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!