Media Favorites


How have I occupied my free time in Cameroon? I’d love to say I cured cancer or developed my million dollar idea, but mostly I just drank a lot of alcohol (not alone… usually…). A lot of my “decompressing” time after a stressful day in another culture was spent alone, though: reading, watching TV, listening to music, etc. Here are some favorites.


I am actually going to list all the books I read. I got through more than many PCVs, far less than many others. My favorites are starred, maybe with a small description. They are in no particular order.

  1. Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole **** (Maybe my favorite book of all time. Laugh-out-loud funny).
  2. Alice in Wonderland Louis Carroll
  3. Through the Looking Glass Louis Carroll
  4. Down and Out in Paris and London George Orwell ***
  5. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Michael Chabon **** (Superbly written, great characters, cool story).
  6. 100 Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez **** (Probably the most beautifully written book I’ve ever read).
  7. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe *** (If you want to know what Cameroon was like fifty years ago, read this).
  8. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff Christopher Moore **** (Incredibly clever and funny. Chronicles the missing 33 years of Jesus’ life with a wise-cracking sidekick).
  9. The Social Animal David Brooks
  10. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky *** (Love Dostoevsky).
  11. The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky ***
  13. Feast of Crows George RR Martin
  14. Dance with Dragons George RR Martin
  15. Octopus Guy Lawson
  16. Catch 22 Joseph Heller **** (Competing for favorite book of all-time).
  17. Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Financial Crisis James Rickards
  18. Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned Steve Keen***
  19. Capital in the 21st Century Thomas Piketty ***
  20. Winner-Take-All Politics Jacob Hacker ***
  21. Crash Course: The Unsustainable Future of our Economy, Energy, and the Environment Christ Martenson
  22. The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of American Prosperity Jeff Madrick ****
  23. Too Big Too Fail Andrew Ross Sorkin
  24. Politico: Understanding Obamacare Politico
  25. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen
  26. Shit my Dad Says Justin Halpern
  27. Life: Keith Richard’s Autobiography James Fox
  28. Cat’s Cradle Kurt Vonnegut
  29. Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut
  30. Player Piano Kurt Vonnegut
  31. Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut
  32. Dirty Sexy Politics Meghan McCain
  33. Hunger Games Suzanne Collins
  34. Mockingjay Suzanne Collins
  35. Catching Fire Suzanne Collins
  36. Bossypants Tina Fey
  37. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now Michael Toure
  38. The Gunslinger Stephen King *** (All of the following SK novels are from a series, a huge departure from his usual shock horror. The writing is a little sloppy at times, but the characters and the stories are BRILLIANT, and isn’t that what makes a great book)?
  39. The Drawing of the 3 Stephen King ***
  40. The Wastelands Stephen King ***
  41. Wizard and Glass Stephen King ***
  42. Wolves of the Calla Stephen King ****
  43. Song of Susannah Stephen King ***
  44. The Dark Tower Stephen King ***
  45. High Fidelity *** Nick Hornsby (Super funny, great writing and characters).
  46. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim David Sedaris
  47. Goosebumps: Welcome to Horror Land RL Stein
  48. The Know-it-all AJ Jacobs
  49. The Old Man and the Sea Ernest Hemingway
  50. The Golden Compass Phillip Pullman
  51. Tortilla Flat John Steinbeck ****  (Fantastic book, incredibly witty and funny. Love Steinbeck).
  52. East of Eden John Steinbeck **** (Also competing for my favorite book of all time).
  53. Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
  54. On Writing Stephen King
  55. Jitterbug Perfume Tom Robbins **** (Very funny, awesome characters, loved this book).
  56. Fight Club Chuck Palahniuk
  57. B is for Beer Tom Robbins


If you haven’t watched these TV shows yet, just go ahead and do it. They’re phenomenal.

  1. True Detective
  2. The Wire
  3. 30 Rock
  4. Breaking Bad
  5. House of Cards
  6. Orange is the New Black
  7. Parks and Rec


So these are the songs which defined at least one week of my service. I starred my favorites.

  1. Outkast – Hey Ya (but really everything by Outkast) *
  2. The Velvet Underground – Rock and Roll
  3. Surreal and the Sound Providers – Truth Be Told *
  4. TLC – No Scrubs
  5. Aesop Rock – Five Fingers *
  6. Wu-Tang Clan Vs. The Beatles – Daytona 500 (but really this whole album) *
  7. Allman Brothers Band – Ain’t Wasting Time No More (but really everything by ABB) *
  8. The Libertines – What Katie Did *
  9. Amy Winehouse – Tears Dry on Their Own (but really everything by Winehouse) *
  10. Arctic Monkeys – Ritz to the Rubble
  11. Rolling Stones – Sweet Virginia (but really everything by Rolling Stones) *
  12. Cake – Jolene *
  13. RJD2 – Ghostwriter, The Bachelor (everything from two of his albums, the rest are…) *
  14. The Decemberists – Legionnaire’s Lament *
  15. The Devil Makes Three – The Plank (but really everything by DM3) *
  16. Rubblebucket – Came out of a Lady
  17. Chuck Berry – You Never Can Tell
  18. Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – Keep on Looking (but really everything by Sharon Jones) *
  19. Gorillaz – Feel Good, Inc Remix by Rhythms Del Mundo *
  20. House of Pain – Jump Around
  21. Middle Brother – Middle Brother *
  22. Fishtank Ensemble – Woman in Sin
  23. Isley Brothers – This Old Heart of Mine
  24. Lily Allen – Fuck You
  25. Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Rascal King *
  26. Mindi Abair – Girls’ Night Out
  27. Nelly – Ride With Me
  28. Earth Wind and Fire – Yearnin’ Learnin’
  29. Blackstreet and Dre – No Diggity
  30. Qwel – Backstage Pass (but really everything by Qwel) *
  31. RX Bandits – Bury it Down Low *
  32. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Timorous Me *
  33. Toots and the Maytals – Broadway Jungle 2000
  34. The Strokes – Last Nite
  35. Big Boi – Apple of my Eye
  36. Blue Scholars – The Inkwell *
  37. Thievery Corporation – Until the Morning
  38. Snoop Doggy Dogg – Who Am I? *
  39. Taylor Swift – We Are Never Getting Back Together *
  40. Van Morrison – Moondance
  41. White Stripes – Icky Thump
  42. The Beatles – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  43. Elvis Costello and the Roots – Wake Me Up *
  44. The Faint – Dropkick the Punks
  45. Here Come the Mummies – Dirty Minds
  46. Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
  47. La Roux – In For the Kill
  48. Rebirth Brass Band – Trouble
  49. Nas – Get Down*
  50. Ella Fitzgerald – The Lady is a Tramp
  51. 2Chainz – I’m Different
  52. Santa Esmeralda – Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
  53. Amadou and Mariam – C’es Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles
  54. Big L – Put it On (CNN Remix) *
  55. Christina Pierri – Jar of Hearts
  56. Common – Make My Day
  57. Curtis Mayfield – Pusherman *
  58. Hall and Oats – You Make My Dreams Come True
  59. Gary Clark Jr – Don’t Owe You a Thing
  60. Jay-Z and Danger Mouse – Encore *



I think one of the most important thing we can do as Peace Corps Volunteers is to show people from developing countries that Americans aren’t always uptight, condescending, unapproachable titans of greed. Many of us are big, goofy idiots who scratch our butts and fart a lot. To that end, I’ve enjoyed immeasurable success in Cameroon.

Paraphrased from a conversation with Sean

Ah no di waka fine for Cameroon-ohhh!


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.

If you want to go to Wum, the first thing you need to do is find a taxi willing to take you eight miles outside of the city to “Wum park”. Usually this means hopping 2 – 3 taxis with all your bags. If you have a lot of stuff to carry or you run into a sweaty traffic jam, these forty-five minutes can easily put you into that aggravated, just-below-boiling state familiar to travelers everywhere. That’s when the fun begins.

Once you get to the Wum park, there are two travel options: Corollas, and prison buses. In case the names didn’t give it away, Corollas are by far the better option, but they aren’t always available. More on this to come.

Fun fact: 94% of all cars in Cameroon are Corollas (not a real statistic).

In a Corolla, there will typically be four passengers in the back seat, two in the front passenger seat, and one unlucky soul wedged in between the driver and the stick shift. This person is called the “petite chauffeur”. Whatever happens, do not be this person. Scratch, claw, bite, throw elbows, anything to avoid having the driver sit on your left thigh and massage the right every time he shifts for the entire trip. The petite chaueffeur brings the number of adult passengers to seven; 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 until they’re at least twelve years old. Yes. 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 that have been specially outfitted by Cameroonians to transform your world into an apocalyptic nightmare. 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 — typically five to a row, but commonly more, and never less. It’s 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 it 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 a special spinal hell you want nothing to do with, 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!” This is your nightmare, and it’s real.

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.

As I mentioned before, 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, skeletal 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 three 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 argument about who’s going to sit where. It happens every time without fail, and it usually takes another thirty minutes of everyone’s time. I told you, some of the seats really suck.

Thirty humid minutes later, and 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 before the bus moves again… just a few feet this time. 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, on the road again, hitting the old dusty trail, free at last!… no. No, not again. You can’t stop, this isn’t happening, I can’t do it 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 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 squeeze out of the bus so he can talk to the officer, and then you will wait fifteen minutes while he negotiates the bribe he’s going to pay said 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 make no mistakes: the Corolla is no treat. 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 that 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 multiple pressures from several different angles. 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.

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…


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


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


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.



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
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…


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



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.