Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Visit From the Home Front – Role Reversal Cameroonian Style

Hello from a guest blogger, Wendy (Allison’s mom), who will hopefully, fill in some gaps since Allison’s last and very long ago posting. My husband, Dick and I recently returned from a visit to Cameroon and since, unlike Allison, we have the luxury of high speed internet, I have included photos from our trip. Hopefully, these will satisfy many who have been anxious to really SEE Allison’s life in Africa. (If you don’t want to read my reminiscences, you can scroll down to the photos, the best part.)
Allison is putting in AND getting back so much from this experience. Her life is busy with work projects and to see her navigate Cameroonian culture, its languages, its social quirks (like incessant bargaining), with humor and great affection for the people, is a sight to behold. Speaking of sights, seeing Allison for the first time in over a year was pretty overwhelming. In the first instance of cross cultural confusion my tears of joy startled some security guard at the airport who asked me if anything was wrong. Far from it, seeing her was a joyous moment. She looked just like herself but we were about to discover that she was transformed in so many wonderful ways.
After a night’s stay in Yaounde, the capital city in the south, we spent a comfortable night via couchette (our own sleeper room with bunk beds) on the 14 hr train north from Yaounde to Ngaoundere, the main city in the Adamawa region where Allison lives. There had been a very serious accident on this train route about 2-3 weeks earlier so we were very grateful to arrive safely only about 2 hrs late – we had heard tales of the 14 hour trip taking far, far longer. In Ngaoundere, Allison picked up a small refrigerator (gift from her aunt) and a sewing machine (gift from her grandmother) and we started our journey to Meiganga, Allison’s post. With a private car and driver and Allison’s counterpart, Bourdier, we were about to venture on what has to be one of the worst roads in Cameroon (or anywhere!) but which is, of course, the only way to reach her post. It has been said that Peace Corps volunteers compete for who has the hottest post, the worst road etc. Well, from what we saw over 2 ½ weeks and many miles traveled, Allison’s road to Meiganga wins hands down. Unpaved, full of potholes, with tons of mud marking the end of the rainy season, the road makes for a harrowing experience. We were held up by an overturned truck, darkness and, of course, torrential rain. Even in good weather it can take 4-5 hrs. It took us at least 7. We survived…. after all, we’re intrepid travelers, right? A wonderful surprise awaited us at Allison’s house……8 of her Cameroonian friends and her new postmate, Claire greeted us with shouts of “Bienvenue”, hand painted welcome signs all over, outside and inside AND a very welcomed home cooked dinner - spaghetti and meatballs Cameroon style which meant a spicy sauce - quite delicious. This was the first of many signs that Allison is surrounded by caring and generous friends. To our surprise, the refrigerator and sewing machine, despite hours of shocks and bumps, arrived safely and Allison has not stopped raving about the joys of refrigeration (cold drinks, a place for leftovers so she doesn’t have to cook every day). It’s amazing how we take so many of our conveniences for granted. Looking back,travel was both challenging and comical from trucks overturned blocking the entire road in 6 inches of pure mud to jumping from a almost moving car pulling my pants off to squash killer ants that had run up my legs.
Allison’s French is shockingly good –total immersion is the best teacher. Luckily many of her friends speak French in addition to Fulfulde or Baya (the local ethnic languages) so her French is great and her Fulfulde and Baya are, well, a work in progress.
Meiganga is quite rural, surrounded by hills (you’d never know it has about 70,000 people, feels more like 1-2000. The roads, (all dirt, of course) are this beautiful red color and next to the ubiquitous green fields make for a pretty sight. There are mosques and churches and the Muslims and Christians live side by side. This might be explained by the fact that people have Islam and Christianity interspersed in their families like Allison’s counterpart, Bourdier who is Christian but whose grandmother was Muslim. Bourdier, Allison’s liason for work and everything Cameroonian could not have been more kind and generous. He has a great smile and infectious spirit and we understand why Allison feels so lucky to work with him. He arranged so much for us including a day trip to a beautiful waterfall on the border of the Central African Republic and had us over for a traditional Cameroonian meal.
Cameroonians are a high spirited people and we were always greeted with warmth and excitement. Peace Corps volunteers are rare and their parents even rarer. We felt like special diginitaries the way people greeted us. We visited the local hospital where Allison works, the women’s center where she teaches young girls computers and life skills and organizes a scholarship program so girls can attend school. We also visited a group of handicapped men for whom Allison is securing a microlending project so they can purchase milling machines for a new sustainable business. We encountered friends of Allison’s everywhere and stopping to chat ( a must in Cameroonian culture) stretched each walk into the better part of a morning. We met the local tailor who offered to give Allison lessons on her new sewing machine, many neighbors, children and Allison’s favorite food vendors at the local market. We passed on the fried caterpillars but bought meat and vegetables since Allison invited 12 friends over with Dick as guest chef. The dinner and evening were great fun and some old standby games we brought, notably Jenga and Chinese checkers, were a huge hit.
Allison has constant house visitors – from children (often carrying babies) who silently sit on her floor watching the goings on (which in this case was us) or playing with her kitten, Houdini, to teenagers and adults who came by to meet us. The constant visiting would drive us crazy but it also made us relieved to see that Allison has a wide circle of friends and aquaintances who look out for her. We were invited to many homes for dinner. One of Allison’s friends, Leelee, knowing that we were in the restaurant business, invited us to watch her cook us a traditional meal. After 2-3 hours, we came to appreciate the effort involved in producing the most popular Cameroonian staple, Ndole. We sat in an unbelievably smoky cook house (a small enclosure behind the house next to the pig shed containing the fire and food hanging from the ceiling being smoked) Ndole requires the rinsing and peeling of raw peanuts, combining them with many spices into a bittergreen similar to spinach but whose bitterness requires hours of boiling. The ndole was delicious but the accompanying “couscous” a combination of flour and water into a sticky uncooked ball, was hard to eat more than a couple fingerfulls – an acquired taste. A tasty porridge, fried plantains as a side dish and bananas or fried beignets for dessert are common. Allison took us twice to her favorite fish restaurant where a woman grills whole lake fish (capitain and perch) outdoors which you then eat with your fingers and a spicy sauce –delicious!
In Meiganga, as in most Cameroonian villages, there are no taxis, no cars at all so local transport means motos, hopping on, with great faith, behind a moto driver and hoping he is careful and keeps his eyes straight ahead (which they almost never do). For me, these rides were always frightening as the dirt roads (yes, no paved roads anywhere) are basically uneven layers of mud with two foot potholes everywhere requiring a driver’s utmost concentration and agility in navigation. If it wasn’t for the oppressive heat, I think I would have walked everywhere. Thankfully, I did learn to close my eyes and enjoy the breeze while the drivers got us everywhere safely for about 20 cents a ride. The gas stations consist of a small table on the side of the road containing plastic water bottles filled with fuel. I also loved the sight of a single copier machine on the side of the dirt road as the local answer to Kinko’s.
After leaving Allison’s post, we spent the rest of our time in the Extreme North where most of Allison’s friends are posted. On the way we stopped in Pitoa to visit the family Allison lived with during the first three months of Peace Corps training. How lovely and sweet they were; no wonder Allison’s initiation to Cameroon was so positive. As they showed us their village, the little girls (her sisters) in their beautiful pagne outfits would fight with each other in order to hold Allison’s hands. The main city of the North, Maroua was a pretty surprise with huge trees shading its streets. From there, we visited many small villages (on the border with Nigeria), so picturesque with groups of boukarous (little mud huts with pointy straw roofs) nestled in the hills. They look like something out of The Hobbit. A trip to Rhumsiki in the Extreme North showcased the Mandara Mountains – stunning basalt rocks jutting out of a moonlike landscape. Our lunch and dinner there were a highlight. A local man cooks everything from his small farm including fowl and coffee beans. We started out with bread fresh out of the oven with a delicious garlic sauce and the best vegetarian pizza ever. We liked lunch so much we said we would be back for dinner and when we arrived, we found a single table (we were the only customers) set with candles under the stars and another scrumptious meal of squash soup and local guinea fowl followed by a lively political discussion initiated by the owner/cook.
Compared to other African countries that we have visited, Cameroon felt much more relaxed. The complete lack of tourist infrastructure might explain the absolute absence of begging and the lack of hustlers in the markets.
As luck would have it, our last day in Yaounde was the Cameroon vs Togo World Cup qualifying soccer match. How could we miss a chance to see 40,0000 passionate Cameroonians in one venue? Cameroon won 3-0 and the favorite son, Eto was applauded wildly. The enormous crowd was enthusiastic but not out of control; everyone stood when a goal was scored but orderly sat down afterwards. The half time show featured 100’s of women dancing, of course, African style – great fun.
During all of our travels, it was wonderful to meet other Peace Corps volunteers. They are a great group, so supportive of one another as they are all in this together! Check out the photos below for those we met.
Through it all, Allison was the consummate tour guide, arranger of everything, our tireless translator who was ready for a deserved rest when we left! Daughter and parents – this trip was the epitome of total role reversal. Thank you for all of it, Allison ……..and for all her friends in Cameroon. We will never forget it.

Allison’s counterpart, Bourdier had us over to his house for dinner with his girlfriend, her daughter and Allison’s postmate, Claire

a corner of Allison’s living room. She had all the furniture made for a ridiculously cheap price.

another corner of Allison’s living room – it’s huge!

Allison’s bedroom with her mosquito net

A little food market near Allison’s house

Allison and Dick walking on a typical road in Meiganga filled with ruts and potholes

Imagine riding a moto over these ruts (made worse by the rainy season)

the staff at the hospital where Allison works run by Madame Sephora and her husband (both on the right) wearing the hats, t-shirt and wristwatch, all gifts from San Francisco

Allison and her postmate, Claire with their girl’s group at the Women’s Center, Meiganga

a typical street in Meiganga which is quite hilly. Gotta love that red mud which in the dry season turns to red dust that infiltrates everything.

Allison and Dick buying food for dinner and, of course, Allison bargaining over the price

the main market in Meiganga

Chez Allison

Allison’s kitchen showcasing her new refrigerator!

good friends in Meiganga modeling gifts from San Francisco

a dinner party at Allison’s house with Dick as guest chef

good friends of Allison’s

Allison and her kitten, Houdini, both relegated to her 2nd bedroom during our visit

Ranch de N’Gaoundaba - beautiful old hunting lodge (empty except for us) where we stayed with some of Allison’s PC friends

Allison, Jesse and Brian (PC couple from her original training group) enjoying Ranch N’Gaoundaba

Allison’s wonderful homestay family in Pitoa who she lived with during training
(one other daughter not in photo)

Her mom, sisters and baby brother in their beautiful pagne outfits

Her sisters showing us around their home town, Pitoa

In Maroua, visiting with volunteers Ashley, Brianna, Joanna, Adam, Josh and Brad

Volunteers Dan, Brianna, Ashley, Caitlyn and Allison

Enjoying a home cooked meal with Caitlyn’s counterpart, Alim and his wife in their home

Rhumsiki in the Extreme North Province of Cameroon, just 3km from Nigeria

another scene of Rhumsiki

Children singing and greeting us in Rhumsiki

Rhumsiki mom spinning wool

Rhumsiki villagers

Rhumsiki at dusk

typical cluster of boukarous

In Djingliya, small village in Extreme North enjoying a beer with volunteers Joanna and Katy

a boukarou – notice the stone pillars holding up the partial roof

roofs of boukarous

Boukarous set in the hillside

Sunday market day in Touro, beautiful pagne everywhere

market day in Touro, Extreme North

Calabash helmet worn by women in Touro – designs signify marital status, # of children, geographic locations

Allison with Cara and Matt, volunteers posted in Touro

Touro woman with a pretty heavy load, probably at least 50 lbs.

More Touro finery

a simple, non designed calabash, Dick’s favorite