictable daily routine with a smattering of cultural nuances that can occur even before I step out the door in the morning.  Take, for instance, my first bout with stomach issues after a respectable run of almost four months (there’s a pun in there somewhere).  After a trip to the hospital and pharmacy the day before to dispense a ‘sample’ for testing and to buy some cipro for the malady, my family’s aging overnight guardian, who has a reliably upbeat demeanor every day, was waiting on the front step of my house at 6am to dispense some traditional medicine of his own.  Secrets are hard to keep around here, I guess, but I accept my family’s willingness to publicize my sickness as a sign of caring.  The remedy itself, which resembled the tobacco from a cigarette emptied into a wooden bowl of water, was only slightly less interesting than the process required to take it.  In the spirit of all the other food and drinks I receive from my family here, I assumed this was a quick drop-off and I could take my time on the consumption end.  Wrong.  It was at the same time that I reached out to take the bowl from him that he stepped into my house as if to say ‘the doctor is now on duty.’  As he told me to drink, once again I reached out for the bowl just before he lifted and tilted it towards me to drink at his command.  One small sip and then he pulled it back in close to his chest, chanted a prayer, which we then repeated twice more.  He then dipped his hand in the water and wiped a bit of water on my face, the front and back of my arms and legs, and my chest and back.  He declared the ritual complete with a Ça va and then headed back to his post out front.  While the Peace Corps regional coordinator suggested that I should have just pretended to take sips – probably a smart suggestion given that the water certainly wasn’t boiled or filtered – but it was still too early in the day to consider such practical matters. 

Staying in the compound with my family, I was also stuck for a week without any gas for my stove with which to make my precious coffee and (slightly less important) food.  As is the case for almost everywhere else in the world, the things you really need here in Cameroon are plentiful when you don’t need them, but are scarce when you do – in this case, it was the bottle of gas.  That left me overly dependent on four food sources that I have come to know and love here in Guider: beans & beignets (breakfast-lunch), street meat (lunch-dinner), grilled fish (dinner) and pity plates from my Cameroonian family (lunch-dinner).  Culturally, they still think its hilarious that I cook my own food and clean my clothes, dishes, and the house.  Anyways, the beans & beignets are a fairly simple, yet delicious, meal of beans and spices that are supplemented by fried dough balls that vary in size depending on the amount of dough ripped out of the giant mixing bowls by the Momma’s hand before dropping them into a vat of boiling oil.  The latest beignet Momma I’ve been visiting in the morning, now that I’m branching out from the comfort of the market Momma that speaks English, has been very amused by my greetings in the local language and rewards me by having her toddler deliver the golf ball sized beignets to me one-by-one.  Probably a good method to get a kid used to seeing a white person around, as it isn’t strange for little ones to start crying uncontrollably when I show up --- usually that draws a pretty good laugh from everyone around.  Only 200 FCFA later, or around $0.40, and I could probably go the entire day without eating again.  

Most of the dishes handed over from my family, however, are a slightly different affair that requires a minimum skill of utensil-free eating that I have yet to acquire.  Further complicating the issue is that eating with the left hand is widely considered to be a no-no because many people, uh, clean ‘stuff’ with their main gauche.  Not a good start for a natural lefty, but based on the tutorial I received from the family not long after my arrival, the process is clear.  In the case of the meal pictured below, which is couscous and a slimy green sauce called Boko (not sure how to spell it, exactly), the steps are easy:

1.       Wash hands
2.       Tear off small piece of couscous
3.       Shape couscous into ball and flatten it with thumb
4.       Dip couscous into slimy sauce and try to get as much of it as possible
5.       Eat and repeat until all is done
6.       Wash hands


In the case for my first time eating couscous and Boko, I also watched Return of the Jedi from start to finish for the first time.  And that’s all I have to say about that.    

Also included in the long list of plates and snacks that I have been given are candied peanuts, peanut sauce & baton de manioc (pictured below), Cameroonian gumbo, dried unshelled peanuts, and a paste-like melon dish (pictured below, at right).  Perhaps its an inherent willingness to try almost anything, but I appreciate and enjoy receiving the occasional knock on my door accompanied by a plate of something new and different.  And now that I’ve been living for a couple months in a compound with four Cameroonian women, one elementary school-aged girl, and an six month old baby boy (all pictured below), I think we could scrap together a better sitcom than what some network execs have been pushing in recent years.  

Baton de manioc with peanut sauce and a melon dish

The newest family.  In the Cameroonian tradition, there are two grandkids, two nieces and one daughter in law all surrounding Grandma in the middle.  Perhaps the only TC Beach Bums baby gear on the continent?

Food and family aside, the cultural aspects of the Peace Corps experience are interesting and fun, but can also be unpleasant at times.  Of the most interesting and unique, in my opinion, is our good fortune to have our big market day on Friday here in Guider, the most important prayer day of the week for Muslims – though all days are important to them, as demonstrated by the requirement that they pray five times per day at 4:30, 13:30, 15:30, 18:00, and 19:30 (ish).  Except for the large cities such as Yaoundé, or the regional capitals such as Maroua and Garoua, which have busy markets every day, most other towns and villages designate one day every week to have everyone gather in the market to buy and sell goods ranging from produce to knock-off designer shoes to buckets of all sizes.  Compared to any other day in the market, the one in Guider probably has a couple thousand more people coming from neighboring villages that fill the streets, alleys, and boutiques to near capacity.  And when the call to prayer beckons over the loudspeakers around 13:15, both merchants and shoppers alike take a break and grab a piece of earth to pray near the largest mosque in town.  I would estimate that the crowd of men gathering to pray (women pray in private) is at least 600-700, the sight of which is quite remarkable as they spill into the streets to stop traffic during their synchronized sequence of standing up, kneeling, and touching their forehead to the edge of their prayer mats.  Hopefully I’ll be able to get a picture from above of everyone gathered for prayer before my two years are over, as it would certainly make for a better one than I managed to snap a few weeks ago.   

Friday afternoon prayer time in Guider

On the less than enjoyable side of market day here in Guider, there will always be a certain amount of riff-raff that comes with having so many more people in town.  At this point, most of the shop vendors and many of the regular market visitors are accustomed to seeing me a few times per week.  On the other hand, the youth from the surrounding villages see me as a pretty good target for theft and not surprisingly, they managed to make off with my cell phone last month by sneaking a hand into my pocket when I was walking through the market.  While I employed the help of some friends in the market to call my recently departed phone, which was answered with the thief’s question of “do you want the phone or the SIM cards” --- I said BOTH, naturally --- I received neither and wound up buying a new phone a few days later.  Its all part of the deal here, as its not possible for the only white guy in town to be anonymous while walking through the market, so I’ll just have to be more aware going forward.  No suggestions needed, folks, everyone has already given me their suggestions about avoiding bandits.   

On the lighter side, I also managed to get a picture of the town’s best street sign on my way home from one Friday market.  Its good to know that no matter how many times I spend a couple hundred FCFA more than I should have for a pineapple, or how many times a young kid yells “hee-haw” at me, I’ll still get in a laugh on my way home…even though I will have to seek out another location if nature calls.

Don't go...don't