Welcome to my new life in Africa…

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Water




“Merci. Grand Merci. Grand Merci.” He had been holding my hand for two straight minutes, which is the normal, awkward amount of time I had gotten used to in Cameroon. But it wasn’t the man-on-man hand holding that was getting to me, it was the fact that I swore this guy didn’t like me. Here was this 18 year old kid who rolled his eyes1 every time I asked him to fix something at my house and now, after 18 months of ignoring me, he was sharing the most private of family history. He had lost two nephews in in 2007, a sister in 2009 and had just come back from a funeral for his youngest brother, all from water-borne illness. He told me that he didn’t think I could actually do it. Their elites (leaders) had promised they would fix these wells for over 10 years with no results. People were skeptical when I arrived: I was a young, white guy, fresh from the west. I didn’t know Africa, I didn’t know development, I didn’t know them. He was right. I didn’t. But I stuck it out. I ate with them, laughed with them, and most of all, learned how to work with them. And now I was seeing the results of all the pain and sacrifice that comes with an experience like this. After a year and a half of setting up committees, organizing meetings, finding engineers and pushing people to know their responsibilities, we had working wells. We had water. We had life. The look in his eye as he was thanking me was best moment I have had in this country. It was a look of understanding, an understanding that life would be la little less filled with the misery of illness, the misery of small coffins and crying mothers, the misery of death. It was a look I will never forget.

It is finished! We have two functioning wells and a system by which to keep them maintained. The villagers seem happier and are starting to treat me differently. Like the kid from the story above, they had seen so many promises broken that they were skeptical it could actually happen. Now that it is done, they are starting to treat me like a village leader. This feels great in a way, but I have tried to stress to them that I am leaving, so they cannot come to depend on me. That’s why we have set up a system by which they can take care of the wells on their own. Many people complain that they have to pay a yearly maintenance fee to use the forages, but I think they are starting to understand that with this fee, they will have money to maintain the wells so they won’t have to depend on the elites anymore. Along with that, I paid to have two mechanics trained on how to fix wells, in order to make the situation more self-sufficient.

It’s a strange feeling to have it all done. We will have to make small adjustments to the wells over the next six months, so there is still more to do but the big part is over. It’s satisfying but also a bit frightening at the same time. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I leave, but I pray that they will keep them working. I have tried my hardest to make sure that will happen, but I am just that white guy, fresh from the west (well, I guess not so fresh anymore) So I ask anyone reading this to keep that in your thoughts and prayers.

Sorry that this is my first post in about 8 months, but I will try harder in the future :) Just wanted to let everyone know whats happening with the wells.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

All by myself...

One thing that I did not anticipate when coming here is the shear amount of isolation involved with being a PC volunteer. I mean, sure, I live in a village of thousands of people, have both Cameroonian and American friends, and am able to travel to see people when I bank or do combined projects. Yet, I have never felt more isolated in my life. It is both good and bad; I’ll give you a rundown on some of its aspects:

-I have found that I am not just talking to myself, but having some of the best self-conversations of my life, with most of them ending in either satisfying compromise or punches (not the most stable relationship)

-I have read over 30 books so far, which I am very proud of (especially since I am not the fastest reader). If you want to know background information on Benjamin Franklin or just where that Red October ended up, I am your man.

-I have spent afternoons lying on my couch thinking up ways to freak kids out here (the disappearing thumb trick does wonders in Cameroon)

-I have invisible conversations with people back home. That’s right, I have probably had a stimulating discussion of art or politics with YOU at some point here and you found me both charming and imaginative.

-Can you point to where Easter Island, Uzbekistan, and Lichtenstein are on a map? In less than 10 seconds? I can. Boo-ya.

-I bought a radio thinking I could listen to some news. Instead, I have convinced myself that if I listen to Chinese pop songs for two hours a day, I will come out of this place with yet another language under my belt.

-Who knows all the words to Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”? This guy.

And people said I wouldn’t gain any valuable skills here…

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What did you say?

As I step onto my porch, I gaze at the mountains that divide my small village in the “middle of no-where” Cameroon from that behemoth called Nigeria. I think to myself how strange it is to be here. I don’t know why I think this since this place has become my reality. I have largely forgotten the boredom of sitting in traffic on some freeway or the smells as I stand in line waiting for a burger (though the latter I am patiently waiting to be reminded of somewhat soon). Now what is on my mind is the task of the day: I must remind all those who will be participating in my water committee to come. The two previous meetings were a failure with only a few people showing. But I have a good feeling about this one. I think I have finally picked those who truly care whether Nyamboya has proper drinking water or not. So I leave my porch, preparing myself for the circus of languages that is my life in village.
As I walk past some palm trees near my house, my Kwandja neighbors greet me. “Manini (how are you)?”, they ask in the local Kwandja Language. “Jonti (all is fine)! Manier (how is your health)?”, I respond. “Jonti!”, they call back while in fits laughter. They are still so pleased and intrigued that this “nassara” (white man) has learned some of their language. As I round yet another mango tree, I pass a local boutique owner. As a man of the Muslim Fulbe tribe, he is wearing an outfit that looks like it came straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. He greets me in fullfullde with a “Jamna (how are you)?”. The Fulbe are funny because whenever they greet you, they ask a ton of questions. It usually goes like this: “Noy Somri (how is your health)?” with the other person responding “Jam (fine)”, “Jam Saare Na (How is your house)?” with the other person responding “Jam”, “Noy Deebo (how is your wife)?” with the other person responding “Jam”, Noy Binkoy (How are your children)?” with the other person responding “Jam” and so on and so on for what sometimes seems like minutes. When I tell this particular man “walla deebo, walla binkoy (I do not have a wife or children)” he laughs and laughs, as per usual, and tells me he will find me some good wives (notice the plural). I cut the introductions short because I have business by saying “Jam ko-du-mee (everything is fine)” and “sey yea so (see you soon)”. As I pass through the field in front of the Catholic Church on my way to the market, I see the local priest, Father Andre. I call out “Bon Jour (good morning)” and approach him. He has been instrumental in helping me plan this water meeting and we converse in French for about 10 or 15 minutes about what going we are going to say. I leave him with an “a bientot” and head towards the market. When I reach the market, I go see my favorite bread guy. He comes from the English speaking part of the country but, unfortunately for me, only speaks pidgin English. “How for you?”, he asks with his somewhat creepy smile. “I de fine”, I respond and then say “I wakka for bread (I would like to purchase some bread)”. Cameroonian pidgin English, or at least the stuff they speak in my village, is a strange mix of german, local patwas and English. You hear it and it sounds like you should be able to understand it, but you don’t. I part with a “small time (see you soon)”, for I have many more people to speak many more languages with.
This is one of the things that I really like about my village: the fact that I can get up and speak five different languages during the day, even if, besides French and normal English, I only know some basic phrases.
That day ended with my first successful water committee meeting and the thought that if I leave this place with anything, it will be the language and culture I have learned here. For there is so much of both.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Meflotripping

Recently I attended a Peace Corps meeting in a city about 2 days travel from me called Ngoundere. Before this meeting, I knew that something was up with my body and I had come to link it with the Malaria medication I take called Mephloquine (def not spelled right). I had been having terrible nightmares involving large spiders over and over again and people had been telling me that I was acting out in my sleep. However, these side effects took a turn for the worse at this meeting.

The first night, I came back and my roommate was already asleep and sprawled out across the bed. After pushing him over and claiming a sliver of the bed for myself, I attempted to fall asleep. Five minutes later he proceeded to shake me, yelling “Qui est la?! Qui est la?!” (“Who is there?!”). After a few minutes of shaking him out of his dream-state and convincing him I was me, he rolled over without saying a word. The next day, I woke up kind of excited to tell my roommate about how badly his sleep had treated me the previous night. He told me that he didn’t remember a thing about it but he did have a story for me. He told me that he woke up in the middle of the night, turned over, and there I was sitting Indian-style, my head over his, just staring at him. I then shook him, asked him why he was in my room, and told him to get out. He then had to do the same thing I did and convince me it was all OK and to go back to sleep. I don’t remember any of this.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, a few nights later I had another incident. That night, my roommate asked me to exchange rooms with another girl for reasons you can imagine. The next day, her roommate said she had a story for me. Apparently, she awoke around 3 AM, turned over, and I was just staring at her. I then proceeded to grab her wrists and say “Small time quick!! Small time quick!!” while trying to push her off the bed and out of the room. After yelling at her in pidgin English (all these languages are really coming in handy), I accused her of being a Cameroonian prostitute and ordered her off my bed. Again, I don’t remember any of this. As you can imagine, as soon as I got back to Peace Corps headquarters, I asked the medical staff if I could switch medications and they obliged.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My work so far

I saw a two-year old boy die last week. It was interesting what went through my mind as I stood in his hospital room and his mother, with tears streaming down her cheek, wrapped him in a cloth, bundled him against her breast, and walked out as his father gathered the men of the quarter to bury his son. I knew I was going to have to deal with this kind of thing before coming to this remote part of the African plains, but I didn’t really know what it was going to be like. It’s something to see death in Africa through the lens of television but a whole other experience to watch a child die whose mother has fed you, laughed with you but also angered you. I did not know this family very well but they were no different than my neighbors: a family struggling to feed their seven children while trying to avoid the disease and dangers which suck the life from so many here. Unfortunately, this family failed. Their son died from a water-born illness which caused severe diarrhea and his family waited too long to bring him to the health center due to lack of money.

Sorry if this post is a downer but I wanted to tell this story because it is directly related to the two projects I have started so far. Here they are:

1) Nyamboya is well known for having terrible water (I have actually gotten sick twice so far from different water-borne illnesses). Normally, many Cameroonians get their drinking water from a pump well, which in my village is a well that has a foot pump that you use to bring water from deep under ground to a tap made of metal tubes. The water that comes from pump wells is much safer to drink than water from an open well. However, two out of four of these pumps are broken in my village which means hundreds of families drink straight from the open wells (which is what you normally think a well looks like). So I have taken up the task of not only fixing these wells but designing a system to keep them maintained after I leave. The first step is to build walls so that the wells are not overused or overly played with by children (the main reason they broke in the first place). I have convinced the leaders of the community to use their own money to build these walls (it is important that a community uses some of their own money and time to help with the projects since this builds a sense of ownership and is more sustainable). I did this by getting a water sample from a local open well whiche the lab technician at my hospital spun into a sample. Then I took a picture of that sample and showed the leaders of my community exactly what the water their people are drinking looks like. After this, I was blessed enough to meet an American water engineer in a local town who came out and inspected the broken pump wells. He told me all that is wrong and exactly how much it would cost to fix the wells. Now that I know exactly what needs to be done physically, I am working with fellow volunteers to design of system of upkeep so the wells can be sustainably maintained after we leave. However, I need to come up with the $400 it is going to take to fix the wells before we can implement that system (hundreds of people have died in my village from water born-illness because of $400. Isn‘t that incredibly sad?)

2) My second project involves the part of the story where the mother did not bring her child in fast enough because of lack of money. I have joined a local tontine (kind of lack a savings and loan but just within one family) and we have decided to start a yam farm and business in order to create a kind of family health-insurance. I taught them how to write a business plan where we planned exactly how we are going to grow and sell yams in the local market. Once we have done this, we have agreed to put the profits in a special lock box that will be kept at the hospital. This lockbox has three locks and two keys will go to two of the family members and one key will go to the chief of the hospital. Once the money is in the box, the family will only be able to use the money for health expenses since they will need the permission of the hospital chief to open the box. Then, if things go to plan (which is somewhat rare here), we will use some of the money to do the exact same thing next year.

So these are my projects so far. I have gotten more joy from them than I expected before coming here. Hopefully that will continue.





The water engineer inspecting the pumps



The tontine and I in front of all our Yams

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Banking

I am a proud, card-carrying member of a Cameroonian bank in Bafoussam (Baf) called Afriland. Every month, the Peace Corps drops my stipend into my bank account in Baf, which I have to travel 6-8 hours to retrieve since it is in an entirely different region from where I live. This is as fun as it sounds. The last trip was especially memorable: after climbing out of the bus while trying not to piss off any big mamas or get pickpocketed, I make my way to the bank. I do kind of look forward to the visit because Afriland’s branch in Baf is as close to America as it can get here: it’s three stories, has a pretty glass fa├žade, and is air-conditioned. Normally, I am able to get my money from an ATM at the front of the building, but this last time I went, I had to go inside for more personal business. So, after waving to the two soldiers sitting in front of the door with AK-47’s resting on their lap (otherwise known as the Cameroonian FDIC), I enter the bank and am hit with a wave a cool, refrigerated air. Now, to get things done in Afriland is a bit complicated. They have a number-ticket waiting system, but I have found this to be just a ruse. In reality, if you want help, you just push your way to wherever you need to go. I, personally, had to get a new ATM card. Therefore, of course, I walked around the building until I found a bank employee who was not being harassed and started harassing them. I would not say that I am fluent in French but I would say that I am becoming fluent in aggressive French. So after about one or two minutes of what would be considered yelling in America but is termed a business conversation here, I am lead to the man who can help me. He is very helpful but forces me to draw yet another map of where I live. Because my house does not have an address, due to the fact that I live in a village in the middle of nowhere, I have to draw a map of where my house is in my village. Therefore, Afriland knows me as the white from Nyamboya who lives behind the catholic church next to the grouping of weird looking trees. After the transaction is complete, the meeting ends with the usual laughs, awkward hand shake (where, after its supposed to end, the man just holds my hand for about 15 or 20 seconds), and the normal question of can I take him back to America when I leave. It’s actually a somewhat fun experience if you don’t think about the fact that an institution such as this controls your financial situation while living in a developing country.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

My diet

So the one thing that I have learned to cook well here is an omelet. Never cooked one in my life until I came to Africa. However, I have noticed that once I learn something here, I stick with it for as long as humanly possible. What this means is that I am buying about 30 eggs a week and my skillet is now warped . On the bright side, I know that I am getting a sufficient amount of protein each week which is a change of pace since the Cameroonian diet consists mostly of carbs. In terms of my cholesterol numbers, thank God I’m miles from anyone that can measure anything like that.

How was that, Kaitlyn?