Monday, January 27, 2014

The End of a Chapter

Tuesday, January 14.  The inevitable finally happened, in a poorly ventilated office in Yaoundé.  In a security meeting about the Guider satellite posts, the country director of Peace Corps Cameroon pronounced four calm words that would shape my service and those of the closest volunteers to me, Becca and Debbie: “Your posts are closed.”  Mandama is no longer to be my home.  My half-completed work here is now, by dictate, done. 

In a way, we brought this on ourselves.  In response to the release of Père Vandenbeusch, the kidnapped French priest, Becca and I requested a meeting with the embassy RSO—regional security officer—and associated Peace Corps staff to discuss what this meant for our safety in bush villages abutting the Nigerian border, and to express our growing unease about our isolation and the impossibility of communication.  Jack, the economic development volunteer in Guider, called me the day before the meeting.  “You realize that just by asking for this meeting, by drawing their attention to your position, you’re increasing the probability that they’ll close you,” he cautioned.  I paused, then voiced for the first time what had been brewing at some semiconscious level since the priest was kidnapped.  “Yeah, I know.  I think that’s the point.”

Since being released from consolidation, my apprehension has become markedly worse.  During the day, I’m fine; I have work, I have friends, and Mandama drenched in sunlight looks like the sleepy village it’s always been.  It’s hardly a dangerous place, and I don’t feel I am at risk.  But nights… well, nights are hard.   As soon as I come back from my neighbor’s compound, I lock all my doors, and endure until the morning comes and brings with it some relief.  I don’t sleep well.  I’ve taken to keeping my dog in the house (or sometimes even in the bed) with me, because it’s a small comfort to wrap my arms around her every time I hear a moto speed by my house coming from the direction of Nigeria.  I’ve had a few stressful false alarms; there was the time I walked out after the last call to prayer to buy eggs for Scipio’s dinner, and heard a group of strange men in the carrefour speaking Hausa.  I panicked, almost running back to my house, where I armed myself uselessly with the biggest knife in my kitchen and sat on the floor of the salon, waiting to be kidnapped.  It turned out they were innocent Nigerian cake-bread deliverymen, who had intended to come in the afternoon but were held up by a flat tire. 

Or worse: tired of being alone in my house, I spent an evening with Dieudonne, an Anglophone friend who teaches at the bilingual school.  Around 9:00 I reluctantly decided I should go home, and he offered to walk me there.  We were ambling down the road when a moto roared up from the other direction, slowing and turning into his compound.   Dieudonne paused, looking back.  “They are looking for me?” he mused rhetorically.  “Who could that be at this time of night?”  Evidently seeing the locked door, the driver turned the moto, and as the headlight swung around I could clearly see that the passenger was armed.  Boko! I thought, throat constricting with fear.  They came by my house first and someone told them where I was!  I didn’t speak—I couldn’t—but Dieudonne must have sensed my terror, as he motioned me off the road, trying to shield my body from view with his as the moto leapt towards us.  Just as I was tensing my legs to sprint into the bush (turns out I’m a flight kind of girl), the passenger waved his semi-automatic rifle and started shouting in Pidgin English.  Dieudonne visibly relaxed, laughing and shouting insults back.  This was a friend of Dieudonne’s from Bamenda who had recently been sent to Mayo Oulo as a BIR, a member of Cameroon’s elite military force.  He had a night off, had gotten tipsy in a bar, and decided to come visit his brother in the bush.  They escorted us the rest of the way to my house, my presumed assailant becoming my very own armed guard. 

These fears are provoked by my overactive imagination—in no cases have I had any hint that there was real danger—but still, these are not entirely unfounded.  Boko Haram’s presence in Cameroon is growing.

I’m not much of a poker player, but the game provides a handy metaphor: you’ve got to know when to fold.  Being in Mandama is a losing hand, no matter how the rest of the game plays out; the question is how long I’m willing to keep upping the ante.  In the worst-case scenario, the game ends with me or Becca kidnapped.  The RSO felt that this was not likely—Boko Haram is involved in not only an ideological but a financial gambit, and the American government is known not to negotiate with terrorists—but neither is it unthinkable.  A second scenario: in a month, or three or six, someone else would be kidnapped, in which case Becca, Debbie and I would be shut down immediately; three strikes, the RSO told us, and we’d be out.  We’d be evacuated and only allowed back with a military escort to gather our things.  At that point, we’d have mere months in a new post, or the similarly unappealing proposition of heading home on interrupted service unexpectedly early, with no time to line anything up for when we got there. 

This third way, then, seemed the best.  Because the impetus was coming from us, and not from the RSO, we were not being forcibly evacuated.  In fact, we were able to negotiate the terms of our departure: a month to close out projects, explain to friends and neighbors what was going on, find counterparts to carry out unfinished work in our absence, and transition to the next stage of our Peace Corps services.  In an ideal world, it’s not what I would have wanted, but it’s more than most volunteers whose posts have been closed have gotten, and for that I’m grateful.

As the meeting came to a close, I realized I needed to figure out my next steps, and fast.  I took the train north that night, plotting in my rickety bunked cot as the train swayed back and forth alarmingly, and spent the next two days site prospecting in the Adamaoua.  I quickly settled on Mbang Mboum—yes, pronounced BANG! BOOM!, like the written sound effects in a Batman comic—a small village an hour north of Ngaoundéré.  It is slightly smaller than Mandama, and has a similar lack of amenities; I’ll be holding on to the satellite phone, as cell phone service is minimal at best, and selling my hastily (foolishly?) purchased refrigerator and fan.  Electricity, you were a cruel three-month tease. 

I’ll have an actual postmate, this time around; although I always referred to Becca as my postie, she was in a separate village 10 kilometers away.  Alizabeth, an agriculture volunteer from the most recent training group, will be my next-door neighbor.  A thoughtful, slender blonde from Spokane with artfully messy hair and a penchant for mismatched skirts and blouses, Alizabeth made us a candlelit dinner of lentils and white wine, and we spent hours talking about environmental impact studies and the dam slated to be built just above Mbang Mboum in 2018.  I have the feeling we’ll get along swimmingly. 

Although not far from the North geographically, the Adamaoua does have appreciable differences in terrain, tillage, and vegetation.  Instead of sand, Mbang Mboum is built on red clay, which in dry season becomes a thick, pervasive dust.  After an afternoon of walking around town, a layer of red earth had settled into every crevice of my boots.  If Guider feels like the Wild West of the gold rush, Mbang Mboum feels like the Kentucky of Daniel Boone.  The Adamaoua, while far from lush, is more fertile than the North; I couldn’t help exclaiming every time we passed a banana tree, and was thrilled to hear I’ll be arriving in high avocado season. 

Alizabeth and I walked out of the village to the south just before sunset the night I spent in Mbang Mboum.  The view was breathtaking, and unexpected; we passed the last mud-brick huts on the main street to see the land fall away to either side.  Before us spread gently rolling fields sloping down to the distant confluence of two rivers, the spot of the proposed dam.  We couldn’t see the rivers themselves, but their presence was betrayed by ribbons of emerald green snaking through dry fields of cornstalks and thorny acacia trees.  It looked like perfect territory to go for a run, a bike ride, or a long thoughtful walk. 

I met the chief of the health center, Engelbert (like Humperdinck, and if anyone gets that reference I’ll give you ten bucks).  He came highly recommended from the last health volunteer, also a displaced Fulfuldé speaker, although from the Extreme North, and also named Laura.  Confusion among the general population expected.  Engelbert was eager to show me around, answering my questions transparently and proudly showing me his records, which were neatly filed in clearly labeled cubbies.  I felt like I could cry.  After fourteen months of dealing with Tilirou, the health center chief of Mandama—he of the unwarranted aggression and inexplicable secrecy, he of the fictionalized, never-submitted supply reports, he of the grimy storeroom stuffed with dusty knee-deep drifts of records and unorganized sheaves of papers—this was like making it to the Promised Land. 

I also met my landlord and concession head, Jodah, who was bursting with excitement and pride to get another volunteer, tripping over himself to show me around, answer my questions, and buy me a heaping platter of beans for my breakfast.  “He’s super nice, and very helpful,” Alizabeth whispered, “but you have to rein him in sometimes.”  I took a cautiously optimistic liking to Jodah, but am wary that this might be the biggest adjustment I’ll have to make.  I currently live in a lovely, light-filled house with a large back yard and garden, and while I sometimes complain about the innumerable children who seem to permanently inhabit my concession, in truth I have a fair amount of privacy.  In Mbang Mboum, I will be living directly in Jodah’s compound, in a much smaller and darker house mere feet from the other houses in the concession.  When Jodah’s wife starts banging dishes at 5:00 in the morning, I’ll hear it.  When I have diarrhea, they’ll probably hear it; my latrine is inside my house this time around, a choice that seems odd to me (who would want that in their bedroom? Won’t it smell?  The hole’s also about a third of the size of my current one, so I’ll need to really up my aim).  The goats and ducks I spotted will doubtless become an intimate—or at least immediate—part of my life.  I asked Jodah about bringing a dog, and he said it was fine, but I’m anticipating that Scipio could cause strife.  I don’t want to make too many assumptions yet, as I’ve only seen the place once, but this is the aspect of Mbang Mboum that I am the most hesitant about. 

On the other hand, this will force my integration into Mbang Mboum, or at least into one family, quickly.  The blessing and curse is that I only have ten months there; if given the choice to hide out in a house withdrawn from public view, I might be tempted to default to introversion and end up making little headway in the community.  As it is, I’ll have children to play with, always; a potential friend in Jodah’s wife; a garrulous Cameroonian Pops in Jodah himself.  And if it’s frustrating?  Well, it is only ten months.

It’s been rough to close out Mandama; although most of my projects were at a place that allowed them to be wrapped up or passed on easily, I hate the look that comes into people’s faces when I tell them I’m abandoning them.  The hardest was the first people I told, my neighbors.  I spent almost an hour surrounded by wives and children, dandling baby Oumaiatou on my lap and chatting casually, before I worked up the courage to break the news.  Djoulaya, the youngest wife, continued stoically kneading a great ball of peanut butter to ease out the oil.  The children, who hadn’t really understood the implications of what I was saying, kept playing, grabbing my limp hands for another clapping game.  But the two oldest wives, Howa and Mairamou, silently turned away from me, pulling their pagne capes over their heads.  Anguish stabbed my heart.  Were they angry with me?  How could they blame me for this?  I wanted to keep explaining, to lay all the responsibility at the embassy’s feet, but then I realized they hadn’t turned away in anger; they were crying.  Fulbé culture values a sort of Spartan strength—women give birth silently, something I thought impossible before seeing it happen—and so my friends had covered their faces to hide their tears from me.  I handed Oumaia to her sister and pulled Howa into a hug, my own face wet with tears.

But as I tell more and more people, I get used to explaining it, and it seems a reality to be accepted rather than raged against.  By the time I told Tilirou the health center chief—who, far from crying, smiled broadly and then leered at me, asking mockingly, “Are you afraid?”—I was able to baldly state my departure as a fact.  My pragmatic side has taken over, organizing my parent’s impending visit to Cameroon and Mandama, the move to the Adamaoua, and the grand opening of Mandama’s Women’s Center, which will also act as my blowout goodbye party. 

And then, at long last, the next chapter of my service will begin.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Bonne Annee

New Year’s Eve day found me and four fellow PCVs setting out from Garoua to track a pod of hippos in the Benoue with Le Maitre d’Hippopotome—the Hippo Master—a self-appointed hippo conservationist and wrangler, and one of Garoua’s resident characters.  We met him Tuesday morning at the bridge that spans the Benoue River south of Garoua.  The area beside the foot of the bridge was already bustling; children hawked palm hearts and kola nuts from trays on their heads, while women poured frothy millet beer, or bilbil, into voluptuously shaped clay pots.  The tangy odor of fish hung over everything, punctuated with whiffs of noxious river mud.

After lively negotiation with a clutter of moto drivers, three PCVs piled on to one moto, leaving me and a youth development volunteer, Santina, to get on behind Le Maitre.  We sped over the bridge and a few kilometers down the paved road before turning off onto a dirt path that led into the bush. 

This was when Santina and I started to realize that Le Maitre, albeit a man with numerous abilities and undeniable hippo charisma, is not a very practiced moto driver.  I had gone out with him once before, almost exactly a year ago, and he had ridden as a passenger behind a licensed moto driver; why he decided this time around to conduct the motorcycle himself is unclear to me, but quickly became a matter of no small concern.  There is a particular set of skills necessary to steering a moto in the bush, among them knowing how to deal with sand traps.  Most moto drivers will slow, stick both flip-flopped feet into the deep drifts of sand, and waddle the moto through the patch until the path becomes firm again.  Le Maitre, on the other hand, tried to gun his way through the sweeping sand, a method guaranteed to fail.

About twenty minutes—and several alarming wobbles through sand—into our trip, we hit the longest patch of deep sand we had yet encountered.  Le Maitre approached it, like the others, with unwarranted gumption.  The moto immediately started fishtailing wildly from side to side; his response was to throw himself forward.  Predictably, the moto flew out to the side, throwing me off and trapping Santina and Le Maitre beneath it. 

Sliding in the sand had slowed us considerably, so neither of the riders tangled in the moto were hurt beyond scrapes and bruises.  I, however, had thrown my arm out to break my fall, and managed to impale my elbow on a rock.   I felt nothing, only the impact of the fall, but as we picked ourselves up and dusted off, I noticed blood running freely down my forearm.  Our friends, seeing that we had wiped out, stopped the lead moto and ran back to check on us.  My friend Brian drew in his breath with a sharp hiss.  I turned my arm; there was a deep inch-long puncture right below my elbow.  Santina helped me pour water over it, nudging out as much sand as possible.  Rachel, an agroforestry volunteer posted in Garoua, offered a thin scarf as a makeshift bandage, and Brian helped me tie it into a tourniquet.  It was just shy of uncomfortably tight, but provided enough pressure to stop the bleeding.

We arrived without any further mishaps in a small fishing village on the banks of the Benoue.  There Le Maitre stored the motos; he and the other moto driver, now wearing the hat of Canoe Paddler In Chief, made their way to the water’s edge with the five of us in tow.  We piled into long, shallow wooden pirogues and glided out into the middle of the river, where we let the current carry us downstream.

Soon enough we spotted the first massive hippo head, eyes and nostrils just breaking the surface of the water, a Mesozoic monster watching us watch it.  Further downriver we could see the rest of the pod, mostly submerged but betraying their unseen bulk with occasional glimpses of a vast arched back.  We eased to the starboard shore and got out for a closer look.

The striking thing about hippos is their size.  Pictures cannot convey the length of their teeth, the enormity of their yawns, or the sheer underwater mass of these creatures, leftover megafauna from a bygone era.  The five of us stayed on land, watching and taking pictures, marveling over their deeply reverberating grunts and seemingly unhingeable jaws gawping and closing like a real-life version of the children’s game Hungry Hungry Hippo.  Le Maitre, on the other hand, waded promptly into the water towards the pod, calling to them in Fulfulde.

“You know, I read about a guy in Garoua who had trained a hippo and rode it in the river,” Rachel mused, as we watched Le Maitre with trepidation.  “Then it killed someone, so they had to put it down.”  She paused.  “I’m pretty sure that was this guy.”  We nodded thoughtfully, digesting this information.  It might have been better to know this before we put our safety in Le Maitre’s hands.  Then again, now that we were this far into it, it might have been better not to know at all—or at least not until we were safely back in Garoua. 

But we were not fated to watch a hippo mauling, at least not that day; Le Maitre finally, grudgingly responded to our beseeching calls and left the water.  We got back in our boats and headed for Garoua, where I had to deal with the hole in my arm.

The worst part wasn’t cleaning the wound.  The worst part wasn’t the lack of anesthetic.  The worst part wasn’t the first stitch, hooked into my skin with a curved needle like a tool for fixing tapestries, nor the subsequent stitching, obscured by blood so that the nurse had to hook the skin several times before pulling it closed.  No, the worst part was the two-ounce shot of penicillin and lidocaine administered straight into my left glute through a terrifyingly, comically, unnecessarily large syringe.  The shot just kept happening, far beyond the point at which I expected the needle to be withdrawn, my muscle aching the more liquid was forced into it.  I limped back to the Garoua transit house and curled up for a stiff, pained nap.

But I woke up from the nap ready to welcome 2014, and even made it out to go dancing at midnight.  Happy New Year from Cameroon; by definition, it’s gotta start on a better foot than 2013 left on.