Ah no di waka fine for Cameroon-ohhh!

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Pidgin for: Traveling sucks in Cameroon.

I’ve made brief references to the horrors of traveling here, but let’s get into it. Let’s get our hands dirty. The following manual will teach you, loyal reader, how to travel from the nearest banking city of Bamenda, to Wum. Esoteric knowledge abounds!

If you want to go to Wum, the first thing you need to do is find a taxi willing to go eight miles out of the city. Usually this means taxi hopping. Throw in a lot of stuff to carry or a sweaty traffic jam and these forty-five minutes can easily put you into that aggravated, just-below-boiling state familiar to travelers everywhere. Then the fun begins.

Once you get to the “Wum park”, there are two travel options: Corollas, and prison buses. In case the nomenclature didn’t tip you, Corollas are by far the better option, but they aren’t always available (side note: 94% of all cars in Cameroon are Corollas).

In a Corolla, there will typically be four passengers in the back seat, two in the front seat, and then a seventh wedged in between the driver and the stick shift. This person is called the “petite chauffeur”. Don’t be this person. Usually a baby or a child or three, plus the driver, will push the total number of humans in the car into the double digits.

Note that children do not count as a seat up to age twelve or so. Yes. Age twelve. They are definitely big enough, at that point, to make your ass more uncomfortable than it would have been otherwise, but they do not effect the number of paying adults. It’s like ridiculous carry-on luggage at the airport, except a thousand times worse. Frequently, when a mother has multiple babies, you will be asked to hold her damp, wailing, vomit-prone demon spawn for the whole trip. Amateur move! Don’t fall into this trap!

All of the luggage gets thrown into the back, which can be a spectacle to behold. We’re talking the trunk of a Corolla here. People will put in multiple 100lb bags of rice, a few duffel bags, a goat, a cage of chickens, several cones of plantains, a mattress, four table chairs, and a bed frame. The trunk is almost always open. Every driver has a few dozen yards of rubber straps tied to various points on the back of his car; these will be used  to clamp the trunk down, and hold the cargo from spilling out of the back. You know how sometimes someone’s ass will just like balloon out of her in flagrant disregard of her other physical proportions? Cars here look like the worst case of that you’ve ever seen. No matter how much is in (our bulging out of) the trunk, they can make more fit. Somehow, against all spatial understanding, they can always make more fit…

…of course, if you happen to be transporting something fragile…

So, sometimes you aren’t as lucky as all that. Sometimes the fleet of Corollas has already been dispatched, and you’re stuck taking a prison bus. Woe is you! These are small buses which have been specially outfitted by Cameroonians for comfort and ergonomics… ha! Just kidding. So the buses were manufactured with three seats per row, but when they arrived in Cameroon the agencies installed a fourth seat that folds down into the aisle to fit more passengers. Wall-to-wall bodies. As you glumly trot over from the empty Corolla stable to the prison bus agency, try your hardest not to think about what would happen if your rickety, jerry-rigged, clanker of a prison bus caught on fire. For the love of God, think of anything except that. OK, are you not thinking about it yet? Good.

Oh yeah, also, it’s a “prison bus”, so literally everything inside is metal and pointy and uncushioned and instantly painful as soon as you touch it.

You might think that your first order of business would be buying a ticket. You’d be wrong. Seats vary wildly in their comfort range, from “awful” to “illegal in Guantanamo Bay”, so it can get pretty cutthroat. One time, the folding seat was missing its cushion, leaving only a rusted iron rim with a paint bucket underneath. Claim your seat immediately! Take what’s yours! No mercy!

There are a few things to consider with seat selection. First, the front row next to the driver is prime real estate. You might have to fight someone for it even if you put your bag down first, but it’s worth it. Avoid the row behind the driver, however! With so much leg room it’s very tempting, but they like to suspend a board in that leg space and seat another row of passengers facing the back of the bus, so your legs are kind of zippered in and someone is breathing on to your face. It’s a gamble you don’t want to take.

Next, avoid the folding chairs and the next seat over. The backs on the folding seats are very short, resulting in debilitating spinal collapse, and because they overfill the rows, any person next to a folding chair must rest his or her crack on the metal hinge connecting said chair to the rest of the seats, with a cheek suspended on either side. One word: potholes.

The final thing you want to take into account is getting a window seat. 80 degrees is unbearably cold for most Cameroonians, and somehow the wind coming in from an open window makes it “difficult for them to breathe”… I haven’t gotten a good answer yet, it doesn’t matter. What it means for you is that if you don’t want to add “bathing in a fetid human swamp” to the list of unpleasant things you’re going to deal with on this journey, get control of the window! The downside is that you will have to fight with Cameroonians the entire trip: “Please, can somebody stop that horrible fresh air from coming in! I’m dying here!”

Quick aside, I am struggling to include all the gory details. Seriously, I might miss some. It is overwhelming how many factors conspire to make you miserable. I can’t make this up.

In case you haven’t picked up on the way things go here yet, the four seats (including the folding chair) accommodate five persons. You can usually count on one spare baby, child, or mesh cage of chickens per row, but you won’t always get so lucky. One time I saw a woman try to add four unpaid children to her row, and two to the row behind her. It can get messy, and contrary to what you might think from UNICEF ads, there are some legendary asses in this country.

“How do all those asses fit on one seat,” you might reasonably inquire. Africa magic. Also, staggering. One ass will press against the back of the chair, and the next one will squeeze forward so the two pelvic bones aren’t in direct contact. You will frequently find yourself underneath someone else’s ass, or, if it’s a big mama, somehow sucked into it a little. If you got that window seat, this leads to a weird phenomenon in which one side of you is bruised and battered from getting slammed against the wall, and the other side is wet and sticky from being partially submerged in another human’s flesh folds. Sometimes the people on the ends need to sit sideways, with their hips on the seats and their asses on the walls. Usually one or two people per row also need to lean forward the whole ride so there’s enough shoulder space.

So, you got “your” seat (subjective term), you’ve waited two and a half hours for all thirty-one seats to fill up (buses don’t leave at a particular time, they leave when they’re full), and the cargo on top of the bus literally doubles its height and damn near matches its weight but you’re trying really hard not to think about fires and you’re pretty sure it’s time to get going. Not so fast, tiger! Hold tight for at least one savage, screaming argument about who’s going to sit where. It happens every time, without fail. I told you, some of the seats really suck.

Fifteen humid minutes later, the bus is finally moving… No! Wait! What!? Why did it stop moving!? Ah, the driver had to go yell at his friend. Five minutes pass. The bus moves again. Two minutes pass… uhm, why are we stopping again? It is too damn hot for this, the bus needs to be moving at all times, for real what is happening? Oh, the driver needed to go yell at his other friend. Ten minutes pass. OK, here we go… no. Not again. I can’t do it again I mean ARE YOU SERIOUS IT’S BEEN A HALF HOUR AND WE HAVEN’T GONE MORE THAN TWO MILES I’M SOAKING IN SWEAT AND I’M ALREADY EXPERIENCING A DEEP PELVIC ACHE THIS IS SERIOUSLY NOT FUCKING COOL!

This time it’s the Gendarmes checkpoint. This is the moment when everyone realizes that they forgot to stow their IDs in a convenient location and all thirty-one sardines clumsily and painfully try to reach their wallets at the same time. Invariably, one person won’t have valid documentation, and he will always be sitting in the back row. It’s kind of amazing. Everyone will have to get out so he can get out, and the whole bus will wait fifteen minutes while he negotiates the bribe he’s going to pay the inspecting officer before you can continue. Then this will happen two more times at the Police and Road Safety checkpoints. Also the driver has thirteen more friends to stop and greet.

Now, things are certainly worse on the prison buses, but don’t mistake me, the Corolla is a far cry from delightful. At the end of the day, you still have fifty miles on the most bombed-out goat path in the history of civilization. You know potholes, right? Potholes are what happen on those cute little Vermont roads which people won’t pave because they fancy their town “quaint”. We don’t have potholes, we have meteoric craters. Minefields of them.  They add bone-shattering texture to the surrounding boulders and loose rocks and riverbeds. Oh yeah, and you’re traveling in a car with 800.000 miles, minimum. There are no shocks.

Something is going to hurt, plain and simple… probably multiple things. Let me rephrase. If only one thing hurts, you’re having a great fucking day. Maybe a mama’s planetary ass is compressing your femoral artery, choking out all blood flow to your left leg. Maybe the metal bar on the seat in front of you is burying into your flesh and chipping away at your kneecaps. More than likely your hips are being slowly, excruciatingly dislocated by the multiple pressures imposed on them. Your spine is twisted into a three-dimensional chiropractic holocaust and your head is bleeding, yes, bleeding, after the driver misjudged a crater and jumped you into one of the angular metal support beams which traverse the roof. I estimate that these frequent, devastating cranial collisions have cost me some 40% of my what was I talking about?

When you’re sitting there trying to decide whether you want to try and jockey for a little more leg room, or a less cataclysmic spinal twist, keep in mind the following rule: no matter how bad it is, it can always get worse. Any space you make could be filled immediately by a hunk of compacted flesh just waiting to spill out into a narrow new cavity, and you might actually concede precious territory. There’s no way to guarantee that you will be the one to profit from the adjustment, and let’s be honest, there’s only about a half a centimeter of adjustment room to begin with. Maybe 5% of these adjustments pay off. Maybe. After that, a coin toss will tell you whether it stays the same or gets worse. Usually you squirm just to take your mind off how much pain you’re in.

One advantage to the Corolla is that it’s comparatively light and agile, and you only suffer for about two and a half hours. A trip in a prison bus is a three and a half hour minimum, but I’ve seen six hours more than once. Either way, you’re almost there. Your body is bent, twisted, bruised, and sweaty, your skeletal structure is permanently rearranged, and consistent deprivation of blood and oxygen has instigated mild muscular dystrophy in your legs, but it’s the home stretch…

WILD CARD, BITCHES! EVERY TIME!

Maybe it’s a flat tire or an overheated engine. Sometimes a self-absorbed-bottom-feeding-non-human-mouth-breather will request to get off the bus less than a mile away from home, forcing everyone to get out for her, and forcing the driver to climb on top of the bus to untie all the cargo to find her bags. For some reason people actually put up with this. One time someone did this at the bottom of a huge hill, and fifteen minutes later, after all the cargo was tied back down, it became apparent that the bus couldn’t take the hill without momentum. The driver actually turned the bus around and climbed the hill in reverse, which worked for some reason I still would like a mechanic to explain to me. I really wish I was kidding.

When you finally dismount, your numb, dead legs usually fail you immediately and you have to cling to the bus for support. Numerous motorcycle drivers will belligerently impose their assistance on you. Your eyes are soulless and your mouth is slack. Everything hurts… Welcome home!

Quick shout-out to my friends in even more remote places than me. You know who you are. Whenever I’m about to break, I think of you… if that’s any consolation. There are a couple PCVs who endure the same road as me, pass right through Wum, and then enjoy another four to seven hours of ROADS THAT ARE SOMEHOW EVEN WORSE. Pray for them.

…I meant this to be short. I guess the description should parallel the experience.

UPDATE: I knew I would forget something… another PCV just reminded me of the odors! Oh my! Rancid BO is the the most common offender, but the cars are really old, so sometimes you’ll be treated to a trickle of gas fumes filtering through the vents, killing you slowly.

Black bag black market

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In one of the most poorly prioritized legislative actions in any developing country ever, Cameroon’s government banned non-biodegradable plastic bags last April. Admittedly, the volume of trash in Cameroon is an inescapable blight on an otherwise gorgeous country. People put everything in plastic bags, and because there isn’t any public waste disposal outside of the two or three more progressive cities, these bags pile up all over the place. There are environmental concerns as well, especially in such an agriculturally dependent nation drinking unconvincingly filtered groundwater…

But enough devil’s advocate. Not having plastic bags is, first and foremost, a huge pain in everyone’s collective ass, and Cameroon intends not only to ban the bags people put their items in, but the packaging these items come in to begin with. To put this in perspective, such a clause threatens the peoples’ 20 cent packets of ethyl alcohol whiskey. Let’s not get crazy, Cameroon. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a country with tragically limited employment opportunities, completely shutting down production in a factory employing a few thousand people was decidedly rash. Said factory also exported to several neighboring countries, and believe me, Cameroon needs a trade deficit like it needs black tar heroin and credit cards.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, aren’t there like, roads to pave, schools to build, hospitals to outfit, teachers to pay, forests to repopulate, etc.? Was this really at the top of the agenda? Which, through a bit of deductive logic and one or two leaps of faith, leads us to the possible explanation that this was just a political ploy to butter up clueless, out-of-touch bureaucrats at the IMF and World Bank. “Wow, look at how progressive Cameroon is,” they might exclaim, “banning non-biodegradable plastic bags! How environmentally conscious of them! That country’s really got something going on!”

The most convincing part of the theory is that such a move costs the government almost nothing compared to other appeasement strategies (all of the things I listed as being maybe more important for Cameroon’s overall development trajectory). All I’m saying is, if you’re an African president/dictator and you want to get in someone’s good books for another loan you’re never going to pay back because the money isn’t going to anything more productive than a glut of Parisian shopping sprees for you and your friends’ wives, there are more expensive ways to do it. That much, at least, is fact, and the dearth of alternative explanations for such a boneheaded maneuver do make a set of circumstances compelling enough to occupy a true conspiracy nut’s wet dreams for at least a night or two. It’s no JFK
assassination or Illuminati regime, but for a little flavor it may just do the trick.

So what are the alternatives proposed by the Cameroonian government? Well, they already have one biodegradable bag available on the shelves as I write this! It costs like ten times as much as the old bags, and it only comes in one size, so that’s working out really well in a poverty-stricken country with razor-thin profit margins and an observable need to carry literally fucking everything. Did I pluralize “alternative” in the first sentence of this paragraph? That was a mistake.

Let’s play a game. What happens when you take something that has a profound effect on the way people live their lives and try to make it illegal (pay attention, pro-life advocates)? People do it anyways, usually with consequences! Now I walk into stores and, if I need a bag, I ask them if they have one, and then they glance around furtively and pull one out of a secret stash if no one’s looking. “I could get fined for this,” they tell me, “but people need bags. And we’re used to getting fined for nonsense, so it’s just kind of par for the course for us.” Paraphrased, of course, but that’s the general idea. The point is, it’s kinda fun! It’s like the Prohibition all over again, except without the gangsters or the loose women…

…let’s face it, alcohol is a much more culturally awesome thing to ban, but we learned that lesson ninety years ago and now I have to take what I can get…

There are also a few enterprising solutions to the crisis. Buba Sulle, the president of the Cameroon National Youth Council in our division, wants to offer training for unemployed youth after he talked to a guy who knows how to make sturdy, biodegradable bags using 100% local materials. He can sell them for half the price of the government’s alternative. That’s about five times the price of the old bags, but it’s still a win-win for vendors, consumers, the entrepreneurs making the bags, and the local economy as a whole, not to mention the environment Cameroon’s government is (questionably) trying to protect.

At the very least, it’s been a pretty interesting thing to keep track of, which is typical of grand Cameroonian policy initiatives in general. Last year they tried to crack down on unlicensed, uninsured drivers, which largely resulted in drivers paying out more of their profits in bribes and occasionally passing on the new costs to passengers. I want you to think back to this moment next time the vexing spectre of federal impotence threatens your sanity with a headache, and your liver with the usual remedies of Aspirin and Blue Ribbon. Given that Cameroonians tend to utilize the same remedies, a very intriguing study could be performed graphing average liver health against the effectiveness of a population’s government. There might be a correlation/causation argument to be made somewhere in here, but controlling for other variables, my hypothesis is that Cameroonian livers look a hell of a lot worse.

Mother of invention

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I don’t know what the mother of this invention is, but I am in stunned admiration of this man and y’all should know about him. My family friends Estella and John are unique in Cameroon. Estella works as a primary school teacher, a job which pays her a token for attempting to educate 120 children under ten years of age simultaneously. It’s one of the most underpaid positions in the history of specialized labor. John works in the capital city; something to do with documentation, I was told. They care deeply about education for all of their children, boys and girls alike. John is singularly committed to Estella, prompting jealous cries from her neighbors that she must be using witchcraft to keep him faithful so far away from home (Estella replies that she just found a decent man to marry, which is an inconceivable statistical anomaly considering both the general character of Cameroonian men implied by her neighbors’ accusations, and the fact that she married him at sixteen).

One thing always confused me: they have very modest incomes, but colossal expenses. They live in a very nice house, complete with tile floors and pleather furniture, a television set with cable, a desktop computer, a flushing toilet, and several bedrooms. They have invested a considerable sum of money in a large rental property next door. Two of their kids go to the most expensive private school just about anywhere in Cameroon, costing a full 26x more than a government school. I was already amazed at their ingenuity and wit before I found out they were working on a palm tree plantation with a target of 1.400 trees. “Flabbergasted” and “incredulous”sort of begin to describe my reaction, but still fall pretty short. I knew they could manage money better than most anyone else, which in and of itself counts for a lot in short-sighted Cameroon, but such a prodigious investment couldn’t be explained by prudence alone. What did John actually do for a living?

Well, I finally got the opportunity to see firsthand when I visited his apartment in Yaounde with mom. My mind still reels.

Before the digital age, printing presses required a special photocopy, printed to a metal plate. Cameroon is not in the digital age. Therefore, any mass printing efforts here (newspapers, receipt booklets, textbooks, etc) require someone with a pretty unique skill set to produce said plate. It’s a good bump in income from a normal photocopying operation, but that alone didn’t tell the full story.

John got into the business about ten years ago, but before he could start, he needed a very rare and very expensive machine from Europe (about $2.000 back when $2.000 bought about twice as much as it does now in Cameroon). John has a high school education in construction. The money was not there. He went to a vendor and he looked this machine up and down, told the vendor he’d come back, and left.

First thing he did was to buy some metal and make some drawings. Then he went to a welder and said, “Build this.” When they asked what it was for, he told them he was paying them to build and not to ask questions. They built it. Then he went to an electrician and said, “Do this wiring.” They asked why. He told them he was paying them to wire this box, not to ask questions. They did the wiring. He did this all the way down the line, until he thought he finally had it right…

…and it worked, flawlessly. To this day, that first machine he built is what he uses in his own office. But that’s not the end of the story. His total cost of production was only $400, and he realized he could charge twice that and still give people an incredible deal. So now, in Cameroon, if you want to go into mass printing you have two choices: you can buy a machine from Europe for $2.000, or you can buy a machine from him for $900. There are no alternatives. High school education. Construction.

Is your mind also reeling? It should be.

Checkmate

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For those who don’t know, my resilient, hardnosed mama just finished up three weeks here in Cameroon. Like every American visiting Africa for the first time, she couldn’t possibly have known what she was in for. You really can’t be told what to expect. I tried to warn her that the breakneck itinerary she’d requested would completely redefine her understanding of the word “exhausting”, and that Cameroon can be dirty and uncomfortable and rude and gross in all kinds of new and exciting ways, but she wouldn’t hear it, and to her credit, she didn’t complain once after she realized I’d been telling the truth.

Rather than detailing every last minute of her trip, I’m going to talk about my two favorite moments, then cut to the chase. After our jungle tour we stopped in the capital of Yaounde for a few days, where my adoptive family in Wum stays during the school holidays. They are warm, generous, inquisitive, brilliant, amazing people and I was so excited for them to meet mom, but Estella, the mother, felt a little out of her element receiving us at a house that isn’t really her’s. I took the opportunity to invite her and four of her kids to a nearby primate reserve, the biggest in all of West Africa. In typical Cameroonian fashion, they came dressed to the nines to meet mom — Cameroon is all about appearances — and I was a little worried that the muddy paths and rainy weather would completely deflate their enthusiasm for the trip. What I hadn’t counted on is that my friends had literally never had a tourist experience in their lives for lack of money. They were a little skeptical at first, but as soon as they saw the chimps at the very first cage, I was humbled by their energy. Running around in heels, dresses, and suits, they laughed and pointed and marveled at the unfamiliar world around them like seasoned American tourists. Watching them enjoy a pure, unadulterated luxury for the first time was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my entire two years in Cameroon.

The second was a party Sean and I threw in Wum, a sort of all-in-one mega throwdown to welcome my mom, his mom, his sister, and her fiancee, and also to say “thanks and goodbye” to all my Wum friends as I prepare to leave. It’s hard to write about well because it was the personal bonds I’ve built with these people over the last two years, and sharing that with my mom, that made it so special. Nevertheless, it was an objectively epic shindig. Sean and I basically just handed over the money to one of our good friends – Mama Liz, the Iron Lady – for her to arrange everything, and she delivered three times over. In addition to being one of the most dynamic MCs in the business herself, her party had everything: some five dozen traditional dancers to usher in our mothers, multiple performances by professionals and children, a drunk old man clumsily playing a traditional instrument, an impromptu African wedding for Sean’s sister and her fiancee, a couples dance (my favorite Cameroonian Lovett danced with mom, it was amazing), tons of food, tons of alcohol, and an extended all-ages latenight dance party.There are no words. It was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.

So, the chase.Let’s cut right to it. At one point, we were on a particularly tight schedule, and we had done everything possible to make our one-day cross-region sweep as efficient and comfortable as possible. Things were going well. We left the hotel at 5am with a car we’d arranged the night before, cutting travel time to our “layover” town from four hours to two. Just as we were preparing to head to the next car park for the haul up to Wum, however, tragedy struck: I’d forgotten my ID card at the hotel in the last town, and traveling without an ID in Cameroon is an inconceivable pain in the ass. There was nothing to do. I had to get a temporary ID. Of course, next to traveling without an ID, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption stand out among Cameroon’s most unpleasant experiences.

I was mad. This could take all day. Our carefully crafted plan lay in ruins. The day had gone from nearly ideal to miserable in a matter of seconds. Now we’d miss all the good cars and have to take a plodding prison bus (don’t ask) from Bamenda to Wum, a sweaty, painful, bone-rattling, soul-crushing, interminable 4.5 hour nightmare of Hell’s own design, and we’d probably arrive at night, in the rain. The man who walked into Immigration that day was a man hardened by two years in one of the most preposterous and unbelievable countries on earth. I had my game face on. I wasn’t going to put up with any of the usual nonsense. None of it.

“Hello. I lost my ID and I need to get to Wum as quickly as possible. My mother is visiting and her welcoming party is tomorrow. We must be there. I have a photocopy of my ID. Can you please stamp and validate it?”

“Well, first you’re going to have to go to the Ministry of Taxation for some…”

None of it. Like a Spanish bull, the merest glimpse of red tape sent me into an uncontrollable rage.

“No, I don’t have time for that. I told you. Can you please just stamp this for me?”

“No, I can’t. You must go to the Ministry of Taxation. I promise it won’t take that long.”

“I know Cameroon, I’ve lived here for two years. People say the bus will leave at 8am and it leaves at eleven. Everything takes a long time.”

“You want to come in here and insult my country!? Then expect me to do something for you!? Absolutely not! There’s nothing I can do for you here until you go there!”

Obstinate, I sat and stewed for a few minutes, plotting my next move. Finally, a different man in a uniform sat across the table from me. In a very calm voice he began,

“Look. In Cameroon, the law says that you must wait forty-eight hours before ANY requested document can be issued,” I began to protest, but he talked over me, “I understand your predicament, however, so I’m going to help you. The other man is right. You must go to the Ministry of Taxation for a fiscal stamp or no Gendarmes is going to let you pass. That is just a fact. It’s a two minute walk. Go there, buy two stamps, and come back to see me.”

Sullen, I went to the Ministry of Taxation and bought my stamps. It took ten minutes.

“OK, now you need to write an Attestation of Loss. This must accompany your photocopy, or it will not be accepted by any Gendarmes. They need to know why you have a photocopy, and it needs to look official.”

I wrote the Attestation. It took ten minutes.

“OK, the problem with your photocopy is that your picture isn’t very clear. It should be good enough, but if you catch the wrong Gendarmes he’s going to make trouble for you. Go and get a passport picture down the street. We will stamp it for you here, and it will be
bulletproof.”
I went and got the pictures. It took forty minutes. I brought everything to him. He signed and stamped and dated.

“Now I want you to go across the street and get all this photocopied so we can hold a copy here for you in case anything else happens.”

I went and got the photocopy. It took five minutes.

“So. How long did that take, you think? One hour? One and a half? Tell me, how long does it take to get an ID in YOUR country?”

Flashes of sourfaced DMV representatives, freezing cold
over-air-conditioned waiting rooms, lines longer than the equator, blurred by tears of outrage and impatience…

…Checkmate.

…for whatever it’s worth, though, we did have to take that prison bus, and it was hellacious.

Perceptions

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I don’t really know how to wrap up this blog, so I’m just gonna end it how I started it; with whatever happens to be on my mind at the time. Today we’re going to talk about perceptions. When I told people back in America that I’d be working in Cameroon for two years, three images immediately sprang to their minds: exotic animals, wholesale slaughter, and starvation. That’s what people in America know about Africa, courtesy of nature shows, news media, and UNICEF ads.

In my two years here, the most exotic animals I’ve seen are primates, and I saw them at zoos. Mostly I see goats, chickens, pigs, cattle, and dogs. Now, I certainly do see these animals in some unusual places, in particular the ubiquitous chicken. Those prehistoric birds can be found everywhere from cramped Corollas to emergency rooms here. I’ve seen a couple full-grown goats tied down between a driver and a passenger on a motorcycle, and a pig standing on the roof of a bus, but I’ve never seen a lion.

The only people with guns I ever see are police and Gendarmes, and their firepower isn’t used to kill, it’s merely a show of force. They stand on the side of the road in their uniforms, AK-47s slung over their backs, looking intimidating and taking bribes. You might think the officers are searching for people who are breaking the law, but that’s not really the case. One time I saw the driver leave all his critical documents inside the car when he went to go and talk to an officer, knowing he would be held up on some trumped-up nonsense whether or not he was legal. It’s taken for granted here that any time you travel between towns you will have to present your identification card up to three times for various control points. Anyone who doesn’t have valid documentation must pay a series of officers to travel within his own country. Any criminals the police might ostensibly catch need only pay a bribe to pass unmolested. It’s time-consuming and counterproductive and abusive and awful, but it’s not a massacre. Cameroon is actually incredibly peaceful, one the only countries for which Peace Corps can boast fifty years of uninterrupted service.

Starvation occasionally hits a little closer to home depending on the region. I know some of my friends in the Sahel and desert areas would tell me that this is a present threat for the populations they work with. In my region, however, that’s not really the case. Malnourishment is a legitimate concern, as evidenced by the distended bellies and bowed legs I see regularly a short walk from town, but people generally have food in their stomachs; furthermore, even the problem of malnutrition is, to some extent, self-inflicted. People have goats but they refuse to milk them. People have chickens but they refuse to collect the eggs. Malnutrition is the product of a bizarre cultural disconnect for all but the poorest members of my community.

There are other aspects of my daily life that people don’t even consider when they hear “Africa”. You can buy bottled beer in just about every backwater village on or off the map, for example. In my town they have outdoor seating, complete with plastic tables and chairs, umbrellas, and occasional refrigeration. People have cell phones and internet keys that allow them to access Facebook from the actual middle of nowhere. Although many people live in squalor, nicely furnished homes with tile floors and televisions are not uncommon, and many more people manage to make their modest accommodations comfortable and appealing in spite of poverty.

In the same way that our perceptions of Africa are narrow and fragmented, Cameroonians have absurd ideas about life in America. As far as they know, there is no such thing as poverty there, or even “middle class”. Money is a non-issue. People are uniformly and extravagantly wealthy. What’s more, no one actually does any work. Opinions vary, but a substantial minority believe that our daily gluttonous frenzy is punctuated only by the wagons of cash delivered to our doorsteps. Everyone else (yes, I mean everyone) believes that we work for a few hours here and there when we feel like it, writing phony reports which we submit in order to receive our wagons of cash, whether or not we’d done any of the work we’d claimed to do. I’m completely serious.

Trying to explain the reality, however, is exceedingly difficult. It’s far more nuanced than having or not having money. Life in America is certainly much more comfortable than life in Cameroon; unlike the average citizen here, Americans generally own refrigerators and cars and their houses are well-constructed and the roads are usually paved and the hospitals, while mired in their own problems, are at least moderately capable and well-equipped, but those things don’t necessarily translate to personal wealth. In fact, more often than not, they translate to debt: car payments, mortgages, home equity, credit cards, student loans, fiscal cliffs, etc. A stunning number of Americans live very comfortable lives compared to Cameroonians, but they don’t have money like Cameroonians almost invariably think they do. They don’t have disposable income. They work appalling hours, and by the end of the month, bills and debts and the general cost of living have chewed through every last cent (and then some). Yes, life is far better in America and living in Cameroon has magnified a thousand times my gratitude for having been born there, but there are nevertheless stark and occasionally terrible contrasts between their perceptions, and the reality. They think life is easy in America, and how do you explain to someone in abject poverty that comfort doesn’t always mean money, and furthermore, that money doesn’t always make life easy? Try doing it without feeling like an asshole for bonus points.

The other problem with this perception is that it ignores the wellspring of American pride: our work ethic. The American Dream has certainly seen better days, but beneath the smears and stains the bronze belief that you can carve out a living through hard work still gleams. I’ve had this conversation with an exhausting number of Cameroonians, and they can all be broken down, broadly, into two categories. The first group breaks my heart. These are extremely shrewd, hard-working, ambitious people who would be undeniably richer and more comfortable had they been born in America. They are young and old, men and women. The second category is made up almost entirely of men, especially men under forty-five, with some few exceptions. This group doesn’t work. Many of them think they work, but their idea of what work is would be laughable to anyone who’s ever held any full-time job in America. They assume that if they went to America, they would become spontaneously and fabulously wealthy, and they would never lift a finger again.

Sadly, thanks to our media, the second group is growing rapidly, and I guess this is what I’ve been building up to this whole time. There are innumerable advantages we enjoy in America, and to take them for granted, to be lazy and apathetic and unproductive and ungrateful, is a travesty. If we aren’t willing to work for those advantages, if we take them as a birthright, then we don’t deserve them. I think that America still does take pride in its work ethic, and I think it’s a shame that all the rest of the world sees is Li’l Wayne, leading them to the inevitable conclusion shared by almost every Cameroonian I’ve ever talked to (uninterrupted gluttonous frenzy, free wagons of cash).

As I mentioned before, I know the American Dream is a little worse for wear. I know many Americans will spin their wheels their whole lives and never get any traction, and I know there is a poweful minority willing to exploit the promise of the American Dream to further its personal and political interests. No country is perfect, whatever my Cameroonian friends might think. But if we obscure the sheen of our bronze pride with entitlement, hopelessness, and self-pity, we’ve squandered one of the greatest legacies in human history.

C’mon baby, give me the America

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Soon, I leave Cameroon. I could go into some lengthy, strained emotional diatribe about how much I’ve learned and grown here, the amazing people I’ve met, and the experiences I’ve had, but that would be both boring and awkward. Cameroon was very, very good for me. We’ll leave it at that. Now for something way more fun: things I’m excited for / dreading in America, and things I loved / hated about Cameroon!

C’mon, baby, give me the America

1. Buffalo wings and blue cheese. Mint chocolate chip ice cream. Every other food I’ve been pining for alone in rural Africa. Ideally, my food consumption upon my return will result in global supply shortages.

2. Craft beers. Hell, I’d do more than a few things I’d regret for a Pabst, at this point.

3. Efficiency, competence, reliability. I need the country I live in to function sort of (I know a lot of people back home will say America doesn’t. You have no idea).

4. Having my own seat when I travel. Nine passengers, a couple chickens, and a pregnant goat packed into a Toyota Corolla? No more!

5. No more blackouts right before big soccer matches so the power company can literally save up to handle the excess capacity. Somehow, this is a real thing.

6. Smooth, paved roads. There is no way to describe to you, my tender reader, how bad the roads are here. Think of the most potholed, rutted, washed-out, shitty little goat path you’d never take your car on ever. Like not even a road, really. Multiply that by 100, then add mudslides. That’s what the roads between some major towns and cities look like in Cameroon. Add in a couple fat mamas and maybe you’ll begin to understand how Cameroon has permanently rearranged my bone structure.

7. People caring about time. If I say 8AM, I don’t mean 1PM maybe if you don’t get too drunk first. If the bus is supposed to leave at 9AM, it shouldn’t leave at 11:30 for no discernible reason
whatsoever. If all I asked you to do was sign a one-page document, I shouldn’t have to call you every day for the next three weeks before it’s done, etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc. Also etc.

8. A place where most people don’t hold the inflexible belief that I’m Kardashian rich, and won’t try to scam me left and right.

9. Structure. I can’t do another year of “welcome to rural Africa, do some cool shit and we’ll check back on you when we feel like it”.

10. Anonymity. I stick out like a sore thumb here. I haven’t figured out why yet, but it’s weird.

11. Appropriate levels of formality. Not every occasion needs three forty-minute speeches. The minutes from the last meeting should never take longer than the content of the current meeting. Two stamp maximum. Seriously. Two stamps. Not seven.

12. Not feeling like I’m in a police state. Waiting while some egomaniac forces the entire hot, cramped, sweaty bus full of people to show ID two or three times every time I travel got old precisely the minute I arrived in Cameroon. It’s been two years now.

 

Things I will miss about Cameroon / am dreading in America

1. Google Glass. Are you serious? Cameroon still hasn’t discovered plow animals for Christ’s sake! I can’t be thrown into a country where someone can casually and discreetly enjoy violent pornography in the seat next to me on the subway!

2. #hashtag. WHAT IS A HASHTAG? STOP IT! STOP IT RIGHT NOW!

3. I will no longer be able to buy nail clippers, pharmaceutical drugs, or a pair of jeans from walking salesmen while I drink at a bar. This is a travesty, not to mention a gaping market niche. Someone get on this.

4. Was there life before motorcycle taxis? I don’t believe there was. How does America function!?

5. Options. This is bittersweet. On the one hand, I can’t wait to have it my way. On the other hand, I’ve been living in this country for two years and most times when I go to a restaurant there are four options and three aren’t available because Elvis forgot to kill the chicken this morning. It used to take fifteen minutes to choose my ice cream flavor, but now? I’m already overwhelmed.

6. No more Pidgin. No more ridiculous Africans doing ridiculous things. No more crazy drivers shouting “COME CHASE ME, BUSH MAN!” at passing law enforcement…

7. I will no longer be a rockstar. Yes, I am looking forward to the anonymity, and sometimes Cameroon does make me want to crawl into a dark hole and never come out, but… being a big fish in a small pond has a few perks.

8. I will no longer have leisure time. It’s amazing how much free time I have to read, pursue hobbies, and idle mindlessly. It’s occasionally a restless and frustrating experience, but I know I’ll miss it as soon as I hit the grind back in America.

9. Outwardly friendly, easygoing, generous people. I already mentioned that there are a lot of scammers, and that’s true, but there are also a lot of cool people. There’s just a general atmosphere of warmth and hospitality that I will sorely miss at “home”.

10. The ability to take $100 dream vacations to tropical beaches on a whim will soon be a thing of the past.

11. Subsidized beer. It ain’t good, but by God is it cheap. The cornerstone of any self-respecting phony democracy!

12. Piss-drunk, rambling old men make my days here. Old men of America, raise your glasses! Get shitty and talk to me about nonsense! Seriously, I love getting drunk in shitty bars drinking shitty beer made out of corn with old men. Cameroon is great for that. Really great. And I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again.

13. Spoiled idiots with no perspective. The other day I read a Facebook status: “Just tried to put my house keys into the ignition… it’s gonna be one of those days!” ARE YOU SERIOUS NO IT IS NOT YOU’VE NEVER EVEN HAD “ONE OF THOSE DAYS”. Cameroon is no less a breeding ground for entitlement and materialism (ask me about it some time, it’s crazy), but at least the people here have something real to complain about.

14. No more fresh mangoes and pineapples. For pocket change, no less. This should be #1, honestly, it’s amazing.

15. My friends here. They’re cool as hell, and they made this adventure possible by treating me like family from day 1. I’m gonna miss them a lot.

 

I’ve made some lifelong friends, both Cameroonian and American, and I’m really going to miss my life here. These past two years have been my best, both professionally and personally. That being said, I’m ready to move on. I want to see what else I’m capable of, what else is out there. I want to take what I’ve learned here and build on it. It’s been fun and I’ll never forget it, but the time has come. Let the next phase be as fun, rewarding, and challenging as this one!

First Annual Girls’ Football Competition in Wum

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If only it doesn’t rain, every obtuse, dysfunctional snare to doing work in Cameroon is forgiven. Planning an all-day girls’ soccer tournament in the middle of rainy season was a necessary but dangerous choice. It simply couldn’t be done sooner than May, but by that time there’s at least some rainfall every day. Worse, life in Wum halts with the rain, even if it’s light. Our program demanded tight timing, with seven matches occurring on two fields over the course of the day, in addition to numerous performances and speeches and games and demonstrations. We just had to hope it came late.

I was awake at 4am and ready at the office by 4:30 to hammer out the final details with my counterpart. The morning of, we had a very different and unexpected problem on our hands: the phone network was down, making any and all coordination impossible. To start, one of the three out-of-town schools we were transporting into Wum was being serviced by a driver we’d merely arranged to meet that morning with a phone call. Then, as light chased away fearsome dark clouds
materialized overhead. We had no idea where anyone was or what they were doing, and rain was imminent… and I’d forgotten to buy the stupid balloons the day before.

There was nothing to do but send my counterpart into town to track down the driver, head to the field myself, and hope to hell everyone started doing what we’d asked them to do. In America this would be unsettling; based on my experiences in Cameroon, the situation was nothing short of terrifying. As I walked to the field, I heard a beep from my pocket. A text message! Network back up! The phone was to my ear a second later, and even as more dark clouds breached the horizon, I felt like this whole thing might be possible.

I reached the field at 6am and three members of my organization were already there sweeping the grandstand. I couldn’t have been prouder of them. I’ve never organized an event like this before, so I still felt a little unsure of my role. Having already checked in with all the supporting actors, I figured the best thing to do was to get my hands dirty. Within an hour the PA system was set up, the chairs arranged, the decorations hung. The schools were rolling in almost on time. Things were running smoothly, but still those clouds lurked in the distance. If only it doesn’t rain…

We sent two of the schools up to one field and got the elimination matches started on time. The second field wouldn’t start playing until a half hour later, but for Cameroon that ain’t bad. Small problems kept cropping up, but my team was tireless, and with the network up everything was handled efficiently. Walking down from the second field a few minutes up from the main pitch, I was able to see the whole spread. It was stunning. There were at least 500 people in the audience, and it was only 9am. The dignitaries hadn’t started arriving, nor had most of the students, and we hadn’t told the general population to come until 10am (so 11am or noon, Africa time). We hadn’t even gotten through the elimination matches. I picked up my pace. This place was going be a madhouse.

Once the other Volunteers showed up we were able to set up the tent and get our HIV information booth and face painter set up. Within five minutes both were mobbed. Students were scrambling to see the whiteman (and ladies) do condom demos, or get a temporary souvenir painted on their bodies. Still the problems kept coming – how do we keep our gear safe and accessible, why isn’t the PA system working, we only rented half as many chairs as we actually need, why isn’t the food ready for the players, etc – and still the population kept expanding. And still those clouds loomed.

After the elimination matches we dived right into games while we waited for the important personalities to arrive. By now the crowd had swelled to 1.500 or more people and there was not a moment’s rest. The good thing was that by now the whole thing had taken on a life of its own. The ball had been set in motion and all we could do was guide it. After the wildly successful sack race we had a hula hoop competition, and right when things started to look hopeful I got a sucker punch in the form of a phone call: the Divisional Officer, the second-most important person in town and an essential invitee, according to Cameroon’s rigid protocol, never received his invitation and was refusing to come. I had given the invitation to his secretary, but it was never passed along. At first I pleaded with the Senior Divisional Officer who had passed me the news, but he was insistent. A new invitation had to be drafted and taken to the Divisional Officer in person. All hands were on deck and the crowd continued to grow. There was no way we could dispatch someone to print another invite and get it to his office, but the event literally could not start without him there. I decided to play hardball. “Sorry, but we cannot be held responsible if the secretary did not pass along the message. The Divisional Officer is still welcome and we hope to see him there.” That’s not the kind of thing you say to “big men” in Cameroon, people who live to push other people around, but somehow it worked, and by the time I’d finished smoothing everything over the sky had cleared. In my anxious negotiations I hadn’t even noticed the clouds retreat. The sky was bright and blue and brilliant, and we were going to pull this off.

With the important personalities seated comfortably, the real program began. Speeches, dance performances, choir groups, demonstrations of our program… the cogs of this great machine I’d built kept turning and clicking (mostly) into place. It was humbling. The traditional dance group rocked out, the choir sang an original number with lyrics like “Don’t go in for unprotected sex or HIV will kill you”, the demonstration of our HIV prevention program was met with thunderous applause, and Sean ran a Skills Competition which even got the stodgy and apathetic bureaucrats having fun. The HIV information booth was joined by PLAN International and now the crowd around the tent was almost impenetrable , but every time I checked in on the Volunteers they were handling business, patiently explaining the onslaught of questions, expertly managing the awkward moments, wielding wooden penises like swords to fend back the mob… it was impressive. I had nothing to worry about, except my upcoming speech.

I’d been forced to accept the inflexible protocol of Cameroon when writing this speech, and I wasn’t happy about it. For example, I literally had to say, out loud and over a microphone, “A speech presented by Andrew Bloch of Peace Corps and Refuge for African Child on this First Annual Girls’ Football Competition on the 16th of May, year of our Lord 2014.” Then I had to recognize each of the corrupt assholes in attendance, who had done nothing but obstruct my project but who nevertheless expected to be named as stakeholders. It was a tough pill to swallow, but afterward I delivered a succinct
five-minute speech of my own making which brought the house down. This thing was unstoppable.

There were a couple estimates floating around, but by the time the Final Match started between local titan GTHS Wum and the small but feared out-of-town powerhouse GSS Bu, the crowd had peaked at somewhere between 2.000 and 3.000 people. We’d been expecting about 500, but the organization and responsiveness of my team kept things humming at a comfortable level of controlled chaos. The match was fierce. Neither team was able to sneak past the tight defenses, nor the crafty goalkeepers. Coaches were spitting in their excitement, players were heaving in exhaustion, and the dull roar of the crowd was punctuated with collective screams of exasperation and delight on the big plays. It all came down to an edge-of-your-seat penalty shootout. On the fourth of five kicks, Bu knocked in their third goal and took the lead. It wasn’t answered by GTHS in the fourth round, nor the fifth. The entire pitch exploded. The announcer’s voice was ragged. Girls were laughing and dancing and hugging and screaming. For two hours, thousands of people in my backwards little African town gave a damn about girls’ soccer.

And it never rained.