Saturday, October 27, 2012

Faites le sport, les enfants

A few thoughts regarding children, and running: The other day I went for a run after training.  I saw my host sister Nanou before I left, and told her I was going to “faire le sport”, the ubiquitous term that covers running, playing soccer, working out, or otherwise engaging in exercise.  When I got back 45 minutes later, Nanou came running out of the house to meet me.  She had changed into a full soccer uniform and told me that she, too, was fairing le sport.  Hiding a smile, I asked if she wanted to stretch with me.  Giggling, she clumsily copied what I did, as I gave her tips on stretching different muscle groups that I’m quite sure she has already forgotten.  Some neighboring girls, Jamila and Seraphine, ambled over to watch.  They are used to me doing weird things, besides which I’m older; but Nanou is their peer, and they kept teasing her, asking her what she was doing and giggling as she lunged and wobbled from one position to the next. Usually quite sensitive to their opinions, this time Nanou could not be dissuaded; so proud was she to be in on what we were doing together that she merely turned her nose up at the other girls and informed them that we were fairing le sport, thank you very much.  While I’m sure this is not an unusual anecdote for those with younger siblings or nieces and nephews, it was the first time I’ve seen so visibly the signs of my influence on another person.  It was a great feeling to know that I was influencing her to exercise and take care of her body, and teaching her not to buckle to peer pressure, to boot.
Nanou: a self-portrait (or, why it's counter-intuitively a great idea to give kids cameras)

Later in the week I had a similar experience.  I had taken a long run in the direction of les champs, the fields several kilometers outside of town that people who live in Bokito cultivate.  As I was turning back, a little girl in a school uniform started chasing me.  I slowed down to let her catch up and asked if she wanted to run with me.  Her name was Princesse, and she was six years old.  We couldn’t have run more than a few meters before she peeled off, but she had a bright grin plastered on her face.  It was a sweet moment.  I enjoy that there is no fear of strangers here; children are far more willing to play than kids in a city like New York.

On the other hand, I am not down with the unshakable perception of white people as Santa Claus.  That’s the other side of the fearless-children coin: the grubby kids who come running up, hands outstretched, screaming for gifts.  “Donne-moi les bonbons! Donne-moi le yaourt! Donne-moi les galettes! Cadeaux ! Cadeaux !” I guess I understand where they’re getting it (the past 200 years of history, for one), but it’s no less demoralizing.

I’ve also had a hard time getting used to the impossibility of anonymity.  As much as I knew to expect to stick out all the time, always, it’s wearing me down more than I thought it would.  No matter where I’m going or what I’m doing, I can count on hearing “Oh! La blanche!” shouted at me by seemingly everyone I pass.  Sometimes it’s a catcall as I’m walking through the market; sometimes it’s a wavering gasp of astonishment, as though my interlocutor, cutting his grass by hand with a machete, had glimpsed the last unicorn.  Most of the time it’s just a simple statement of fact, meant as a form of greeting.  Cameroonians are, after all, the masters of statements of the obvious: “You’re here? I’m here.”  So maybe I’m being more sensitive to it than I need to be; maybe I need to take more care to see things from another perspective than my own.

In other news, we did a segment on malnutrition this week and actually went into schools to measure kids’ height and weight and check for edemas and anemia and a couple other things. I loved it.  It was a great experience to actually interact in French with Cameroonian children other than my host sister and the neighbors.  Even though we were doing pretty cursory measurements, it felt like we were doing something more substantial and concrete.  I am also pretty sure I gave myself conjunctivitis, as I was manning the eye exam table (I’m mostly joking, but partially not.  And now paranoid of crusty eye boogers.)  At any rate, I'm looking forward to working with health clinics to do this kind of campaign. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Les Dimanches à Bokito, C’est Le Jour de Mariage

While Sundays in Bokito have not thus far been wedding days (but bonus points for those who got the Amadou and Mariam reference), they have been interesting cross-cultural case studies.

Last Sunday the whole clan Biyaga trooped to church with me in tow to endure a little over three hours of singing, sweating, and exhortation. While I’m glad I went—it certainly helps me understand behavioral norms here, and my family in particular—it was a little fatiguing to feel the eyes of over half the congregation glued to me (La Blanche! She goes to church, just like us!) throughout the service.

After church we went home, where I assisted Mama Jeanne and Nanou with Sunday dinner—couscous de mais, or corn meal, and ndolè, a Cameroonian dish made with vernonia leaves and groundnuts. Like most traditional Cameroonian meals, this one was extremely labor-intensive. The corn had to be cut from the cobs, smashed with a grinding stone into a fine enough meal to pass Mama Jeanne’s gimlet-eyed inspection, and then boiled into the couscous, which is nothing like an American conception of couscous; it’s somewhere in between grits and polenta. A huge wicker basket of vernonia plants had to be de-stemmed, the leaves shredded by hand, and the whole thing soaked twice and boiled to rid it of bitterness (which I believe comes from trace amounts of cyanide. The nice thing about not having any Internet access is that I can make claims like this to my fellow trainees, and no one has any form of reliable external verification, so everyone kind of shrugs and takes me at my word. This may not hold up particularly well once I start broadcasting my baseless suppositions on the World Wide Web. Feel free to fact-check me and leave it in the comments; I’ll see in a few weeks and then we’ll all be the wiser about ndolè, which is the main point).
Mama Jeanne wielding a couscous baton

Once I had been deemed the less competent of Mama Jeanne’s assistants, I was shooed outside while nine-year-old Nanou, clearly the more capable—at least in the realm of crushing corn into flour both neatly and efficiently—took over. Muttering protests about my abilities being a little more evident in an industrialized society, I meekly submitted. I was not left to my own devices for long, however; Mama Jeanne’s sister, a hairdresser, soon arrived. Mama Jeanne had told her the situation on the back of my head was dire, and she had come to see what was what.

She took a long look, weighed a dreadlock pensively, and then nodded, face set. There was nothing for it, she declared, but to comb it all out and start again. Resolutely ignoring my feeble suggestion that this might not, in fact, be a possibility, she set to with vigor. The battle was short and indecisive. Less than a minute later, she had subsided; two largish chunks of my hair were on the ground, having taken hostage several teeth of her pink plastic comb on their way out. She called into the kitchen to Mama Jeanne, who appeared in the doorway, a formidable figure wielding a couscous baton. With much clucking and shaking of heads, they conversed in patois, then switched to French to deliver the ultimatum: we would have to cut them all off and start from scratch.

This was when I began to panic. I had jokingly told a friend in training that I would let Africa do anything it wanted to my hair, just as long as it didn’t shave me bald—and yet here these indomitable mommas stood, frowning at my head with much the attitude of Kitchener regarding the Germans on the fields of Flanders.  I had the sinking feeling that I might be sheared against my will.

I began pleading in earnest; Mama Jeanne argued hard for the prosecution. I would like it much better once these dirty dreads were gone. My head would be so light! I could feel the breeze on the back of my neck! And besides, it would look much better; this rastaman getup didn’t suit a young lady, not at all. I held my ground, and eventually the hand holding the couscous baton was thrown up in exasperation at my intransigence. I had won this round, and my hair was safe—for now.
Still slightly suspicious

This past Sunday took a different tone; I had my first truly productive day here, which was a good feeling. Twenty-one stagaires, a current Volunteer, and a driver met at the training center in Bokito to cram into a single van—no, you did not read that incorrectly; yes, This Is Africa—and begin the pothole slalom that is our twice-weekly venture into Bafia. We spent the morning being drilled by two more current Volunteers on mountain bike maintenance. After being put through the paces in a speed-repair race (patch a tire! Use the chain-breaker to remove a busted link from the chain, then feed it back through the gears! Bike to the crossroads and back, and for God’s sake don’t forget your helmet!) we were free for the afternoon. I met up with a friend in the Agro program, Grant, to help him build a raised bed garden behind his homestay family’s house. It felt great to get my hands dirty again.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed mucking around in the earth. It was fun to get some neighborhood kids to join in; once we explained the main idea, they set to with abandon, hacking at small banana trees with the ubiquitous machete that every Cameroonian from age three on seems to carry.

Sunday afternoon I got home to Bokito in time to begin making dinner for my family. I had promised them an American dinner, then realized I may have been too hasty; the only things available at the market were plantains, potatoes, yams, a different kind of potato, a lumpier kind of yam, manioc, and tomatoes. I decided to split the difference and make falafel from chickpea flour I had brought with me from the States. While it’s not the average American’s idea of a National Meal, it’s just as American as spaghetti or pizza—just stolen from a different Mediterranean culture, that’s all—and it’s certainly more personally relevant than either. When my host brother asked if all Americans liked falafel, I shrugged. “C’est très New Yorkaise,” I offered, which is certainly true, and we left it at that.

The meal was not a smash hit. The Israeli salad I made to go in sandwiches with the falafel balls seemed to perplex everyone involved. Mama Jeanne asked me about four times how I planned to cook the vegetables.  Each time I patiently said I wasn’t, they were part of a salad, we were eating them raw; she thought for a moment, then offered to heat some oil if I’d like to do them properly. Nanou and her best friend who lives next door shook their heads violently at the suggestion of salad, nibbled a falafel ball, then fled giggling to their chairs with a jar of mayonnaise, which they ate with a baguette each. Mama Jeanne and Daniel gamely made the sandwiches the way I had demonstrated, and seemed to like the falafel, commenting that it had the texture and taste of boulettes of meat, which pleased both. An elderly neighbor Mama knows from church was more suspicious. She eschewed the very idea of a sandwich, instead piling her falafel on fried plantains left over from Saturday. She eyed the stack uneasily, proceeding to drown the entire thing in mayonnaise. Ultimately, though, good humor prevailed; the family got a kick out of me cooking, and I think they appreciated me trying to share something that I love from my home. 
Daniel displaying my work

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Entre la famille Biyaga

Today we left Peace Corps orientation in Yaoundé for the training centers where we will spend the next 10 weeks. For Youth Development, Agroforestry and Environmental volunteers, this is the town of Bafia; Health volunteers (or “the red-headed stepchildren”, an expression by which I heard us referred to) are a little further out in the boonies, in the smaller satellite town of Bokito. We dropped the majority off at the main Peace Corps center in Bafia, after which the few, the proud, the Health Extension chosen continued 25 kilometers to our new home and dispersed with our host families. My maman, Mama Jeanne, picked me up at the Peace Corps training center in Bokito.  We threw my luggage on top of a van and crammed four trainees and the six or so hosts that came with us into the car for a drop off. This was my first experience travelling Cameroonian style, and it did not disappoint. As there were more people than seats, I folded myself into the front between Mama Jeanne and the driver—the little seat positioned directly above the gear shift called the petit chauffeur. With my height, my knees were smashed uncomfortably into the control panel, and I had to crane my neck awkwardly to carry on a conversation with Mama Jeanne. Totally unperturbed, she pulled out her cell phone and punched in a number. When the receiver picked up, she held it up to my ear. “C’est Papa,” she announced, as nonchalantly as a parent might inform their actual biological daughter that her dad was on the phone, say hi. Taking my cue from her informality, I played along.  “Salut, Papa!” I sang into the phone. My host father, the coordinator of an NGO named Boyomo Isaac (who, mind you, I have not met and knew nothing of until this afternoon) told me he was in Yaoundé for the time being and was sorry not to be in Bokito to meet me, but he hoped I settled in well. As the van emptied out, I kept glancing back, expecting us to collectively breathe out and rearrange to fill the newly vacated space—but that did not transpire. The middle row empty, the four in the back seat stayed put, and Mama Jeanne showed no inclination to end the game of sardines up front.

We got to the house and I met two of the Biyaga family’s three sons, Daniel and Patrick. They are both in university in Yaoundé—Daniel is about to enter a master’s program and Patrick is in his second year of undergrad—but had come home to move me in and will be around for the next few weeks. A ten-year-old niece, Marguerite, moved in with the family a year ago. She began at a technical school, where she chose to study to be an accountant. She is apparently a little overwhelmed by the math homework, and spent all evening studying, assisted occasionally by her older cousin Danny.

The house where we sleep is next to an unattached kitchen; a path leads back to another house in the compound that a family that moved from l’Extrême-Nord has been renting for several years. “But they are family now, too,” explained Mama Jeanne with a shrug. “C’est Cameroun, nous sommes ensembles.” One of the mothers in the family has a toddler, who came waddling up on my arrival—then stared, suddenly apprehensive, and backed away warily. This amused Mama Jeanne inordinately. Chortling, she led me back to meet the baby’s mother, who was crouched over a pot of what is here called couscous on an outdoor wood stove, pounding the corn grits with a long wooden baton. “Votre petite bébé a refusé d’acceuillir ma grosse bébé!” she crowed, slapping her knee—your little baby refused to welcome my big baby.  The other mamas in the yard laughed, not unkindly, and chucked the toddler under her chin as Mama Jeanna repeated the story, still chuckling to herself. There are several girls in the backyard family, who sat outside our case in the evening, giggling and shyly answering my questions. Mama Jeanne nodded to the middle one, Jamila, who at age ten is already married- not something done by Cameroonians in the Centre province, explained Danny, but culturally acceptable in the Extreme- Nord. “She will be your Fulfuldé tutor.”

I followed Mama Jeanne into the kitchen case, where Danny had begun making dinner—potatoes sautéed with carrots and tomatoes (“Because you don’t eat fish or meat!” my mother exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief), and a dish of fish and greens called coque, which Mama Jeanne prepared especially for her boys’ return visit, as it is their favorite. A few neighbors dropped by to visit, greet the sons—word had apparently gotten around that they were back—and meet me. They asked how many “enfants”, or children, had come with the Peace Corps group, and mused about the Corps de la Paix enfants they had hosted in the past. It is unclear to me whether they were simply referring to the average age of the volunteers—late twenties; not as old enough to be deferred to by an elder, but hardly children—or if it is our inexperience, blundering cultural gaffes, and naiveté that has demoted us to less than full adulthood.  I will be interested to see if, in time, we can earn our way into more respect. 

We ate in the living room, scooping our plates with batons of manioc. The process was explained to me—the manioc is soaked for several days, then taken to a mill where it is ground into a paste, then wrapped in large leaves, tied, and dried. The dried batons are boiled to soften them before eating. The texture was unfamiliar—not unpleasant, but hard to compare. Luckily, as they may be a large part of my diet here, I liked them, although I’m not sure I’d want to snack on one on its own; they don’t have a very pronounced flavor.
After dinner Danny dug out some photo albums, and I got to see pictures of the Biyaga family history, from Jeanne and Boyomo’s wedding and the boys’ births to the string of Peace Corps trainees the family has hosted in the past. I retrieved a small album I had brought and showed my family, friends, and past homes in return. Danny was intrigued by New York, particularly the pictures of winter snowstorms; Patrick liked the photos of Israel, and seemed surprised when I pointed out my mother in group shots—“But she’s so young!” (read: slender, which here is a marker of age. More on cultural values regarding size later). Mama Jeanne halted at one of my favorite pictures of my father, which I snapped in one of his sillier moments. He has an earflap beanie perched on top of a baseball cap, and is making rock on hands and sticking his tongue out. She gazed at the photo, perplexed. “Il porte son chapeau comme un enfant?” she queried, and I laughingly admitted that yes, he was wearing his hat like a child. She smiled and shook her head. “He likes playing the clown, then?” A wave of homesickness washed over me as I nodded, smiling, and I wished my parents could meet the Biyagas. I think they would like them.
After the photos were put away, our attention turned to the television, which had been on the whole time in the background. A Bollywood soap opera was underway, the dramatic lip motions not syncing very well with alternately breathy and gruff French voiceovers. Danny grinned apologetically. “Not for me or Patrick, but Cameroonian women…” He gestured at the female half of his family. Mama Jeanne was nodding off on the sofa, the work of the day catching her up. She woke up slightly as an old woman burst dramatically onto the screen, declaiming that someone was someone else’s true child, taken at birth (no, really, I’m not making this plot up).  “Ah, la Grandmère!” she murmured, eyes drooping. “She is a bad guy.” She began to incoherently summarize the plot, half-asleep, when Danny gently interrupted her to tell her to go to bed. Given the early morning I have tomorrow, I followed suit. It began raining fairly heavily about an hour ago, which is a boon; it mostly drowns out the Rihanna pumping from next door. My clothes are mostly unpacked on the shelves that take up any of the room not occupied by a double bed, table, and chair—I have to shuffle sideways to get to the window—so I think I’m going to crawl under my mosquito net and call it a night. 

Nous sommes ensembles

                After more hours of transit than I’d like to recall, 50-odd sweaty, tired, adrenaline-jittery Peace Corps trainees arrived in Yaoundé Friday night, where we spent the weekend getting oriented to Peace Corps service and to Cameroon.        
Saturday afternoon we got our first exposure to Cameroonian children—several trainees had taken a soccer ball into the front courtyard of our hotel and were kicking it around when a boy of perhaps nine years old poked his head around the entrance gate.  Seeing him, the guys motioned him to come join them. Soon children were manifesting out of the cracks in the road, pouring from everywhere and filling the courtyard with a shrieking mass of soccer, dancing, playing, fighting. A fellow trainee and I heard the noise from my balcony and ran down to join in. It was fun to watch how people responded to the kids—trainees definitely showed sides of themselves that I had not seen, some goofy, some maternal.

Saturday night we went to a cultural music and dance show hosted by the Cameroonian wife of our program manager. In some ways, it was very evocative of my time in Paris.  The music and singers triggered a wave of nostalgia for La Saraaba, a Burkina Fasan restaurant and venue in Barbes-Rochechouart where my friend Meera and I used to spend weekend nights grooving to kora music. The show in Cameroon was in some ways much less authentic; the audience consisted solely of US Peace Corps trainees and a group of Scandinavian medical students. But I think we made it work—had we all sat in our seats like frozen white folk, watching the costumed dancers gyrating and writhing on stage, it would have taken on an uncomfortable, culturally voyeuristic quality. But before long, a YD named Andrew and I leaped up to the cleared space in front of the stage and started dancing. There was a moment where everyone maintained their seats and watched—cheered, but didn’t join in—and I wondered uncomfortably if we were to be a total flop. But then I singled out another Health volunteer, Jesse, and motioned, wordlessly inviting him to come dance. A pause; and then he leapt to his feet, grinning, and the next thing we knew a wave had crashed.  There were trainees swarming the floor, everyone dancing unselfconsciously. It was a great time. Our training director told us later that the Scandinavians (only one of whom had joined the party on the dance floor) were amazed by how comfortable we seemed and how freely we moved into the space. It’s a testament to the quality of this training class—although I think Andrew and I can take just a little credit where such is due.

Sunday we dined at our country director Jackie’s beautiful compound. She had invited all sorts of notables—the U.S. ambassador and his wife, the Minister of Health (who sent a deputy), news people, and directors of various development and conservation programs. I flitted around, but sat at the ambassador’s table for most of the meal, briefly talking with his wife and the deputy ambassador. I thought he was refreshingly direct. I asked about the effectiveness of national programs, and he answered honestly—some of them have worked; others really haven’t, despite money poured in from the US. He was also resigned about corruption. He made a comment that I found particularly interesting—of the seven countries to which he’s been posted, 6 of them in Africa, Cameroon is far and away the least developed.

                Next stop: pre-service training!