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.