Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Second-Class Citizens

The train that slowly wends its way once a day between Ngaoundéré and Yaoundé has four levels of comfort available for the passenger, depending on the size of his wallet and his capacity for the physical proximity of strangers.

For those who prefer to travel in the lap of luxury, there are two-person sleeper cars, or wagons-lits.  I have never been inside one of these spacious chambers, but tantalizing glimpses suggest that each room has its own sink, not to mention space for luggage.

The next step down—the upper end of what Peace Corps will typically pay if a volunteer is traveling on official business—is the four-person wagon-lit.  Two sets of fold-down bunks fit snugly in a small room, with space above to precariously shove bags.  These sleeper cars are not at all uncomfortable; the beds are small, but nevertheless beds, and the passenger receives astonishingly good treatment for a country where customer service is an unknown entity.  A perky, uniformed stewardess comes around, slides the door open, and takes orders for dinner to be delivered to the car on a silver tray.  The braised fish and plantains are, expectations of train food to the contrary, delicious.  Soap and toilet paper are provided in every car.  By Cameroonian standards, this is staying at the Ritz Carlton on rails.

For those too parsimonious to spring for a wagon-lit, first class is the next alternative.  In first class there are no beds, only seats.  Sleeping sitting up is of course less comfortable, and the lights are kept on all night.  The legroom, though, is sufficient, and snacks can be bought at every stop off the heads of women and children who stroll up and down the platform calling their wares: Manioc! Bananas! Pineapples!  At several thousand francs cheaper than buying a bed, first class is my ticket of choice for un-reimbursed personal travel.  Volunteer opinions differ, but I am not alone in defending first class. 

No one, however, would advocate choosing second class, the lowest rung on the ladder of comfort and cost.  I had heard enough anecdotal evidence to prejudice me against it—cattle car, some call it, one of the nicer names I’ve heard; others recount horror stories of standing for 16 hours.   I am all for new experiences and cultural immersion, but could have happily completed my service without ever traveling second class.

Until two days ago, when I tried to buy a last-minute ticket to head to Yaoundé and was informed by the stony-faced Camrail employee at the ticket window that the train was completely sold out—unless, of course, I wanted second class.  Second class never sells out, because tickets don’t correspond to single seats.  Tickets correspond to a right to be on the train; how you fit yourself in is up to you.  Women sleep in the aisles, children get shoved under their parents’ seats, pugnacious adolescents quarrel to stretch out in the luggage racks, old men perch on cargo.  Once all the space to slump on the floor is crammed full, unlucky shmucks who get on at a later stop than Ngaoundéré do indeed end up standing until Yaoundé.  The cars quickly reek of urine, sweat, and fermented manioc; moving around is next to impossible.  It is like being shipped to the Gulag, or Hell; and like Stalin or Satan, Camrail can always find room for a few more damned souls.

And thus I found myself shoehorned into a tiny 4-person banquette from 6:00 Saturday evening until noon on Sunday.  The hard plastic benches faced each other, forcing my seatmates and me to zipper our knees in between each other’s legs.  Getting a book out of the bag at my feet required a coordinated three-person shift.

The four of us quickly developed camaraderie, as one does when forced into such situations.  At the first long stop, the portly gendarme across from me leaned out of the window to buy mets de pistache, a Cameroonian snack made of crushed melon seeds and dried fish wrapped in banana leaves, boiled, and then smoked.  He hauled himself back in and fell heavily into his seat, then wordlessly distributed the pistache to the four of us.  I expressed surprise and thanks, commenting that I didn’t often eat pistache; it’s not particularly popular in the North.  At the next stop, my seatmate—a long-faced man with small, even teeth, traveling to Douala with three young nieces—writhed out the window, and dropped a second met de pistache in my lap.  “To make up for the ones you’re not eating up North,” he murmured with a shy smile.

Second class passengers do get second-class treatment; for once, even my white skin bought me no favors.  An hour after the train pulled out of the station, I thought to go while away some of the evening chatting with another PCV traveling to Yaoundé on first class.  I made my tortuous way over and around the crush of bodies to the door that slid between the second class cars at the end of the train and the first class cars in the middle.  As I reached for the handle, a gendarme stopped me. 

“Second class passengers aren’t allowed into first class,” he told me officiously.   I explained that I wasn’t planning on trying to sneak into a seat I hadn’t paid for, I just wanted to talk to my friend—he could see her, I pointed out.  She was the other white girl, two rows back.

He repeated his interdiction, staring straight ahead.  I tried again, keeping my tone light; he could watch us through the door if he wanted, and if I seemed like I was staying too long he could come fetch me back.  I would pinky promise not to go anywhere beyond the third row.  He didn’t crack a smile.  I kept at him—more out of boredom than a real burning desire to chat with the other PCV—and finally he conceded slightly.  “You can write a note,” he told me grudgingly, “and I’ll deliver it to your friend.  But you stay here.”

In first class and wagon-lit, uniformed conductors in peaked caps come around once to punch tickets—a standard practice.  In second class, there were multiple ticket checks, and several national ID card checks, carried out not by train conductors but by armed police.  Every few hours I was shaken roughly awake for one check or the other, and around 2:00 in the morning a few passengers in the next car over got hauled off the train.

By the time we reached Yaoundé, I was exhausted and cramped.  My legs were aching, and I was ready for a hot shower, an actual bed, and a good meal.  Still, I’m glad I had the experience.  I understand a little better how Cameroonians who are not wealthy expect to travel and to be treated.  I’m glad I could rely, like Blanche DuBois, on the kindness of strangers.  If nothing else, any other form of transportation I take from hereon out will seem infinitely more manageable, because at least I’m not being shipped to the Eastern Front in a cattle car of plantains and peed-on people.

Just don’t expect me to be buying a ticket for second class again any time soon.

A friend and fellow PCV, Dale Wahl, escaped second class by using the fifth, unofficial option: paying off the conductor for a seat in the cafe car.

Friday, August 16, 2013

How I Earn That $200 a Month Government Salary

My last blog detailed the collapse of the Mandama Health Center as a functioning clinic.  Despite this serious setback, I have found some work to occupy my time: I just launched an independent malnutrition screening with the help of three volunteer mobilizers, during which I hope to collect hard data about rates of malnutrition in Mandama, as well as a specific breakdown of the types (wasting? Stunting? Kwashiorkor? Anemia? Vitamin deficiencies?). Through analyzing these indicators, I can plan more specifically targeted interventions.  I’m also having monthly meetings with the group of nine women I am training as community leaders in a moringa project I began in May.   By next spring, these women will be certified (by me) experts in the cultivation and care of moringa as a crop, as well as its nutritional benefits and how to incorporate it in traditional foods.  (Side note: If you’ve never heard of moringa, it IS the new quinoa / acai / hitherto undiscovered superfood, so when you see it in Whole Foods five years down the road, feel licensed to be a moringa hipster. You heard it here first.)

But weekly screenings and monthly meetings are not, when you think about it, very much work.  In this I am limited by the fact that rainy season is work season, during which everyone spends their days cultivating their fields.  I have had to accept that this is normal for Peace Corps volunteers, who can only work as much as their community is motivated to work with them; in a culture where expectations of work and output are much, much different than in America, I just have to adjust my personal standards and adapt as I can.

So here it is, the list of things I’ve been doing in place of work:

1.     1.    Preparing elaborate meals.  As I have nothing but time, and everyone comes back from the fields at noon sharp, I spend entire afternoons learning three ways to prepare cowpeas, or how to make hot piment sauce from scratch (this latter at the expense of burning hands and an inadvertently rubbed eye that I couldn’t open for 20 minutes).

As baby Zoiratou looks on, Mairamou shows me how to grind raw hot peppers into paste, the first stage in making fiery piment sauce.

Salman helps me wash petits pois for a slightly sweet, hummus-like breakfast dish.
Sundays, when I switch from faking Muslim to faking Catholic, follow suit.  As the two older Polish nuns at the Catholic Mission in Mandama are on home leave all summer, the two Cameroonian sisters are currently holding down the fort.  The youngest, Francois, is particularly enjoying freedom from the martenitism of the full chapter.  No longer is she the Myrmidon of her Achilles, the Mother Superior, bound to subordinate uncomplainingly to a million tiny tyrannies of kitchen and table.  Do we want to fritter away Sunday afternoon chatting and eating jam with a spoon?  We’ll do it!  Why not?  There’s no Soeur Pauline to come by and silently reprove us with a gimlet-eyed stare until we hastily put the jam away and go back to doing dishes.  The dishes will wait!  This is heady rebellion.  

Equally so the choice of the Sunday menu:  Soeur Aquila is not here to impose the same meal she has chosen every week for 35 years (chicken, potatoes, A Boiled Vegetable).  We’ll make Cameroonian food and Western food!  There happens to be yogurt Francois made herself; get Greek and add tsatziki!  Sure, it doesn’t go with anything else in the meal, but the point is no one’s there to summarily ban her from doing it.  Soeur Agnes, although less excitable than the vivacious Francois, seems amused more than anything, and so the last several Sundays have seen us preparing 4-course meals and collectively ignoring the noon Angelus bell that would normally delineate lunch hour.  2:00 rolls around and finds us still at the table, comparing the size of our food babies.  There are few things more bizarre than seeing a nun pat her habit and whisper confidentially, “I think I’m about 5 months!”

2.    2.      Writing and illustrating Fulfulde comic strips.  I got bored of flashcards, so I decided to drill vocab through the Adventures of Amadou and Hanna, two ethnically diverse children in the North of Cameroon.  Their actions are sometimes unusual, depending on the vocabulary I’ve recently learned; the strip got fairly dark after I went to three wakes in a row, and in general the protagonists use far more cooking vocabulary than children of their age have any business doing (see #1).  Still, it amuses me to draw them, they are useful as pedagogic tools, and who knows?  If Fulfulde suddenly becomes a critical language, I’ll make a textbook out of ‘em and retire early.

3.      3.     Scrubbing my floor with bleach.  I recently got a puppy, Publius Scipio Africanus; while she’s generally endearing and I mostly adore her, housetraining her has been a challenge.  Enough said.

4.     4.     Babysitting.  As school is out, most of the kids in my neighborhood are either hard at work in their parents’ fields or bored out of their little skulls.  Most days see me playing Ultimate Frisbee, or building cardboard dinosaurs (my claims about Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Mesozoic Era were mostly met with disbelief), or hosting a spontaneous dance party, or getting peed on.  This last is inspiring me to abandon all other work and exclusively devote my energies to promoting the use of diapers in Mandama.
Cool Hand Habiba, the winner of one rainy day's egg-eating contest.  Competitive eating, it turns out, is a little twisted once you start to explain it to third-world children.
5.     5.     Working in the fields.  When in Rome, right?  Everyone else spends the hours of 7 to noon farming, so it makes sense for me to, too—although I love it, so I probably would in any case.  I planted a field beside my house in soy, and about half as much behind my house in cowpeas; the latter were sadly dug up as soon as they poked their bent little necks out of the soil (see #3, particularly reference “generally” endearing puppy whom I “mostly” adore).  

      Kids have been helping me with the soy, but I draw the line at letting anyone into my home flower and vegetable garden.  Mandamans have a pathological inability to see a plant that is not Useful in some quantifiable way without instinctively wanting to pull it out of the ground.  In their books, which are carved in stone, Crops are Good in Fields.  Sand is Good in Compounds.  Compounds should be Swept Clean (= Free of Anything Other than Sand).

I, on the other hand, despaired in the days when my yard looked like a post-apocalyptic moonscape (in my neighbors’ terms, Clean).  It was overly weedy when I got back from almost a month in America, true, but I selectively took out the worst offenders and left it in a state of minimally organized chaos.  There are five raised beds for vegetables, three big clumps of riotous flowers, a gaggle of okra, and a smattering of corn.  The rest I left with a groundcover of long elephant grass, which rustles beautifully in the wind, and some pretty twining vine which has run up the papaya trees and blooms in tiny yellow trumpets.

My landscaping decisions have given everyone who sees them fits.  They gasp, flutter their hands nervously like Mrs. Bennett complaining about her nerves, and urge me to let them send a few kids over to clear the place out.  Ignoring their delicate constitutions, I flatly refuse.  “But these flowers, there are too many of them!” they tell me, eyeing my garden longingly, imagining it razed to the ground.  “Leave a few, but let us pull out the rest.  Even one afternoon would suffice, we can have this place clean in no time!”  This difference of opinions culminated in a standoff with my landlord’s middle wife when she led two goats over, dismantled part of my fence to herd them in, and let them eat their way through a clump of elephant grass and half a row of squash plants—for my own good, she argued.  I like her, and I didn’t want to fight, but then again, this is my yard, and my fence she so casually took apart.  I threw a big enough tantrum (the best way, I’m finding, to have people take me seriously; a calm voice indicates to Mandamans that what I’m saying is not that important) that people have finally stopped volunteering to clear-cut my garden.

And thus I pass my days.  I'm finding myself happier in Mandama now than I've been since I arrived.  I realized this one night after dinner, lying on my back in the sand with two of my neighbor's children pillowed on my shoulders and a third sprawled at my feet.  We were staring up between the fronds of a date palm at the immense span of stars spilling across the sky.  I pointed out the Milky Way, and tried to explain the size of the universe (a fool's errand in any language).  The oldest boy, Salman, laughed when I told him he'd be an old man before he could reach Alpha Centauri, although I'm not sure if he was amused by the incomprehensibility of galactic distances, or the mere idea of space travel.  I lapsed into comfortable silence, and as little Saliou fell asleep beside me, I realized there was really no place I'd rather be.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

General Health Clinic

Way back in Bokito, I found it bizarre and amusing that my host family-- like much of Cameroon-- was addicted to soap operas.  Night after night, the boob tube pandered to a fixated nation: first Coeur Brise, where Rodrigue convinced everyone that he was his own twin brother with the careful application of a fake mustache; then some weird Bollywood one involving a family curse and a fated love triangle; then one where the main character, for inscrutable reasons of her own, wore a metal Phantom of the Opera-style half mask.

In Mandama, people make up for the lack of television with actual, home-brewed drama, and I am beginning to understand why my host mom found the convoluted plots of Coeur Brise believable: Mandamans could give the writing team of Days of Our Lives a tip or two.  Truth, it turns out, is far more dramatic than fiction.

Unfortunately, this is directly affecting my work at the health center. I returned from my month of leave in July to find tensions at the already dysfunctional clinic running dangerously high.  Our sole nurse Benjamin, it transpired, had gotten into a fist fight with the president of the volunteer health mobilizers.  Depending on whose version of the story I listened to, my Choose Your Own Truth options were:

A. The president of the mobilizers, Santos, attacked Benjamin, because Benjamin would not give him extra nutritional supplements on the sly to take home to his (not malnourished) wife.  Turn to page 3.

B. Benjamin attacked Santos after Santos confronted him because there are no prices posted anywhere at the clinic (this is true) and Benjamin has been systematically gouging patients and pocketing the extra (wouldn't surprise me, but this is the first I've heard of this accusation). Turn to page 7.

C. Santos caught Benjamin loading up a moto with boxes of UNICEF-donated supplements, which he was taking to Guider to sell on the black market.  Turn to page 12.

D. Santos attacked Benjamin after discovering there were secret liasons between Benjamin and Santos' wife.  Benjamin wooed her with (you guessed it) nutritional supplements. Turn to page 15.

PAGES 3, 7, 12, and 15: However we wound up here, this was the situation as I found it: All but 4 of the volunteer mobilizers had resigned in protest.  Benjamin was refusing to work, also in protest, and had lodged a formal complaint against Santos at the prefecture in Garoua.  Tilirou, the alcoholic chief of the health center, decided the best way to avoid taking sides would be to absent himself altogether by tooling off every day to Mayo Oulo, where rumor has it he holed up in a bar.  Average health services provided on a daily basis: 0.

Although I wanted as little as possible to do with this whole situation, I did take over the distribution of the infamous nutritional supplements, with the help of the 4 stalwart remaining mobilizers.  There was a certain vigilante feel to the otherwise deserted health center, me crouched over boxes of Plumpy Nut with my pocket knife, ripping them open for the mobilizers to give out to mothers and tiny, undernourished babies-- but Tilirou was fine with it, as long as we expected nothing of him.

Then the crisis hit: Benjamin's complaint worked its way through the system.  Police showed up at Santos' house and arrested him, because in Cameroon irritating details like investigations and habeas corpus are dispensed with.  "I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil" is about all that's required.

Now with the arrest, public opinion turned.  Until now Mandama had been feigning indignation, although actually titillated; now Benjamin had crossed a line, and people got angry.  As an outsider and a Southerner, Benjamin is already mistrusted.  In the days after the arrest I heard dark mutterings against him, and wondered if I was actually going to watch him get driven out of town.  There are no pitchforks here, but I'm sure hoes would do in a pinch.

Meanwhile, Santos had been taken to a holding cell, where there was a 3-day window before he was to be transferred to full prison, where he could spend upwards of 20 years in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatory, waiting just to go to trial.  These 3 days were officially to allow the accusation to be rescinded, if Benjamin were suddenly smote by conscience or brotherly goodwill.  The unspoken subtext was that the 3 days were to allow family and friends to put together enough money to make the problem disappear.  As your average gendarme has a moral center that would make Boss Tweed blush, the question on everyone's lips was not whether Santos could pay his way out, but rather who was footing the bill.

The third day, to collectively bated breath, El Hadji Ibrahim-- Mandama's uncontested Don Corleone-- made a dignified departure for the prefecture.  That night the news made its way around  town: "El Hadji gave Santos justice."  I was told this sincerely, with no trace of irony, no indication that anyone realized what a mockery of justice this entire circus constituted.

The Santos Affair seemed to have blown over, but revenge is a dish best served cold, and Benjamin's gloriously public destruction was far from through.  A week later I was back at the health center, again distributing Plumpy Nut.  Suddenly a moto roared through the gateposts, its rider an avenging angel in purple weave and lurid orange pants painted onto thunderous thighs.  My four mobilizers stopped what they were doing and stared, stricken.  "Benjamin's wife!" one whispered hoarsely.  Pulling my village idiot act as usual, I was puzzled-- why should this strike terror into all and sundry?  Why was her demeanor so grim?  How nice of her to visit, all the way from the Littoral; was Benjamin not expecting her?

Several things happened in rapid succession: the mobilizers sprinted off to warn Benjamin, who was in the office.  His wife headed straight for the house next to the health center that Benjamin and the chief, Tilirou, share.  Benjamin came barreling out of his office, the mobilizers hot on his heels, as screams erupted from the house.  The Plumpy Nut was totally forgotten, as the crown of women there for the distribution shifted en masse to have a better view.  All they needed were tubs of popcorn and 24-ounce Cokes to make this a perfect afternoon matinee.

The one mobilizer who had stayed behind explained the situation to me as it played out before its rapt audience: The house is split between four people, he informed me.  Tilirou and his second wife use one side, and Benjamin and the village chief's daughter Rafiatou use the other.  Seeing that I still wasn't getting it, he hinted, "Rafiatou? Benjamin's... fiancee?", the more respectable term prudish Mandamans use to mean "lover".  Santos had threatened to call Benjamin's wife and spill the situation, but everyone thought he was just angry, no one thought he'd really tell on Rafiatou.

As though on cue, the chief's daughter appeared, barefoot and being dragged by 2 mobilizers with the help of hastily fashioned cloth handcuffs.  I half expected to see a scarlet "A" emblazoned across her chest.  Feeling that this was taking things quite a bit too far, I told the mobilizer next to me to at least fetch the poor girl's shoes, and to drop the pointlessly dramatic fake handcuffs.  He did so, and she was bundled offstage to the chief's compound, leaving the spotlight trained on Benjamin, cowering beneath a rain of shrieks and blows.  Hell hath no fury like a wife betrayed, and fury hath no more emotive actor than a Southern Cameroonian.

I had no intention of getting involved in the fisticuffs, but the undisguised glee of the rubbernecking crowd appalled me.  I snapped at the health mobilizers that this was none of our concern, asked them to please act professional, and began reading names from the register in an unnecessarily loud voice.  I was largely ignored.  Eventually the purple-haired wife made a stormy exit, leaving Benjamin to take out his anger by alternately throttling and drop-kicking an unlucky goat.  This might have been stand-up comedy, the way the women laughed, but animal abuse is apparently slightly lower on the public entertainment scale than the death throes of a troubled marriage.  Everyone gradually turned their backs on the hapless goat's bleats of pain, and I was able to finish the distribution.

Benjamin made himself scarce that afternoon, and I have not seen him since, which I thought was his choice.  In fact, I was later informed, his wife lodged a complaint, and Benjamin was arrested, on what grounds I'm not sure-- infidelity? spousal abuse? Both happen so routinely I assumed there were no laws against them, although maybe there are, it's just culturally unthinkable for women to hold their husbands and masters accountable for domestic violence.

As of this writing, I have heard Benjamin payed his way out of jail, but is not planning on returning to Mandama anytime soon, and has requested a transfer to a different health center, preferably far away from the Grand North entirely.  This will leave our health center with 0 nurses and a single absentee chief.

Top that, General Hospital