And so it begins…

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I just arrived at the end of a whirlwind of meetings and conferences and adventures, trying to process the whole crazy mess and stay focused on the upcoming months. First was COS conference, a meeting to kind of decompress our service and prepare us for life after Peace Corps. As with most PC administrative functions, it was tedious and would have been vastly improved by more R&R time. Forced introspection activities are uncomfortable. Give us more time to hang out in unfamiliar luxury and talk about it with our friends, please. Nevertheless, it was nice to enjoy a week of hot showers and delicious meals and spring mattresses in the company of good friends. Highlights include…

1. A senior diplomat from the US embassy telling us that he was called up to “fill the giant void” of a female colleague who had been intended to make the presentation he was making. When our merry bunch of immature PC brats started chuckling, he laughed too and said, “I could have said that better… uh… don’t tell her I said that.”

2. Hot, pressurized showers. What an obscene luxury that is. People take these all day every day without thinking twice about it. Insanity.

3. Enchiladas whaaaaaaaat?

Then I had another quick little meeting and it was off to Buea to climb Mount Cameroon for… quite the opposite experience. At 7AM we left with our guide and four amazing porters to ascend 13,500 vertical feet to the summit. Hans, our guide, was a former bush meat hunter who transitioned to leading tours after the establishment of a national park stole his livelihood. Tireless and personable, Hans was the perfect companion for long treks through foreign wilderness. Our guides were Papilla, Foxy Brown, Isbay, and The Punisher. Papilla is an animal. He would leave two hours after us carrying 120 pounds and make it to camp two hours before us. He wants to run the mountain race but doesn’t have sponsorship money to train. Personally I think he’d kill it. That guy was literally running like half the time, with a full pack on his head. Foxy Brown was in charge of cooking, and his easy smile and gregarious personality made him a fun evening conversation partner. Isbay wants to be a “gangster”, so we bonded over the classic Snoop Dogg album “Doggy Style”. Then there was the Punisher. When we were asking nicknames, Oliver was up packing a bag fifteen feet away from us. When we called over and asked him his nickname, without skipping a beat he looked up and said, “They call me the Punisher”. It was awesome. He got it from his love of puppies, and rainbows.

The first half of the first day was an easy trek through a jungle of sorts. Massive, twisting trees populated the dense forest. Gorgeous, misty drifts wandered through the thick canopy overhead. At one point we even glimpsed a monkey peering at us from behind the leaves of a banana tree. The second half was a grueling climb up a sparse, rocky savannah. Suddenly things got a whole lot more difficult. The trail was steep and the terrain challenging. Still, it was immense and beautiful, and the thrill of the climb had me flush with excitement. I loved picking my way through the uneven terrain and showing the porters that not all tourists are worthless and dependent.

After eight and a half hours of hiking, we arrived at Hut 2, a ramshackle metal camp where we would spend the night. Nearby was an awesome little cave, carved out by lava just a few decades ago. Hans gave us a little tour before we sat down to a delicious dinner of white beans and plantains, prepared by Foxy Brown. I wanted to stay up and ask Hans about his life as a hunter, but a chill had crept into my skin and my usual appetite was muted. Something was wrong. I decided to hit the sack early to prepare for the daunting day ahead; a full twelve hours of hiking.

I woke up with my stomach twisting uncomfortably, and fever sweats soaking my sleeping bag. Oh boy. I raced outside for a little sunrise poop – the best kind. All kidding aside, the expanse of rocky savannah splayed out beneath Hut 2 was stunning, and made the squat a bizarrely transcendental experience. Mount Cameroon is tall, and the summit would be windy and cold, so it was not without trepidation that I began the morning hike with a fever still throbbing in my blood. I came to see the hike through to its completion, however, and wasn’t going to be stopped by some aches and chills.

It was about three hours to the summit. Three devastating hours. The temperature quickly plummeted into the fifties, and the wind picked up as obstructive vegetation dwindled away to lichens and mosses. The climb grew progressively steeper. The trail was sandy, and each slip in the fine volcanic dust sapped energy we couldn’t afford to waste. Maybe the hardest part was the oxygen. After about an hour of climbing we reached 3500m and the air began to thin out. Imagine going for a tough uphill hike and breathing through a straw. Every breath was painful, and the temperature continued to drop. Combined with the fever it was almost unbearable. By Hut 3 I was shivering and chattering my teeth if we stood still for even a minute, but moving onward and upward without adequate oxygen was equally unpleasant. One step at a time. One. Step. At a time.

Down below I thought it was such a shame that we weren’t spending more time at the summit, but once I reached it I couldn’t wait to be out of there. The boulder which peaks the tallest mountain in West Africa is brutally cold and blustery, with wind chill temperatures somewhere in the forties. Given my attire and persistent fever, I thought that maybe I was going to die at any second. We took our pictures and scampered down from the summit as quickly as possible, but the winds were relentless and the cold had soaked into my deepest tissues. It was another hour before I would feel warm again, and the climb down was almost more difficult than going up. Deep sand drifts made sturdy footing all but impossible, and the descent was just as steep as the way up. My thighs were already exhausted, and keeping them contracted in the downhill scramble was actually painful at times.

Finally, about an hour after the summit, the sun emerged from behind the clouds and the winds showed us some mercy. My thighs were burning, as was my forehead, but I was beginning to enjoy myself again. Two of us were well ahead of our third partner and the guide, so we lay down on the side of the trail and passed out for about a half an hour. We woke up feeling stiff but refreshed, and we entered the lava fields with renewed energy.

The lava fields were like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life, a vast expanse of mountain desert thick with clusters of amorphous volcanic rock. It was as unearthly as it was captivating, although it didn’t do us many favors on tired legs. Mount Cameroon is tall, but what its true size is in its spread. Here we were on this seemingly perpetual plain, trekking for hours at an almost unchanging elevation some 3000m above sea level. Lesser mountains and hills thrust out of the lava field, challenging us to explore the boundless unknown wilderness beyond. Hans informed us that when you look at Mount Cameroon from below, the peak you think you see is really just this plain. The actual summit is another 1500m up, invisible because it’s set back so far on the plateau.

After picking our way through countless brittle rock formations left by an eruption in 1982, we entered a much more forgiving savannah, and another three hours finally brought us to the three craters. Protruding defiantly from the endless black ash which surrounds them, these craters were even more surreal and unbelievable than the lava fields. It was like nothing I knew could exist on this planet. You’re walking through miles of scorched blackness along the rims of three active, smoldering craters, tumbling pits of rock descending into ancient and unknown depths. I was speechless.

Not long after the craters the ash transformed into a beautiful forested savannah drenched in the warm honey of a setting sun. The hills were lush, breathtaking, painted gold and green and red and spotted with sloping rock formations. Unfortunately I was on the verge of physical collapse. I thought of my legs as worn pistons, rusty and unlubricated, agonizing over every movement. Breakfast and lunch were mere vapors in my stomach, and the fever burned up my few spare calories with ruthless efficiency. I’d been hiking for more than eleven hours, and I honestly questioned whether or not my legs could carry me to our destination at Man Springs. Every step was a prodigious effort, and I wasn’t sure how many more of them I had left.

Finally we heard the voices of our tireless porters, laughing and joking around a small cook fire. I staggered into camp and fell to the ground in a heap. I was covered in sweat and filth, and my body had reached its absolute limit. A short nap rejuvenated me slightly, and I was able to rejoin my friends and porters by the fire for a delicious meal of pasta and vegetables and fish. We swapped stories and laughed until 9PM, then retired to our tents for the final trek early the next day.

By morning my fever had finally broken, but that didn’t make the previous two days’ efforts any less exhausting. We awoke stiff and sore as ever, but a cup of hot tea from Foxy Brown loosened our muscles and lent us renewed confidence for the day ahead. It was a beautiful hike. Undulating slopes were patched with verdant green and golden wheat, and creased with frozen black lava flows from the 2000 eruption. Our guide, Hans, had been leading a tour at the time of the eruption and made an emergency 2AM evacuation through the very fields we were walking through, missing the forked lava rivers which creased the landscape by mere hours. While this environment was less exotic than the lava fields above, it was by far my favorite. Those hills possessed some compelling, primitive natural beauty which had my mouth hanging open at every turn. To our right was the Atlantic ocean, amazing at 1500m above sea level, urging us onward towards the bottom of the mountain.

Two hours later we reached the jungle again, signifying what we thought was the beginning of the end. Although the jungle was picturesque, we were tired and ready to be back in civilization. The mountain, however, wasn’t finished with us. That last trek through the jungle was an interminable voyage through demanding terrain. At first it was exciting. I would stand at the top of a rutted cascade and pick the best line through the complicated series of roots and rocks before bounding down with reckless enthusiasm. It reminded me of my favorite part of skiing; choosing a path, pointing ‘em downhill and sending it, but the toll on my body was enormous. Soon I was quite literally rationing the energy in my legs. Every obstacle was strategically circumvented to minimize strain on my body and spare me from collapse for just a few more minutes… but the minutes never stopped coming. The porters jogged past us easily, and a light rain began to peck at our skin and hair. I no longer felt invincible. The mountain was close to winning.

 

Finally, we saw Foxy Brown’s warm smile beaming from a bench near the bottom of the mountain. He lead us to the base in a small little town called Bokwango, and we sat down to exchange some final stories and snap pictures. These people hadn’t just been our porters, they’d been our friends and companions, and it was a tough goodbye. That being said, all of us were moments away from collapse, so we made quick work of it. Before we knew it our bags were tucked into the trunk of a taxi and we were headed back to Buea with the biggest physical challenge of our lives behind us.

I was fortunate to be treated to another spot of R&R after the hike, as well. My next stop was the 2014 National Girl’s Forum in Limbe, which was held at the luxurious Fini Hotel… well, luxurious by Cameroon standards. I would have taken a human life for a hot shower after three filthy days on the mountain, but my hotel room shower was a sad trickle of cold water. Fortunately I managed to track down a friend whose hot water was working just fine. I rather tactlessly invaded her room, planted myself in her bathroom, slumped against the wall like a question mark and softly moaned while pouring hot water over myself for like thirty minutes. It was pathetic. I have no regrets.

The rest of the Forum was a great time, as well. There were pools, a beautiful beach, and of course, the treat of seeing all these village girls experience wealth and the mighty ocean for the first time. We had a blast coaxing them into the turbulent waters, playing in the waves, splashing and laughing and joking. Many of these girls have lived their lives in the kitchen, under the thumbs of men and rarely allowed to enjoy themselves. This opportunity to help them come out of their narrow little worlds, to experience the unimaginable, to bask in the freedoms we take for granted, has been one of my greatest pleasures in Cameroon two years in a row.

Get comfortable.

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And time marches steadily onward. Officially, I have less than six months remaining, because of my early Close of Service date. What happened was Peace Corps combined my Youth Development program with the Education program, so the next stage won’t train when I did, starting in September, but in June, because the Education PCVs need to get to their posts in time for school. Thus, my replacement will arrive in late August, while I was slated to go home in November. Peace Corps doesn’t like the idea of a PCV and his/her replacement sharing an apartment because they don’t want to heap potential roommate conflict on to the full plate a new PCV is already facing, so they told us we need to pack outta here by early September… BUT, if I shack up with Sean as soon as the replacement gets here, I think I can persuade PC to let me stay a little longer… perhaps late October.

Sean and I just visited Buba’s village, Sangwa, a very small Muslim community about an hour from Wum. We spoke with the traditional ruler of rural Wum, ate some of the best beef we’ve ever had, met the family, etc. The traditional ruler is Buba’s father, a really cool guy, polygamy aside (he has five wives), and the owner of this incredible compound which houses approximately 100 people. Everyone there is very gracious and kind and curious. In Wum I’ll hear ugly cries of “white man” from kids who have seen light skin a few dozen times already. Out there, where we were probably the first white men they’ve ever seen, the kids shyly approached us, sometimes giggling, running away if we caught their eyes, creeping ever closer trying to work up the courage to come up and greet us… it was really endearing, and a nice change of pace. Then we went on a little trek to see the new Primary school and a community farm they’re working on. It was so refreshing to be out in a truly rural environment, without a trace of concrete or car exhaust. Sean and I agreed it was a place we’d definitely like to spend a few days visiting, so we made plans to come out after my project is finished. Everyone was pretty excited by the prospect of two Americans coming to stay with them for a few days, and frankly, I can’t imagine a nicer way to pass a weekend; exploring the bush, reading, eating, and sharing ideas in the company of such a humble and hospitable people sounds wonderful. It gave me a little pang of regret, and for a moment I wished I had been posted to a place like Sangwa, but I know people in similar circumstances with myriad complaints. Just gotta remember, the grass is always greener…

I will say, for whatever it’s worth, that not having a laptop has been a tremendously freeing experience. It’s interesting, even though I knew that coming home and getting sucked into a couple hours of television every night was making me unhappy while it was happening, I couldn’t help myself. It’s this strange compulsion that I’ve experienced before, and can never seem to learn from. I remember back in America I would do the same thing, and then I would force myself to go out and meet people and have fun and it would be so great and then the very next night I’d be back at home wondering what the hell happened. Since my laptop charger broke – and then the replacement laptop charger also broke – I’ve nearly doubled my book count, doubled the length of a novel I’ve been working on, spent far more time with my Wum homies, and these things make me happy. It scares me a little to think I’ll be going back to America soon, where not having a laptop is not an option, and everyone around me is sucked into their own little digital world practically 24 hours a day. I hope I’ve finally learned my lesson: I have my whole life to watch TV. I need to explore while I still have the freedom to do so.

Another interesting idea that struck me the other day, thinking about readjusting to life in America, is how comfortable my life is here. Funny thought, right? I signed up for two years of trial and hardship, but aside from the lack of certain amenities, my financial situation is far better here than it was there. The cost of living is so ridiculously cheap that my $350/month salary gives me more disposable income than I’ve ever had before. Ever. And my readjustment allowance is putting $275 in the bank every month. Yeah, if you look at the actual numbers, they seem paltry. $350/month living allowance and $7.000 readjustment for two years of service? But breaking it down, I’ve never been able to buy and save so much simultaneously. Weird to think about. To give you an idea though, I live in this 3 bedroom palace which, yes, would be denounced as a crack den in America, but the rent is $60/month, and frankly it ain’t too bad. I have a flushing toilet, consistent electricity, a couple sinks, a cold shower… whatever! Add some furniture and a few decorations and I’ve got a pleasant, expansive home for half the cost of your cell phone bill.

What really gets interesting is thinking about how uneven certain costs can be. While many things are staggeringly inexpensive, some things aren’t too far removed from Western prices. Electronics are fairly obvious, but a better example is beer. For a 22oz beer, the standard size in Cameroon, you pay $1. The average monthly wage is extremely variable and widespread supplementary / subsistence farming is a vast and unmeasurable distortion of that statistic, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say it’s $100/month. Now, I don’t have Google in front of me, but let’s pretend the average American earns $36.000/year, or $3.000/month. If beer were the same proportion of the average income in America, one beer would cost THIRTY DOLLARS, at least. Suddenly the proliferation of cheap, homebrewed or natural alcohol makes sense. You can knock back a couple cups of palm wine for 40 cents or a litre of corn beer for 30 cents, with the same effect on your general disposition. The corn beer serves as a filling, if nutritionless, meal, to boot. If you’re really hurting, a plastic pouch of ethyl alcohol whiskey containing 1.5 shots is 20 cents, and a shot of 180 proof corn liquor will set you on your ass for 10. Now let’s look at rent. Sure, I live in a damned palace and pay $60month, but the people earning $100/month, they ain’t paying a dime over $10. More than a few creature comforts are lacking, sure, but that’s 10% of their income! In Texas I was waking up to roaches in the bed for 40% like a sucker! You may not be able to get what you want in Cameroon, but you can sure as hell get what you need.

Now let’s look at civil servants, like teachers, who live on salaries like mine. $350/month here buys a lot. Now, granted, my rent is paid separately, but I also buy all of my food and I get whiteman prices on every major purchase. What’s interesting is that all the civil servants complain about salaries I know firsthand are quite generous given the cost structure. Why? They’re paying for six, seven, ten children. That’s an uncomfortable reality people have to start recognizing. As the Cameroonian economy increasingly resembles the West, its families must follow suit.

Gapminder is a pretty nifty little application which compiles a wealth of statistical information on countries across the world and graphs them any which way you like. Wanna see how the divorce rate effects per capita beer consumption in Southeast Asia? Well, there’s a correlation vs. causation argument to be made there, but you can certainly check it out and start speculating! Anyways, a classic graph is # of children against per capita income. In every case, declining family sizes are followed by a dstinct rise in per capita income. Emerging nations have reduced their family sizes, while developing nations are still blighted by the mega-family. It’s uncanny how closely these two measures follow each other.

There are many reasons for that, most of them obvious, but one of the reasons I find particularly interesting is the obligation of extended family here. When I first came here we were all stunned my the number of huge, unfinished buildings in this country. Who is starting construction on all these buildings and then abandoning them, skeletal and foreboding? Turns out starting construction on a big building is a great way to hide your wealth from your relatives. When they come to you expecting money, which is the African way, you can point to your big building and say, “Sorry, I don’t have a franc to spare, it’s all going into this thing.” There’s this kind of vague promise of a long-term reward, but nothing real, and it keeps the wolves at bay. We were discussing how brilliant this was one day, and then one girl interjected, “You know that right now we’re all arguing for greater wealth disparity, right?” Bam. Bomb dropped. And at the time we were all scrambling for some kind of moral safe haven, but with a little time to reflect, I realized that in fact I was, and without guilt.

America needs a strong middle class. To put it callously, we’re a consumption economy and we need bodies to buy shit. Without that, revenue streams dry up and growth slows to a crawl, and suddenly no one can pay their debts because the inherent assumption of debt – a bigger future – turns out to be a fiction. But (and this is where I start getting a little speculative and quite possibly wrong) I’m not sure that’s what Cameroon needs. Cameroon needs infrastructure, and 19 million people earning a few more dollars a day have no better leveraging position on the government than they do now. Huge industries have the muscle to tangle with the government, get critical roads built, make power grids more consistent, improve trade legislation, etc. I may be missing an aircraft carrier of a point, but sitting here in my bed philosophizing, this makes sense to me.

I realize this post has devolved into a series of vaguely connected musings, but this is all you’re getting this month so eat up or go to bed hungry. One of the most thought-provoking conversations I’ve had recently was with a couple of big shots at Orange, a big cell phone network here. I was in there trying to get some publicity money for my project, and after the meeting the two guys I was speaking to wanted to chat politics. A dangerous move for me, but I was in a listening mood… and I figured it might sway them to help me out if I left a good impression, so sue me.

They had a lot of positive things to say about the late Libyan dictator, Gaddafi, as many Cameroonians do, but these guys articulated their points far more convincingly than usual. They argued that Gaddafi was interested in promoting the welfare of his people, and he wasn’t going to sell out to Western governments in order to enrich himself. He sold natural resources at fair market value, and minimized exploitation of those resources by foreign powers. Then they prompted me to look at Paul Biya, the Cameroonian “president” (read: dictator) for more than thirty-two years. Why is he still there? Why aren’t people doing something about the appalling mismanagement of their country?

They argued that when the leader of a developing country plays ball, Western governments leave him alone. When someone tries to stand up to that kind of exploitation, he gets knocked down; foreign powers find an opposition group and pump in money and guns and technology and propaganda until he falls. Now, we all know Gaddafi was a violent and despicable despot who killed his own people, but where did we get that information? From our media. And I can’t remember the last time I thought a report by Fox News or MSNBC was considerate, credible, and unbiased… never? Yeah, never. I don’t doubt that Gaddafi was an unsavory character, but how much was that information exaggerated and sensationalized to make what was happening not only palatable but laudable to Western audiences? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, maybe not at all, but once it’s there you can’t ignore it. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a third-world dictator has been propped up or taken down for economic interests, and it certanly wouldn’t be the first time the media has misinformed public opinion.

All this can easily be dismissed as so much lunatic conspiracy, and maybe it is, but let’s strip away all the sinister faces and malicious intentions and smoky boardrooms and secret societies, all the bullshit which is patently and obviously false. Let’s think about money and politics and the media. About blurred lines. America, as the world superpower, is undoubtedly doing some less-than-outstanding shit behind the scenes in the name keeping the economy healthy, or keeping voters happy. The people who do these things probably think that the average person is too unsophisticated or uninformed to understand the nuances that justify these actions, and not without cause; a well-crafted media blitz can quickly reduce a nuanced issue into a one-sided, career-destroying smear campaign. I’m gonna pick a tough example here, and hope that I argue it well enough to make a half-decent point. Let me preface that I am not justifying or condoning or agreeing with this example, but I think it makes for an interesting case study.

The Iraq war was publicly denounced as a thinly veiled resource grab. Yeah, sure, democracy and freedom (and WMDs?), whatever, now where’s the oil? Viewed in just about every light, that’s prety awful: imperialistic, domineering, reckless, arrogant, barbaric. How can you justify sacrificing human lives in the name of resources, especially as the wealthiest nation in the world? How can you justify bullying other nations with a bloated military? How can you justify
disregarding the rest of the world because fuck you, we’re America? The list goes on. Now ask the same people asking those very legitimate questions what it’s like to live in a recession. Not the best, right? Teetering under the weight of impossible debts, frantically searching for jobs that don’t exist, watching pensions evaporate and homes foreclose. Being the man in charge during times like these doesn’t win you any popularity contests. This particular recession is not driven by resource constraints, but it could be. Look back to the oil spikes in the 70s and you get a grim picture of what can happen when our thirsty economy is deprived of its lifeblood. When the cost of oil goes up, the cost of everything goes up. People buy less, strangled revenues force companies to scale back, jobs are lost, less money is available, debts mount , people buy even less, no new investments are made, and a vicious cycle is born. You don’t want to be a politician when that happens. So you make some tough choices. Probably the wrong choices. But I’d bet everything I own that most of the people who denounce the Iraq war wouldn’t think twice about ripping some politician a new asshole if rising oil prices started feeding a cycle like the one I just descibed. I bet the media wouldn’t flinch, either, and if that’s the case, who’s to blame? The usual suspects, yes, I’m NOT absolving them. What I am saying is that there are a few other people who should be lining up for mugshots with them.

…Which brings us back to Gaddafi. Where things get sticky is trying to claim the government and the media were colluding to mislead the American people. Again, I don’t believe in any conspiracy nonsense. That being said, in an era defined by PACs and interest groups and horizontal integration, an era in which politicians would do well to wear the logos of their sponsors on their suits like NASCAR drivers, the influence of money is as undeniable as is it is impenetrable. I’m not priveleged enough to know how it all goes down, but I’m not naive enough to assume the best. There has to be a reason that Africans almost universally love Gadaffi. They’re not ignorant; in fact, many of them are better informed than the average American. Which forces crafted one perception here, and another there? I think the craziest thing about the Age of Information – expansive, accessible,
unprecedented information – is that things have become so complex, you couldn’t use all the information in the world to tell your head from your asshole.

S’up-dates

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That was less clever than I thought it was.

For those who don’t know and have been wondering what the hell has been going on, my laptop charger died some time in early December and was very recently replaced. It was brought over by a friend visiting America for Christmas, which seemed a safe bet, but to my horror, the bag was stripped of its tag and lost for more than two weeks… somewhere in Africa. Possibly the Central African Republic, where the plane inexplicably stopped before arriving in Cameroon. You know, the CAR, that lovely little nation which recently had a public lynching. At the airport.

The fact that I am now in possession of my charger is, therefore and needless to say, somewhat miraculous. In any case, missing the charger hasn’t actually been all that bad. Instead of melting my brain watching 2 – 3 hours of HBO every night before bed, I was forced to read; I know, awful, but in a Stockholm-esque turn of events I remembered how much I used to love doing that, so now, every night, me and Taco get cozy and listen to female soul singers and read feverishly until I pass out. Sometimes I get drunk with my friends first, and that makes me feel less old. But still I wonder.

So, for a “day in the life” without an expensive plane ticket: Walk around dusty roads and get frustrated by bureaucracy all day, get together with your friend and drink weird sap alcohol tapped from trees mixed with plastic pouches of ethyl alcohol whiskey, complain, talk about boobs, go home, put on Sharon Jones or Amy Winehouse or similar, vaguely wonder what the hell happened to you while you talk to your cat like he’s a person who only understands bad and bizarrely British baby-talk, then read Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Steinbeck, or economic policy journals until your eyes bleed. I’m only a little kidding.

All seriousness aside, I do actually perform some of the duties expected of me by no one and her junkie brother. What I mean to say is, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of oversight in Peace Corps, but I’m still fighting the good fight. Go me. For those who have been following my blog for a long time, and whose memory for the trivial deserves Nobel recognition, I came to Wum with the intention of building up a small and mostly dysfunctional NGO before realizing that I had absolutely no idea how to actually do that. Well, I figured it out, and for the first time since I stunned middle management by flipping more burgers per minute than any of my stoned, illiterate colleagues at McDonald’s, I feel qualified for the job I’m doing.

We piloted the Grassroots HIV prevention material in Charegha to astonishing success. Kids were literally begging to sign up and learn about HIV. Pre- and post-test scores soared from an average of 58% to an average of 96%. Participation and enthusiasm were humbling. Five of the seven girls’ soccer teams we started Title 9-style at the secondary schools are firing on all four cylinders, almost completely autonomously, with only perfunctory supervision by me and Ibrahim. We’re working closely with the other two schools to sort out their staffing situations and get the balls rolling (pun intended yeah what up). We have trained a new recruit to the NGO, Lovett, to facilitate the Grassroots material. We are working with him at two schools to deliver the curriculum, and have been very impressed with the results. Sean is working a third school out in the rural Muslim village of Upkwa, and is also pretty pleased with how well it’s going. In doing so, we have created a dense web of connections with critical government agencies, school administrations, teachers, parents, and other NGOs.

My grant proposal for nearly $2.000 was approved without issue, allowing us to host a frankly extravagant tournament for these girls in May, which they more than deserve. We will have t-shirts and an announcer and food and drinks and certificates and special guests and lots and lots of publicity. The proposal also allows us to purchase all the equipment needed for REACH (my NGO) to keep doing ths program for years. With the addition of the new member, we have a staff well-qualified to do just that. The Delegation for Secondary Education and the Delegation for Physical Education have already pledged their support to keep the teams alive after I leave, and have even offered us publicity opportunities to garner community support and further diminish the chances they’ll be cut in the future. At the upcoming Divisional finals, we will be presenting one of our HIV prevention activities during half-time with some of the girls in front of some of the most important people in my division. Both delegates are optimistic that the program can even expand, giving REACH great work opportunities for the foreseeable future.

The scope of this competition has also given us the opportunity to approach corporate sponsors who may want to advertise with us. Nothing is confirmed and I don’t want to dash my luck getting cocky, so I will simply say that the money we’re asking for is substantial and that two companies have expressed significant interest. Invested properly, that money could easily fund projects for years, something the volunteer who replaces me will benefit from enormously. We have also created in-roads with PLAN, a mammoth international NGO, and the Cameroon National Youth Council. PLAN is trusting REACH to handle three monthly men’s engagement meetings, which we hope will put REACH at the tip of their tongues when bigger projects come up in the future. Buba, one of my best friends and the president of the National Youth Council in this division, plans to include REACH as a key consultant and work partner once funding starts rolling in.

The only piece that still worries me is the development of REACH’s leadership. I need to increase member participation and make this more than a one-man + Peace Corps organization. There’s an enormous amount of work to done, but somehow, after more than a year of uncertainty and fragile successes, things are shaping up. For now, it’s time for a brief beach vacation to watch the Race of Hope up Mt. Cameroon before the mad dash to May and our final competition begins…

The Buba

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Not sure if I’ve mentioned my friend Buba Sulle, but it’s time for my readers to get to know him a little better. One of the truest people I’ve met here, he runs himself ragged to push the severely
marginalized Aku people forward. Akus are a destitute Islamic cattle-herding population, the primary victims of the tragic explosion of Lake Nyos in 1986. They are an impossibly generous, friendly, and welcoming people; some of my favorites in Cameroon. Unfortunately, they do suffer from a number of regressive traditions, most
prominently the marginalization and early marriage of women.

Buba works tirelessly to change the bad while preserving the good. He founded and directs the Aku Development Association, was recently elected President of the newly minted Cameroon National Youth Council in our division of Menchum, organizes and facilitates outreach programs about the importance of girls’ education, volunteers to teach literacy with my program, and teaches five days a week, although his contract and his salary only commit him to three. This is all in spite of the fact that he has a powerful opposition; one wealthy Aku who wishes to remain a big fish in a small pond has tried repeatedly to have Buba transferred to another division, and has thus far
successfully blocked Buba’s first paycheck for three years through bribery.

In America this is pretty impressive. In Cameroon it’s a wild fantasy. People just don’t do that here. Period. A young rebel, Buba ran away from home when he was twelve years ols. After trekking more than twelve hours through the bush, he floated down a river for five hours on his back until he reached the Nigerian border. He crossed unnoticed and carved out a meager existence for three months before realizing it was not the life he wanted to lead. He returned home and proceeded to devote himself to his education, absorbing anything and everything according to his endlessly inquisitive nature, and transformed himself into the man he is today, a man whose intellect, drive, and character are frankly unrivaled.

I sat down with Buba for awhile today to run some things through with him, work stuff. He’s helping us get the Grassroots Soccer program into his school, and we’re going to try and get REACH involved with the National Youth Council. Afterwards I realized I had struck a very businesslike, American tone, which I pointed out to him, laughing and then asking him how he was doing in general. He smiled pensively, and after a minute asked me if he had told me about this girl Rashida. He hadn’t.

Rashida is seventeen years old and, according to Buba, brilliant, with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Things were going very well for her until about one year ago, when familiar problems in the Aku culture threatened to consume her future before she had a chance to explore it. “The father was not the problem,” Buba told me, “He doesn’t care if she goes to school or not, but the mother… the mother wanted her married.” Some of her uncles in a different village had begun pressuring the mother to marry Rashida to a young man they knew, and the mother, according to her culture and upbringing, quickly became fixated on the idea. Buba protested, even offered to pay her school fees himself, but the mother wouldn’t budge. Her daughter would be married. It seemed hopeless.

Desperate, Buba did the unthinkable: “What if I marry your daughter? And then I will pay her school fees and she can continue school as a married woman?” The parents were shocked, but they finally accepted. Buba said he had to talk to his wife and his father before he could finalize anything. His wife said she completely understood, and acquiesced without a trace of argument. Buba’s father is another strong advocate of girls’ education, and immediately agreed. Buba went back to the parents with one last condition: “I am only marrying your daughter to protect her education because she is brilliant and deserves the opportunity to do what she wants in life…
professionally, and personally. When she graduates school, she will be free to marry any man she chooses. She has no obligation to me, and I will not create one by putting her to bed and having children with her.” The parents were confused, but they agreed.

The marriage was done quietly this past month. Rashida was given a special room in the house, and was enrolled in school for this upcoming term. Buba’s community was livid, exclaiming how absurd it was for a girl to continue school after marriage. When Buba was describing this to me, I learned that this arrangement is entirely without precedent in more ways than one; no girl has ever continued to go to school after marriage in the Aku community. There was one parallel, however: Buba is the very first man in the Aku community to complete his education after marriage.

The funeral

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About two weeks ago there was a small, community funeral at my next door neighbor’s compound. Poor woman lost a daughter of 20, who was working in a town abut five or six hours from here. The body was shipped up the next day for burial, and I was sure to make an appearance. Most of the crowd was older, friends of the bereaved, and they spoke only the country language, so I posted up with the gravediggers. It was an interesting choice.

As I sat there sipping my shah, a locally crafted, grainy alcoholic beverage fermented from corn, I was exposed to my first violent rant against white people. “I hate white people, I just do, for all the things they did to black people during the slave trade and
colonialism”. I just kind of sat there silently. Man had a point, couldn’t really argue anything he was saying. He kept avoiding my eyes, and then finally after like a half an hour he asked me where I was from. When I told him, he said, “Oh! You’re fine. America is a mixed country!” I decided not to point out that the reason for this was a terrible history directly responsible for his hatred of white people, and proceeded amicably.

Next someone asked me what I was doing here, and when I started talking about HIV prevention I got assaulted with a million questions. One of them was, “How do you uh… how do you… lick it?” He then made the apparently universal symbol for oral sex, and stared at me expectantly. Did I just get asked for oral sex advice… at a funeral? Then, another man told me that I should give him my sister, or some other white girl, so he can “sex her”. I explained that I don’t have a title for my sister, nor any other woman, and would therefore be unable to whore them out to him, however laudable his intentions. He insisted that I must because he knows I am “sexing these black girls in Wum”, so in return I must give him a white girl. I countered that I have not slept with any Cameroonians anywhere, but he refused to believe me. “I see you bringing all those black girls into your house. That one with the big booty. I like a big booty to encourage me. I’ve seen it. You are sexing them”. This went back and forth for a good ten minutes. Hell of a conversation. Again, at a funeral.

During the service, the mother asked if we could hold the reception in my house. Hm. Well, the reason I knew the man was lying about seeing Cameroonian women enter my house is because I rarely have guests. My home is my sanctuary, a place to escape Cameroon after a long day, and only a few select people, all men, ever come inside for more than a minute. This would be a shocking first foray into event hosting, but the woman just lost her daughter… couldn’t really say no. So fifty Cameroonians piled into my living room and hosted a big, rowdy reception for the next five hours. It was insanity. After they left, two women helped me clean the place up, which was really nice…

…but, after they were finished, one asked me if she could stay the night. She didn’t have any relatives in Wum, just knew the girl from the other town where they worked, and had no place to stay. I really, REALLY did not want to let this happen, but I felt bad and I couldn’t come up with a good excuse. I tried to tell her I didn’t have a guest bed; no problem, I can sleep on your chair. OK. Well shit. So she set up shop, made herself comfortable, and it slowly sunk in that a Cameroonian I just met was going to sleep in my house. She asked if she could take a shower, which I agreed to, and afterwards she went back to the living room to change. She’d had about five minutes in there and I needed to get something, so I asked if I could come in, and she said there was no problem. There she was, boobs sagging to her belly button, still damp from the shower… Jesus Christ.

I awkwardly told her I needed to go to sleep, and left for my room, where I stayed awake for four hours trying to hear if she was rooting through my stuff. Finally satisfied that I was safe, or just bone-tired, not sure which, I passed out at 3AM. I woke up at 6AM to her loudly singing hymnals. I shuffled her out the door as quickly as possible and sat there solemnly on my couch for a good fifteen minutes trying to process what the hell had just happened. My meditation was interrupted by a call. It was her.

This was the beginning of an ongoing problem for the next three weeks. Cameroonians are impossibly clingy, and this woman was no different. She slept on my shitty wooden couch, I RAN AWAY when I saw her naked, but none of that stopped her from calling me a total of fifty-nine times in two weeks…

Hell of a funeral.

Christmas in the Wum

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My second and last Christmas has passed in Cameroon… a little sad, but it was a great week! It started with my literacy class, where I made a Christmas tree to tape to the wall, and had the kids decorate it with handmade ornaments. I brought in all my crayons and lots of little circles, and asked them to draw whatever came to mind when they thought of Christmas. We all had a lot of fun drawing and decorating the tree together. It’s not often these kids have the opportunity to do something creative like that; it’s just not valued in the culture, and especially not in the education system. Afterwards we did some caroling. Pretty cool.

This year I was not alone up there in Wum; far from it. Six of Sean’s friends from stage came up and we had an awesome Wum Christmas eating way too much food and drinking far too much alcohol. It’s kinda like Thanksgiving and St. Patty’s Day rolled into one. I made fried okra and hibiscus wine, both of which were met with almost universal praise. I may even try selling some in the market for poops and giggles. One lady though… she barely nibbled the okra. I come here and try all your weird foods, eat ALL of it to avoid being rude ALWAYS, even if it’s something gross like weasel organ and limestone soup, and you can’t put one bite-size slice of okra and batter in your mouth? Okra is a wildly popular vegetable here, too, it’s not totally out of left field, it’s just the way I prepared it… unbelievable. C’est la vie.

Anyways, it was a great time, but I can’t say I’m not looking forward to a Christmas at home next year… ten months left…

Work update

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Well, now seems like a better time than most for a little project update. Nothing worked, but everything kind of worked out, which I guess is like the theme of my life at this point, as well as the unofficial Peace Corps Cameroon slogan. I think that means we were meant for each other or something. As previously noted, the big youth farm project did not pan out, but in retrospect, for very good reasons. My NGO tried to start a small farm to raise money, and it failed because the support from auxiliary members simply isn’t there. The entire weight of its operation all rests on Nyambi’s shoulders, with a little help from Winnerd and his wife, who are both incredible people, but they don’t have money and they don’t have time. The failure of that farm made it clear that the platform did not yet exist for a big farm project; if the youth had worked hard all year, and then it fell apart and we couldn’t pay their school fees, we would have catastrophically disappointed a lot of people. These smaller projects are manageable but challenging, fun, and they have a lot of potential to build REACH into an NGO capable of those bigger projects in the future. I only wish I’d realized it sooner, but lessons were learned by all, and I think that’s what counts.

So here’s what I’ve done since the runaway success of the cabbage garden. My literacy class has evolved into something much more than originally intended. My students are generally upper-class because the school, a boarding school, charges astronomically more than the day schools. At first I was a little disappointed because I clearly had not selected the population most in need, but then I realized this is still Africa, and these kids still need me. Because they’re the cream of the crop however, my work with them has transformed into something very different but very exciting. The kids know how to read and they don’t need a literacy program, but I can help mold them into socially conscious, creative, generous citizens, and I think that’s important because more than likely, these are going to be the people running things in fifteen years.

First off, we’ve been doing a lot of HIV stuff… no matter how well-off your population is, this is kind of square one development work. I administered my first test, which everyone told me was way too difficult, and they averaged 91% including the score of one outlier, who posted a 24%. The lowest grade after him was an 81%. I’ve borrowed out 22 books and haven’t come close to satiating their demand. This is a hell of a phenomenon in Cameroon, which basically doesn’t read except to pass exams. Doing highly animated storytelling at the end of class has generated a lot of excitement, which is great to see. I’m challenging them to revive the creative spark the Cameroonian education system has all but ground to dust by asking them questions like, “Who was your favorite character? Why? What did you learn?” instead of the rote comprehension questions they’re used to. I’ve also started doing creative writing, which is like pulling teeth (can’t tell you how many rewritten Adam and Eve entries I’ve read) but some of them are finally getting it. I’ve also received tales of an epic kung fu battle over a pit of lava, a high-tension court case for the rights of an abused woman, and an African wrestling tale complete with underhanded sorcery. My other two instructors are doing their own thing at their own schools, but both are soldiering on teaching literacy where it IS a serious problem.

The girls’ soccer teams are even cooler. Sean and I started coaching in Upkwa, a hyper-conservative Muslim village, about two weeks ago. It is amazing to see these girls – normally treated like slaves, never allowed to go out and married by 14 – getting physical and having fun playing a sport traditionally reserved for boys. They’re extremely shy, but we’ve already seen a lot of progress. The kids are starting to peek out of their shells, and their skills are improving rapidly. Working with Sean has made it a lot of fun, too. I finally have the authorization letter from the Ministry and can begin doing the HIV and life skills training unimpeded by conservative administration soon. We’re spending a few more practices building trust and relationships before hitting these sensitive issues, so that should be off the ground in December or January.

We just finished a pilot program of the material in Charegha, where we did the cabbage garden. It was unbelievably successful. On the first day all the kids were way too cool for school, but by day 2 everyone was enthusiastically answering questions. We never had any problem getting them to remember complex concepts like the disease progression of HIV, or modes of transmission. And we had so much fun! All the learning is built into soccer drills, and the kids loved it! On the fourth day, one of the kids who started out very apathetic, told me he skipped his uncle’s burial because he loved the program so much. Damn. We ended with a big feast in the village, which was awesome!

We’re using the competition in May as a big publicity thing for REACH, with street banners and dignitaries and all that. This should get REACH up and running with some credibility and a firm foundation. We’re also going to try and get funding from big companies in Cameroon, like cell phone companies or the brewing company, by advertising on our banners. Finally, we’re looking to use this program in the schools to try and meet a need for PLAN Cameroon, a major international NGO which may be interested in entering a partnership with REACH. This would get REACH the financial backing it so desperately needs and finally transform it into a functioning NGO. If all goes according to plan, the next volunteer will be working with a respected, credible, stable, and well-funded organization!

So that’s pretty much it for work… it all was a bit messy coming together, but it feels really good to have two solid projects going into my second year.