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.