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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!) .
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.).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.