Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Village Pics

Two participants enact a role playing scenario.

Yes mom, I was eating that.

Martin does a condom demonstration.

The market in Bova


Some trucks stuck in the mud on our way back.

Field Work

Too much to say, so here it is by the numbers:

- 11 days
- 10 nights
- 3 communities sensitised on HIV and AIDS; Bokosso, Boviongo, and Bova Bomboko
- 3 HIV Control Committees created
- 586 insect bites ( yes, I counted them)
- 2 creepy, egg laying, hatch under your skin into worm bites (thankfully this was not me)
- 12 people per car
- 4 wives per chief (at least)
- innumerable children of said chiefs
- 3 hours late ( the village of Bokosso, for our first meeting)
- 7 sleepless nights sharing a bed with my boss, who snores like a freight train (this was before I was able to find a chair outside to sleep on).
- 1 pair of useless earplugs
- 1 child who stood gaping at my naked white butt while I thought I was alone and was trying to pee.
- 1 loaf of mouldy bread, consumed for several days while not realizing it was mouldy.
- 15+ people who believed that condoms are 100% effective in preventing HIV transmission.
- 2 occasions (at least) on which fish was eaten for breakfast
- 30 deet insect repellent, applied religiously to no avail.
- 1 million times in which I was called 'white man'.
- 10+ occasions on which I ate in establishments that had either chickens, goat poop or both beneath my feet.

Sardines and Latrines

Having spent almost two weeks in the field doing HIV and AIDS awareness work with my NGO, there is much to tell, but I’ll begin by describing two lighter aspects of the trip that left very strong impressions on me (quite literally in one case, as I’m sure I was dented in several places after the car ride there). Those who know me well will not be surprised at the second part of this blog’s title, as they must surely also believe that latrines are a fascinating, though oft-neglected topic. Here goes…

After spending a beautiful weekend at the beach in Kribi, I won’t deny that I wasn’t looking forward to heading out to the ‘bush’ as the locals call it. My stomach had been giving me grief the past couple of days before we set out, and after spending almost 10 hours over that weekend on buses and in cars, I was weary of travel. However, I managed to pick up my spirits the night before, and optimistically set my alarm for 6am. At this hour, I’m usually one of the first awake, and thought I’d have plenty of time to finish packing before we had to leave. I was wrong. You can imagine my surprise the next morning when I was awoken with a powerful knock on my door at approximately 5:30. Ugh. As I’d stayed up late packing the night before, and had difficulty sleeping, I lied there under my mosquito net in a state of shock for several seconds before reacting to this unexpected call. My boss was probably still in her pyjamas anyways, right? Wrong again. Not only was she dressed, she was basically ready to go. I flew around my room in a state of panic. Had I packed my malaria pills? Where was my toothbrush? As the type of obsessive-compulsive individual who likes to write a decent list before traveling, and checks several times to make sure key items are present, I was not feeling sufficiently prepared for this turn of events. Even in the car on the way down the mountain, I had a minor panic-attack when that OCD voice in the back of my brain convinced me that I had forgotten the malaria pills. Luckily, I hadn’t.

After a brief pit stop to gather supplies from the office, we sped along to Mile 17 for the first leg of our journey; a bus trip to Limbe. Having not eaten anything for breakfast, my eyes scanned the crowd for signs of some sort of doughball vendor, but I was out of luck. No such person was to be found. Luckily I had brought some bread from Douala, and Martin and I nibbled contentedly on our roomy back bench. Four persons to a seat intended for three is standard for Cameroon, but the door had slammed with one place to spare. Had I only known what was ahead, I would have savoured that leg room even more. One taxi later, and I found myself wedged in the back of a small car carrying not five, not six, but twelve people. It’s a good thing that these drivers don’t operate carnival rides, because ‘maximum capacity’ is probably not a term they would comprehend. Three adults plus the driver took up the front seat, one carrying a child on her lap. I was in the middle of the back bench, with my boss seated to my right, and a woman with another child to my right. You may be thinking that this arrangement was not so bad as the front, but I doubt that was the case. The padding on the back of the chair had long disappeared, and my boss’s generous proportions claimed a substantial portion of the small space allotted us. The doors had slammed shut with great difficulty and I was convinced that I had attained a new record for most persons in a car. I would remember to tell everyone at home about this one. That was before I glanced out the window to my left and saw a pair of feet dangling from the roof. A quick scan behind and to the right revealed two more. In Cameroon, it isn’t a carpool until it overflows.Naturally it would stall.
It wasn’t long before I began to feel the heat. In the chilly morning air I had dressed myself in four layers; a tank top, a long sleeved shirt, a sweat-wicking (haha) shirt, and a raincoat; which immediately transformed from a garment designed to keep water out, to saran wrap, designed to cook my body within its quality seam-sealed encasing. I was like a marshmallow, and was convinced that once the crusty exteriors were removed, I would emerge a melted glob of white goo, all form lost after the toasted portion was stripped away. Movement was impossible, and I was stuck in this self-created torture until the next stop about an hour later. For the remainder of the trip, I tried to shut my eyes and have an out of body experience, but this was a skill in which I was lacking practice, and I remained a miserable marshmallow-sardine until I gingerly extracted myself from this metal prison over two hours later.

Alright, onto a more amusing, yet equally uncomfortable topic. I couldn’t resist…A gathering back in Calgary before I departed sparked a conversation about toilets around the world, and after my trip into the field, I finally have something to contribute. No pun intended.

Firstly, I have to clarify that everyone pees pretty much anywhere in the bush, so ‘toilets’ are really only for number two. Moving along, the two main contenders for most, erm, interesting toilets I’ve ever encountered were found in the villages in Bokosso and Boviongo. Eating local food wherever I went, I got well acquainted with them both, and feel strangely compelled to describe them to you.

In Bokosso, the toilet facilities are located on the side of the hill where the Chief’s palace rests, overlooking the village below. Clearly the architect had considered the aesthetic value of such a location, as he placed two small windows on the back of the structure, despite the fact that the roof is open 4 inches above them. The building itself has two compartments, the right the subject of my description. Here goes - open the tin metal door (lock hanging off the side – go figure) and you will find a flat concrete floor with a hole about 6 inches across. That is all.

Boviongo is another story: If you can find the toilet, (two houses down, and through the bush) you will see a small shack made of wood, the door nonexistent. Inside, more wooden slats are placed over the floor, their quality raising serious questions for the user over the disgrace of death by falling through the floor of an outhouse. Two holes are present, and I would imagine the following dialogue might be appropriate:

“Hey John, I’ll meet you at the toilet!”
“Are you bringing the toilet paper this time, or am I?”

Alright, I’ll stop now.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Few Updates

After looking over my past blog entries, I thought I’d go back and update you on a few things I brought up earlier.

Firstly, I may get to remember my time in Cameroon with actual souvenirs, instead of garbage, since I discovered that Douala has a trash disposal system more sophisticated than lighting a match. Since I’m stopping over there on Friday, I’ll be hauling all my trash along in the 2 hour cab ride. The amount I’ve been stockpiling has been greatly reduced, though, since I recently uncovered my household’s mystery dumping site. I’d tried to throw biodegradable things out on my own, but was always told just to give them to the housekeeper. Since I feel I’m a little past the age where I spit gum into my teacher’s palm, and let my mother wipe off my face, this simply would not do. I persisted, and was finally pointed towards the edge of the property, where I found a pile primarily consisting of plantain and vegetable peelings, but also containing some random packaging. Disappointed at the lost compost potential, I deposited my ‘decomposable’ selections, and felt a small weight off my shoulders.

I’ve actually been fairly impressed at the small amount of garbage I’ve accumulated here. Granted, I’m not the one who does the cooking, but I haven’t really bought much that requires a plastic package, and whenever I can, I make use of my organic MEC shopping bag. This particular bag was bought for reasons of practicality, but I have to admit that I felt a twinge of embarrassment when someone inquired whether I worked for the post. Judging by the herds of three inch heels hiking past me on rocky, rutted roads each day, I don’t think anyone would understand my argument of function over fashion. On that note, my boss actually commented that my pants were too wrinkly this morning. The washrooms have a half inch of ‘water’ on the floor, I have a mouse sharing my bed, and there’s a great chance that I’ll fall into a 3 foot deep gutter while walking home at night; but ironing should be a high priority. Right.

In regards to the rodent, he’s turned out to be more stubborn than I had expected. Despite my half-hearted attempts to ‘accidentally’ poison him by leaving out copious (for a mouse) quantities of crushed Advil, he’s prevailed in his mission to leave not one inch of my room un-pooped-upon. Though he sampled my first poisonous concoction, my second try at a mouse-sized cocktail of Advil and orange-flavoured Gravol didn’t seem to be his drug of choice. I could have gone one step further than that, but decided that adding anti-diarrhea medication and ex-lax might produce less than desirable results. So my one furry roomie remains, though I succumbed to temptation and killed a roach last night. It had made the poor decision to crawl across the bread bag I’d carefully suspended from my clothing line. Normally I just ignore them, but any creature should instinctively know that to come between me and my food will only end in tears, not to mention a swift blast of bug spray. When it comes to monstrous insects, I feel I’ve been somewhat demoralized.

My shower situation is another one in need of an update. On Monday, I caved and bought a metal coil water heater for about $3 from a walking street vendor with a large assortment of gadgets. I had been sold on this little contraption since last Saturday, when I stayed at Kasia’s house, and got to have a fairly warm bath. So, Tuesday morning I woke up early, plugged in my little heater, and sat down to breakfast, contentedly munching on bread while I waited for the water to heat. I’m convinced that cold showers are just part of the experience for me, because 40 minutes later, the coil had only heated the top inch of metal, and appeared to be defective. At the very least, I had learned an important lesson: Don’t buy electronics while sitting at a table eating lunch.

On another note, Regina, my embracing friend has failed to reappear. I saw her briefly on my way home that day, but she never showed at the night’s festivities. As she had moved her stretching/foot flailing regimen several metres over in the time that had past since our first meeting, I can only assume that she started off with good intentions, but ended up rolling in the wrong direction. Either way, I’m sure she’ll supply ample entertainment wherever she ends up.

As for myself, I’m heading into the field next week, so my posts and emails will be coming to a halt until around the 24th. Should you need to contact me, my phone should still be in service. If I’m unavailable, no need to worry, I’m sure everything's fine, and I'm just stuck in the mud somewhere – as I feel I’ve progressed from gutters, that is the only logical step.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Muea Market

I’ve discovered few things in Cameroon as exciting or overwhelming as a busy market. There are so many sights, sounds and smells, that my first trek into this foreign land was followed by a brief bout of mental exhaustion. This time, though, I was prepared. Armed with my coworker’s bargaining skills and a purpose, I went off in search of some fabric last Thursday morning.

We started off early, at around 8 am, and caught a cab for 200 CFA (about 40 cents Canadian). This is a higher fare than is required to go most places in Buea, so I wasn’t surprised when the cab took us around several twists and turns and we ended up in an area seemingly on the outskirts of town. A smile came to my face when the first thing I spotted was a table covered with books. They would have to wait, though. As distracting as books usually are for me, I had come here in search of something more vital. A previous solo attempt to purchase fabric in Buea town had resulted in me walking right out of the shop, refusing to believe the ridiculous claim that the fabric I wanted could not be cut and I would have to buy the whole roll. I was determined not to let this happen again.

We cut past the tables of books, and ducked through the various stalls until we came upon what one might classify as the market’s ‘fabric district’. Vibrant colours and bold patterns surrounded us, with piles of material stacked on tables and suspended in neat rows from lines strung across the wooden beams. It didn’t take long before I spotted the exact material I had wanted the previous day, yellow and purple, with a pattern of dots spiraling into petals. I was thrilled, but tried to appear nonchalant as Delphine negotiated with the vendor on my behalf. I observed quietly, and am now confident I could go it alone next week. I’ll give you an overview, but be forewarned, you will need to break out your acting skills unless you're incredibly passionate about negociation.

Upon spotting what you would like to buy, you casually inquire about the price, continuing to browse as though you are not really interested in the response. When they tell you, you feign shock and outrage that it should be so high. “For this one? No!” You then offer about half of what was quoted to you, and the scene is re-enacted by the vendor. He gasps incredulously, and then delves into a speech about the high quality of that specific cloth, gesturing towards the wax-dye guarantee. At this juncture, you should argue persistently for several minutes, crossing your arms and looking away obstinately, as though making eye contact would forfeit victory. Should the bargaining end without a reasonable price to agree upon, you walk away slowly, coyly intoning that you will look elsewhere. In my experience, you can often use this moment as an appropriate time to begin counting. Five seconds later, he will likely reappear and make his ‘real’ best offer. With a flash of scissors, and a quick tear, the fabric is measured out and folded neatly into a little black bag.You thank the man and pay, moving on to the next conquest.

Bargaining seemed to be great sport for Delphine and I was thankful for her stubbornness, as she got me several great deals before insisting on showing me the meat market. Since I had experienced excessive hissing and harassment the last time I went to this area (a meat market in every sense), I was not thrilled about the prospect of a repeat performance. Also, when it comes to viande, I'm of the 'ignorance is bliss’ mindset, and have no desire to see blood and limbs before they magically transform to food on my plate. I turned reluctantly in the direction she indicated, but promptly jumped back as a pile of freshly slaughtered cow barreled towards me at full speed. That little preview was enough for me, but Delphine continued eagerly down the lane, intent on completing my market experience by testing my gag reflex.

Among other unappetizing specimens, we passed piles of cow legs, rolls of tough, rubbery cow skin, and racks of ribs, all awash with blood and gore. Shuddering involuntarily, I watched as the cow that nearly ran me over was heaved onto the counter with a thud and a splatter of blood that ricocheted off the path directly in front of me. At the very least, I was now assured of a sound sleep that night, knowing that the angel of death could pass over my calves without hesitation. With that reassuring thought, I sidled past this scene of carnage and moved towards the dresses blowing welcomingly in the distance. The sights and smells at a market may be plentiful, but that doesn't mean I feel compelled to experience them all, especially when they splatter towards me without warning.

Fabric tucked safely under my arm, we navigated around tarps and stepped over garbage piles in search of the next item on my list; a wedding ring. Yes, I'm aware that wedding rings are not traditionally purchased by the bride. However, if I'm not mistaken, this type of jewelery is also traditionally accompanied by a cake and a dress, and not of lesser importance, a husband. I'm sure most girls pay more attention when reading over their guide books, and take the recommendation that should you wish to avoid harassment in foreign countries, you should claim to be married. I must have skipped this page in my haste to find giraffes and elephants, and I paid for it dearly. In addition to the catcalls and professions of love I was constantly receiving, I'd recently spent an entire weekend fending off the unwanted advances of a persistent acquaintance, and I'd had enough. In Cameroon, telling a man you're not interested, and have a boyfriend is apparently the same as batting your eyelashes and saying. "I'm just playing hard to get, if you stare awkwardly at me for long enough, eventually I'll denounce all ties to boyfriends back home and accept your repulsive offer to be my 'African lover'." Lesson learned (albeit a tad late) : a ring and an imaginary husband are desirable accessories for the solo female traveler.

Had I really been prepared, I would have asked my dentist to help me out with this quest at my last checkup, since I vaguely recall selecting a similar finger adornment after having my first tooth filled. Never again shall I take for granted the true value of such an accessory, when placed on the appropriate digit. My salvation appeared moments after leaving the meat market; sparkly yet subtle, and priced at 300 CFA. Peace of mind for about 60 cents Canadian. "I'll take it" I said, and plunked my money eagerly into the vendor's outstretched hand. After almost 2 hours at the market, I'd found everything I had come looking for. I bought us some sweet buns, and we sped back to work in a taxi. The day's mission was accomplished, but I'm sure I'll be back again next week.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Living in Luxury

You can’t truly appreciate a hot shower and a nice restaurant until you’ve almost forgotten what they’re like. This is what I discovered this weekend when Kasia and I went to Douala for a party, and were temporarily mesmerized by the wonders that are electricity, indoor plumbing and clean linens.

Having been in Buea for a little under a month now, I have become fairly accustomed to a simpler way of life. I could say that I wake up with the crowing of roosters, but that would imply that roosters abide by the traditional ‘crow at sunup’ rule, and don’t go about it continuously throughout the night. There’s one bird in particular that I’m convinced has it out for me. He stands outside my window from about 4:30 onwards, screeching with more unbridled enthusiasm than any mild-mannered alarm clock could muster. After about 30 minutes with my head under my pillow, I decide my attempts to get back to sleep are futile, and I untangle myself from my mosquito net and roll out of bed.

Thinking vengeful thoughts of fresh chicken cutlets, I gather my toiletries and head down the hall. Presumably, the other 5 occupants of the house are undisturbed by the roosters, as the bathroom is usually available. Good, since I will need the time to silently coach myself before reluctantly pouring the first cupful of cold rainwater over my head. I had hoped that in time I would grow a thicker skin and become accustomed to this, but alas, no amount of mental trickery has enabled me to convince myself that these showers are ‘refreshing’, or ‘invigorating’, when that nagging voice of reality tells me they’re just plain cold.

Cold showers and disagreeable fowl aside, I’ve adapted. I wash my clothes in a tub outside, and brush away cockroaches without a second thought. Geckoes have become wall fixtures, and restaurants are bare structures housing a few thermoses of food and a television blaring either Nigerian movies, or WWE. Bread is yellow in colour, and typically a little bit dirty. Dirt schmirt! I might not eat the mystery meat residing in the back of my fridge in Calgary, but this is part of the culture! Arguably, it’s probably of the bacterial variety, but I digress…

I was in for a mild bout of reverse-culture shock when Kasia and I arrived in Douala, and were informed that not only did Christina have a functioning shower, but it was hot. Suddenly the bumpy 2 hours I’d spent in a taxi, wedged tightly between 3 other people seemed worth it. The festivities were going full swing, and though we were exhausted, we mingled and chatted, later having an English/French/ Arabic conversation while smoking sheesha with some of Christina’s neighbours. When I inquired about the late night food situation, our new acquaintance took it upon himself to take care of our tummies. At about 1am, we took a cab for a few minutes, and ended up outside a very nice restaurant, which appeared to have just closed for the night. Luckily our host was well connected, and we were quickly seated in the back portion of the restaurant, among several tables cloaked with spotless white linen and set with sparkling silverware. I was almost too busy taking it all in to notice the menu placed in front of me by our server. Salivating, and representing a true Albertan, I ordered steak with fries. My tendency to inhale food like a ravenous beast is a well known trait, so you would be shocked at how slowly I savoured every last bite of that meal, even finishing after my two companions. The prospect of eating a piece of meat that was not intestine or skin, and couldn’t look back at me was tremendously appealing after a month of wondering what becomes of the ‘normal’ part of the cow.

We ended our evening in a nightclub, where I was shocked to see a great variety of ethnicities. I felt almost like I could be at a bar in Canada – it was such a mixed group. Returning to the apartment quite late, this wonderful evening was capped off when I saw the soft mattress covered by crisp (freshly laundered) sheets where I was to sleep. I had no trouble dozing off that night, though I awoke with the bitter remembrance that my brief sojourn into normalcy was almost over. Not before taking advantage of Christina’s wonderful tub, though. The water was indeed hot, and I confess that I probably showered much longer than economy would approve, but I didn’t care! My rainwater at home would keep just fine for the next 6 weeks, and who knew when such an opportunity would present itself again?

All I needed now to attain nirvana was a trip to the bakery. I’d seen several on our way into the city, and had heard tantalizing tales of fresh (not to mention clean) bread, pastries, and sausage rolls. Though in a neighborhood that was apparently sketchy (we were told to only bring what money we planned to spend) the bakery did not disappoint. A huge glass display case lined an entire wall, and was filled with the most delectable looking pastries imaginable. I wanted everything, but contented myself with a ham and cheese croissant, along with some bread and cheese to take home.

We departed early in the afternoon, and arrived home before dark. Not wanting to waste precious hours of sunlight, I dragged my laundry outside and set to the task of scrubbing. Some honest labour felt in order after such luxury as I’d experienced in the previous 24 hours, and my clothes would not clean themselves. Feeling satisfied upon completing this little chore, I made myself a pot of tea and relaxed. Several cold showers may await me, but I had fresh bread and cheese, and was exceedingly happy.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Hug first, ask questions later

As a white girl in Cameroon, it's inevitable that you get a lot of stares, and a lot of (often unwanted) attention. Whether from children who shout "white man!" as you pass, men who ogle you and ask "How can we meet again?" before even knowing your name (or if you would actually want to meet them again at all) or ladies who introduce you to their fair skinned baby, exclaiming that "she looks just like you". Walking down an ordinary street, I meet more people than I can remember, and am often searching my memory when I happen to bump into someone more than once, and have no clue who they are, or how I know them. People are friendly and curious pretty much wherever you go, which is why I wasn't overly shocked when I met Regina this morning.

I was hiking up the hill on my way to the internet cafe, past the Alliance Franco-Camerounaise, when I glanced to my right, and saw a middle aged lady lying on her back on the edge of a bridge. Her shoes were cast off beside her, and she seemed quite occupied waving her feet in the air. Before I could imagine her reason for assuming such a posture, she sprung to her feet, arms outspread, and embraced me like an old friend. For a moment I stood there stiffly, gazing down at the top of her head, and trying to recollect if I'd had a previous (but likely less striking) encounter with this petite, affectionate woman. This time however, my memory did not fail, as I truly had no idea who she was. Her arms remained around me for several moments, and it was only after asking a few questions, that she stepped back and I could take a good look at my tiny assailant.

Barefoot, about 4 feet tall, and garbed in traditional Cameroonian dress, her personality seemed fairly to explode right out of her small stature. A brief conversation followed, in which she inquired about what I was doing in Cameroon, where I was working, and where I lived. Subtlety does not seem to be highly valued here, and before we had even introduced ourselves, she demanded where exactly I lived, and whether she could come visit me. Veering away from this awkward proposition, I came up with a compromise: I politely told her that I was planning to attend an art exhibition at the Alliance this evening, and if she would like to see me again, we could meet there. I started off again, wondering what the evening held in store, and knowing that Regina was one Cameroonian I wouldn't soon forget.