Friday, November 2, 2012

Here There Be Chickens

                This past week the health stagaires went on a field trip to the West and the Northwest.  It was hugely encouraging to see current Volunteers’ projects, from a tofu-making workshop we joined in a Francophone village to an ambitious—and thus far wildly successful—water engineering project a Volunteer named Stephen has been coordinating through an NGO in an Anglophone village called Fundong.  It was amazing to watch women organized by the village’s elected Water Committee digging trenches to pipe water from a mountain spring to the local elementary school.  Dressed in eye-wrenchingly coordinated pagne, the women sang to keep time to the rhythmic, synchronized down strokes of their hoes.  These women, like many of the people involved in the water project, were not being materially rewarded or externally motivated to give up their days doing hard labor; they were pitching in out of communitarian spirit, because they saw the project and the dream of clean, running water as being important for the whole village.  While I have my doubts about many, if not most, practices in the field of Development with a Capital D, Stephen and the people of Fundong were proof: when it is done correctly—that is to say, when people identify their own needs, are fully included in pursuing the fulfillment of those needs, and are invested in the outcome—it can empower people to become their own resources.  This is development done right.

                But inspiration was not all we gained in Fundong.  After showing us the project, the head water engineer presented the group with three sleepy-eyed chickens.  These were, it transpired, to be our lunch.  The village was honored by our presence, and wished to celebrate our visit in style.

                This was, of course, flattering, but ill-timed; we were only passing through, and had already arranged to eat lunch at a Volunteer’s home.  Stephen explained this in fluent Pidgin to his counterpart, who nodded, and then shoved the alarmed chickens into a small wicker basket, which he presented to us anyway; we could take them with us to eat later.

                Feeling obliged to accept the hospitality, we reluctantly took the indignantly clucking basket.  We tried to pass the responsibility to our technical trainer, Theo, but he wanted nothing to do with the birds.  He in turn tried to pawn them off on Stephen, but it was no good.  Stephen, rightfully sensing that even temporary possession could quickly become unsolicited ownership, immediately abdicated them to the bus driver, Nyanga.  Tired of this whole charade, he settled the matter by stuffing the basket under the back seat of the bus—and there they stayed for the rest of the trip. 

                Curiously (or perhaps understandably), it was the four vegetarians of the group who grew concerned about our feathered friends’ welfare.  We fed them corn in the parking lot of our hotel in Bafoussam; we tried unsuccessfully to figure out how to drip water into their panting beaks.  And upon our return to Bafia, we inadvertently took permanent possession of the three intrepid travellers. 

                After pulling up in front of the training center, we had unloaded our luggage onto the grass; the pile comprised twenty or so dirty REI backpacks, the watermelons and pumpkins that had been purchased in the fertile mountains of the West, various books and Chacos that had escaped under seats— and the chickens.

                David, our program director, wandered over to inspect the birds.  “We will send them to Yaoundé,” he said decisively.  Surprised, we asked why.  They were to be given to the country director, he explained.  The four of us exchanged glances, frowning.  Our country director, Jackie, is a well-dressed woman who inhabits a beautiful residence in a fashionable district of Yaoundé.  I can imagine her being many things, but a chicken farmer is not high on that list.  We probed David: did Jackie want chickens?  What was she going to do with them?  “Well, she has… lots of room in her compound…” David began unconvincingly, his suddenly shifty tone indicating that the space to which he was referring was in the freezer, not the yard. 

My friend Halima had cottoned on.  “You can’t kill them!” she protested. “We’ll keep them!”  This was not something we had discussed, but our mutual dismay at the thought of their imminent demise brought us together, and without thinking we began clamoring to care for birds we had no actual interest in owning.  David, clearly amused by our so very American concern over chickens, let himself be swayed.  A dual product of Cameroonian culture and years of working in Peace Corps administration, David loves nothing as much as bureaucracy and delegation, and a delighted grin split his face as he conceived yet another level of management: “You four can be the Bokito Chicken Committee!” he pronounced, and thus we ended up piling twenty-one people, their luggage, fruit, and the basket of chickens into a 14-passenger van to return home.
Like this, plus a little.

                The chickens, after a brief episode that reminded me irresistibly of the chicken-chasing scene in Rocky II (YouTube it, internet-capable folks), are currently roosting in a closet in our training center in Bokito.  Their names are Pamplemousse, Kumquat, and Compost.  We’re winging this all (pun intended), as I know the most out of anyone about raising fowl, and that is the very little that I picked up working on a farm and from an aunt who raised birds of all feathers.  We’re not even sure if they are laying hens; the fact that they were to be dinner makes me suspect they’re past the age.  Those health stagaires with host families who keep chickens have been implored to go home and figure out what we should know about keeping them alive.  We will be consulting our agroforestry friends (fine, the farm boys) about how to build a chicken coop.  However, the future is unclear for Pamplemousse and friends.  There have been whisperings of furnishing our stage’s Thanksgiving dinner from the Bokito Chicken Committee, and apparently Theo doesn’t even want to wait that long; he would like to see them gracing the table at our Diversity Day celebration two weeks from now.  Even if they survive until we go to post, it is uncertain whether we will have the capacity to take them with us—they may be a parting gift to the training center caretaker, Asse, who has no compunctions whatsoever about making the intended use of them.

                But until then, Pamplemousse and company will cluck on, growing fat from the pampering of their sentimental American keepers. 
My mildly smelly charges

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