Archive for August, 2011

Physician (Saturday, 2011 August 27)

August 27th, 2011

I got a couple questions about music in Cameroon, and the fact is there are a few tracks I’m kind of fond of. To buy music here you can either go to the téléchargeurs, downloaders in town who have large collections of presumably illegal music on their computers, and they’ll burn you a CD of whatever you want. There are also walking vendors that sell CDs of whatever they think will sell. At my latest village marché, I asked one if he had any Nigerian music, which is at least in English. He sold me a VCD with 19 tracks listed (about 7 work), which I just ripped. This is one of my favorite songs in this country, apparently its title is "Qualify Doctor". The chorus goes:

I’m not a qualify doctor
She want me to give her injection
I’m not a qualify physician
She want me to give her injection
This girl di look for my trouble
She want me to give her injection
The guy tell e look for my wahalla
She want me to give her injection

—Polaino, "Qualify Doctor"

Here’s the video track. Uh, be aware it might not be safe for work.

Uploaded: Polaino – Qualify Doctor.mpg (MPEG sequence, v1, system multiplex, 51.0 MiB)

I know you want that bitch on your next mixtape too, so here’s an mp3, complete with the badly-mixed clipping.

Uploaded: Polaino – Qualify Doctor.mp3 (Audio file with ID3 version 2.4.0, extended header, contains: MPEG ADTS, layer III, v1, 128 kbps, 44.1 kHz, Stereo, 4.0 MiB)

Here’s a blog post by already-returned Volunteer Kevin which, among other things, includes a bunch of links to Youtube videos of typical music to hear in Cameroon.

Shout out to all my friends and family in NYC. Hope you’re all safe and dry and the city doesn’t wash away!


Marché (Thursday, 2011 August 26)

August 26th, 2011

I’m gonna let my computer upload some more photos while I lay in bed and play DS. These are from the most recent jour du marché, last Saturday. Village marchés in the West tend to be every 8 days (traditionally, the Bamiléké follow an 8-day week). Saturdays during vacation are big days for deuils, let’s translate that as "funeral", so these pictures illustrate a marché that’s a little sparser than usual.

The marché in my village is just off the paved road that runs from Bafoussam to Douala. Properly, it’s just behind these buildings, but it sort of spills out a little bit. This intersection is called Tchomso, I don’t know if that means something in patois, but you can also say le marché.

Same buildings, but closer up. The one on the left is a boutique/bar. You can see some village mamas setting up here anyhow, and there are people on the veranda eating. I’m not sure about the other two buildings; I hardly ever see them open.

Same bar, plus a look at the busiest corridor in the marché.

This is from the veranda, facing kind of the opposite direction. You can see on the left a girl interacting with the beans-and-beignet lady (off-camera). On the right, you can see vendors of what look like dried fish, prunes, and okra (gumbo).

Pretty much any chance I get, I get breakfast from the beans-and-beignet lady. Here you got your beans, your beignets, and a cup of bouillie, which literally I think means something like "porridge", but in Cameroon always means this kind of slightly sweet, soupy broth made from cornmeal. I always find the first mouthful really good, but subsequent mouthfuls unavoidably taste exactly like cornmeal broth. (I dunk the beignets in the bouillie but I don’t think anyone else does.) Note the spoon — forks are fairly rare in Cameroon.

On the same veranda is a little girl operating a poisson braisé stand. The plastic dish is used to fan the charcoals.

Although you can get clothes tailor-made fairly cheap here, cheaper still is to buy discarded clothes exported from the Occident. A used-clothes vendor like this is called a fripperie. The West Region is more Westernized than some other regions, so some stuff like this even shows up in village marchés.

This is my favorite vegetable lady. She never calls me le blanc, though sometimes she calls me professeur. I always try to buy at least 1000 CFA worth of stuff from her, every market day, mostly in green beans but occasionally in carrots, condiment, or whatever else she has. I don’t know which of these things she grows and which she buys to resell.

Her "neighbor" (blue and green dress) at the next table over is a little more annoying, but if she has good fruit, I’ll often buy from her.

Typical staples in our region: carrots, green beans, tomatoes, green pepper, condiment (pretty much any aromatic herb: scallions, celery, parsley), and a bunch of peanuts (Anglophone: "ground nut").

I don’t usually buy my tomatoes from her but I hadn’t been at the previous marché so I felt guilty and let her talk me into buying from her.

Some tables a little ways over. Onions, ginger, and piles of cloves of garlic (100 CFA per pile). Also, babouches, which can mean sandals, slippers, or flip-flops.

Grain products are bought en gros like this. I can’t see what these are, but I’d guess rice and dried beans.

Another miniature fripperie. This guy is calling out something like "Clothes, one hundred a piece!"

Usually they don’t smile.

I never realized how many babouches were on sale in our market.

This table is in what I consider the "back" of the market, which is much less energetic. Sometimes mamas don’t even man their tables.

This guy is definitely a businessdude. I’ve seen him at marchés in other neighboring villages and all of his stuff was obviously purchased somewhere. I usually buy spaghetti from him.

My village is known for its chou, cabbage. You can also see some little red piment.

I’m not sure if honey is a big thing all over Cameroon, but there are definitely a bunch of vendors here in my village. Note the two sizes of Top bottle — "small", about 0.3 of a liter, and "normal", about 0.65 L.

L’huil rouge, "red oil" or palm oil, comes from the nuts of palm trees. You boil the nuts and maybe add water or something. It’s a very common ingredient in Cameroonian cuisine but I think it’s not terribly healthy so I try to avoid it. All other "Western" kinds of oil are called l’huil d’arachide, "peanut oil", even if it’s sunflower, soybean, or olive.

I ended up buying prunes from this lady. Here she is handing someone else my cadeau, "gift", a little extra to thank me for being her customer. (Also known as lagniappe.)

Shovel blades and shovel handles are sold separately. Sorry for the quality of the pictures; I was trying to be covert.

Peanut vendor. He’s whisking them around in a sort of sieve to try to get the skins off, rocks out, and identify the bad ones.

I have no idea what these are but I see them a lot. They almost look like tiny shriveled piment. On the plastic bag are dried patate douce, which are like eating flavored leather.

I haggled over some of these pineapples for a while but didn’t get the price I wanted.

Salade, lettuce, is a rainy-season food. (Otherwise it needs to be watered "by hand".)

Pineapples grown in my village are often shipped to Bafoussam, where they fetch a higher price. There are also fruit carts that sell pieces of peeled pineapple for 100 CFA. Cameroonians tell me that pineapple is cheaper in village, but most other things are cheaper in the city.

I know it’s nothing compared to Hurricane Irene, but here’s what the sky looked outside my front door the other day. Brondon pointed it out to me — the clouds look pissed but there’s also sun from the other direction.

Some mugs I bought in the other kind of market — the supermarket in Bafoussam. You have to be careful when you go there or you’ll drop tens of thousands of CFA. The darker one is from a series of Zodiac mugs (Zodiaque) and it depicts "Balance" (Libra). I’m not a Libra but I thought it was really pretty.


BIBCOBAZ (Friday, 2011 August 26)

August 26th, 2011

[Here’s another one by Timothy, about the Bibliothèque Communitaire at his post and its founding, mostly driven by his postmate Kim. It’s also in the Education Newsletter, which just went out.]


In the interest of truth, slight liberties have been taken with regards to reality.

Morning. First week of January.

Sitting behind the counter of his hardware stall, Ndjassap saw the mayor’s car speed up the hill through the market and toward his l’Hôtel de Ville. Ndjassap called Kimberly; she called me. The three of us met on the front steps. "Have you got it?" I asked Kim. She pulled from her bag a plastic file folder and, from it, a contract for the mayor to sign, stamp and sort away in what must be the most cavernous of all filling cabinets, or wherever it is paperwork goes to rest. Thinking ahead, we’d left the date blank. Our mayor, you see, lives in France. And when he’s not there, he’s in either Yaounde or Douala. Occasionally he appears in village, to check in — so we had to be ready. Ndjassap had been on stakeout for weeks: following leads, heeding rumors of the mayor’s return, but mostly just sitting, an eye to the road, and waiting for his car to show.

From the very start, the library was Kimberly’s idea (I’ve played, at best, a supporting role — a translator, a proofreader, a dependable, if dispassionate, handlender). If you ask her the idea’s origin, she’ll gladly tell the story. I’ve heard it over a dozen times myself (a dozen versions, too: abridged, extended, English, French, first and third person; I proofread the written copy).

Kimberly’s francophone grandmother gifted her a French translation of a very popular children’s novel about an eponymous boy wizard, which, once in Africa, she read aloud with her landlord’s young daughter each day after school. At first the young girl was timid; startled to shame by her own voice, she listened as Kimberly read. As the story progressed, it captured the girl’s imagination, and very soon she became frustrated with the pace of Kimberly’s French. By the end of the book, it was the young girl who did most of the reading. The experience inspired Kimberly, who kicked the idea of a community library around to see who might be interested. When folks she didn’t even know began approaching her in the market, demanding to know how they could help, she put together a plan.

Now, I’m not a cynic, but I am realist. And the implications of being a realist depend largely on one’s view of reality. Which is fine, unless ones reality includes the gnawing suspicion that, despite all our talk of helping the less fortunate, essential human nature has not changed since the days when our cave-dwelling ancestors bashed one another with clubs for food and mating rights, and any net advancement in our turbulent history is due largely to luck.

With that said…

We were lucky. The village development committee had recently constructed a massive community center, a large assembly hall flanked on two sides by split-level wings and a terrace that wrapped around the second floor. Amid the village’s humble constructions, it was a dreamer’s building — a true-to-life, if-you-build-it-they-will-come building — as absurd in scale as it was unknown in function. What interested Kimberly was a large, airy room the southwest corner of the ground floor. She told Njassap this. "You’ll need permission from the village development committee," he said, "but that shouldn’t be a problem." You see, Ndjassap, fils-du-village and all-around useful guy, was committee secretary.

We met the President of the village development committee over drinks in his home — the guy who runs the photo boutique was waging coaxial warfare with the President’s new plasma screen TV. Fussing with a universal remote control with one hand, a wine glass in the other, he divided his attention between Kimberly and I and the Technicolor snow coming from the TV. Kimberly recounted to the President the story which had inspired her and the reason we’d come to see him — that we wanted to put a library in his new community center.

"Do you have a DVD player?" he asked. "How do I switch from the cable to the DVD?" The photo tech answered him, "press AUX on the remote. Switch from auxiliary 1 to auxiliary 2."

The matter of TV settled, the President addressed our concern. "It’s a great idea!" he said. "Why hadn’t I thought of that? You know, I had, in fact. Remember, Ndjassap, mon petit, when I said we should have a library in the community center?"

The next morning, the President met us at the nearly-completed community center and told us to choose the room we wanted for the library. Kimberly pointed out the room in the southwest corner of the ground floor. The President agreed that it was the best choice of rooms for a library. "Of course," he said in parting, "you’ll need to get permission from the mayor." Thus did we meet on the steps of L’Hôtel de Ville, that first week in January.

The mayor seemed enthusiastic about the idea. "A great step in the development of our youth," he called it. He promised us furniture. He promised us books. He said he’d find money in the budget to pay a librarian’s salary. We were not foolish; to hold him to his word, we typed all this up in a contract. He read it over, scribbled a dozen edits over the type and handed it back.

We were soon to realize that apart from being a politician and a successful businessman (he owned a travel agency) our mayor was also a rigorous grammarian. It wasn’t just the contract. Every document that passed through his office underwent the same scrutiny: a typo circled here, a misconjugated verb — reconjugated — there; words were stricken throughout and synonyms put in their place. And each time, Kimberly promptly made the corrections, paid the 250 francs for the printing and returned, only for the Mayor to then make more changes — or worse, to find that he’d left. I don’t know how many times she did this; I was often busy at the high school during her dealings with the Mayor.

But it, nevertheless, seemed to me like the Mayor was dragging his feet. Ndjassap accounted for this. He said that the Mayor wanted to leave his mark in every document that passed by him. That way he might take credit at a later date should the library succeed (he was already claiming responsibility for the construction of the community center). Kimberly admitted that Ndjassap was likely right, but it didn’t seem to discourage her at all. "Who cares who gets the credit," she said, "as long as it gets done?"

That was Kimberly being a realist, only her reality and mine didn’t gel. I suspected something more sinister is the Mayor’s intentions. I felt it in his handshake, read it in his smile, heard it in the gaps between his words. It was an act I’d seen before. It was salesmanship. He was friendly; he made promises, told us just what we came to hear. But behind all his talk lay no action — not that we’d really asked him to do anything other than sign some papers, yet his reticence to do so was holding up the project. I was sure the Mayor was purposefully baiting us. But to what end?

A rift began to form between Kimberly and Ndjassap and me, though no one spoke of it. From the beginning I’d had my doubts about the library. I feared that, as a project, it wasn’t sustainable. I also feared for Kimberly, that she was in love with this project and was thus blinded from reality. How was she going to take it if she forced this project forward and it fails? And if something as simple as getting a couple papers signed was so much trouble, what was going to happen once real work had to be done?

But Kimberly, by sheer determination did get the paperwork squared away, and by the first week of March the way was cleared to form the library management committee. Kimberly, Njdassap and I each took a few invitations and posted them conspicuously where responsible and community-spirited people might see them. I hung a few at the high school and made announcements in the professors’ lounge and to my older students.

Kimberly was very hopeful. I was beginning to suspect that her optimism had something to do with her being a nurse. Her reality, as it were, was ingrained with some deep need to help people — and the audacity to believe she could.

She’d been secretly working up a list of people in the community whom she wanted on the library committee and made house calls to invite them to the informational meeting. Her perk and fluster stood in spite of the demise of her other community group, the Community Health Workers, which had been in slow decline ever since Kimberly refused to pay to have the meetings catered. It was all I could do to not point out what seemed obvious to me: people, regardless how motivated at first, will get bored and disillusioned and abandon a cause the moment it no longer aligns with their self interest. I couldn’t tell her that; as a development worker, I shouldn’t have even been thinking that.

The first meeting of the library committee was on March sixth. I wrote a speech for the meeting in which I recounted the story of William Kamkwamba, a young man from Malawi who built a wind-powered generator in his village using junk and a textbook he found in his village library. I’d put more time and energy into that speech than on the entire library project up to that point. I rehearsed it over and over, until I had it memorized. I practiced it in the mirror. I imagined myself speaking before a large crowd. I worked out hand gestures to emphasize key phrases.

Eight people showed up — not quite the full house I’d rehearsed for, but I gave my speech with enthusiasm (though I toned down the hand gestures a bit, to suit the small group). The committee was formed, officers were nominated and voted in, and we agreed to meet the following Sunday to write a constitution.

After a few weeks, a few rough drafts and a few Sunday afternoons spent in the cavernous cement box that would be our library, the committee ratified a constitution. Then we didn’t know what to do.

We were in a slump — not knowing where the next step lay. The library existed on paper, a committee was in place, but physically it was a drafty room, empty save for some plastic chairs. Committee meetings were scheduled each Sunday, but why? What was there to do? People stopped showing up, (a couple times Kimberly and I waited an hour at the library without any other members coming or even calling). As for me, with seminars in Yaounde, training in Bafia, and school vacation looming overhead like a Limbe palm tree, I stopped showing as well.

While I was traveling from post to Yaounde to Bafia and back, Kimberly was busily plugging along. With Ndjassap’s help, she met with village elites. A Deputy Minister born in our village pledged to pay the shipping costs on some three hundred books collected by an old friend of mine in Toulouse. Kimberly got approved a partnership to finance the library management training and construction of our first tables and bookshelves. She met once again with the President of the development committee to inform him that we had found some second hand computers which a returned volunteer was sending over. The President returned from Yaounde a week later with five of the nicest computer desks I’d ever seen. Kimberley traveled back to the states for a friend’s wedding and returned with over a hundred books and a video projector — all donated by friends and family. But what was driving her, even more than her desire to see the library succeed, was knowing that her time in our village was coming to an end. She’d been accepted for a third year extension, in Yaounde, which would begin August first. Out of reluctance to leave her project unfinished, she redoubled her efforts.

By late June, upon returning from a week in Bafia, a series of events occurred that began to change my outlook of the project in general and the library committee in particular. It was a Sunday, and the library committee meeting was scheduled for two. Around two-fifteen, I came up through the market toward the library and saw that not only was every member of the committee there, but they were on time. They were waiting for me.

Kimberly announced that our funding had come through and that we were ready to plan our training. We would also need to schedule a couple days to build the tables and shelves we’d need to get the library up and running. Mr. Wete, whom the committee had elected librarian, told us of his friend, Thierry, a carpentry student at the technical high school, who would be more than happy to help out. We scheduled the build for the following Wednesday and Thursday, then the training for a week after that.

The build went without a hitch. Kimberly took lots of photos for an "Évolution d’une Bibliothèque" poster she was making. At the end of the two days, Thierry, the carpentry student, asked who was going to pay him. Kimberly and I didn’t know what to say. We hadn’t figured labor into the budget, since he was a friend of Mr. Wete, we had just assumed he had volunteered. Madame Linette, a primary school teacher and the committee president, stepped in. She pulled a five thousand franc note from her purse and handed it to the young man. Never did she ask to be reimbursed.

The two day training went well. We went over circulation procedures, book sorting and labeling, security and customer service. During a session on budgeting, the committee brainstormed some pretty good ideas for generating revenue that could very well make the library self-sufficient. They even agreed on a reasonable salary for our librarian — a subject that I’d been afraid to even bring up for fear of starting a terrible debate — without so much as an objection. I was beginning to feel guilty for ever having doubted this group of people.

The following Monday, six committee members, Kimberly, and I took a field trip. We’d heard of several libraries in the province and traveled to three of them to see how they operated. The first was in the district capital and sponsored by the the city’s cultural preservation council. The building was locked, and when I peeked through the dusty window I saw that the shelves were bare and books were stacked on the floor. Neglected, it had become a mausoleum for books. When the man responsible for the library finally arrived, he stepped inside, grabbed a sack from the desk and hurried away — claiming that he had more pressing affairs but that we should come back another time.

The second library, tucked away in a church compound, was established with the help of a volunteer a couple years ago and was now being looked over by a current volunteer posted in the village. It was a lending library, open to the community and furnished by the Books for Cameroon project. It was small, but well supplied, and we took note of their interesting technique for handling circulation.

The committee members were most impressed by the third library. Housed in the high school, it was open to all members of the community. Beside the library’s entrance was a large bucket with a spigot, a bucket beneath the spigot and a towel beside that. A sign on the wall ordered people to wash their hands with soap and water before touching any materials in the library. The librarian was a young man, a baccalaureate too poor to pay university tuition, who would be working the fields all day if it weren’t for his modest librarian’s salary. During our visit with him, a group of children came in and began playing a multiplication card game. "That’s our only real problem," said the librarian. "We have all these books, but the children will not read them. They only want to play games."

So that just about brings us up to date. After training, we spent a few days labeling and shelving books. On July 23, amid the din of Biya loyalists gathered in the assembly hall next door, we opened the doors of the library for the first time. Village elites visiting from the city stopped in throughout the day with promises of support for the fledgling library. Many congratulations were thrown our way, many glad-handshakes and pats on the back. As with nearly every good idea in the planning and execution of this library, the idea to open the library so the elites in village for the rally could see the results of the community’s hard work (and to present them with the long list of additional needs) was Kimberly’s; and though I have long been trying to abandon my cautious pessimism as it concerns this project, I fought her on it. "We’re not ready," I said. "Not all the books are labeled. What if one of those grands comes in here and wants to take over, or someone tries to install their unemployed cousin as our librarian?"

Of course, none of my fears came to pass. There was no coup. Kimberly lured a few children in off the street — so timid she had to literally force the books into their hands and set them down to read. The day went smoothly, and the library has been open nearly every day since. We’re not lending out books just yet, but with luck that will come soon. Sadly, Kimberly has left us; she’s now in Yaounde (working far too hard, I’ll wager).

We still face many challenges in the months ahead. The computer desks which were so graciously donated are bare, the computers promised us having somehow disappeared. Most folks in the village don’t even know what a library is, and we’ve got to inform them. I’m still nervous about the motivation of the committee itself — what happens when the newness wears off? Our librarian hasn’t been showing up regularly and complains that he’s not being paid enough.

Other question beg answers, too.

How are we going to get more books? How are we going to cover the operating costs? Protect against theft? Even keep the doors open and prevent our library from becoming another mausoleum for books? How will we manage the threat — in my mind, at least — of some grand coming in and wrecking all we’ve worked for?

But what troubles me the most is myself. With the committee now looking solely to me for guidance, I fear I won’t live up to the task. Perhaps I’m not giving them enough credit, perhaps they’ll do fine with little help from me. I’ve underestimated them before, and I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

So I sit in this library and wait. Mr. Wete, our librarian, is sick; so, I’m covering for him. It’s cold out — been this way for four days straight, just fog and drizzle, punctuated by the occasional downpour. Yet, there’s a middle-aged man who suffered the weather to make it here. He’s sitting at one of the empty computer desks with a novel. He says he was here yesterday, too. A group of children lay on mats in the corner, whispering and pointing at the pictures in a story book — the oldest child is reading to the younger ones. I, too, am flipping through a book. I put it down every few minutes to look around, reflect and jot down these words.

I don’t know what the future holds for this library, and up to now that’s really bothered me. Then again, Kimberly couldn’t have predicted all this seven months ago, when the library existed only in her mind, though I’m not sure what would have happened had she done nothing.

I’m going to have to step up my role, be more positive, perhaps even idealist. That’s not to say I’ll stop being a realist, but I’ve got a feeling, call it a hunch, that reality is not something one must accept as is. It’s four in the afternoon. The middle-aged man shelves his book where he can find it tomorrow, the children hand me their books and head outside. I shelve the children’s books and sweep out some of the mud they’ve tracked in. Then I shut the windows, lock the door and walk home through the mist.


Ouest (Saturday, 2011 August 20)

August 20th, 2011

I just remembered why I don’t normally upload so many photos — they take forever to upload, and then when I load my blog on a Cameroonian Internet connection, they take forever to download again. I’m gonna try to put fewer per post, maybe, or space them out with more boring words. I guess I could also hide them behind a "Read more" link, but that seems lame somehow.

"Jambox soup", made by Barbara‘s mother Thèrese. This would be host family #3. The idea is you don’t have anything in particular to make, so you put everything "that doesn’t kill a man" into the pot and make a soup out of it. The starchy thing is kwakoko, made from coco yam, which is serving as complement. She said it came out too soft, but I thought it was delicious.

Therèse: "the food and the mama that cooked it".

The new stage, just arriving. This is in the Bafoussam Office (or, as Henry calls it, the "Boffice") Everybody’s eating tofu!

Some views from the back of the Boffice.

From the front of the Boffice. This is the main road that goes through Bafoussam. It’s wet from a rainstorm that had just swept through.

Look, some white people!


Sorcellerie (Wednesday, 2011 August 17)

August 17th, 2011

I’m at another village working on some kind of reproductive health/AIDS camp for kids, and we’re up way too late. I want to go to bed but people are on the couch where I’m sleeping. It’s 12 midnight and we’re talking about creepy stuff.

Apparently there’s a terribly weird French lady in Lindsay’s village. She’s a Catholic missionary, and we’re hearing stories about her now. Apparently she’s really gotten into traditional medicine. Also sorcery. Apparently she can look at you and tell you when you die. Also, she’s the king of the creatures of the air. It’s late now and all of this is super creepy. African sorcery stories are normally laughable and ludicrous, but this is nuts. She’s super rich and has a fully-stocked lab, but people abused her kindness. Nobody enters her compound.

This is already a little weird because Lindsay’s village is cursed. It got that curse when a Cameroonian from France came back to visit, to tell his villagers that it was necessary to ally themselves with the Europeans or something. Anyhow he didn’t do a traditional greeting to the chief, so they buried him alive. Every two years, the village notables do a dance to ask God to forgive their village. The road going to this village isn’t paved, but not because they won’t — because they can’t.

I’m remembering now about the crab sorcerer in Rhumsiki. Seems a lot less funny now that it’s dark out and every noise sounds like a burglar. So, with new eyes, let’s look at his prediction. I asked him (with an aside to my companions first: "Don’t judge me") whether shit with [name] was really really over. He told me that yes, it was really over — someone else was cherching her — but not to worry about it, because someone else was cherching me. I guessed at the time about the one cherching [name], but couldn’t figure out who was cherching me. Still don’t know. Was it you? This was around early April. Maybe he was just cold-calling me? Maybe even in Rhumsiki, they know the old saying, "The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else".


Blague (Tuesday, 2011 August 16)

August 17th, 2011

I was at a "family reunion" the other day. Here are some more pictures of food.

This is what I ate for "breakfast", i.e. 10:30 when I first rolled up. It’s "legumes" and ignam, which they call "yam" but isn’t really like our yams. There’s also a bit of chicken here. This is your typically balanced Cameroonian meal: a starch, a sauce, and maybe a bit of "meat" (most commonly fish).

This is what I ate a little later, after their traditional ceremony. There wasn’t enough room for me to actually watch it so I can’t say much about that. It’s rice and chou, cabbage. There was also sauce tomate to go with the rice, which someone else had.

The many colors of Top. Top is a soda (jus) which is found prety much all over. If you’re going to find two flavors of jus in a bar, it’ll be Coca-Cola and Top Pamplemousse (grapefruit). Pamplemousse tastes kind of pamplemoussey, but not bitter like really bitter grapefruit. The bottle caps are different colors; they re-use the bottles, so the caps differentiate them. Top never "wins" — some beers do promotions where you can "win" a free beer (just check under the lid).

Tofu! My postmate is indirectly responsible for this. Now people all over village are making it.

Here are some Cameroonian jokes I heard at the family reunion. They were all considered very funny, and discussed in great detail after they were told.

Some international watchdog society is compiling a list of the nations with the most corruption. Cameroon is in first place, as it has been for a long while. Paul Biya finds the organization in Yaoundé, working on their analysis, and says "So, where’s Cameroon on this list?" "It’s first." "OK," he says, "how much should I give you to put us, say, third?"

("Because he doesn’t realize that he’s still making corruption!" they said to each other, knowingly.)

Paul Biya is visiting in France. Someone is opening some champagne. The cap shoots off, pop! Paul Biya says, "Where’s that cap? Give it to me… You guys don’t know this, but in Cameroon, EVERYTHING wins."

Paul Biya is visiting again, this time with a few other heads of state. Among others, he’s sitting next to the president of Gabon. It’s a very fancy dinner; the flatware is made of gold. He’s watching the president of Gabon, who is looking around, calculating, then suddenly taking one of the forks and putting it in his pocket. Paul Biya thinks this is a pretty good idea, and wants to grab one too, but someone always seems to be watching him. Suddenly he has an idea. "Africans do a lot of magic," he says. "Watch carefully! I take this fork and put it in my pocket, and suddenly I withdraw it from the pocket of my friend!"

("Because who’s going to check his pocket afterwards?" they said. "No one would dare.")

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Se raser (Wednesday, 2011 August 10)

August 14th, 2011

I decided to shave my head. Allison and Jenny decided to take the initiative and make it happen.

Allison taking off my ponytail.

This is just minus the ponytail, but it might also be my favorite look. I get progressively more undressed in these pictures because I didn’t want too much hair in my shirt. The scarf was one we found in the up-for-grabs basket.

Jenny’s starting to get in on the action.

Jenny is having the most fun.

The hairbasket.

Jenny and Allison don’t feel bad about how fucked-up it looks, since they’re just gonna shave the rest off anyhow.

Um, I think the bottle of juice is unrelated?

There are so many possibilities for ridiculous hairstyles now that I don’t have long hair.

For some reason we didn’t go for the Mohawk, which is kind of a disappointment.

This would have been a cool look, right?

Getting shaving supplies from the locker.

This is Trevor’s hazing before he can really be considered a member of ICT committee.

Jenny really likes shaving my head, but she’s also the person I trust least to shave my head.

Allison did the bulk of the shaving, particularly the cleanup work at the end.

Thoughts on the new look? At first I was of the mind that I looked like the black sheep of the Jean-Luc Picard family, but now I guess I just look weird, but in a different way than I did before. Which is what I wanted, right? In the meantime, showers are much faster and things get caught on my head-stubble. It feels strange every time I touch my head. I feel like I smell different, scalpier somehow, but I might be imagining it.

This is after a day of growth and exposure to the sun. It seems like I don’t look that different, and indeed most Cameroonians recognize me. My local Camtel guy asked if I was "believed", because normally people who shave their heads are religious in some way. No, I just needed a change.

You can see I was on the Internet heavily while Allison and Jenny did their vile deeds. Internet eventually broke, and without Internet I didn’t have much left to do, so I went to bed. I woke up suddenly around 4, scenting Internet like a dog scents prey, and in my haste to get out of bed I forgot that I was in the top bunk, tripped over the bed rails and landed solidly on my back. It hurt, in fact it still hurts, and I wonder if I have some kind of hairline fracture in my clavicle or whatever. Not much I can do about it except carry everything on my right side. I’m probably lucky I didn’t hit my head on anything.

The bruise feels a lot more impressive than it looks.

On my leg, where I stumbled against the bed rails or something.

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Nourriture (Tuesday, 2011 August 9)

August 13th, 2011

Jen said I needed to write more about food, and a few people said I needed to put more pictures online. Both good points. Today’s post is titled nourriture, or "food", which comes from the word nourrir, "to feed" (like the English "nourish"). Somehow that always seems backwards to me, like food is the more elementary thing and then feeding that food to someone should be the complicated word: food and enfoodenate, something like that.

I was in Yaoundé for the ICT committee meeting so here’s some typical "what I eat in Yaoundé" food.

I got in at night, and between laziness and convenience is this dinner. It’s all purchased at the "Corner Store", the supermarché nearest the office (Timothy purchased something from this store once). Hamburger 500 CFA (with a sauce that includes mayonnaise), boulette 500 CFA, bread 100 CFA. Putting the boulettes in the bread and then toasting it is a pretty good-quality dinner for relatively cheap, and is of course Jenny Wang’s idea.

My favorite spaghetti-omelette-sandwich shack, it’s also right next door to the office. Two eggs spaghetti in a half-bread is 375 CFA. If I’m really broke I get two and eat the second for lunch.

Truly, the king of sandwiches.

The guards at the office. Almost all are Anglophone, except for one that is from my village, but as most Volunteers are Francophone, they get used to us talking whatever.

We got bush meat for lunch next door to the office. This is pangolin, which is sort of like a small anteater or maybe a weird armadillo. I’m not crazy about bush meat (my feelings echo Allison’s face), but I think Jenny wants to be able to have a long list of accomplishments that includes having eaten as many things as possible.

The other plate is porcupig, which may be porcupine or something else entirely.

Ben is willing to make sacrifices for culinary science.

Jenny got a sparkly unicorn tattoo, God only knows where.

ICT committee, including our newest inductee Trevor.

This is pistache, also called aigussi [sp?] in Anglophone. I think of it like Cameroonian tofu, and it’s probably my favorite Cameroonian food. I don’t really understand how it’s made or where it comes from, but it involves grinding a seed which is also called pistache. It’s seasoned with fish, savory and a little spicy, and you can often get lumps like this one on the side of the road when you travel. (Each of these was 200 CFA, which I thought was a little expensive.) I think culinarily it’s a sauce, so you’re supposed to eat it with a complement, a starch such as plantains, rice, something made from manioc, or even bread or bananas. Different foods can go with different complements.

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États-Unis (Saturday, 2011 August 6)

August 12th, 2011

As I type this I’m leaving America, the country so rich that it has four seasons, each with its own name — a country where motos have three wheels and soup is considered a meal. I got to see most everyone, got to eat and drink pretty much everything on the list. (I’m about ten pounds heavier.) We even successfully performed a sachet tasting (see Jenn’s report). I pushed myself, hardly sleeping in the last week, but like Adam says, it’s a kind of stressful relaxation that I’m hoping will invigorate me for what’s yet to come. I still can’t sleep on the fucking plane.

It’s normal for people to ask questions about my experience, but towards the end I was able to predict pretty well the kinds of things we’d talk about. The questions I got the most:

  • What do you do? I teach computers at a high-school level. Last year I taught 16 hours of class a week, which means sixteen hours of being at the front of a class, lecturing or supervising lab work. Writing and grading homework or tests isn’t counted. Neither is lesson planning, but then, I usually don’t. Strictly speaking 16 is over the maximum that we’re supposed to teach, and I think that’s part of why I’m so burnt out. I’d like to do 12 or even 8 and spend more time working on community problems, or clubs, or attack the bigger issue of why almost none of my students are capable of rubbing two thoughts together.

  • What’s it like? It’s like being on holiday with a bunch of Germans. Alternately, it’s like an endless First Contact situation. Climate-wise, my little village in the mountains isn’t much like what you think of as "Africa"; it’s green and temperate, sometimes getting outright cold, and at night you can freeze if you don’t have a good thick blanket. It’s rainy season now, so it’s a little bit colder. Fleeing my village for the comforts of a sweltering New York summer was foolishness.

  • How was the flight? I’m on the leg right now to get to Brussels, which is about six and a half hours. Then, another similar-duration flight gets me back to Douala. Including the layover, it comes out to about 20-22 hours. This seems to some people like an unbearable drag but to put it in context, I spent more time on the subway.

  • What have you learned? One big thing I’ve very deeply internalized is the lesson that when you open your mouth for the first time, you reveal a huge amount about yourself: what language you choose to speak, your accent, your mannerisms and figures-of-speech. I hadn’t realized the prevalence of the middle-America accent that Volunteers tend to settle around in Cameroon, but I was struck by the "street" English that you hear around my neighborhood or on the subway, or the vague Brooklyn accent Aunt Susan wields. I’m remembering a conversation I watched once between Gus and one of her friends about prejudice as it applies to nonevident characteristics (i.e. Judaism in Nazi Germany, or, yes, francophony in Quebec). "It’s all about who opens their mouth and who doesn’t," Gus was saying. In Cameroon I like to let other people start conversations, and follow them in what language they use — I’m hesitant, now, to start talking without "probable cause". Contrariwise, I know a lot better how hard it is to live in your second language, and I take very seriously pitching my language into a form that an interlocutor will understand. I’ve learned about race and about racism, and what it means to be an American. I’ve learned that I like shaving gel a lot better than I like aerosol cans of shaving cream. I’ve also gotten a lot better at managing my liquid intake so I don’t have to pee when I’m on a four-hour bus ride, or a one-hour subway ride.

    I’ve learned a bit about myself, too. I’m thinking now of a thing Leo wrote me when I was having an identity crisis around my birthday. He says that an experience like the one I’m in is best regarded not as a threat to your identity, but perhaps an expansion of it. "You’re not losing who you are," he writes, "you’re gaining a sense of who you still are when everything else changes." I’m still a programmer, even in Africa. It’s how I cope. I "imprint", like a baby goose. Johnny notes correctly that I act like I want flings and one-night stands, but really what happens is that something "sets" inside and suddenly I’m committed deeply and thoroughly to someone. I’ve learned how to be responsible for myself, more responsible than I have ever had to be.

    There’s other things I’ve learned in Cameroon, like the crisp numbing coldness of a bucket of rainwater, that I don’t think I can ever quite share.

America’s been a trip. It’s easy to talk about the daily strangeness in Cameroon, when it comes hot and heavy (my favorite is the story where I found Brondon eating mayonnaise out of his hand, accompanied by cubes of sugar), but America’s got it’s share of oddity too. Dog grooming salons. A sake bar that was covered, entirely covered, in graffiti. I swear to you that I saw a restaurant whose patrons were made entirely of wax. Hair’s coming back, as a fashion; I saw a few proto-‘fros, and one honest-to-God mullet. All the more reason to get rid of mine (I hate being like other people).

I tried to read some stuff so I could vote for the Hugo, but it just came so fast and I ran out of time. Everything I read was fair to brilliant. I liked "Lifecycle of Software Objects", though it was a little unsatisfying at the end. I found "Maiden Voyage of the Bellerophon" terribly fascinating, dreamy, unstable, fundamentally about love, of people for other people, of people for their craft and their quirky hobbies, though they make us nerds and losers. Feed by Mira Grant surprised me. I appreciate the appeal of the zombie apocalypse, and I can see the Mary Sue thrill of the News being supplanted by a New World Order of bloggers, but both at the same time strained my credulity. But then the story took a turn and suddenly I was crying in my bedroom about a character I hadn’t even liked all that much. Thanks for nothing, Mira Grant.

I also read The Magicians, which was a good time. Laugh-out-loud funny in a lot of places. My copy’s a little soggy, but it’s coming with me to Cameroon, so be sure to borrow it.

I’ve been running up against Dunbar’s number, which made it tangibly difficult to care about some people and their silly mouth-noises, like my heart was in molasses. I’ve met so many people in the last year, and have to juggle them for another year yet, that my monkey brain refuses to cope. System overload. Thanks for nothing, Darwin. I’d always hoped that social technology would enable us to push that number a little bit, but no such luck apparently.

Packing was easier this time. No panic whatsoever. I’d allowed a day, figuring I’d spend it doing nothing but putting things in suitcases, but then a friend invited me to go out that night and visit a sake bar, and let’s be honest, that was much more important. I got a solid five hours of sleep, and impressed myself by packing basically everything in only a few short hours [although N.B. I’m at post and noticing I left a few things behind: a package of pens for a Cameroonian dude, my brown messenger bag]. Periodically I entertain myself with thoughts of what Cameroonian customs is going to think or do about my laptops (six, counting the one I’m typing on) or my cameras (seven, if you include mine). Then again, maybe they’ll be more confused by my books (three, including one hardcover). I had to leave behind approximately four pounds of candy due to weight limits, and it turns out that I had to check the second bag for $50 anyhow, so, uh, screw.

Chiz asked me how I felt about going back. The best answer I’ve got is "resigned". In as many words, I don’t want to go back. Maybe I’m "not ready", maybe I’ll never be ready. I thought I was excited for a minute when I was packing, but it turned out to just be anxiety. I’m thinking of something Jenny Wang said, that instead of going home for vacation, it might be better to take the money and just get a room at the Yaoundé Hilton for a couple weeks, so you don’t spoil yourself for Cameroon again. I know I was on holiday, and it’s hard to compare against the drudgery of the last year, but I’m just so much happier being home and (selfish being that I am) I don’t wanna give that up. See, I’m not like Cheri, who went off to Singapore for a couple years for no reason whatsoever that I can tell, or any of our other globe-trotting compatriots who run around the world farming Alpaca and having adventures. I’m like Chiz and (no offense Chiz) I am boring and responsible and while I still have the flavor of the sweet life in my mouth, I just want to have a life like that again — spend time with a soft, sweet, guileless if somewhat unsophisticated woman, get a relatively ordinary job as a nerd-for-hire where I can talk about CouchDB and Mongo and make fun of people who have to work with PHP. I want to start my real life, in other words. I’m done with this second collegehood stuff. I want to run away and be an adult. But to be an adult, you have to be ready to own up to your responsibilities… So, uh, remind me again why can’t we just stay where the ocean is warm all year?

I’m seated in the very back of a Boeing 777-200, aisle seat in the middle column. I can’t see the window hardly at all, but that suits me fine. I don’t need to have my face rubbed in what’s slipping away.

Just get ready to breathe
Give your lines and make them love you
And I’m not ready to leave
Get to the set and go home wasted

—Bridges and Powerlines, "The Golden Age"


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