Saturday, September 24, 2011

My Life in an African Village (Plus Some Interesting Anecdotes)

The first thing most people ask me about my experience here is how do I like it and then always what is life like there. I thought I would try to paint you all a picture of a typical day of my life here. I normally wake up around 5:30 AM to the sound of my landlord yelling for her grandson. I try to fall back asleep and generally get out of bed around 6 or 6:30 AM. After getting out of my bed and my mosquito net I generally take a trip to the latrine (the cockroaches are only in there at night) and then I go heat up some water for my bucket bath. While the water is heating I try to read (right now I am reading Les Mis by Victor Hugo, only 23% left to go!). Then I take my bucket bath, which is essentially a bucket full of water and I use a goblet, or a little cup to put water on me and then you soap up and then wash yourself off some more with the cup. After my bath I get dressed and then make myself some breakfast; either eggs or a piece of fruit. Then it is off to school. On my way to school I say hi to everyone I pass. At school I teach my class and then I talk with the teachers. After I am done with my classes (my latest class is 11:30-12:30) I go to the market. On my way to the market I have to walk down this hill and every time I do, I think to myself “I am really living in an African Village.” I really have to take a picture of it because truly it looks like Africa, and it always hits me that I am here and this is my life now. At the market I always stop at this one lady who always asks how I am and we chat for a bit and then I buy tomatoes from her. I wander around, in the hopes that there will be some cool new vegetable, although there never is, one can always hope right?? I usually get an onion and some garlic. At home I read for a bit or do some lessoning planning for tomorrow. Sometimes another teacher from my school will come to my house and we will talk or play card games for a bit. Then around 4 PM I start making dinner. I am finished eating and cooking at about 5, which is when I do my dishes. I’ll read some more and then go to bed at 7 or 8 PM depending on whether or not there is any electricity, as of late the electricity has been cut a lot, so I never know. But when I do have it I make sure to charge my computer and phone, just in case! I know it’s hard to believe that I go to bed so early and wake up even earlier than I do in America, but the lack of regular electricity doesn’t help and also the only thing to do in my village at night is go to a bar (which as a woman, I don’t think it would be prudent to hang out at a bar at night, because it is basically only men at bars), doesn’t leave me a lot of choice. But I love all of the reading I am doing and I like talking to everyone I meet with on the roads. There is one old woman who loves to practice her English with me and that’s really nice.

The weather or late has been very interesting. It gets ungodly hot (106F in the sun) and then all of sudden within a couple of minutes the temperature will drop 10 degrees and then the clouds just open up, literally. There will be a giant downpour. I hate the heat, but on the other hand I know that soon enough it will be so cold (75 degrees) that I have to put a jacket on. I really fear for me going back home and wonder if I am going to be wearing parkas in the fall and spring, if I really think 75 is cold haha. I love the rainstorms though because the rain honestly sounds like an apocalypse on the tin roofs. You can’t hear anything! I remember I was in Fulfulde class once and the rain started and we had to stop the class because we couldn’t hear the teacher anymore. (After that 3 of us decided that running in the rain sounded like fun, and we got drenched! But it was a good time!) But along with the rain there are always these AWESOME thunder and lightning storms. I don’t know if it’s because it is so dark here normally that is why the lightening seem so bright or if they are truly that bright. Either way, I don’t think I have ever experienced storms like these in America. Coming into October, which is generally the wettest month in Cameroon, I think I have a lot of these storms to look forward to. The only downfall is all the mud it causes, because there are no roads here, my shoes and pants get COVERED in mud. Luckily I bought rain/muck boots the other day so when I go to class I can just change shoes and have clean shoes (which is VERY important in Cameroonian culture) when I teach.

This next week I am going to start registering girls for a club I am going to start in collaboration with a nun at the Catholic Mission. The club will be for girls who have children and we hope to discuss and address the problems that they are having (and also hope to prevent future pregnancies). I am really excited about this project and the nun is very friendly. She has been in my village for seven years, but she is originally from the Congo. I think we are going to get along very well, especially since the short talks we have had on the way home, we seem to have the same ideas on what to do for the club. I am very excited to start on this, especially since I have known that I don’t ONLY want to teach English here in Dimako, but I want to make an impact in some other facet of their life.

I was talking with a teacher, who is also new to Dimako, and his first year of teaching. He teaches history, geography, and sports and I was telling him about this program that the Peace Corps has that is called Sports for Life, which mixes both sports and teaching about HIV/AIDS and he seemed really interested in doing that. So I think that is good that despite the fact that my Community Host, the principle of the school, is never at the school, there are other members of the teaching staff who are open to some of my ideas. He seemed interested in doing the program; I just need to find a copy of it in French for him. I am excited that although I have only been in Dimako for a month now, I have 2 potential projects!
For those who read my blog last week about corporal punishment. When I was teaching this week I had two separate incidents. On Thursday in my 6th grade class I kicked out a girl who was talking. She was talking RIGHT AFTER I said that the next person I see talking leaves. I sent her to the Surveillant Generale or Discipline Master, who is in charge of all of the punishment of the students, and she came back 5 minutes later with a note that she had to kneel for 20 minutes. Unfortunately the associate SG was there, so I had to follow through with the punishment or else it would have seemed like I was undermining the SG’s authority. I did let her up early. I really hoped that would be the last of my discipline problems. But on Friday during my 8th grade class, I had a lot of trouble makers, so I made them wait outside (standing), there were 3 of them and that drew the attention of the Chef de Travaux (not really sure what his job is) and he wanted them to kneel. I told him “no, standing was fine”. And after 10 minutes I let them back in the classroom. Unfortunately the Chef de Travuax wrote their names down and told the SG so he came back and took those kids out again. A couple minutes later I hear the kids cry out in pain. And then I realized he was spanking them with a piece of rubber. With each hit the kids would cry out in pain and in turn I would wince. This was all happening while I was giving the other students a dictee (basically they write down what I say in English). The students could tell this was affecting me, but I didn’t really know what I else I could do at that point. I hope this never happens again, but I definitely learned my lesson, not to put the kids outside, but keep them in the classroom, as to not attract the SG’s attention. I think I will try to talk to the SG later and just casually mention that hitting students is definitely NOT OK and that there are others ways to get the students to behave and in fact hitting them is illegal. But I also don’t want to step on his toes and cause problems for myself, especially since I am new to teaching, to Cameroon, and to Dimako. I guess I have a lot of reflection to do on this, but I hope that soon we can come to terms.

On a completely different note. I will not have access to the Internet at all from October 7 – 24th because the Peace Corps is putting us on Standfast. Which essentially means we are not to leave our posts at all, not even for banking or shopping and we have to be prepared for an evacuation. This sounds a lot scarier than it is, so don’t worry! They are only doing this as a precaution for the presidential elections, which are on October 9. And standfast might be cut short, it depends on when the results for the election come out. So we shall see. I don’t see any problems, especially in the East where everyone loves Paul Biya. There is only unrest in the Anglophone regions and in the North. So I don’t think that anything will happen, but comme meme I am taking all of the necessary precautions, such as making an “emergency bag” so if we are evacuated I can do so quickly! =) (Please don’t worry though, there really shouldn’t be a problem, I just wanted to let you know why there will be a prolonged absence, but I will write posts and then update them to my blog when I get access to the Internet)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Settling In and First Few Weeks at Post

After almost a month at post I am almost done settling into my house and my village. Everyone here has been really nice and supportive of me. My house has almost come together, I am just waiting on the furniture I ordered, and I hope to get it on Monday. But one never knows here. I feel a lot more comfortable in my house. It is amazing what one can get used to, I know let spiders hang out in my house, in the vain hope that it will kill all the mosquitoes and other bugs that bite. The bites seem to come in waves. A get a lot all at once and then nothing. Right now I have a lot; it is no fun being covered in bug bites that itch. They often keep me up at night. But I hope that after a while the bugs will start to leave me alone, I think I am just too sweet!
The 5th of September was supposed to be the start of school. But in Cameroon that really means make the students do manual labor. I really missed the memo because everyone brought their own machetes to school. Even after paying for public school, the students have to do manual labor before they are allowed to go to classes. I’m not exactly sure of the purpose… It makes sense kind of as punishment but to make EVERYONE do it before going to class seams a little extreme to me. Well because all the students had to cut the grass and clean out all of the classrooms, there were no classes on Monday, or on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It seems like an unwritten rule that the first week of school isn’t really the first week of school. Parents are still signing up their kids and trying to find money on the first week. While the teachers are beginning to plan their lessons and the administration is figuring everything out. It’s a little bizarre, because we all miss a week of teaching, for things that can be arranged the week before, so that we can actually start on time. I know crazy concept! Actually starting on time!
So in reality my first week of teaching was this week. On Monday there were only 2 students in my sophomore class. Only 2 out of 14 students showed up. Then there were about 40 of 100 students in my 7th grade class. On Tuesday there were 60 out of 150 in my 6th grade class. So you can see that even though this is technically the second week of school, not everyone bothers to show up. The second half of the week a lot more students showed up, which makes discipline more difficult. If you can imagine 70 6th graders in one class, that is now my classes. I thought the 10 students in France were hard to control. But I get along. I get a lot more respect from these students than from the students in model school and I really hope it stays that way throughout the year, especially after they get used to my accent and teaching style, which is different than the Cameroonians. In fact so different, especially because I don’t believe in corporal punishment, even though it is technically illegal Cameroon, it is very common. In fact I have seen most teachers use a form of corporal punishment, making the kids kneel. They do that if the kids are late. I am not a fan of this treatment, I would rather give them more homework, at least that way they are learning something. But hopefully after seeing that one can control the students without physically hurting them, they will stop using it (or using it so much). All in all classes are going well. My landlords told me that a student of mine said that I was a good teacher and explain the concepts well. So that is good feedback, I just hope all of my students think the same thing. If my classes stay the same throughout the year I will be very happy! One can only hope right now.
Yesterday all of the teachers were supposed to have a meeting called the Assemble Generale. It is where all of us talk about things to expect and the functioning of the school. My started late (of course) and went from 1:15 to 5:45 PM. That is a long meeting, especially when they all say the same things, just in a different way; basically it is just very repetitive.  Luckily we only have 3 a year. The other won’t be until the beginning of December. But they are not a fun, especially when they are in French so I have to pay more attention to follow along then the Cameroonians.
S0 all in all my life at post is going along swimmingly. I am getting to know some very nice people. I am being cautious especially since I have only just arrived. I just don’t want to befriend people too fast, especially since I don’t know their motivations. Many previous volunteers have warned us that some of the people you meet in the beginning are not genuine, so I want to give it time.
I don’t have too many complaints other than a little boredom, but that is too be expected. I hope that it will go away with time when I meet more people in my village, start to get more comfortable. It is still hard for me to believe that I am here (and have been for almost 4 months!) But it is interesting to note that many things don’t bother me anymore, or at least I don’t notice them as much anymore. But one thing I don’t think will ever become normal is the aggressiveness of men here. They always want to talk t o me and always ask for my number or see if I am married. In fact, for those of you who don’t know I am now engaged. At least that is what I have started telling everyone. It prevents a lot of the bothering, but still some don’t believe me. Or they say I need to find a Cameroonian husband. I just saw my fiancé wouldn’t be happy if that happens. Sometimes it’s funny, but mostly it is just annoying. Unfortunately on my way to Bertoua I have to pass a police check point and they have been bothering me lately. Today they asked me for my number and I said my phone was broken so I couldn’t give them my number. They wanted to give me a phone and that way I would marry them (I guess my dowry will only be a cell phone? I thought I was better than that; I’ll have to ask my dad if he would accept a cell phone as payment for me. I hope he says NO!). Apparently he tried to give me his number last time I went to Bertoua. I really hope this doesn’t become an issue, as it is the only way to do banking, buy fruits and vegetables, and use the internet. So if they give me trouble, which will make my life a lot more difficult.

PS. THe mouse hasn't appeared in over a week. I think this is a good sign! My landlord's grandcon cemented the whole he used to get into the kitchen shut. I hope that it has gone somewhere else to eat. It is definitely nice not having to wake up every morning to see what new mess it made and what it ate during the night =)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Swearing In, Yaoundé, and First Weeks at Post

This is a really long post so sorry in advance!
A lot has changed and sorry for the lack of updates but there is no Internet at my post, Dimako, a small village on the road from Yaoundé to Bertoua. The road is also a major junction for Gabon and the Central African Republic, needless to say my village may be small but it is happening! Dimako is also home to the First Woman of Cameroon, Chantal Biya. I originally thought I was going to work at the College Technique de Dimako, but when I arrived I was informed that it has turned into a Lycee, although they have only added one extra class level, but maybe next year they will add another. I was also informed that I will be teaching Informatique or Computers. This was news to me but I guess that is life here in Dimako.
To start off I probably should go back in time and talk a little about Swearing – In. For swearing – in all of the volunteers wore the same pagne, traditional clothe. It is a tradition in Cameroon that groups wear the same pagne so that they can be identified. We had voted to wear the 50th anniversary pagne by the Peace Corps; it came in blue and red. I chose red =) The ceremony was the 17th of August and it actually started on time! A rare feat in Cameroon. It was really nice, filled with a lot of speeches and finally the Charge for the ambassador gave us an oath, the same oath that government workers take. It was actually pretty cool, even though the sun was blazing hot. It was a great ceremony and it was nice that all of the host families showed up, especially since none of our real families were there.
After the ceremony, we all had lunch with our host families, eating traditional Cameroonian foods. And after lunch, all the families were given a certificate of appreciation. Unfortunately I had to run home in order to put all my stuff outside so that the Peace Corps could pick it up and take it to the base to help with moving to post. Saying goodbye to my family was a lot harder than I expected especially since my host mom had two dresses made for me, out of pagne. They are traditional kabas, or as I like to call them moo-moos. Although not especially flattering, there are remarkably comfortable, especially in the heat and humidity =)
When we said good-bye, I went to the Hotel New Place, where the swearing-in party was. The swearing-in party that Melissa and I had planned. (What was funny about this was that on Tuesday, Justine and I had to go to the Prefect, Police, and National Police, in order to let them know that there was a party. The funny part of this was that when we told the moto driver to take us to the prefect, he took us to his house and not his office, it was a little bizarre. Fortunately we found him at his office 15 minutes later. It was nice because there was AC!! At the police we were told many different things, but finally we tracked down the right person (Surprisingly the first man we talked to.)) The party was a lot of fun, complete with “superlatives,” such as “Most likely to succeed” or the more Cameroonian “most likely to get bitten by a mango fly.” I did receive a superlative, although it was less than flattering. I got “most likely to hit a student with a goat rubber.” I think I got this just because I am the strictest and discipline oriented teacher. I don’t let my students get away with anything! I once didn’t let 2/3s of the students into class because they were all late and I told them to come to class but they chose to disregard and not respect me. However, none of the students were late the next day. So I guess it works…
All in all the party was great, it was a nice way just to say goodbye to everyone before going to post. Since I am not geographically close to most of the volunteers, the party was the last time I got to see some of my stage-mates, before IST in December. Since we are not allowed to leave post before IST. I have to stay in Dimako, but I can go to Bertoua (in fact I have to in order to get money and food!).
On Thursday the 18th, everyone going to the East (3), the Northern provinces (12), and some others who had to go to Yaoundé, left Bafia at 8 AM for Yaoundé. Luckily they took most of our stuff and put them on the bus, so I didn’t have to. In Yaoundé, they drove us directly to the Peace Corps Office. It was actually the most comfortable bus ride in Cameroon yet and I am betting ever. Because it was normal American sized people and not Cameroonian sized people. It’s funny that they disregard the size of people and make 5 people sit in the row even if the people are 2 people sized (No wonder the cars are so rundown here, their suspension must be shot) We actually had to stay the night in Yaoundé, because there wasn’t enough time to make it to Bertoua before it got dark. Justine and I saw our time in Yaoundé as a way to live it up before going to our tiny villages. Therefore we went to Casino, a French supermarket, which actually looks like France, in the middle of Yaoundé. After Casino, we went to the Hilton for happy hour. Its 5,000 CFA or 10 dollars for 2 drinks. (I told you we were splurging, especially considering our “salaries”. After the Hilton we went to a pizza place, which had real CHEESE! This is amazing considering there is no cheese in this country. Then we went back to the CASE (like a hostel just for PCVs) where I took the last hot shower I probably will in the next couple of months =)
The next morning was a little crazy because Justine woke up with a swollen ankle and couldn’t walk, so I had to pack the car to take us to the agency, while Justine saw the doctor. It turns out she just had a bad reaction to a bug bite, so on the way to the agency, we picked up some antibiotics. At the agency we bought our tickets to Bertoua 4,000 CFA. Unfortunately they wanted to charge us 20,000 CFA to put our bags on the bus. That is an exorbitant price so we just said we would get a refund and go to a different agency, because that is too expensive. Finally we got them down to 4000 CFA, a more reasonable price. Unfortunately they refused to put our bikes on and kept saying that they would put them on “later.” Finally I just stayed by the bikes until they put them on the bus. At first they tried to put the bikes in the stairwells of the bus and wanted us to pay more. But I was adamant that they put them under the bus and they do it now, and they did (Finally 90 minutes later).
The bus ride took longer than it did on site visit; it took 6.5 hours, when normally it should only be 4 hours. That was because at EVERY single check point, they pulled the same guys off the bus and we had to wait for them to bribe the officers. And also we had to stop for prayers because it was Ramadan. So it was a very long ride, on the upside I got to see grubs on a stick for sale, only 100 CFA (20 cents)!  I wasn’t up to trying it, but maybe another time!
Normally I could just get off at Dimako and not go all the way to Bertoua, but because of all my stuff; two large suitcase, two small bags, a giant footlocker, and a bike. They wouldn’t let me off so I had to go to Bertoua. Anyway I needed to go there because I didn’t have a bed, so sleeping would have been a bit difficult.  When we finally arrived in Bertoua, I thought it would be difficult to take all of our stuff of the bus and take it to the CASE. Luckily this is Africa, and there were children who took our things to a designated taxi. We thought it would take 2 taxis at least for us and our things, but again this being Africa, the rules of physics don’t apply, that and there are no laws. So all of my stuff and Justine’s things (She had the same amount as me) fit in a compact car (Dad you should take notes for the next time I move =) ). Therefore, we got to the CASE with no problems. Even better there was another PCV, Janelle, from Batouri who was there to help us buy all of our things and get situated.
On Saturday we bought the essentials, a bed, sheets, stove, and gas bottles. It was a little taxing having to haggle over the prices for all of our things. So we gave up after that. And also we had no idea how to get all of our things to post, especially since the road to my post is a gravel road with lots of bumps. Luckily on Monday I made it to post in one piece, although my mattress was a little worse for the wear since its foam and it rained on the drive. When I got there, my community host, the principal of the lycee sent some of the teachers to help me settle in and they moved everything from the car into my house. And set up my mosquito net and gas stove. I know how to cook but have no idea how to set up a stove to the gas bottle. Unfortunately since my mattress was wet, I couldn’t sleep on it, therefore I slept on the couches, which are really just wooden slats because there are no cushions yet. Oh and there is no electricity in my house yet… Hopefully it will come soon!
I’ll try to put pictures up of my house soon so you all can see it. I have a large living room/dining room, although there is nothing dining roomy about it (yet). I have two empty smaller rooms, a “kitchen,” a small room where I put my stove. I should mention, that I have no refrigerator in my kitchen, my mom was a little surprised about that. But I just go to the market everyday to buy fresh vegetables. Although the variety isn’t that good. I can buy 4 tomatoes for 100 CFA (20 cents). But there are no avocados, even though a market mama has said that if she sees them in the morning, she will buy some for me to buy later. Which was really nice! I hope she’ll see some soon! I would really like an avocado sandwich or make some guacamole.
After my first night at my house, I went back to Bertoua, a 35 minute moto ride, 2,000 CFA to ride by myself. There I met up with Justine so we could buy pots, plates, silverware, buckets, and other house hold items. Then on Wednesday Justine and I went to Diang, her village, so that I could help her settle in and also there was no electricity at my house. There is not a whole lot to do in her village, but it was nice to get to see her post. Then on Friday we went to my village so that she could help me and also there was a giant festival this weekend, I’m not sure what for because unfortunately I couldn’t go because Justine was sick. Friday night see got really sick so we spent Saturday at the hospital. And then Saturday night I had to stay at the hospital because apparently sick people can’t be left alone (literally!). So when we first got there at night, Justine and the nurse went to the latrine and the nurse came back and said, “She’s in the bathroom.” I say, “I know.” “She’s alone.” “I know.” “She’s alone.” “I know…. Oh she can’t be alone.” “No she can’t be alone.” So then I have to go to the bathroom with her. I also have to tuck her mosquito net too. The nurse also got mad at me because apparently I didn’t watch Justine close enough and her IV got blocked. Justine just thought this was funny, but the nurse would give me dirty looks each time she came into the room. Luckily, Justine feels a lot better, so that is all that really matters.
Monday was supposedly when the teachers have to go back to school so I dutifully show up at 8 AM when I was told to show up and no one showed up until 11 AM. And then I finally found out that it is only for the administration. But then the principle told me that I have to show up at 9AM the next day and therefore I waited until 12, but again when no one was there, I decided to leave, because I wasted enough of my day waiting. Especially since they have my number and know where I live, so if they needed me, they know where to find me. Luckily one of my professors is a furniture maker (it is a technical high school), so he came over and took some measurements. I got a large bookcase and an armoire. If all goes well then I want to make a dining room table with 4 chairs, another bed for a guest room, and a bedside table. The great thing is that he said it would only take a week! I can’t wait to finally have some where to put my clothes.
I am really lucky to be in Dimako because I am the 8th volunteer here so they are used to Americans walking around, therefore the “La Blanche” calls aren’t too bad. I have decided to tell everyone that calls me that that that is not my name, my name is Michelle. It’s just annoying that and “Ma Cherie” because really I am NOT your Cherie! On the downside of not being the first volunteer, everyone and their mother tells me that they were Renee’s (the previous PCV) friend and can I buy them a drink. I just want to say that is great that you and Renee were friends, but I am not Renee and it doesn’t mean that WE will be friends. There is a possibility, but that diminishes especially when all you want is for me to buy you things. But like in most of the countries I have visited (Morocco, Turkey, even Portugal) money is everything so I guess I’ll get used to it, but it is a little frustrating to be only seen as a dollar sign.
I am looking forward to school on Monday (hopefully it’ll actually start on time =) )!! If for nothing else than to have something to do, I’ve already read 4 books since I have gotten to post and have made a dent in Les Miserables (I hope to finish in a week or so). Although I am glad we had a little break so that I can get used to living on my own again, doing dishes and laundry (the African way!). So far everything is going well, no MAJOR complaints (other than the mouse that WILL NOT STOP eating my food!). It is getting really only, if anyone has any advice on how to deter mice from living in my kitchen, I am all ears!
I hope everything is going well back home! If you have time and 98 cents, I would LOVE a letter with an update because I will not be able to get the Internet very often.

Michelle Hood, PCV
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 215, Yaoundé

Thanks in advance!

Sorry this was so long, but I had a lot to update!