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.

 

Host Families and our Second Colline

While meeting a host family definitely seems daunting at first, especially if they don’t speak your native language, I almost instantly felt at home with the Muluems. Sandra and Kennedy have three girls: Manuella and Gevévia are 8-year-old twins and Célia is 2. It was easy to get comfortable with the girls in particular, once I gave them the scratch-and-sniff sticker books and hair ribbons I had brought them. We spent hours on those sticker books! The twins are chatty, slightly hyper and hilarious. They love doing my hair (ALL the time), “checking the time” on my phone and having me correct their homework, but actually give them all the answers. Because I have an 8-year-old sister, it’s so nice to have that energy around the house, especially when living abroad here can be stressful and sometimes lonely. Célia crept into my room Saturday morning to wake me up which was adorable!

Genévia wearing a t-shirt from Rochester, NY. She has no idea where that is.
Célia’s favorite toy: the ribbon that was around her present, not the present itself

In the Muluems’ house, I have my own room with a cupboard and closet for my clothes, three bedside tables with drawers and a large bed with a mosquito net draped over the top. My window looks out into the front courtyard, because we are on the first floor of an apartment building. The building itself is surrounded by high walls with barbed wire on the top, all the doors and windows have bars on them and there is a night watchman at the front gate at all times. Like Sandra says, “Everything is about security here!”. It has been strange getting used to being locked in at night, but I definitely feel very safe and well looked after.

Homework done on my bed is always more fun
My bed (with mosquito net)
The apartment building (from the street)

Kennedy works as a doctor which is an extremely difficult and taxing job in Cameroon. Sandra explained to me that it’s often like volunteer work, with Kennedy treating people who have no money to pay him. There are so many people who need medical attention, that he is almost never home. The lack of social security here makes it so that people who need medication often can’t afford it and so have no choice but to go without. This is why many Cameroonian doctors who are trained here, go abroad to countries like Germany, Belgium or the United States. It’s sad that families are separated, but it can be difficult to make a good living here. Sandra is a pharmacist, so she works all day during the week. Normally they have a “femme de ménage” or a girl who helps with the cooking, cleaning and looking after of Célia, but she has been on holiday since I got here. Célia, who only goes to school until noon, is looked after by her grandma who lives nearby. Families and friends are very close here and they spend a lot of time together.

It has been so interesting talking to my host family, Sandra in particular, who are incredibly open when it comes to their lives and their struggles here. Everyone loves to talk about politics (and African politics are fascinating), especially about the current president, much like in the U.S.

Arjun’s host family is also very nice, but almost the polar opposite to mine. His host parents are older with children who now live and work abroad. The host father is a university professor here and the couple host three Cameroonian children at their house to help cook and clean, like many well-off families here do. They live in a large house behind tight security and definitely don’t have as much hubbub as my host home has! But it is nice getting to switch between the two houses whenever we want, as the families are good friends.

We tried La Maison du Café or The House of Coffee which grinds local Cameroonian coffee beans. It also had amazing crêpes!

This morning we decided to go for a 2 hour hike up another one of the seven mountains around Yaoundé. At this rate, we’ll have them all done in a couple weeks! This one was significantly steeper, but very densely shrouded by banana and papaya trees and had an amazing summit view of the city. We were stopped near the top (as apparently we had wandered near a military base, this kind of stuff happens all the time here) by two Cameroonian soldiers who wanted to chat. They asked us about America, which is apparently their “dream country” and repeatedly demanded our WhatsApp phone numbers. We responded with a smooth, “we’ve never heard of WhatsApp! It’s not in the U.S.” Giving out your number here is agreeing to receive texts every few minutes, invitations to go out and definitely undesired attention.

View from the top of Mont Mbankolo
Goats, chickens, dogs, lizards and often longhorn cattle roam the streets everywhere
Some trees overlooking the city

And…day eleven passes right by. Unbelievable!

Mont Fébé, American Embassy and Touring Yaoundé

Looking back on the past few days, I feel like I have barely had time to let it sink in that I am in Cameroon. I am writing this post in the dark, my electricity having gone out shortly after a thunderstorm began. The torrential rain is so heavy that it often dislodges power lines and since we are in the midst of the rainy season here, I am mentally preparing for many more dark evenings. Luckily, the rainy season only means a few minutes of heavy rain and dark clouds a day. The rest of the day is hot, misty and humid because we are in the Forest section of Cameroon. The country is split into four people based on the climate: The forest people, the water people, the desert people and the grasslands people. Hence why Cameroon is called miniature Africa; this country has it all. I woke up at 4:30am the other morning to do a traditional Cameroonian activity. Ariane led us up Mont Fébé, one of the seven mountains surrounding Cameroon. It was a tough hike, mostly uphill and in the pitch dark. We were surrounded, however, by hundreds of other Cameroonians doing the same thing. It was an experience like no other. Some people were even descending the mountain as we ascended meaning they started their hike at 3am. Ariane does this hike every day. It was wet (due to the constant mist) and noisy with birds, monkeys and frogs. The view from the top was a panorama of the entire city and the six other mountains – well worth the early morning.

The view on the way down from the summit of Mont Fébé. Notice the mist on the mountain!

During one of our first days here, we were invited to visit the United States Embassy and to have a meeting with the American Diplomat. It was fascinating to hear the perspective of someone originally American, who has spent the majority of his life outside the United States, often in African countries. He stressed that in order to criticize and discuss issues in Cameroon and in Africa in general, one must understand the context and in order to really do so, one must have experience living in Africa. The media is so biased and often mis-informed as to what goes on here, that those abroad have skewed ideas of Africa. We also met with the Cultural Affairs Officer who had served in the Peace Corps and we got to pick his brains on current affairs. Although interesting and informative, it was disheartening to learn how little contact American officials such as these have with the people of the country in which they are living. Provided with all they need within the walls of the Embassy Compound, they rarely interact with the ordinary people of Cameroon – an aspect that should be changed.

Photos of the American Embassy from the outside. It was like stepping into the United States!

On a lighter note, lunch that day was my first experience eating fresh, Cameroonian fish. While Ariane considers the head the most delicious part of the fish (Cameroonians even eat the bones), I preferred the body of the fish, sans bones. Ariane laughed at her experience with other American students, “you feel guilty about eating fish so you eat the eyes first and then they can’t look at you!”

Hassan makes spaghetti omelettes (trust me on this one) and amazing chai tea at his stall near the Middlebury center!

The next stop was the new quarter of Yaoundé. It has apartment buildings and houses built by the Chinese which stand empty and which Cameroonians can’t afford. A four-lane highway was built (which seems enormous after driving on only unpaved, dirt roads) and we were the only car on it. We were gestured out of the ghost town by a man wielding a long machete and by a herd of longhorn cattle being corralled by another man. Driving around the city is constantly entertaining and stimulating. Every time I look out the window, something new and exciting is going on. Someone is carrying something insane on their head, someone is holding a litter of newborn puppies for sale, someone is carrying enormous rats by their tails in one hand and the leash of the dog used to catch the forest rats in the other.

A typical street in Yaoundé with a football pitch in the background. Just before a huge rainstorm.

To talk to the people who live here, there is an incredible amount of pride about Cameroon, as well as discouragement and disheartenment as to the President (Paul Biya) who is 87 years old and has been in office for almost 40 years, yet who never leaves his palace and never speaks to his people. There is a desire for change, but a corrupt system which makes such change almost impossible, even for those who are educated and worldly. There is an incredible amount of suffering and like Ariane said, the misery is right out in the open where everyone can see it, not in hospitals or homes. To get to spend time here, I’ve already learned, is the privilege of getting to understand and see first-hand why violence and poverty exist in Cameroon. One can only read and watch so much, being here is entirely different and has opened my eyes in more ways than one to the struggles of a people to succeed and overcome when their own government seems to be working against them.

Taxis, primate parks and pirogues

I don’t think I could even pretend to be in Cameroon if I didn’t write about taking taxis here. For some basic visualization, the taxis here are yellow, ancient Hondas that probably shouldn’t still be on the road. The doors are often stripped on the inside so someone has to open them for you when getting out, wires and light fixtures are hanging out, the outside lights are DEFINITELY smashed in and the windows are often cracked or simply non-existent, so plastic wrap is a good alternative. They have seen better days. Cameroon imports all its cars from abroad and unless done privately, they are used cars. Watching them go by is a lesson in claustrophobia resistance and fitting many people into a tiny space. The five-seaters fit up to three people in the front (there is no shyness about sitting on a stranger’s lap) and up to five in the back with people literally sitting on top of each other. This isn’t including luggage strapped to the roof or tied to the open trunk. Keep in mind, it is 80 plus degrees out, humid and dusty, with cars, trucks and motorcycles pumping black exhaust into the air. Arjun and I, were nervous.

But we had to practice because taking taxis here is hard at first. A taxi will pull alongside the curb where there can be 50 plus people waiting, it will barely slow down and you have to yell where you want to go, how many people are going with you and how much you’re willing to pay. They may drive away, meaning you’ll have to raise your price or just keep trying, or they will gesture for you to get in, speeding off before you can even close the door. I had been warned by Ariane that people would strike up conversations, notably asking about my marital status. If I said I wasn’t married, the man who asked would try to convince me to marry him. If I lied and said I was, he would simply remind me that my husband isn’t in Cameroon, therefore I can definitely leave him and marry that man instead. Other topics of conversation include, Trump (apparently, we represent the entire American population) and homosexuality which is a strict no-go. Homosexuality is misunderstood in Cameroon based on a history that involved rich and powerful men luring young, poor boys into their homes to have sexual relations. Cameroon continues to be unable to detach the homosexuality of today, from the predatory acts of the past and so, no matter our real opinions, we were instructed to remind anyone who asks that America is a free country and Americans can love whoever they want.

We took taxis all over the city, through Niki Mokolo, a huge marketplace that is extremely dangerous due to the high levels of stealing and hands-down the most crowded place I have ever been in. We gave up trying to get a taxi from there when we witnessed a fist fight between two men trying to squeeze into an over-full van, the van moving down the street as then men hung off, fists flying. The market can be seen from almost any high location in Yaoundé.

Arjun, our history professor, Éric and I at the primate sanctuary
hand-made beads hung in the entrance to the village huts in the park
Our guide and friend Victoria beside an enormous tree.

On to the primate park. Mefou Primate Park is outside the city and was started by the English. Many organizations still support it, primarily Ape Action Africa. We took a tour through the large park, stopping to be shocked by an enormous millipede as long as our hands and as fat as two fingers together. Our guide relished our disgust as he told us that they are sometimes eaten here. It was essentially a hike through the dense rainforest, stopping at different points where the fences containing the apes made clearings. We saw chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons and an assortment of other native monkeys. The park works to rescue monkeys affected by deforestation or by the commercial monkey and gorilla market. We were within a foot of the animals which was amazing.

The millipede we saw at the park with Arjun’s hand to show the size.
One of the chimpanzees at the park.
This baboon was the largest male and the fur on his back was a fluorescent rainbow to demonstrate his position.
One of the silverback gorillas. These animals had a huge amount of space to roam.

Our day ended with a trip up the second longest river in Cameroon, the Nyong, in traditional, hand-carved wooden canoes called pirogues. We sat two to a skinny boat in dining room chairs with their legs sawed off and a guide paddled us up the river, showing us how the people in the village use nets to catch fish. We stopped to explore the rainforest and found a 100-meter ancient tree that the villagers’ ancestors used to consider a god. There were trees that whose bark acts as a Viagra (much of the bark was stripped!) and those whose bark is drunk by pregnant women.

Relaxing in the pirogue
The river Nyong
Cocoa trees were everywhere in the forest

Now off to meet our host families and to move in!