A trip around Cameroon (Part 2)

The mist from the falls

To continue with our trip…

We took a slight detour on day three and went to observe the spot where there was a huge landslide a few weeks ago that caused the deaths of around 50 people. It happened during the night when a section of the mountain fell away and took part of a village with it. Sadly, the victims included many pregnant women and children. These people were forced to build their houses on unstable land without enough money or available space elsewhere to build. The government here unfortunately doesn’t mark any areas off-limits for building, so this kind of thing can happen often since much of Cameroon is mountainous.

The site of the recent tragic landslide that killed around 50 people (some bodies still haven’t been found). People here are often forced to build on unstable land, but the government needs to step in to make such areas off-limits.

Day four started with a trip to the Ekom-Nkam waterfalls which were where Tarzan was filmed! The falls were insanely strong because the area had gotten a lot of rain over the past few weeks, so we got completely soaked from the vantage point. The mist and wind coming off the falls made it hard to properly see them from there, so we hiked to a different point above the falls and could see how tall they were (80m) and the river that continued at the bottom. It was in the middle of the rainforest, so the views were amazing. From there, we drove to Douala which is the economic capital of Cameroon (Yaoundé is the actual capital). We had heard horror stories about Douala as apparently people who live in Yaoundé hate Douala and vice versa. My host mom had said it was very hot, dusty and even more full of crazy motorcycles than Yaoundé is (I found that hard to believe!) We didn’t get the full Douala experience because granted, we were in an air-conditioned car, but we did feel a SIGNIFICANT heat difference when we got out to visit a few statues and monuments. It’s too bad that almost all monuments in major cities in Cameroon are dedicated to colonist powers and not to famous Cameroonians. The maritime museum was also very interesting to visit (our History professor got a kick out of the 3D experience) and definitely the most modern museum I’ve visited so far here.

View over the rooftops from my hotel room
Les Chutes d’Ekom-Nkam

The river continuing under the falls

We drove into the night to get to Kribi, a little coastal town in the South of Cameroon. Our first activity there was a boat ride on the river Lobe in a hand-carved boat called a pirogue. These are the principal boats used here for fishing which is so different to see. I’m used to harbors being filled with sailboats and motorboats, but these pirogues are paddled single-handedly by the fishermen. Our guide, André, took us upstream to visit a Pygmy village, but first, he wanted us to see wild monkeys. He paddled into a small cove and we watched as tiny monkeys jumped through the trees around us and came closer to investigate the boat. They were the smallest monkeys I’d ever seen (about the size of a squirrel) and they were very curious and active. We continued upstream before hiking through the forest until we got to the Pygmy encampment. The first thing that struck me upon arrival was that the ground was covered in empty plastic whiskey packets. We had learned in class about the growing alcohol problems in Pygmy villages and that pregnant women continue to heavily drink so that many of the children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or other disabilities. The children are given alcohol as they are growing up. It was sobering to see this with my own eyes and to see the ways in which modernization has really destroyed the Pygmy way of life. We greeted the local chief before getting a tour of the tiny village. Any artificial materials including buckets, clothes and dishware were presents from visitors as Pygmies never venture into outside cities. Most of the Pygmy people were hunting in the forest, so we only met a few. Unfortunately, we don’t speak their language so it was difficult to communicate, but it was definitely interesting to observe their way of life.

The pirogue used to take us up the river Lobe to visit the Pygmies
The river Lobe
Spot the tiny monkeys!

The Pygmy huts
The Pygmy village from the forest surrounding it

Next, we went to see the Lobe Waterfalls which were further downstream. Due to the recent rain, they were very powerful and we watched some fishermen battle in the rapids to catch fish and shrimp. The next few days we had free, with no concrete plans or things to see. So, we were able to relax at the beach (which our hotel was basically on), swim in the surprisingly warm and muddy Atlantic Ocean, and eat many coconuts which André knocked down from the trees for us. The beaches were all basically empty which was amazing so we could explore and hike around the little town. Before we left to head back to Yaoundé, our director filled up the trunk of the car with freshly caught fish we bought at the docks. This was to add to her collection of peanuts, dried and smoked fish, squash and more that she bought along the way, convinced that everything is better when bought directly in the villages that produce it.

Coconuts in a pirogue
One of the beaches in Kribi
Pirogues on the beach
The Lobe waterfall

Freshly-caught shrimp on the dock
A fisherman right under the Lobe falls

So that marks the end of our trip! It was not only a lot of fun, but I feel like I really learned a lot and got to appreciate the diversity that Cameroon has to offer. Sadly, certain areas where students have gotten to travel to in the past with the program, are now off-limits because of the ongoing Anglophone Crisis. These areas include the North, Far North, North-West and South-West. Now back to our “normal” life in Yaoundé!

Some of the many lizards that are EVERYWHERE here!



A trip around Cameroon (Part 1)

We just got back after a week spent exploring the South, West and Littoral parts of Cameroon. We have been living in Central Cameroon, so it was amazing to see the diversity in culture, people, language and climate that the rest of Cameroon holds. The country is said to be a “Miniature Africa” with everything from desert in the North, to mountains and jungle in the West, to grasslands, to ocean. We spent a PACKED week travelling by car and jumping in and out of cities and villages to try and cram in the most learning as possible. We started at 4:30am on Friday morning (gotta avoid that workday traffic), and stopped so that our Muslim driver could pray in an empty parking lot in the dark. Drivers, called “chauffeurs” in French, are absolutely necessary when renting a car as we did. Rental companies don’t rent cars without drivers, as there have been too many cases of people driving off, never to be seen again. Our driver, Abdul, was super friendly and funny so we enjoyed chatting with him in the car or over meals.

First stop was the village of La Reine Blanche (The White Queen), which is in the West near a town called Banganté. Njike Claude Bergeret met us outside her tiny hut, standing barefoot in the dust. She showed us around her house which is a circular room with her bed, a table where she eats meals and teaches the village children, a couch and bookshelves. Outside is her outhouse. We sat down to talk with her and to ask her any questions we had about her way of life. She is an incredibly inspiring, interesting and strong-willed woman who has written several books in French and who has been living in Cameroon for over 40 years now. She was born there to French Missionaries, but she grew up in France. She became disillusioned with the Catholic church and so left her religion at 16. She moved back to Cameroon and fell in love with a local chief, becoming his 26th wife. This was a shock to everyone as there had never been a white woman who willingly decided to join a polygamous Cameroonian family. The chief died after 9 years and Claude chose not to re-marry, instead she built her own village from scratch and now teaches all the village children; the only formal schooling many of them will ever know. She gave us a tour of her vast plantation behind the village where she grows literally every fruit and vegetable I had ever heard of from avocados, to plantains, to peanuts, to pineapples. She lives entirely off the land, making her own bread, jam, honey, even chocolate. The rest she sends into the town to be sold. She struck me as someone fiercely independent, self-reliant and strong enough to resist the media attention she has been given over the past years. She has been offered large houses, financial support and more, but has always refused as she believes she has all she needs to live and to be happy.

Professeur Fofack testing out La Reine Blanche’s homemade bread
The tiniest avocado I’ve ever seen!
Digging up some ginger and turmeric for us
I had never seen a pineapple plan before and for some reason I though they were so cool
La Reine Blanche outside her house
View of the magnificent plantation
Showing us the inside of a palm nut (used to make wine, oil, etc.

After spending time with La Reine Blanche, we went to visit the Chefferie Batoufam, or the Batoufam Chiefdom. The chief was at a funeral celebration (November is the month of funerals here and funerals take place whenever the family has enough money to organize them, so it can be many years after the person’s death). We explored his kingdom with his cook as our guide. The buildings are intricately decorated with paintings, wooden carvings and metal weapons that all have specific meanings and significance to the chief. Interestingly, the kingdom is built on a hill so as you enter it, the different rooms have doors that get smaller and smaller which was to make it difficult for enemies to rush through. We hung out with the chief’s pet monkey, Arthur, who was very friendly and proceeded to immediately groom me and climb all over us.

Arthur and I!
One of the entrances into the Batoufam kingdom
In the Batoufam chiefdom

That night, we ate dinner at a tiny restaurant near our hotel where a girl at least as young as me ran the whole show, cooking and dishing out food in the pitch black after the electricity went out across the city. I am consistently amazed by many of the young people I see here who do jobs that in Europe and the U.S. are only for adults.

Day two we met the King of Bangoulap, a chief who has 8 wives and 20 children. We got to pick his brains on everything from local politics, to his relationship with the state government, to his opinions on modern religion. It was interesting to hear the ways in which some catholic missions of the past have destroyed local traditions, causing kingdoms like this one to have very negative, bitter feelings towards Catholicism in general. We had to do a special hand gesture in greeting, as you don’t shake a chief’s hand, and couldn’t cross our legs when sitting as it is a sign of disrespect. He was very welcoming of us and all our weird questions (like “Do you consider yourself to have magical powers?” His answer was yes.)

With the Roi de Bangoulap on his throne (it is a crime for anyone but the chief to sit on it)
The entrance to the Bangoulap kingdom with a sign naming all the past chiefs, the pointed roofs make it clear that this is a chiefdom.
Paintings on the wall in the king’s court

From there we went to Bangam for a traditional funeral. Funerals here are a BIG deal so they can have hundreds of people in attendance. We took part in one of the dances which was to ask the local chief for permission to hold the funeral on his land. It was lots of chanting, playing the tam-tam (or drum) and admiring the costumes of the important people who wore vibrant, red parrot feathers and carried long whips made of horse tails. We watched another dance which involved frightening masks, playing an instrument much like a xylophone and shuffling in the dust with hollow nuts attached at the ankles. We also had to go up and put money on top of someone’s head during the ceremony. Less festive, for me at least, was watching the pig slaughtering. We were told it was essential to see, so we watched as they blessed the big and each other, sacrificing it in the name of the person who had died. However, the sacrifice itself was not quick, nor was it in any way painless as it is important that the animal bleeds, which made it hard to sit through. That was done a total of ten times throughout the funeral. At least you can be sure all the meat was eaten. Another interesting “tradition” to do with funerals, that kept us and our professors cracking up all through lunch, was the sneaking of food. Many Cameroonians attend funerals with the intention of stocking up on food so they don’t have to cook for the coming week, until the next funeral. So, during lunch, women were slipping meat, plantains and bread into their handbags, along with entire bottles of wine. A physical fight broke out over the party favors; bags filled with…you guessed it, more food. This was a sight to behold.

The blessing before the pig sacrifice
One of the traditional dances

Playing the hand-made, wooden xylophone, these guys were super talented! They played really fast.

A woman wearing a crown of parrot feathers, very controversial outside the region as it requires killing many parrots

A dance we took part in

Day three we stopped at a tiny café which serves locally-grown coffee. The coffee here is always served the same way: black with loads of local honey and lemon. We headed to Foumban, the village of the Bamoun people where we visited a museum shaped like the Bamoun symbol: a spider (symbolizing hard work) in the middle of a double-headed snake. We enjoyed stopping along the way at some of the many toll stops where the car is bombarded by people trying to sell everything under the sun and where a spiked metal pole is lowered if you try to drive through without paying. I tried sugar cane for the first time (AMAZING), ate crispy roasted corn, grilled plantain and grilled beef coated in spices. We stopped at the Metche Waterfall, a sacred and historic site. It was stunning, especially with a perfect rainbow over it and we watched as Cameroonians made sacrifices on the rock overlooking it, in the names of their relatives who had been killed as punishment by French colonists at that very spot. We finished the day with a visit to the Dschang museum and went for a kayak on the lake.

The Bamoun symbol
Buying sugar cane on the side of the road: you basically chew on it, suck all the juices out and then spit out the wood that’s left.

At the Metche Waterfall

Stay tuned for part two of our incredible trip!

Highlights from the Past Few Weeks

It has been SUPER busy the past few weeks here in Yaoundé; finishing up our Middlebury Program classes, struggling through our university class, exploring even more of the city and gaining more confidence and experience at my internship at Promhandicam. It’s nearing (if not already) the end of the rainy season, which, contrary to popular Cameroonian opinion, I am happy about. The rain here is torrential and is always accompanied by flash floods, the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard and lightning, which creates a real fear of being struck since Arjun’s house was struck as was a taxi right in front of him. Not too many lightning rods here… But the dry season has it’s own problems, including dust which is everywhere and gets into everything, and heat as there is no break from the sun. However, I stand by my preference because the sunsets here on clear days are unbelievable! It always looks like the mountains have been set on fire.  I wanted to share with you some highlights from the past few weeks, before a big post in a couple weeks after we get back from our trip! Definitely stay tuned for that, I will have some awesome pictures and stories.

  1. Climbing Mont Eloumden

Ok so this was my favorite hike so far. It was also the longest and the most wild as Mont Eloumden is the tallest of the seven hills surrounding Yaoundé. We started from our host families’ houses in Montée Jouvence and headed out of the city, passing through small villages which gave us a real taste of village life. We had lots of cute kids follow us, always with the typical greeting of “Bonjour Blancs!” or “Hello White people!”. We had to cross a rickety bridge which was hairy because it had poured rain the night before and the river was so high it was touching the bottom of the bridge (bridge meaning several cracked boards nailed together). We successfully crossed the river only to be confronted by men wielding machetes who were cutting the high grass and “cultivating” the road, meaning chopping up the dirt to start a piece of land to farm. We have come across this before; people deciding a piece of road was a good place to try and plant vegetables. Most of the hike was following a narrow, red-dirt path through the rainforest, but upon reaching a certain point, we could see no path whatsoever (we later found out this was because the path isn’t used during the rainy season so no one cuts it). We were forced to literally bush-whack our own path through the jungle, getting very dirty, scraped and mosquito-bitten in the process. But the view from the top was well worth it and we felt like we were in the total wilderness of Cameroon which was very cool.

Bird’s-eye view of Yaoundé
Mont Eloumden before we started the ascent

Enjoying the view
Near the base of the mountain, where the path was more defined


2. Teaching by myself for the first time at Promhandicam

This was something that I had really wanted to do since I started at Promhandicam. The teacher who is my impromptu advisor (mainly because he has been the most helpful in helping me navigate being an intern there), M. Jules, informed me on a regular Thursday during morning break at 10, that he had Malaria and so was going home for the day, so was I ok to teach the class until school finished at 2? Safe to say, I was really nervous at first, mostly because on such short notice, I had nothing planned to teach the students. But I had been with this class for a while and I felt really comfortable with the kids. I made a quick lesson plan which consisted of, vocabulary that describes a village, followed by a labelled drawing of a village (the theme of the week was villages, if you couldn’t already tell). After that, I took a vote to see what they wanted to learn, and they all wanted me to teach them Christmas vocabulary in English and then sing songs. So we spend the afternoon doing that and it was a huge success! I thought at first that without their usual teacher, no one would listen to me, but the kids were great and attentive, for the most part. We had a couple of sleepers, but that happens even when M. Jules is there. The most difficult part was definitely having a class of 50 students, 11 of which were blind and many of which were learning disabled. I had to spell our everything I wrote on the board for the blind students and they weren’t able to do the drawings so I had include them in other ways, like having them sit next to a seeing student so they could describe their picture. Working with a group of students of all different ages and abilities (from as young as 6 to as old as 16) certainly has it’s challenges, as some can’t read or can’t express themselves orally and it made me all the more impressed by M. Jules who does this every day. Teaching is so exhausting! But I left feeling rewarded and like a lot had been accomplished. Plus we all ended up having tons of fun!

Josen is one of the blind students with whom I primarily work
Me with some of my students!
Two girls looking on during a competitve dance game at recess

“I say no to corruption”
Working away

Part of the class I was teaching
Cuties!!! They are obsessed with having their picture taken

3. Eating our goat

This title is an odd one at first glance, less odd here in Cameroon. For some background, my host family was given a live goat as a present (as you do) by one of my host father’s patients (Kennedy is a surgeon). It was tied up outside my room and lived there for over a week, being fattened up. It enjoyed such pastimes as bleating loudly at 3am, scaring small children who live in the apartment (including my 2-year-old host sister who had to run by it every time she needed to get in the front door), and breaking it’s rope several times in an attempt to escape it’s fate. Eventually, a man came over and killed it for us. This was a slightly traumatizing experience as I had considered the goat quite cute (much to my host sisters’ disgust), but as it is part of the culture, I swallowed my animal-protective instincts. We ate it for Sunday lunch with Arjun and Sandra’s mother because it was a big deal to be able to eat a whole goat. We had it with couscous and veggies and I have to say, it was pretty tasty. I could also vouch for the fact that it was VERY fresh. I did not miss being woken up at the crack of dawn the next day, but it’s little empty corner made me sad on my way to school. This experience did teach me a lot about appreciating our food and about the way people eat here. Meat is so fresh because the electricity goes out so often that nothing can be kept in a refrigerator or freezer. I am not a huge meat-eater and have gone through phases of being vegetarian, but I think that if people want to eat meat, it should be eaten the way that Cameroonians eat it. There is no hiding what animal it is or where the meat came from, everything is on your plate and you are expected not to waste anything (although I couldn’t quite chew the bones like my family can).

The goat in it’s corner

I hope you enjoyed this little update on my life, stay tuned for the next post on our adventures in Western, Littoral and Southern Cameroon!

Mongo Beti and the Anglophone Crisis

Over the course of the Cameroonian Literature class I have been taking through the Middlebury Program, I’ve had the opportunity to read so many works of fiction and non-fiction, all written by Cameroonian writers. One of the writers that made an impression on me was Mongo Beti. Beti was an author who grew up in a tiny rural village about an hour outside of Yaoundé. He grew up as many people do here, without electricity or clean water and without being surrounded by educated individuals. Nevertheless, Beti attended school and eventually moved to France to study at the Sorbonne and to become a teacher. He wrote his first novel when he was just 20 years old. He lived in exile for most of his life, before being convinced to come back to Cameroon by his good friend, Professor Ambroise Kom. Some of you reading this blog might recognize Professor Kom’s name. He taught at Holy Cross and headed a study abroad program to Cameroon before moving back here to retire a few years ago. We were invited by Professor Kom, to a debate honoring the late Mongo Beti (he died 18 years ago this year) which would focus on Beti’s view on the current Anglophone Crisis.

The famous cameroonian taxis!

The event was supposed to start a 4pm, but in true Cameroonian fashion, it started over an hour late (we’ll call the torrential rain a good excuse). The thing that shocked me the most about the event was how few people were there. Mongo Beti is a hugely famous writer who is known all over the world and who has had his work translated into many languages. But his own people don’t want to remember him because he was considered by many to be an enemy of the state. His views on the Cameroonian government were very radical and threatening to those in power. We met in the back of the Librairie des Peuples Noirs, a bookstore started by Beti which has since been taken over by Professor Kom. To the professor, the bookstore, usually mostly empty, symbolizes all that is wrong with the Cameroonian view of literature and of education. He told us that most people here don’t or can’t read. They don’t care about books or authors and they aren’t interested in broadening their knowledge. This is a sad reality that is being fought day in and day out by members of SAMBE (Société des Amis de Mongo Beti).

The debate was led by three professors, two Francophone, one Anglophone, who discussed their opinions and possible solutions to the Anglophone Crisis that threatens to turn Cameroon into a Civil War-zone.  I won’t go into the details of each opinion, but it was interesting to see the different viewpoints of the Anglophone professor and the Francophone professors (they were NOT in agreement). This showed me the complexity of the issue and inspired me to consider my own opinions as to who is at fault and how it can be resolved.

Professor Fofack in front of the paintings
Paintings of the late Mongo Beti and a famous Cameroonian philosopher

A few days later, we accompanied Professor Kom to Mongo Beti’s village to visit his grave and to attend a ceremony. Upon arrival, the extreme poverty and deprivation of the villagers was clear. The houses were mud buildings full of holes with tall grass and weeds growing around the sites. The people were often outside their houses, sitting in the sun, some were drinking although it was barely 10am. Professor Kom told us the somewhat depressing story of how a successful, wealthy Mongo Beti returned to his village in order to try to help his people escape poverty. He started a bakery, a plantation that grew all different fruits and vegetables and even a pig farm and butcher. However, after his death, it became clear that he was what held his village together. The establishments he had created quickly fell into disrepair and were abandoned by the villagers, who returned to their desperate poverty. The professor explained how this shows the complexity of poverty. People, even if provided with the tools necessary to exit their poverty, don’t always know how to or even want to use them. We were able to visit the plantations which were utterly abandoned and overgrown.

The talk allowed us to see the perspectives of the villagers, who didn’t understand the reason for our gathering. One man, clearly intoxicated, stood up to say that we should be ashamed to come visit the village without bringing food, money and clothes to provide the villagers with. He didn’t understand that we were coming to honor a great writer and that paying to do this wasn’t necessary. For him, if we were coming to the village, we should have brought supplies for everyone there. This is somewhat typical in the villages; the people always want something in return, even if you are only walking through. But as the professor said, this is only a way to keep the villagers in their poverty-stricken lives. Beti tried to provide them with the tools necessary to learn how to climb out of poverty themselves, but they chose not to use them.

It was a sobering visit that showed us how difficult the situation of the poor is in Cameroon. It isn’t enough to provide people with basic necessities on a daily basis, they have to be educated and taught how to obtain these necessities themselves in order to break the cycle of poverty.

A woman selling mandarines on our way to the village

A Typical School Day at l’Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale

Two weeks ago I started my class at the Catholic University of Central Africa. I only have to take one class there because I am taking two with the Middlebury Program and my internship at Promhandicam counts as another. Registering for a class at UCAC is a process. New classes begin every week starting in October and the semester runs until February when there is an exam period. As we won’t be here then, we had to pick a class the very first week so that we would be done relatively early and would be able to focus on other things for our last few weeks here. Picking a class entailed taking two taxis to the university early Monday morning on the opening day. The campus was full of students starting school again, including many students training to be priests and nuns as the religious orders program at UCAC is very popular. We spoke to Victoria, our Cameroonian friend and a student at the university about how it’s different seeing a religious program that is so popular! In the U.S. and even in Europe it seems like there are fewer and fewer men and women who want to work in the church. She replied that it is the most popular program at the university because it not only provides good education, but it provides a good, relatively comfortable, stable life afterwards which is appealing to many students and their families.

The chapel
The sign outside the university

We checked out the list of new classes that are posted on a bulletin board every Saturday and chose Introduction to Cameroonian Criminal Law or Droit Pénal Général.  It is a class that has 4 hour class sessions (this is no joke), twice a week until 12 sessions are complete. However the hours and days can change each week so while we had class Monday and Tuesday that week, we could have class Wednesday and Friday next week. This makes for an interesting week for sure… After choosing our class, we were introduced to Driss, a french student studying and living at UCAC for the whole year! He gave us a tour of the stunning campus. It is up on one of the many hills surrounding the city and has a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains and rainforest as well as the city below. It is very calm and quiet compared to central Yaoundé and the campus is covered in lush grass, fruit trees and tropical flowers. It also has an outdoor swimming pool! I guess you’re not allowed to use it during the day though because it’s not considered polite for professors and staff to see students in bathing suits. The campus also has a large chapel, a library which was voted best in Yaoundé, three small restaurants, classrooms, a basketball court and dormitories. There are only about 40 students who live at the university (about 1000 students attend the university in total), but we visited the dorm room of Driss to see what it was like. While the campus is nice, we are glad that we are staying with host families. Being in a single room on a campus far from central Yaoundé would be lonely.

View from the pool of one of the surrounding mountains

We started our class the following day with no idea what to expect. We had been warned that often professors come to class up to an hour late, or they don’t come at all, with no notice given to the students. Luckily our professor, a catholic nun named Dr. Ngono Bounougou Regine, is very prompt. She immediately enforced her rule of punctuality in making several late students sit outside the classroom for the entire class, peeping in through the windows. We quickly learned that class in Cameroon is nothing like class in the U.S. Instead of having the liberty to take notes on what we deemed important, we were forced to write dictée-style, meaning the professor read from a handout and we had to furiously write down EVERY WORD. She stops every once in a while to give an anecdote or to explain, but most of the class is spent writing and trying to keep up with her quick reading. We have a break halfway through in which we walked around the campus to get the blood flowing again. Two of our three classes had a half hour break in the middle, so we assumed the same for our third class with this professor. However, after 20 minutes, class had started again and we crept in late with another few girls to a severe telling-off about how she “specifically said 15 minutes” when no one had heard any such thing. At least we didn’t have to sit outside! The classroom with over 50 students, is stifling at all times and is constantly noisy with students talking in the back (the professor is relatively unconcerned). Four hours is also a LONG time to be sitting and is much longer than we’re used to, but the content is relatively interesting and the class will be done in less than 4 weeks!

We also tried out one of the restaurants available to students and got full, hot meals of pan-fried, fresh fish, plantains and rice with sauce for $1! One of the other two restaurants is more fancy and expensive and the last is student-run and is mostly snacks and fast-food.

A view of part of the campus from the chapel steps
Random, but cute photo of my host family headed off to church!


Grocery Shopping Cameroon-Style and the Mvog-Betsi Zoo

Last weekend Maman Lisette, Arjun’s host mom, invited us both to go with her on her weekly trip to the market. Cameroonians (mainly the women) do almost all their shopping at one of the many outdoor markets around the city. Hence why there are very few grocery stores and most of them have empty shelves and very old, very dusty items. If you want to buy food here, your best bet is buying it off the street. It is fresher, MUCH cheaper and bartering with the locals has definitely helped us feel like we fit in a bit more. So, early Saturday morning, we headed off in Maman Lisette’s old-fashioned, vintage-looking Mercedes. The market we went to is only a few minutes from our street and is called the Marché Rond Point Express. We got out of the car to an already humid, hot day and headed into the market.

At first glance, the market is chaotic, busy, unorganized and would NEVER meet U.S. or European health and safety standards. It is set up along a series of dirt roads (which are constantly mud here because it’s the rainy season) and stalls are set up on either side with more people selling goods down on the ground so there is maybe a foot-wide path in the middle to walk on. Meat hangs dripping from hooks with flies swarming, every tropical vegetable and fruit you can think of is displayed on plastic sheets, propped against steps or even held in a plastic tub on top of someone’s head. We passed a meat stall first, stopping to watch a man with a machete hoist an entire pig up onto a wooden table and begin to butcher it. He asked us if we wanted the head, but we politely declined. The ears, the hooves and the tail were also up for grabs and are delicacies… (we’ve already eaten cow hoof here). Maman Lisette had to stop by a stall that crushes hot peppers because Cameroonians cannot let a meal go by without using hot peppers. The sauce is put on everything! It is delicious though. The peppers when raw are vibrant red, orange, yellow and green, depending on the variety and the degree of heat.

A display of different hot peppers which are dried and crushed into a paste
Arjun checking out some of the stalls
Butchering a whole pig
Powdered Kassava which is sold this way to make couscous

Next was the fish stall where the smell was overpowering and the area was crowded so we waited outside and watched a young girl de-scale, clean and fillet fish with dizzying speed. Scales and blood flew everywhere, but we got our fresh fish quickly. Maman Lisette was able to pick out live fish from a tub and have them wrapped up. We walked through the busiest part of the market passing anything from enormous avocados to cassava to dried eels, stopping to measure out huge quantities of rice, flour, and beans. Maman Lisette was getting enough dry ingredients to last three months! At this point, my arms were breaking from holding the bags stuffed with fruit, vegetables and fish (no such thing as cross-contamination here apparently) so we hailed a boy with a wheelbarrow to load our things into. These boys help people bring all their goods home or to their cars in the wheelbarrows. How they navigate a wheelbarrow through that market is beyond me! Luckily, we were there on a relatively cloudy, cool morning, because I can’t imagine the market with the sun as another heat factor. Already the smells and the number of people were dizzying and slightly overwhelming. It is very common for people to do their shopping Saturday morning because everyone works all week and Sundays are a day of rest (almost nothing is open). Suffice to say, it seemed like all of Yaoundé was at the market! But it is experiences like these that show what it is really like to live in Yaoundé.

Avocados, tomatoes, onions and fresh herbs

View of the market from the entrance

We also recently made a trip to the Mvog-Betsi Zoo that is a few minutes’ drive from the Middlebury Center where we have some of our classes. We didn’t have high hopes that the zoo would have clean conditions, well-trained staff or humanely-treated animals, but we wanted to give it a try. The entrance had a faded, peeling sign for the zoo and we were greeted by a sole woman who gave us a hard time about having a camera and tried to make us pay the equivalent of $20 extra to take photos with it. People here tend to be VERY picky and sensitive about any kind of photos or videos. I don’t know what they think I’m going to use them for…but we brushed it off and headed in. The zoo was a ghost town, slightly creepy because it had a bunch of old playground equipment that when new (maybe in the 1950s when the zoo was built), was part of a play center. We saw many different kinds of monkeys and baboons, some of them in relatively open, spacious cages with grass and trees, some of them in wire cages barely large enough to hold them. They were utterly unafraid of us and came right up to the fences (which, by the way, had gaping holes and did not look like they were doing much to keep the little guys in). One plus side of this being a relatively non-professional operation: we were able to get within touching distance of the animals. We could put our hands right up against the cages (we didn’t though because…rabies). We then visited the lions who were slightly battered and bloody, the snakes and lizards and the birds. The African Grey-Faced parrots were very cool as was the hilarious monkey that escaped from its cage right next to us and was running around. It went back in by itself in the end. We saw two crocodiles (one being a Nile Crocodile) which didn’t move an inch and we got propositioned by a random man who wanted to be our tour guide (for a small fee, of course). We politely declined although the offer to hold the snakes was tempting.

One of the lions
A monkey with his carrots- he was reaching both arms outside of the cage at one point, trying to get a carrot that had fallen.
One of the more spacious monkey enclosures
A Nile Crocodile
An African Eagle

All in all it was a fun, different experience that really showed us some differences between the way animals are treated here and the way they are generally expected to be treated in the Western world. Cameroonians visiting the Mvog-Betsi zoo don’t think anything of the cramped, poorly cleaned conditions, the tied-up monkeys or the bleeding ears of the lions. It reminded me of something our professor (a catholic nun) had said during our Cameroonian Criminal Law class at the University of Central Africa. She said that she doesn’t believe Cameroon should have any laws that punish people who abuse animals. To our dismay, the whole class nodded and murmured in agreement. Animals here are considered to be only good when they are useful, whether to get rid of vermin, to protect a home or to eat. Keeping pets is a luxury of the rich and is considered to be something that only Westerners do. Even in our neighborhood, Montée Jouvence, there are stores selling cats and dogs to eat, and we have seen such animals being cooked in the street. It is sobering and shocking for us coming from outside of the country, but here in Cameroon, it is part of the culture. As Arjun’s host sister Morgane said, “It’s just like eating cow!”. I don’t agree with her, but it’s yet another example of trying to embrace a different culture and a different context to the one I am used to.



A Thwarted Pickpocket and Happy Hour at The Hilton

We had heard from previous students that Happy Hour at The Hilton was a fun and relaxing way to spend an evening, so we decided to try it out a few days ago (when our original plan was to go earlier, but there was a huge storm that flooded half the city so we had to reschedule).

The insane flooding on Avenue Kennedy during a storm that lasted over an hour

We took a taxi from our host homes to the Poste Centrale in the center of the city. This area is probably the most populated area that we’ve been in and because of that, there are people everywhere selling things on the sidewalk and wandering through the crowds trying to steal from unsuspecting passers-by. My experience so far in Yaoundé has been one of complete security. I have never even felt the need to hold my backpack in front of me, or to avoid certain streets. However, shortly after arriving in the Centre Ville, we felt three men surround us as we were walking. People tend to not really move out of the way for each other here, so we assumed they were just unfamiliar with the concept of personal bubbles. After a few minutes, I turned around because I felt something and was shocked to see that a man had unzipped my bag and grabbed my phone and the photocopy of my passport that we have to carry at all times. I was so surprised that instinct kicked in and I literally gave him a bear-hug to reach around and get my things back and to prevent him from moving. I think I yelled something useless in French along the lines of “Stop!”, because that would clearly bring any pickpocket to a grinding halt, before shoving him as hard as I could and hurrying away. This all took a total of fifteen seconds and Arjun didn’t even know what was going on – all he saw was me hugging a strange man. But I am thrilled to announce that I am still in possession of both my phone and my passport photocopy! We walked away to shouts of “Ouai, la Blanche!” or “Yes, White Girl!” and I got plenty of impressed waves and nods, however none of said onlookers thought to intervene or to let me know that someone was stealing my phone… I think usually foreigners are easy targets here, but honestly, letting him have my phone didn’t even cross my mind for a second. It would have been a huge deal if I lost it.

Views from the panoramic rooftop bar at The Hilton:

I was a little shaken up after the incident, and unfortunately ever since I have been much more paranoid about my bag and mostly carry it in front of me. But it is for the best. We kept walking to The Hilton, Yaoundé which can clearly be seen because it is enormous and is completely clear of beggars, vendors and general loiterers, unlike every other street in the city. We walked in and it was like being transported back to the Western world. We saw other foreigners, mostly businessmen and flight crews, on our way up to the panoramic rooftop bar. Since it was four in the afternoon, we were about the only ones ordering virgin cocktails and Pina Coladas.

My delicious and cold (!) virgin Pina Colada
Free peanuts and olives were a huge plus

But we were able to relax and take in the amazing view of almost the entire city and its hills. Plus, two for the price of one drinks! Still the most expensive things we’ve bought here, but worth it every once in a while. It was our one month anniversary of our arrival in Cameroon.

The hills in the distance as the torrential rain moves in

Arjun enjoying the view
We hid out from the rain under one of the domes on the rooftop

A Protestant Mass in Yaoundé

One of the things on my Cameroon bucket list since arriving here, has been to attend mass with one of our host families. This may seem like a strange thing to put on a bucket list because how different could church possibly be if it’s the same religion that exists in the United States and in Europe? The answer is: VERY different. During our time spent exploring the city on Sundays; going on hikes, visiting different markets and walking through various quarters, we have passed many churches. They don’t look anything like churches in the Western world- most are abandoned buildings taken over by the parish or even semi-enclosed shacks on the side of the road. But one thing ties them all together: when walking on the complete other end of the street, one can still hear the pumping music and loud singing emanating from these places of worship. Upon snooping closer, we would see people standing up and clapping, people dancing and shouting, people playing a variety of different instruments and people with mile-wide grins on their faces. This was not my general experience with church whether in the U.S. or in Ireland. So, when last weekend, Arjun’s host mother invited us to attend church with her, I quickly agreed.

Mass started at 10:30am (the second mass of the day- there is also one at 8am) and the church is only the next street over from ours so we walked there. At first glance, especially in the haze and cloudiness of the morning, this Protestant church was slightly foreboding, to say the least. It is situated inside a giant, abandoned, concrete factory so instead of glass windows there are gaping holes and instead of walls there are pillars of cement or protruding wires and metal rods. The only thing that might demonstrate a church is the huge wire cross on top of the many-storied building. But the outside was teeming with people stopping to buy food at one of the stalls set up in the exposed foundation before heading in, so the building was less-than solitary. We walked in to the usual stares, pointing and whispers (which have become so normal to me at this point, that I barely even notice) and sat near the front. Inside the big, open room were pews towards the back and then a large space at the front before the altar which had a chair and a pulpit on it, but little else. The decorations were basic: some ribbon here and there and a plain wooden cross. A choir and band sat off to one side and were already playing when we got there.

A view of the Protestant church from the outside

The mass itself was probably the most fun I’ve seen people have at mass in a long time. It was the most fun at mass I’VE had in a long time. It was mostly music, with different groups standing up at random around the room to sing their songs or play their instruments which included traditional drums, flutes and something that sounded like a kazoo. An ensemble of retired ministers started off by singing their way into the church. One man even got up and sang a song he wrote himself. Ah, here was the use for the open space in front of the altar! He jammed out, adding dance moves liberally. The minister also joined in the dancing and singing, often abandoning his chair and the altar so as to have more room to dance. It felt more like a concert than a mass. There was constant noise: clapping, snapping, singing, repeating words during the homily, and crying out agreements. At one point, Arjun and I had to stand up and be welcomed since we were new to the parish and everyone came over to shake our hands. After two hours (yes, TWO- would Westerners ever be able to sit this long or have this long an attention span?!), we were ushered out with several little girls hurrying over to touch our hair and our arms. I tried to remember afterwards, did we even really pray?! It must have been hidden somewhere in all that music. But even though maybe there wasn’t as much time for quiet contemplation and serious praying, I felt like the parish was more connected to the essence of their religion than most people I know back home. The emphasis here is put on joy, laughter, music and enjoyment of worship, without most of the rules and regulations that come with church back home. People leave church smiling, children run around and dance during the mass without anyone being annoyed and much of the population is made up of young people. Arjun’s two host sisters, Lucresse (16) and Morgane (19) came with us. Church here is not a requirement or an obligation, but a time that seems to be deeply cherished because it is a time to relax, reflect and appreciate, while also having a lot of fun.

My Internship at Promhandicam

If you didn’t know to look for Promhandicam specifically, you would almost certainly never know it was there. You might see more people in wheelchairs than you normally would on the street heading in and out of a small entrance, you might see mothers carrying disfigured children into the backseats of taxis out front or you might see a blind person exiting, fresh from an eye check-up. But other than these small clues, Promhandicam remains almost invisible to the rest of the population of Yaoundé. Promhandicam, in the simplest of terms, is a school for both disabled and non-disabled children. It is one-of-a-kind in Cameroon. This means that there are essentially two schools in one: the integrated school which teaches non-disabled children as well as disabled children who are advanced enough to be able to work and learn alongside them and the specialized school which teaches children who are severely mentally and physically disabled and/or disfigured. Some of the children from the specialized school will move up to the integrated school, some never will. But Promhandicam isn’t just a school. It also provides physiotherapy for physically disabled children, teaches braille and sign language, does eye exams and fits children for glasses, does rehabilitation and has a psychologist on-campus who works with children individually who have been through trauma.

Promhandicam’s logo, their website is http://www.promhandicam.org/23908/24032.html

My first visit to Promhandicam was overwhelming. I have had some experience working with disabled children in Kolkata, India, but not for an extended period of time like my internship at Promhandicam would entail. It happened to be recess when we arrived and it was pleasant chaos. To see the integrated school at work, was astounding and really showed me the power of an operation like this one. Children were playing a huge game of “Marco Polo”, clapping to give away their locations, because the blind students were able to play this as well. Others were playing hopscotch and Chinese jump rope – some had down syndrome or autism, some did not. We walked down the hill to the specialized school where we were immediately greeted by enthusiastic students wanting to hold or shake hands (Cameroonian handshakes involved snapping each other’s fingers), give hugs or kisses, ask us our names and drag us into a wild game of football, involving no ball, but an empty plastic bottle. The specialized students range greatly in age. Some are very young, five or six, and some are much older, in their upper teens. On my first day, I was assigned to the classroom labelled “Les Mignons” or “The Cuties”. All the specialized classrooms are labelled this way with “Les Anges” or “The Angels” being the next room, meaning that these students are ready to ascend up to the “sky” or the integrated school. The classroom where I worked was small and cramped with three wooden tables and enough chairs for the twenty students. My classroom was mostly frequented by non-verbal autistic students, but several students had severe physical deformities and one little girl was in a wheelchair and was extremely spastic.

One of the signs outside the classroom, (“The Cuties”)
Working hard or hardly working?…these two were a couple of trouble-makers
Intricate hand games are always a good idea
This was a kind of dance circle where two students would dance in the middle and everyone else would clap and chant

Let me start by saying, day one was hard. Before even thinking about forming relationships with the students, I had to figure out how to communicate with them when they often didn’t speak or even respond to my words. They could start crying at random moments, regularly would remove items of clothing and seemed to exist entirely in their own worlds. I felt like I would never be able to be of help to them, much less create a relationship with them. But after spending an entire day with them, I learned so much that I never would have known before starting. Farel, the girl in the wheelchair, was at the top of her class last year, and is as sharp as a knife. She was difficult to understand, but we were still able to chat about her family and my hair (which tends to be a hit in general here, my host sister likes to tear out clumps and play with them). At recess, the other classes came to hang out with me, tried to get me to buy them cookies from the little snack stand and generally dragged me around the courtyard by the hand.

Farel, who consistently has a huge smile on her face

The faces of Promhandicam!

The part of my experience that is difficult to accept, is how the students are treated outside of Promhandicam. Handicapped children aren’t often seen around Yaoundé because they are either kept inside and mostly abandoned or often not allowed by their families or communities even to live. Handicapped children have almost no place in society, (much like albino people), there is little to no education available for them and even parents of such children, are often overwhelmed trying to make ends meet and have no idea what to do with them. One of the teachers at Promhandicam explained how frustrating it is for her because at the school, the children are taught how to wash, feed and clothe themselves, but when they go home, their parents tend to do everything for them, not understanding it is important to develop independence. She explained how some parents don’t believe their children have the capability to learn and progress or don’t know how to help them do so, choosing instead to treat them like infants forever. The teacher mentioned one autistic girl who was starting to talk in full sentences before the summer holidays, but upon returning, has completely retreated back into her own world and no longer speaks. The teacher is forced to start from square one.

NEVER camera shy

The kids do everything for and with each other. If someone is crying or spills something, it is the students, not the teachers, who help sort everything out

School in general is very different her, with punishment being mostly physical. Nothing too violent; slaps, pinches and ear-pulling are used liberally, even among the disabled. This can be hard to watch at first, but as I have learned over the course of my time here, it is important to understand the context of everything. Culturally, this type of punishment is accepted and even considered by some to be beneficial to a child. Similar to how it was in India, disabled children aren’t considered to know the difference between right and wrong and so respond only to punishment and reward. Rewards being scarce, teachers resort to punishment. The students, for the most part, are unfazed.

The boy on the left is a real ham, he waited patiently all through lunch right next to me, until I could take his picture

I will be spending my internship at Promhandicam exploring all the different sections of the institution. I have so far only been working at the specialized school; helping them learn to write letters, numbers and do simple equations plus basic skills like saying their names and how to properly communicate with others in society. It has been an extremely challenging, but also a progressively rewarding and eye-opening experience that I am so excited to be able to continue to explore.

They LOVED the camera! Especially getting to see what they looked like after

Markets and a Middlebury School Day

On a typical school day where I only have classes at the Middlebury center and not at UCAC (Université Catholique de L’Afrique Centrale), I wake up at 6am. The rest of the family has been up since 5:30am or sometimes even 5am. Because of the traffic, we have to leave the house very early. Often, Sandra gives me an avocado, a papaya or some bread to eat at the center on my way out, and I walk down the hill to meet Arjun outside his host family’s house. We line up with the other Cameroonians on the side of the road on the hill and yell out our destination as the taxis roll by. Usually it’s “Polyclinique Tsinga, deux places, huit cent francs”, but if we don’t get any takers, we raise the price to “mille francs”. This is still a taxi ride that costs under $2. It’s always tempting to grab one of the MANY moto-taxis, but we have been strictly forbidden to take one since there are no helmets and thus many horrible accidents every day. We have seen moto-taxis with up to five kids plus the driver, moto-taxis carrying live goats, freshly killed pigs, newborn babies and store window mannequins complete with outfits. They are often stacked with towering piles of plantains, wooden plants or sheet metal, defying the very laws of gravity as they dart between cars and fly down the bumpy streets. There isn’t really anything a moto-taxi can’t transport. The drivers of the moto-taxis are often dressed head-to-toe in ski gear, apparently it’s cold here (?), and sporting fur hats and women’s sandals. Crushing gender norms!!! It takes about 40 minutes in the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced (absolutely no rules, signs or traffic signals will do that) to get to the center and we drop off our bags before heading out on a run or a hike. We’ll run in the street until we get to a wider road which may have sidewalks. It’s a little hairy; we’re avoiding cars, motorcycles, kids walking to school and vendors setting up shop. But at 7am it’s relatively cool so it’s the best time to go.

Arjun and I on one of our hikes! We got very lost that day and ended up walking for three hours.
We went on a hike with Lucresse and Boniface, Arjun’s host sister and brother, over the weekend.

After half an hour or so, we’ll be back at the center where we can shower and eat breakfast (hooray for consistent running water and electricity!). Breakfast there is whatever we bought at the supermarket earlier in the week. Maybe yoghurt with chocolate cereal, maybe baguette with avocado or chocolate spread. But always Nescafe instant coffee and some sort of fresh fruit juice. We have class there starting at 9am. We have Cameroonian literature for two hours with Professor Ngabeu (Ariane) and then history and culture of Cameroon for two more hours with Professor Fofack (all in french of course).

The mural in the center where we do a lot of our work

For lunch, our favorite spot is on the corner of the street where the center is located. Hassan is the chef and he whips us up individual spaghetti omelets (I know what you’re thinking but these are the BEST). He also pours steaming cups of chai with condensed milk for sweetener. We sit on the benches attached to his little cart and chat with him or the other people eating lunch there. It is a popular afternoon destination. Then it’s either back to the center (if, like today, it’s downpouring) or we’ll explore another area of the city for a few hours. There’s always the Marché Centrale to keep us occupied, selling everything under the sun and situated in the center of the city. It has many stories and it situated in a circular building. Upon arrival, a man quickly attached himself to us and became our tour guide. His name was Rasam. We expected him to demand money for his help afterwards (as is the case sometimes), but he was genuinely just trying to help him out. Arjun got a traditional Cameroonian football jersey at less that half the suggested price (Hooray for bargaining!) .

View of the Marché Centrale from above

Other afternoon activities may include: exploring the Brique, or Briqueterie, which is renowned for it’s fabrics, trying a new restaurant (Chinese, Turkish, Vietnamese, etc.), going for a walk to buy street food (meat on a stick, sugar cane, tiny doughnuts, plantain chips, etc.).

A view on our walk to the supermarket
Always exploring!
Arjun in one of the many tiny alleys around Yaoundé

We usually grab a taxi home around 4pm and it’ll take longer this time of night because everyone is headed home from work. It takes around an hour with traffic and if we have a taxi driver who insists on stopping to get grilled street corn and to chat with his MANY friends along the way. Once back in our neighborhood, Montée Jouvence, we go to our separate homes and will relax, do homework and eat dinner with our families around 8pm. Families head to bed early here because of the early mornings, so we’re usually in our rooms by 9:30pm. Especially for me, because my family is young, the girls go to bed pretty early. It’s actually nice getting to sleep early and waking up early! The crazy birds here wake you up at the crack of dawn anyway.