Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013: A Year In Review

As December draws to a close I’ll wrap up my first full calendar year, albeit my 16th month (but who’s counting?), in Cameroon.  It’s cause for reflection; not only am I past the halfway mark of my 27-month service, but once 2014 rolls around, my COS date will be in sight.  It’s a matter of perspective rather than numeric reality—a mere week’s difference—but saying “this year” instead of “next year” makes the end far more tangible, alarming and tantalizing in equal measure.

2013, in some ways, has seemed like the Year That Wasn’t.  As recently as last week I was dating supplemental distribution records 2012.  I have often felt so disconnected from life as I knew it pre-Peace Corps that it’s as though I were living in an alternate reality while all else stood still, waiting for my return.  In the absence of most of what I subconsciously use to mark the passing of months and seasons—federal holidays, changing seasonal weather, new drinks at Starbucks, clothing styles—it’s sometimes jarring to check email, Facebook, or the news in a cyber café and be yanked suddenly to the present.  Friends are engaged, or married, or having kids.  Family members post pictures of themselves brandishing an ice cream at the beach, or romping in autumn leaves, or getting in snowball fights with roommates; it’s surreal to understand that these things are going on concurrently while I slowly melt in merciless heat and watch ragged street children through the cyber café’s doorway.  Politicians change, or do things, or, more problematically this past year, refuse to do things—I missed the government shutdown by several days, and didn’t believe the fellow volunteer who told me about it (“You must have misunderstood, Geoff, it can’t have shut down.  That’s what governments in places like Cameroon do.”)

But whether I’m ready to believe it or not, a whole year has passed since I rang in the last New Year climbing Mount Lagdo (by night, not the wisest decision we’ve made) with three other volunteers from the region.  It was a year of extremes and contradictions; much happened, while at the same time I spent more days with nothing to do than I have, ever.  I learned how to carry on full conversations with minimal mutual language abilities, and learned to speak Fulfuldé.  I decided I loved Mandama.  I decided I hated Mandama.  I experienced some of the most exhilarating highs, and some of the most debilitating lows, of my life.  I’ve made some of the closest friends I’ve had, and watched friends leave, not knowing when, if ever, we’ll meet again.

I spent hours despairing of ever finding work, and hours doing work of all stripes.  I weighed hundreds of babies.  I made gallons of soymilk and pounds of tofu.  I planted dozens of moringa trees, and gave presentations on the nutritional and agricultural benefits so many times I can now do them from memory.  I did door-to-door screenings for malnutrition and malaria.  I learned how to turn off my brain completely when that second or third hour of sitting in the heat at the health center rolled around with no sign of our bibulous chief nurse and, fatally, no book in my bag. Once, upon going to the high school and finding the English teacher hadn’t showed up that day, I improvised an off-the-cuff hour-long class on letter-writing and the difference between the restrictive that and the nonrestrictive which (and for grammar Nazis out there, I felt the irregular restrictive which was only going to confuse, so it was, as usual, ignored).  I raised chickens.  I learned how to farm soy, how to make insecticide soap from natural ingredients, and how most effectively to hiss at goats (it’s the combination of a sibilant ts and the right pitch that really makes ‘em take off running).
Will Saitta and I lead a tofu demonstration as part of a two-day long food security conference.

I learned how to be a good neighbor in this culture, and found that there are many things about my neighbors and about this culture that I just don’t like.  I attended more funerals than I have in the rest of my life to date.  I held newborns.  In my neighbors’ family alone, I watched as two children were born, a child learned to walk, and another child began to talk.  I ate new foods, including viper, boiled grubs (imagine a rubber balloon filled with grits; exactly the horrifying texture I always imagined from watching Pumbaa in The Lion King), and slugs in peanut butter (not quite as vile as it sounds).  I forced Cameroonians to try new foods, like spaghetti sauce and hummus, thus disproving the old axiom about Children In Africa Who Would Love To Eat Those Leftovers.  Children—and adults—in Africa like to eat the limited menu of things they have always eaten and will always eat, and approach new and foreign foods with the antipathy of an American teen being served any of the African dishes I listed above (so take that, Granny!)  I met people I despised—the venal men whose corruption and greed means the system will never function, the wheedling women whose transparent lies enrage me, the children who follow me jeering ethnic slurs—and people whose kindness and willingness to work humbled me.

A stack of sheep legs after the slaughter during the first day of the Feast of the Ram.

I read 54 books, which works out nicely to a book a week.  Among these were several Charles Dickens novels, Moby Dick, and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 900-page history of Jerusalem.  Like I said, I had a lot of time on my hands.  I watched episodes of 12 different TV shows, despite my resolve not to do so.  I gained 15 pounds.  I ran 232 miles.  I determined that I was definitely, absolutely quitting Peace Corps and blowing this popsicle stand approximately 365 times, and then revised that decision about 350 times—I didn’t have access to a way to leave village the other 15, so here I sit today.  I pooped myself, twice (dysentery’s a hell of a disease).  I saw the desert, watched a troop of baboons in the arid savannah, hiked an equatorial rainforest, and dived into a waterfall on the Gulf of Guinea. 

Eddie Rosenbaum fords a stream on our way to a pygmy encampment in the Congo River Basin.

I could continue in this fashion almost indefinitely, but there’s more to reviewing a year than endlessly declaring what I did.  This is the time to prepare for the next 11 months.  In many ways, they’ll be easier.  I’m established; I know the villagers of Mandama, both friends and foes; I have my work cut out for me.  In other ways they’ll be harder.  I’ll need to devote more and more time and mental energy to preparing what comes next, which will emotionally (and physically, as my Internet needs increase) remove me from my work here, undoubtedly making it harder to be fully present.  I’m habituated to things that once chafed; I no longer yearn for a shower the way I once did, or even a flush toilet.  Still, I’m never totally integrated here.  War correspondent Tim Butcher writes in Blood River, his account of traveling through the Congo, “I longed for convenience so much it hurt.”  I’m not sure if it’s convenience I long for as much as it is accessibility—of information, of communication, of medical supplies, of produce.  I have no doubt their absence will continue to rankle, perhaps even more so the closer I get to attaining them, but I’ve learned to get by without the immediacy of these things.  I’m never sure if I’ve struck the right balance between community integration and personal sanity—I feel alternately irritated and guilty almost always—but I’ve gotten better at it, and I hope I’ll continue to do so.  I’ll be moving several projects into their next phases, and am glad that I know how things work here well enough to start getting long-term goals set into motion. 

Henna'ed hands for the Feast of Ramadan.

Mostly, I hope to keep expanding my horizons.  I’ve seen and experienced an unbelievable amount this past year, despite the days when it feels like all I see are the four walls of my house (now beautified with jazz murals).  I’ve been humbled, and frustrated, and educated, and awestruck, and I hope 2014 brings more of the same.

The view towards Malabo, Equitorial Guinea, from the coast at Limbe.

So here’s to a New Year.  Cheers and a midnight kiss from Cameroon.

Termites with a dry spicy piment rub.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Both Sides Of The Coin

This blog post is all over the place, but it’s a running list I’ve been keeping of things I’ve come to appreciate here, and thing I’ve come to loathe here.  There’s no single theme; some are contemplative paragraphs, and some are fairly flippant.  Enjoy.

Things That Have Grown On Me Like Fungus On A Toenail

1.     Eating with the hands.  I don’t know when Western civilizations gave this up; the Middle Ages, perhaps, when the knife and the bread trencher became the flatware of choice?  While I understand the public health concerns involved in the direct insertion of grubby fingers into mouth (we did study the oral-fecal route of water-washed diseases at length during training), assuming indoor plumbing, available soap, and the standard of handwashing present in most American homes, I don’t see why there couldn’t be an anti-silverware revolution Stateside.  I find myself voluntarily disposing of a fork when I’m eating alone in my house, even for things like salads that don’t obviously advertise themselves as finger foods.  This either means that I can never go home again, or that I’m on to something here.  After a year of dribbling and splattering on myself like a baby left to his own devices with a jar of Gerber—much to the delight of my neighbors, who never stopped finding this entertaining—I have found that eating with the right hand really is only a question of technique and wrist control.  I defer here to the wisdom of the ancients, in this case Diogenes: “I have been a fool, burdened all these years by the weight of a bowl when a perfectly good vessel lay at the end of my wrist.”

2.     Communal eating and living.  I appreciate the way Northerners all eat out of a single plate.  True, this is hardly an egalitarian system, as men and women are never allowed to eat together; and also true, this too is a vector for disease transmission.  But those important concerns aside, I like the idea of everyone being so fully together.  I am one of those (potentially obnoxious) people who invite themselves to spear a piece of asparagus from someone else’s plate at a restaurant, assuming my dinner companions know they’re free to do the same with anything I’ve ordered; this is that mindset, taken to its complete conclusion.  We don’t share enough in America.  There is value in individualism; but as any socialist writer will tell you, there is equal, if not superior, value in collectivism.  I’ll steer clear of politics here, and stick to everyday examples: I cannot walk down the street in Mandama around noon without someone inviting me to come share what they’re eating.  True, I don’t always want to, because I don’t like what they’re offering or I’ve already eaten.  This is why I sometimes resent the aggressive, compulsive nature of hospitality and sharing that comes with Cameroonian Muslim culture.  But the open spirit of generosity—of never begrudging the opportunity to honor someone else with a gift—is, at its core, beautiful.

This has been one of the most difficult things for me to integrate into, as the American mindset towards property and ownership is so fundamentally different—think a rifle-toting Clint Eastwood growling, “Get off my lawn.”  When people let their goats into my yard, because I have so much long grass and no goats of my own to eat it; or when a boy named Salman asks me every other day for a cup of sugar—this is when I’m trained to think Robert Frost was right; good fences make good neighbors.  I am often a curmudgeon when put in these situations, reacting automatically in proprietary defense: this is my yard and if I want long grass just to look at I’ll grow long grass!  Get your own sugar, kid, and for the record you’re going to rot your teeth out!

But it’s also true that I am resourced beyond the imagination of most Mandamans.  What good does it ultimately do me to hold to what I own with a Scroogian fist?  Learn some humility and share the sugar; that is, after all, the definition of being neighborly.  There is no one in this village who would not give me anything they owned if I but asked; how can I, who have everything, bear the shame of being greedier than people who have nothing?

3.     Pit latrines.  There are times, particularly when I wake up in the middle of the night, when the thought of wrestling my steel door open and stumbling out to the latrine is the last thing I want to do, and in these times I fleetingly wish for a toilet, or even a chamber pot (although I used the latter during my three months of homestay, and let me assure you, that’s a piece of antiquity best left in the fifteenth century).  In general, though, latrines are vastly superior to poorly plumbed toilets in this country, and even some bathroom situations I’ve had at home (here’s looking at you, 7-person suite).  You know how many times I’ve cleaned my latrine?  If you don’t count weeding, zero, because that’s the beauty of it: you can’t clean a hole in the ground.  Unlike a bathroom left in its own fetid squalor, open-air latrines just don’t get that gross.  The rain keeps the slab of cement clean, and I have a lovely moringa tree inside the walls upon which to hang my towel and a roll of toilet paper.  Even those midnight runs are superior: here I am not doomed to contemplate dirty tile or the inevitable clod of roommate hair gently asphyxiating the bathtub drain.  Instead I squat and ruminate, gazing at the coruscating array of constellations flung across the firmament.  Absent light pollution, it’s an impressive sight indeed, and one worth waking up for.  Plus, you can throw anything down latrines.  One time some children showed up at my house playing with a used syringe and needle.  No sharps disposal container?  No problem.  Couldn’t do that with a toilet, now, could you?

Things I Still Detest, And Always Will

1.              Dried fish.  Many sauces that Mandamans eat are flavored with bits of meat, either pieces of beef or entire small fish, bones and all, which have been preserved  (like almost everything in the North) by drying them in the sun.  You might be wondering how it is that people get fish in the arid Sahel; this is a good point.  There is no water here, which is an important prerequisite for piscine propagation.  No, these fish have been shipped in raw, often from Chad, which means they had ample time in the back of a truck to get putrid before being set out in the sun to desiccate.  I am afraid it surpasses my descriptive powers to explain to you just how rank these dried fish smell.  To quote Shakespeare, they are “so rotten that the kites shriek in dismay rather than batten on so foul a carcass”.

Let me try to illustrate this anecdotally: one night this past week, on the way to my neighbor’s for dinner, I walked out of my house and into a miasma of thanatotic stench.  I assumed that this was another round of Scipio’s favorite game, Where’s The Dead Animal Part?, in which she squirrels away cow tails, intestines, and bone bits in and around the house, and I get to follow my nose to my next clean-up job.  Skip is unfortunately good at this game, which is rigged, anyway; whether I find it or not, I lose.  But a thorough search of the porch and yard revealed nothing, so scowling at the dog for good measure, I trooped over to El Hadji Moussa’s compound.  Howa was yelling over the back wall as I walked in, the senior wife, Mairamou, laughing.  I asked what was going on.  Howa wrinkled her nose.  “Salamatou”—the neighbor who lives behind the mosque between my compound and El Hadji Moussa’s—“got out her fish to make sauce.  Now she wants to trade for some of Mairamou’s tasbah sauce because her junior wife doesn’t want to eat the fish.”  This is not an uncommon arrangement; children, who carry out most menial labor here, are sent shuttling between households with small saucepots on their heads in diplomatic exchanges of one housewife’s sesame paste for another’s beef in peanut sauce.  “But Mairamou said no.  You smelled it a few minutes ago when she took it out of the bag, right?  Her junior wife has sense.  None of us want that.”  And so El Hadji’s wives and I join the kites, and shriek in dismay.

2.             Health Care.  Let me make it clear that I am in no way claiming America’s healthcare system is great; anything short of a single-payer system is missing the mark, in my book, but that’s another debate for another day.  What I will patriotically say now (Amuricah, hoo rah) is that at least we’re not as bad as Cameroon.  It’s not much, given where West and Central African countries tend to fall in rankings of this sort of thing, but it’s something.  Small victories, America!  You’ve beat the third world.

I recently took my neighbor Howa and her 18 month-old son, Abdul Karimou, to the regional hospital in Guider, where my friend Will works.  Abdul Karim had been sickly for months; he could not shake a persistent fever and cough and refused to eat, losing weight as a result.  His skin started to look loose, and I was getting more and more worried.  Howa has lost all of her children before they reach two years of age—Abdul Karim’s Dabare name, Touloublaye, translates roughly to “Shall I never give forth life from my womb?”  She took him to the health center in Mandama, where the nurse told her it was malaria; in fact, this is an unlikely diagnosis, but the one given automatically to anyone with a fever.  There are no rapid diagnostic tests in Mandama, and no lab in which to take blood smears and check for plasmodium parasites, so it’s seen as easier to just call it malaria and get on with the next patient.

I suspected tuberculosis, given the productive cough, and thought that at any rate Abdul Karim should be seen by a competent doctor with a laboratory at his disposal.  I had urged Howa several times to take her baby to Guider, but her husband refused to pay, a common attitude here.  He blamed Howa for not taking good enough care of her child, telling her that as he has twelve other children, he could not be bothered to take responsibility for this one.  Thus do polygamy and religion condone criminal male negligence.

So I undertook to bankroll Abdul Karim’s convalescence.  Thus it was that the three of us arrived, squashed onto a single moto, Monday morning.  We met Will, who guided us through the (to my villageoise eyes) bewilderingly complex hospital campus to the intake area.  At 9:00 in the morning, the rows of chairs set up in the sand outside the triage consultation room were already packed with patients.  The nurse, who knew both me and Will, eyed the waiting area nervously.  “You’re going to be here for several hours,” he began, then hesitated and lowered his voice. “Unless, of course, you wanted me to… speed things up?”

Normally I detest the culture of corruption, nepotism, and mutual backscratching that pervades every aspect of Cameroonian life, but as Will and I exchanged glances, I could see the same thought in his eyes: The line really was awful long.  “Play the white card?” I murmured, and he nodded discreetly to the nurse.  Howa and Abdul Karim were whisked back to the intake office, where his symptoms were recorded and we were sent to another building to wait to be seen by the director of the hospital. 

Here, not even my presence could get us special treatment, so I got my book out of my bag and we settled into our plastic chairs for a five-hour wait.  When we finally did see the doctor, Howa—trained to be deferential to men and particularly authority figures—was too cowed to even speak, so I asked if I could be part of the consultation, and explained Abdul Karim’s health problems.

The doctor began writing a two-page list, a battery of tests he wanted run—everything from a fecal sample to a blood smear to radiology—and an even longer list of drugs to buy.  I frowned, as seven medications taken simultaneously seemed above and beyond what could possibly be needed.  Howa, frightened and submissive, was ready to take the paper and bolt, but I stopped her, asking the doctor to explain to us both what he was prescribing and why. 

He sighed, impatient, and flew through the list with exaggerated rapidity.  “This is in case it’s tuberculosis.  This is for bronchitis.  This is an antibiotic.  These two are cough syrups--” (with, I might add, identical active ingredients; redundancy on top of excess) “—and this is an anti-malarial.  This is for the fever.  If none of those treat it and the tests aren’t conclusive, come back and see me.”

I asked if we shouldn’t wait to buy medications until we knew the results of the tests—if TB could be ruled out, for example, why begin a six-month regimen of antibiotics?  Why automatically treat malaria when rapid diagnostic tests are provided free by the Cameroonian government for children under 5?  He waved this away, however: he had too many patients already, and we had been seen.  We had our prescription; the consultation was over.

In typical Cameroonian fashion, we were unable to find any of the hospital staff that we needed to run the tests that afternoon; they had all gone home early, or were somewhere else, or had locked up and vanished.  I hesitated at the pharmacy, unwilling to subject Abdul Karim to a shotgun blast of medication (throw the whole pot of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks!).  I am not a doctor, as I constantly have to tell people, and yet here I was, having to make an amateur diagnosis. 

I ended up buying the most general antibiotic, one of the cough syrups, and Paracetamol for the fever.  Howa was eager to return to Mandama, but promised to come back to Guider the next morning for the radiology and malaria test, which would guide any further pharmaceutical purchases. 

The next morning she never appeared.  I went back to Mandama that afternoon to find her and Abdul Karim in their compound.  “What happened?” I cried.  “Where were you two?”

She shook her head.  “You know how my husband is.  El Hadji Moussa would not give us permission to leave a second day in a row and go back to Garoua.  He said we saw the doctor and have all we need.  He will not accept that we go back for more tests.”

So there the matter came to an end.  It has been almost a week, and Abdul Karim’s fever is down.  He is still coughing, but it is a much drier cough; the phlegm and mucus have stopped, which is a good sign.  I can only hope that I made the right decisions.

Howa watches with trepidation as Abdul Karim wields baby's first hoe.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Same Shit, Different Toilet

I often focus in these entries on differences between my expectations and those of the Cameroonians I work with.  This is primarily because it is often these cultural differences, these misunderstandings and assumptions on each side, that lead to the most revealing, or frustrating, or comedic exchanges.  It’s also interesting for me to realize how much of my behavior is dictated by my country and culture, rather than by some objective human standard of normalcy.

At the end of the day, though, people are people, and I’ve been equally interested to note what instinctive behaviors stay the same across the board.

I present, Things That I’m Finding To Be Universal:

1.              That doofy face people make at babies.  One of my favorite things to do when I lived in New York and took the subway was to watch people’s faces when someone pushed a stroller onto the car.  The most hardened of riders, whose studiedly expressionless masks seemed likely to withstand anything from an earthquake to a zombie apocalypse, would suddenly soften.  Their faces would open dramatically, eyebrows shooting towards the hairline, mouths gawping into exaggerated smiles, as though trying to show a dentist all 28 teeth at once.  People here do that, too.  Why is this an instinctive response to seeing small pre-formed humans?  You tell me.


2.              The smell of a preschool.  I’ve only been into the école maternelle here a few times; other than handwashing, the toddlers are a little young for the health and nutrition education classes I normally give.  Each time, however, I’ve been struck by the smell, and how evocative it is of every kindergarten class I’ve ever walked into.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is—crayons? Disinfectant? Child-sweat?  It is also worth noting that the preschool is run by Polish nuns; maybe it’s the corresponding increase in resources that makes it smell a certain way, because the vastly underfunded and understaffed primary school sure smells a lot worse.

Graduation at the ecole maternelle last spring

3.              Shouting at people who don’t speak your language in the misguided belief that sheer volume will overcome linguistic barriers.  This surprised me the most, as I assumed this was a dumb American thing, but it turns out it’s not only the Texans.  For several months I thought the president of one of my women’s groups, Djanabou, was slightly deaf, as she always roars at me in Fulfuldé or Dabaré as though trying to call cattle home from several fields away.  Then one day I went to her compound to ask about scheduling and watched her talk to her son in a totally normal tone at regulated volume, and realized she reserves her outside voice for me.

4.              Complaining about The Kids These Days.  For a while I didn’t want to say this because I was afraid of sounding elitist, but let’s call a spade a spade: most of the conversations I have around here are repetitive at best, and inane at worst.  Without any access to media, people can’t complain about Congress’ most recent buffoonery or gossip about First Lady Chantal Biya’s new and ever more clownish hairstyle.  Instead, they stick to the following subjects: the weather; the crops; some wild and totally baseless “fact” that, lacking Internet or a library, is stupidly difficult to disprove (“There are no black people in America” is one I run into all the time. Obama “doesn’t count”, since, I’m told, he’s not an American citizen); and the kids these days.  I have had ample time to consider the specifics of this last category of complaint, as I am subject to it practically every time I sit with older men waiting for a meeting to start.  This waiting period can take hours, so I’ve gotten an earful.  The content of the complaints is the same as what you’d hear in any barbershop in America; it’s the context that differs.  According to my sources, the Kids These Days:
a.     Are weaker than they used to be.  Why, these days, some young buck walks five miles out to his field in the morning, works in the sun, and he’s tired by noon! Tired! Can you imagine? In MY day… (I did ask my interlocutor if, in his day, he walked uphill both ways to get to his field and back.  He looked confused and ignored the question; I guess some things just don’t translate.)
b.     Are wastrels.  You take an old man to the market, he’ll buy a used shirt from the Goodwill cast-off pile for 200 CFA (40 cents USD) and be happy.  These kids, though, they want to buy their own fabric and have their own clothes made like they think every day’s a fete day!  And where is this money coming from?  They’ll all be driven to a life of crime, you mark my words! (In my experience youth wear traditional clothes far less than old men, actually, and are more likely to be sporting an Ann Arbor Michigan 5K for Leukemia shirt than a boubou, but there’s no gainsaying an elder with a grudge once he’s on a roll.)
c.      Are sybaritically self-indulgent. “Avant” (“before”, the vague descriptor of the Good Old Days), women made sauces with tree sap and leaves and peanut butter.  It was simple, it was good, and it was wholesome.  Now, they all want their Maggi cubes before they’ll even think about cooking! And at what cost? (Answer: very little cost, and much less work than boiling tree sap to get an extract to flavor food.  For my American audience, Maggi Arome, literally translated as Maggi Brand Flavor, is pure MSG.  It’s sold in liquid or powdered form, and used widely by all Cameroonians to flavor everything.  It also costs less than five cents a cube, so it’s hardly a drain on the family finances.)
d.     Get AIDS more easily.  It’s like they do it on purpose! (This complaint just confused me.  I tried to point out that the AIDS epidemic didn’t hit crisis levels until the 80’s, and that as more people are overcoming the stigma to get tested, it may just be that more young people know their HIV status than they did thirty years ago, but again, I got nowhere.)
e.     Are impatient.  You tell some kid to wait under a tree for you, he doesn’t even stick around a full hour before taking off!  (This is so very African, I have no commentary to make.  Imagine telling an American of any age to twiddle their thumbs because you’re two hours late for a rendez-vous.  I’m pretty sure marriages have ended over less.)

So there you have it.  The world over, we find babies to be cute, don’t know how to deal with foreigners, and think this generation’s the worst one ever.  Goal 2 achieved.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Consolidation Blues

On November 14, a French priest was kidnapped near Mokolo in the Extreme North by members of militant Islamic group Boko Haram, recently named a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.  You can read about the incident here.  By all accounts, he was well known in his community, where he had lived and worked for years; this is particularly chilling for Peace Corps volunteers, whose assumed extra cloak of security is their level of integration into often rural communities.  The French tourists who were kidnapped in Waza in February were anonymous; we are not.  Nor, however, was Pere Vandenbeusch.
In response to a diplomatic confirmation that the priest had indeed been taken over the border into Nigeria, Peace Corps changed the security status of the Guider cluster, the group of six volunteers closest to the borders with the Extreme North and with Nigeria.  From standfast—the status we have been under since February, which requires us to stay at our posts and only travel with explicit permission from our directors— we were moved to consolidation, a status under which we all gather in a designated safe place to await further instructions.  Suddenly the security drills we had undergone months ago, which seemed unnecessarily histrionic at the time, with code phrases of the type 11-year olds use to restrict access to a tree house (“The T-shirt is orange!” “The game is over!”), were frighteningly real.

Friday night, the day after the kidnapping, found me at my house.  I had spent the day in meetings, and felt pleasantly tired, but productive.  I had hashed out further details for an upcoming two-day food security conference and overseen the democratic election of the all-female executive board in charge of Mandama’s new Women’s Center.  This was major progress, and the kind of gender-sensitive development I have wanted to do since reading Half the Sky, Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s polemic on women’s rights and equality in the developing world.  I had made dinner—salad, as my new mini fridge allows me to keep lettuce past a day without it subliming into green goo in the heat—and was curled up with Scipio, watching J. Edgar on my computer and idly wondering how on earth they aged Leo so convincingly.  In short, I was in a very good place.

Suddenly Scipio lunged off the stick bed and began barking frantically, triggered by clapping just beyond the circle of light that spills from my house to the front porch.  A flashlight showed a thin, fashionably dressed young man named Ilyasou, my friend and fellow PCV Jack’s primary moto driver in the market town of Guider.  My heart sank.  Ilyasou acts as the cluster’s Pony Express, delivering hand-written notes from Jack to the three of us with no cell phone service who are otherwise unreachable.  As it was 8:30 at night and I was unable to imagine good news that couldn’t have waited until morning, it was with no little trepidation that I took the proffered paper.

It was a summons to Guider until further notice from the Embassy RSO.  As it is strictly forbidden to travel by night, I sent Ilyasou back with a note saying I would come first thing in the morning.  With the extra hours that bought me, I began the grim business of packing my house, just in case.  I had heard too many stories of evacuated volunteers sent to their posts with a Marine guard and three hours to pack everything, say their goodbyes, and get on the road again to want to take any chances.

Accommodating the consolidation in Guider worked out rather nicely; there are three male volunteers in the town, and three women coming in from surrounding bush villages.  I am close with another health volunteer, Will Saitta, so I headed straight to his house; Becca in Douroum is good friends with a youth development volunteer, Graham; and so on.  The resulting division into three odd couples could have been the setup for a reality show—indeed, during some of the longer hours Will and I began scripting drama and filming interviews (we were the pair the audience liked, naturally).  But the balance worked out fairly well, and kept us from getting on each other’s nerves the way we would have had we spent an entire week in one volunteer’s house.

This is not to say that we did not start to get cabin fever.  Will had some work at the regional hospital, so I tagged along for a meeting, and nosily flipped through a stack of medical records in his office (HIPPAA does not exist in Cameroon, at least not for white people.  Want to know if someone’s HIV positive?  Just ask to see their file!).  I also used the time to continue organizing and promoting the upcoming food security conference.  Ultimately, however, there was only so much any of us could do in a state of paralyzing ignorance of our fates, and by the end of the week, we were stir-crazy and starting to get weird.  Here is a list of the things Will and I did to pass the time:

- Planned a 12-week trip to the Balkans, post-COS, beginning in Turkey and ending in Italy

- Watched a six-part documentary about the fall of Yugoslavia to prepare for said voyage

- Watched the most recent two seasons of SNL and quoted the sketches at each other for the rest of the week, much to the annoyance of the other four volunteers subjected to my impersonation of Albanian Tina Fey

- Filmed ourselves for an hour and 14 minutes having an unscripted and most assuredly uninspiring stream-of-consciousness conversation, much of which happened in Scandanavian accents, and some of which included me taking phone calls.  I told you, things got weird, although in our defense I’m pretty sure Andy Warhol did the same thing and it counted as “art”, so there.  Call it our Factory period.

- Carried out an entire conversation in fake Swedish (“Ølle hølle bølle.  Skøl?  Lizbeth Salander”) in a bar, just to confuse the child serving Will hard-boiled eggs from a bucket on his head

- Developed a skill for deadpanning delusional conversations about what we were going to do that night (“I don’t know, I haven’t been bowling in ages.” “Nah, let’s do that tomorrow night, I heard the modern art museum has a new exhibit in the outdoor sculpture garden.” “Ooh, good call—but let’s wait till Friday, there’ll be live jazz and pitchers of sangria!”) We eventually stopped, afraid that going too far down the rabbit hole would only make it more bitter to accept our actual nightly schedule: drinking at a bar with a dirt floor and straw walls and eating street food, probably hard-boiled eggs.

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship... said our Stockholm syndrome.

All things do come to an end, and we were finally cleared to go back to post, pending further activity from Boko Haram or developments in the case of the priest.  After a detour to Garoua to help the 8 new Northern volunteers move in to their posts, I got back to Mandama yesterday, elated to come home.  I spent today assuring everyone for the umpteenth time that I had not abandoned them, and cleaning in preparation for Thanksgiving visitors at the end of the week.  Scipio had used my absence to transform the front porch into a mausoleum for domestic animal parts, impressive in its scope but lingering in its stench.  I scrubbed the whole thing in bleach water this morning, after disposing of a disembodied chicken foot, a gently curling goat horn, the forehead and eye sockets of a cow skull, a raft of unidentifiable bones, and enough feathers to stuff a pillow.  I have yet to be approached by an enraged former chicken owner demanding reparations, but am prepared for that eventuality.

For the rest of the week I kick into high gear: the aforementioned visitors, Will and another volunteer, Santina, come on Wednesday and will spend Thanksgiving in Mandama.  Friday we’ll all schlep to Guider for a regional Thanksgiving celebration, and Saturday I kick off the food security conference.  By Monday everything will be wrapped up, and I can roll myself and my extra 10 pounds of holiday weight back home. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

We Suffer Into Knowledge

There is a woman in Mandama who came by my house several times in the last few months.  Each time as I came to the door, she would untie her baby from her back and hold it out towards me in mute appeal.  The reason was clear; the baby was the most severely malnourished infant I have ever seen.  Her limbs were desiccated, the skin sagging down, far too big for her emaciated frame.  Her tiny ribcage stood out starkly, fluttering in and out with every breath as though it contained a trapped bird.  Her eyes were enormous in her shrunken, febrile face.  Her mother told me she was three months old, but she could have been born the day before, judging by her length and the size of her hands and feet.  Most children have disproportionately stubby limbs and large heads for their overall height, part of what makes them seem so cute; evolutionary biologists think this is part of why human mothers maintain a maternal instinct much longer—years longer—than most other mammals, whose offspring attain regularly distributed size fairly quickly.  This baby was the exception to that rule.  Her limbs and face were so impossibly thin that she seemed proportioned like a miniature adult, as though she were Faust’s grim homunculus rather than an infant.

I tried to talk through a diagnosis with the mother, probing gently with questions about breastfeeding habits, HIV status, birth weight, anything I could think of that might be relevant.  She mostly answered my questions with an impatient shake of the head or the sharp inhalation of breath that indicates “yes”; it quickly became clear that she was not interested in the root of the problem.  All she wanted was a solution.  I obliged the first few times she came by, sending her home with bags of sugar or a bottle of oil and instructions on making enriched bouille as a weaning food; although babies should optimally breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, this was clearly an exceptional case. 

Nothing is a secret in a small village, and it did not take my neighbors long to cotton on to what was happening.  After the third time she came and left, a flock of headscarved Hadjas descended, clucking biddies with ruffled feathers, eager to gossip and instruct.  “This woman is not good,” I was advised.  “She has had three other children, and they were all like this, too small.  All have died.  She does not have milk problems, so what is going on?  Why does she keep her children like this?  Why does she disgrace her husband by begging?”  She was probably using the sugar and oil I gave her for her husband’s beignets, one suggested.  She was assuredly not giving it to her child.  Another warned me that I was being taken advantage of.  This woman, I was told, went around to get as many handouts as possible—I should ask the Catholic sisters, it was certain she had been there too.

I did casually bring it up the next time I was at the Mission for a women’s group meeting, and sure enough, Soeur Agnes immediately knew the woman to whom I was referring—she had come to the dispensary in the nun’s cloisters several times.  “I don’t know how that baby is still alive,” marveled Agnes.  Vraiment, elle se bat à deux poings, eh?” She was indeed a fighter.

I used to try and assume the best of people, but a year here has cured me of that habit.  My neighbors’ malicious whispering wormed its way into my subconscious, and the longer I thought about it, the more convinced I became of the woman’s subterfuge.  I began to feel uneasy about encouraging this woman to expressly keep her child malnourished to aid in her begging; this is a common problem encountered by food supplement programs like the one at my health center, but the first time it had been aimed so personally at me and my perceived wealth. 

And yet total inaction did not sit right, either.  I had ensured that the mother was registered in the malnutrition program at our health center after the first time I laid eyes on her daughter, but now I went a step further: I enrolled her in the nutritional tracking program I’ve been slowly working on for the last few months with the help of volunteer health mobilizers.  In theory, we should already be in Stage 3 (Monitoring) of what was to be a six-month program.  We were to take a month for Stage 1 (Enrollment), locating and registering mothers with severely malnourished children; a month for Stage 2 (Education and Distribution), going house-to-house to instruct these mothers in making soy bouille and soymilk and distributing soybeans and flour; and three months to continue re-visiting the homes to monitor the children’s growth before spending the final month in program evaluation.
In reality, we are still in Stage 1.  It is hard to find times during which my volunteer mobilizers are free to work which coincide with times when women are at home, instead of out working in the fields.  Furthermore, educating the mobilizers to conduct the preliminary surveys and registration has been painstaking.  I have re-written the format several times and pablumized the content, but to no avail.
And so despite my good intentions (which do, after all, pave the road to Hell), registering this woman in the tracking program brought no actual relief to her situation.  Two weeks after I had conducted her initial survey, she showed up at my house again, begging for soy.  I refused.  In large part, this was for legitimate programmatic reasons: one of the biggest weaknesses of Peace Corps (and one of the reasons we spend 50+ years in a country like Cameroon, instead of working ourselves out of jobs much earlier than that) is a lack of quantifiable monitoring and evaluation.  My predecessor led a similar program with verbally confirmed success, but the notes that were left behind were minimal, and there was no thorough assessment done after the fact, leaving me to design a new program all over again.  Hence the axiom: Peace Corps hasn’t been in Cameroon 50 years, we’ve been in Cameroon two years, 25 times.  To combat this, I would like to leave those who follow me with a statistically sound demographic survey comparing rates of malnutrition before and after the program, as well as a thorough evaluation of the program content and recommendations for improvement.  To do this, I need to have my act together organizationally, which (unfortunately) means waiting until we’ve finished Stage 1 before moving on to the distribution phase so that growth can be carefully monitored.  All this overly specific detail to say: I didn’t want to start giving out soy right and left until everyone working on the program was on the same page and ready to move to the next stage together.

But if truth be told, I was also suspicious of the woman’s intentions.  The idea that I had had the wool pulled over my eyes still smarted, and I didn’t want to be perceived as a soft touch, only to have the woman turn around a sell the soy I gave her in the market.  I truly wanted what was best for the baby—but I also wanted to protect myself, and do what I saw as responsible and sustainable.  An awful resentment, coupled with undeserved judgment, guided my actions more than I would like to admit.  I hid my reluctance to give her a handout behind bureaucratic bluster about The Program.  “Two weeks,” I told her, thinking at that point that we were still on schedule.  “In two weeks we’ll be coming by your concession, and we’ll give out the soy and do a lesson to make sure you know how to give it to your baby.”  I told her the same thing a week later.

The week that was slated for distribution came and went in the usual paralysis of inaction that plagues my work here, and I guiltily avoided the woman.  The next week I headed south to Yaoundé to train the newest batch of volunteers for a week in soy and moringa initiatives, and when I got back to Mandama I had enough on my plate for the next two weeks to put the tracking program on the back burner until I had tackled a few other things. That brings us to the present, a month past the date when help was supposed to arrive, when my program was supposed to pull through and justify my personal inaction regarding the begging woman and her skeletally thin child.

Yesterday I was walking home from my lamido’s compound and passed the woman on the street.  I stopped to greet her.  “How are you?  Your health? And the baby?”  She shrugged.  Bingel am ma’i,” she stated, a fact, emotionless. “Sey asaweijey didi.”  I froze, sorrow and guilt twisting my stomach.  Her baby died two weeks ago.

I spent last night in a funk, chain smoking Gold Seal cigarettes and trying to come to terms with what has happened and why.  Grappling with myself, trying desperately to convince myself, I have rehearsed all the excuses that exempt me of responsibility until they sound trite even to my ears.  I did everything I could have been professionally expected to do.  Doing otherwise would have both diminished the long-term effectiveness of the tracking program as a whole and sustained cultures of dependency created by white people like me giving handouts in places like Mandama.  It would have been unsustainable; it would have been irresponsible; I cannot think that I have power over the life and death of every child in this village—

And yet all that rings hollow in the face of the simple fact: her baby is dead.  Forget professional responsibility, I had a personal responsibility to see another human being with eyes of compassion, to redistribute the resources that have been granted me through no merit of my own, to see a fellow traveler in need and help her out—and I blew it.  I let myself be pulled into petty village drama, and inadvertently took sides, in this case with deadly consequences.  How did I know this woman was misusing what I had given her?  It is entirely possible that she was, but where was my evidence?  And even if she had been, so what?  I constantly tell villagers that I’m not wealthy just because I’m an American and that I’m paid like a Cameroonian, which is true—but I’m paid like a Cameroonian bureaucrat.  I can certainly afford to lose a few bags of soy flour and a bottle or three of oil on the off chance that it might have made its way to helping that baby stay alive.  How much do I spend every month on beer going out with other volunteers when I go into the capital to bank?  How much did I spend on a mini-fridge so that I can be comfortable and drink cold water in the heat? 

I’m trying not to descend into weltschmerz, but the fact remains: I could have given that baby the world.  More to the point, I could have given her life.  Instead, I chose to sit on my hands and do nothing.

Pathei mathos, Aeschylus writes, “we suffer into knowledge”—in this case knowledge of myself, knowledge that I wish I could un-learn.

Perhaps more personally disturbing: this would have destroyed me had it happened six months ago.  It’s still bad, don’t get me wrong, but I can already sense that it’s not going to be my Stalingrad (and yes, that metaphor makes me Nazi Germany, which feels apt).  I’m going to move on.  A year here, and I’m becoming—what?  The more charitable word would be “resilient”; the more frightening one, “harder”.  I don’t always like what I’m becoming here, and I’m sometimes afraid there’s no going back.  An old friend recently advised me to take care not to lose my kindness.  The advice was good, and much needed.  Here’s hoping this knowledge acts as a check, to bring me back to what matters, and the moral core that impelled me to come to Cameroon in the first place.

Monday, October 21, 2013

COS Season

September has turned to October, and November will soon be upon us.  For a PCV in Cameroon, this means it’s Close Of Service (COS) season.  The volunteers who began a year before me are now wrapping up projects, packing their houses, and trickling back to the United States to start the next stage of their lives.  It’s a bittersweet time, as I’m losing many of my friends.  Between evacuations back in March, voluntary requests for site reassignment, and early terminations of service, the North region is hemorrhaging volunteers; after this group COSes, we will be the few, the proud, and the lonely up here.  We’re slated to get replacement volunteers from the most recent training class come December, and having met the trainees, I’m sure it’ll be a good group; still, it’s hard to see people I already know, care about, and have worked with move on.

Watching my friends prepare to leave is a reminder of just how transient our services are.  It’s an impetus to work harder and faster, as in a single year, it will be me giving away clothes and boxing up books to take back to the transit house library.  In the last few weeks my mind has been turning frequently to thoughts of what comes next.  One night, in a frenzy of productivity, I drew up a spreadsheet of grad school programs, although I won’t be entering for another two years at the soonest.  When I let my mind wander, I find myself thinking about jobs, wondering if I’m nervously jumping the gun.

But mostly I wonder about repatriation.  Every volunteer has heard the apocryphal story about the RPCV who, their first week or month in America, starts crying in the toothpaste aisle because there are just so many choices, and what the hell’s the difference between Brilliant White With Breath Strips and Advanced Oxidation With Bursting Mint?  Can’t we just be happy that people care about dental health at all?  I’m excited when people in my village chew on sticks.  A volunteer who recently left Cameroon posted that he started losing it in the grocery store because the ginger was so large and clean (I mistakenly read his update as “a ginger”, and thought he was panicking over an uncommonly tall and well-groomed redhead, which would also be reasonable after two and a half years here).  Reverse culture shock can be a doozy.

More than the physical adjustments of America—paved roads; parking lots; said parking lots being hosed down with cleaner water than is available here to drink—I worry about adjusting back to Americans.  Someone told me before I left for the Peace Corps that all the RPCVs he had ever known were socially awkward.  I thought this was an odd comment, and wrote it off, but now it makes total sense.  We’ve been through an experience that has changed us in ways that can’t really be explained—and to make things worse, very few people will have the patience or the interest in what inadequate explanations we will try to give.

I started to experience this when I was home in June.  It was hard enough talking to family and friends who were genuinely interested in my service; I didn’t know how to fairly convey what life and work here are like without being reductive, or cynical, or overly flippant.  Volunteers become inured to certain elements of hardship—you have to be, or go crazy—so we fall into the habit of speaking casually, even jokingly, about the facts of daily life.  Death happens.  Diarrhea happens.  We’re all habituated to this.  For friends back home, death in the Third World is an unmitigated tragedy, and talking about your poop in detail is disgusting.  Thus we become socially inept. 

It was worse talking to strangers.  A few times while visiting old roommates in DC and in New York, I was swept along to happy hour or an apartment party with these friends’ current colleagues, none of whom I knew.  Things would start well enough, and then I would be asked, “What do you do?” or, “Where do you work?”, the social qualifiers by which we Americans group and rank those around us.   Reluctantly, inevitably, I would explain that I was home on leave from the Peace Corps.  I don’t doubt that these young urban professionals were mildly interested, but “mildly” is the key phrase here: they didn’t know what follow-up questions to ask, and didn’t really care about the answer.  What I was doing was different, and they felt obliged to make some recognition of this—but it came out in sweeping questions like “How is it?” or “What’s Africa like?” (What’s it like?  It’s the world's second-largest continent, made up of 54 sovereign states with over a thousand spoken languages.  It spans ecozones from desert to equatorial rainforest to snow-capped mountains to highland steppes.  I’ve never been to about 98% of it.  Saying anything about “Africa” as a whole, other than “It’s between South America and Southeast Asia”, is bound to be reductive and probably patronizing.) 

This came to a head in a bar in D.C.  I wound up in conversation with a girlfriend somehow attached to my old roommate Sruti’s social circle.  As the two of us walked to the bar to get a second round, she asked some vague question about Development and Aid.  I began to try to give a thoughtful, honest, comprehensive answer—but I should have known better.  These are not qualities we value, least of all in a casual social setting.  As soon as the bartender pushed our drinks across (an IPA for her; seasonal draft beer for me, a revelation after months of lukewarm 33 Export), she picked hers up and walked off, leaving me mid-sentence with my mouth hanging open, feeling foolish. 

We in America live in a soundbite culture.  We like our ideas in neatly compactable, polished catchphrases, even if in so doing we sacrifice the truth and nuance of reality.  “Peace Corps: The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love!” “The Developing World: You Learn So Much More From Them Than They Learn From You!” “Africa: They Have So Little, But They’re So Happy!”  This, and this only, is what is expected of me—and never mind that these are hopelessly pat answers that do not ring true with my experience.  Keeping it simple, keeping it surface level, is easier for everyone.

I realize I’m beginning to get preachy and holier-than-thou, and that’s not fair.  Perhaps I’m being too hard on IPA Girl.  For all I know, she’s fully aware of the complex nature of intervention in non-viable economies, she just (understandably) didn’t want to get too deep into the weeds with someone she didn’t know, on an evening when she was trying to relax with her boyfriend and his friends.  Fine.  But I—we, as volunteers—need to be prepared that this is not an anomalous response.  Somehow, we have to stifle our need to explain, because we can’t. 

And then there’s the other side of the coin: do we volunteers want to get into deep, sincere discussions about feminism, Islam, and family planning—or addiction to foreign aid, and how it stifles community initiative—or what our Biggest Challenge was—with everyone we talk to at a bar or in line at the grocery store for the next six to twelve months?   Probably not, which threatens to transform these indignant paragraphs to hypocrisy: I lament the fact that no one wants to listen, and all the while I don’t want to talk.  It’s exhausting to plumb the depths of this experience daily; what’s more, I had the nervous feeling every time I opened my mouth that I was now expected to be an expert on the subject.  On the contrary, most of the things I have to say aren’t that deep or original, and I’ve lost certainty about anything at all since coming here. 

This is an emotional, critical diatribe, and yet it lacks any resolution.  Since I just acknowledged that everyone’s in the wrong, I’m not even sure what point I’m trying to make, other than that going home again isn’t easy, and social re-integration is likely to be bumpy for everyone involved.  On the bright side, I have another year to ponder this, to prepare myself, to figure out what comes next and to try to pre-formulate digestible, bite-sized explanations for the Top Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions.

COSing friends who have weeks or mere days to think about all this: Ashia.  Du courage; my thoughts, sympathies, and jealousies (coffee shops! Public parks! Yoga classes! A job with a boss, clear expectations, and deliverable goals!) are with you.

Meanwhile, I’ll be here, nervously working on this spreadsheet.