Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Week in the Life of a PCV: Day Seven

4:30AM  --  WHYYY???   Third time this week that I woke up way too early!  Oh well, guess I’ll make some pancakes and go back to bed!  But not before a standoff between me and Frank the Cabinet Cockroach.

10:00AM  --  Time for church!  Today’s mass was three hours long, and entirely in Ewondo.  So basically I spent three hours day-dreaming, people-watching, and listening to the choir sing along to traditional xylophones.

Even though I rarely understand what’s going on, I find it extremely important to attend mass every Sunday – not for religious reasons, but as a means of integration.  The church is such a huge part of my community. I mean that in a very literal sense; the building can be seen from almost anywhere in the village.  My landlord is a nun.  I live above a Catholic nursing home and steps away from a Catholic health center.  Two minutes up the road is a prestigious Catholic boarding school.  Essentially everyone who lives in my neighborhood is in one way or another employed by the church.  Thus, regardless of my views on religion (because it’s not like I’m following along with the Ewondo priest anyways), I view my presence at church as a way to non-verbally remind people:  “Hey!  I’m here!  I exist!  I’m a member of you’re community!"  

When mass lets out, everyone exits the church and mingles outside on the lawn, greeting each other and exchanging news before parting ways.  This allows people, myself included, to use church as a means to keep in touch with others and to stay informed of community events.  In fact, the hour after Sunday mass has become a crucial tool for planning my weekly schedule.  Today I was able to:
  • Chat with Michel, the fish farmer who I attempted to visit on Thursday but was not home.  We rescheduled our meeting for this coming Wednesday.
  • Clarify some information with Yves, president of JEMA
  • Get information about JEMA’s meeting tomorrow
  • Catch up my friend Marie, who I haven’t seen in over a month
I’ll admit, sometimes it’s a major struggle to get up early on a Sunday morning (mass is usually at 8:30, not 10:00) only to go sit on a wooden bench and listen to a three hour church service in an incomprehensible foreign language.  I’d much rather sleep in, lounge around, or use this time to go running (and sometimes I do).  In the end though, sitting still for three hours is usually worth it, even if only for the post-mass interactions.

2:00PM  --  Home again!  I spent a bit of time practicing guitar.  I bought a guitar a few months back in attempt to pick up a new hobby. (okay, so really it's a new old hobby.  I made this same attempt in high school.)  It’s been a lot of fun teaching myself, but I haven’t practiced since before I went away on vacation over a month ago, and when I tried to play last night: OY!!

After a while, I stopped to read, which very quickly turned into napping.  I had intended to go out for an afternoon walk, but slept through at least an hour's worth of "snoozes" on my alarm... Oops!

6:00PM --  Woke up from my extra-long nap and treated myself to some more fajitas!  Yum!  My Mama called just as I was cleaning up, and we had a nice long chat as we usually do on weekends.  Afterwards, I spent a bit of time preparing for tomorrow's aquaculture lesson with Mr. Ndzana, and then practiced guitar again until I got tired.  Now here I am, snuggled up in bed with my laptop!

That concludes Day Seven of a Week in the Life of a PCV!  Every volunteer’s service is different.  Every volunteer has different projects, different ways of interacting with their community, and different ways of spending their free time.  I definitely don’t intend this to generalize what it’s like for all Peace Corps volunteers; it's really only a reflection of my own service.  On top of that, this week may be entirely different than next week.  Maybe next week I will have seven days packed with work, maybe next week I will have seven days of free time.  Sometimes it’s hard to predict how the week will unfold: some events pop up randomly, just as many meetings get cancelled at the last minute.  Nevertheless, I hope this series of posts helped to give you guys an idea of the projects I’m working on, and generally what my life is like these days in Cameroon. 

Shout out to the lovely Emily Haggett for inspiring this whole little series during our skype chat last week!

Frank the Cabinet Cockroach

Frank and I go way back.  At least three months back.  Yep, he’s been hanging out in my cabinet since at least April.  You see, he crawled in there one night when I accidentally left the cabinet open, and there’s absolutely no way for him to escape unless the cabinet is left open again.  Sure, he could sneak out when I reach in to grab something, but Frank is a very private cockroach – he prefers to stay on the back wall of the top shelf, where he knows I can’t really see or reach.  He wouldn’t dare venture out in plain sight while I’m right there.  But I know you're in there, Frank!  I know. 

Upon discovery of my new squatter a few months ago, I deduced that there were three courses of action that we could take:
  1. I spray Raid into the cabinet, killing Frank but also spraying toxic chemicals onto my food items and dishes.
  2. I leave the cabinet open giving Frank a chance to escape, and then he finds a nice new home…potentially outside, but also potentially in my bedroom.
  3. I keep Frank locked up in the Cabinet indefinitely, he sticks to his top shelf, and I reach in as quickly as possible to retrieve essential items.  We coexist peacefully, albeit mutually terrified of one another.

Poison on my food and cockroaches in my bed do not really sound that appealing.  I chose option 3, and Frank and I have been sharing this apartment for a few months without conflict.

Well, this morning Frank worked up a quite a bit of courage.  Yeah, that’s right:  I accidentally left the cabinet open overnight, and Frank decided that he would go for a jolly little morning stroll across my kitchen counter.  Upon seeing me, he froze – a cockroach in the headlights!   Then he scurried under my stove.

When I finished making pancakes, I left the cabinet open so that Frank could return back to his home, lest he choose to face the deadly can of RAID.   A few hours later, I can confirm that Frank is indeed back on his shelf.

You’re one bold cockroach, Frank.  This isn’t over.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Week in the Life of a PCV: Day Six

9:00AM  --  Rolled out of bed and went for a nice long run. (90 minutes today!)  It was a cool and misty morning and I was greeted by countless sweet “bonjours” from little children, and only a few "la blanche"s.

11:00AM --  Saturday is cleaning day!  I hand-washed some laundry, washed the dishes from last night, and cleaned the kitchen and bathroom. 

12:30PM  --  Pancake time!  PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Office) sent a recipe for banana pancakes in this week’s health email.  Now, America Maria totally would have cringed at the thought of banana pancakes.  First of all, bananas?  Yuck! Second of all, why would you ruin something as delicious as a pancake by throwing fruit into it?!  Absurd!  That said, Cameroon Maria doesn’t despise bananas as much as America Maria does, and I was intrigued by this recipe which only called for two ingredients:  bananas and eggs.

So I made banana pancakes!  And then I ate banana pancakes!  And they were delicious!   (Thank you, Dr. Angela!)

2:00PM  --  I had been waiting for Mr. Mfugue to call me about his daughter’s wedding, but he probably had a bit too much on his mind (understandably), and thus forgot.  In Cameroon, there are three types of wedding ceremonies:  the traditional wedding with the dowry (the groom’s family gives the bride’s family a lot of money and food items:  rice, plantains, bananas, oil, fish, chickens, goats, pigs, beer, wine, whiskey, soda, etc.), a state wedding, and a church wedding.  Today, Mr. Mfugue’s daughter and her fiancé were to be married by the state: a short 30-minute ceremony at the mayor’s office during which they sign marriage certificates, followed by a celebration at home.

The ceremony was to take place “in the afternoon.”  The last state wedding that I attended in Akono was supposed to be at noon and didn’t actually start until 3:00PM.  Unable to get ahold of Mr. Mfugue (his village has no cellphone service), I just assumed that “in the afternoon” probably meant later rather than sooner.  At 2:00PM I walked on over to the mayor’s office, only to find that it was closed.

Hmmm...  I popped into Rashida’s tailor shop to sit and chat for a bit.  When I told her I was waiting for the wedding, she said that a ceremony had just finished, and the party left around 1:45PM to go back to village.  Dang!  (It’s okay – someone showed me a 30-minute recording of it later, and I learned that I really didn’t miss much).

I went home to grab my motorcycle helmet and then hopped on a moto to Mfida 4.

The wedding party was wearing matching pagne on the dance floor while men in fancy suits dozed off in rented plastic chairs on the sidelines.  I walked around back to find Mr. Mfugue nursing a glass of whiskey.  He pulled up a chair for me and he introduced me to his family members as they passed by.  His introduction typically went something like this: "This is my American daughter!  We've known each other for a year, and she visits often.  And you want to know the most amazing part?  Her mother and brother came to visit!  They came here to this house!  Her real Mom!  From America!!"

When it was time to eat, we were assisted to our seats; Mr. Mfugue was seated next to the bride, and I was seated outside with a bunch of lively 20-something year old guys, (who Mr. Mfugue repeatedly came outside to semi-jokingly warn to keep their hands off me, thanks Pop!)

After dinner, they fired up the music again.  I joined hands with a couple young girls and we danced our hearts out for a few songs.

To my left is Mary, Mr. Mfugue's adopted daughter and my good friend.
The other people -- well, I have no clue who they are, but they wanted to be in the photo too!
6:30PM --  Eventually the sun began to set and it was time for me to return home.  I said my goodbyes to Mr. Mfugue and his family, and got a ride back to Akono with some of the other guests. 

Topped off the day by hanging out with a buddy on skype! =]

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Week in the Life of a PCV: Day Five

Today was essentially a “sick day”.  Nothing to write home about, but I’ve made this silly seven-day commitment!

4:45AM – WHY AM I AWAKE?  Ugh.  Unable to fall back asleep, I put on a movie (which took me the next 5 hours to watch because eventually I started drifting in and out of sleep).

10:00AM – Woke up for real.  It rained all morning, I had no obligations and a gross case of the sniffles, so I decided to stay home in my pajamas and spend a few hours studying for the GRE.

2:00PM – Break time for mac & cheese and “How I Met Your Mother”!  Considered going outside to socialize and get some fresh air, but my nose was runny, my eyes watery, my throat scratchy, my head achey, and I simply had no desire to change out of my pajamas.  Poor Maria.   (Complain complain complain!  Can you imagine how much I’d whine if I fell sick with something real such as malaria?  Ha!)

4:00PM  --  Snuggled up under tons of blankets, chitchatting with friends on the interweb while waiting for Michel to call.  Michel is fish farmer who is just starting to dig his first ponds.  We made plans to meet Friday evening; he said he’d call when he’s ready.

4:30PM  --  Still no word from Michel.  Unfortunately, I had written his number on a scrap of paper, and soon after lost it.  I walked over to his house, only to find that he was not at home.  Instead of our scheduled meeting, I went for a brief walk with Michel’s aunt, accompanying her to the boutique where she had left her cellphone to charge for the day since the power has been out in her side of the village for the past week.  On my way home I stopped to chat with my neighbors, Carol and Michael.

6:00PM  --  I keep seeing articles pop up about this guy who has eaten Chipotle for a gazillion days in a row.  Now, I have learned to adapt and be satisfied with whatever food is available to me.  I no longer request certain goodies in care packages and I am not usually discontented by the lack of variety in my village diet.  However, whenever a friend posts pictures or articles about food on the internet, a flood of cravings washes over me and I become immensely aware of all the happy foods that I am missing out on. (I’ve even started compiling a list: pizza, calzones, raviolis, grilled cheese, quesadillas, pretty much anything with cheese, frozen peas, mint chocolate chip ice cream, all ice cream, sprinkles, milkshakes, brownies, brownie batter, brownies right when they come out of the oven and are still warm and gooey, cookie dough, waffles, bagels, Multigrain Cheerios, Life, all other delicious cereals, Pirates’ Booty, goldfish, granny smith apples, candy, candy, candy, chocolate, etc.)

So anyways, reading about Chipotle Man made my mouth water.

BUT WAIT!  I can have delicious food too, if only I put a little bit of effort into it!  I was so tempted to take the easy route and just have oatmeal for dinner, but I don’t know how many more times I can stand to read about this guy who has been eating Chipotle every single day unless I too, get to eat something extra delicious!

So thank you, Chipotle Man, for inspiring me to make veggie fajitas tonight with homemade tortillas!
Om nom nommm!!!

P.S.  Sniffles are the worst!!! 

P.P.S. In hindsight, I should be grateful for how lucky I am to have the medical care and health status that I do.  Many of my Cameroonian friends fall sick with illnesses much worse than the common cold, and either cannot afford treatment or the hospital cannot properly diagnose them.  A close friend has been stuck in the hospital for a week simply because the doctors have no idea what her illness is.  She will need to be transferred to a more skilled hospital in Yaounde if they cannot figure it out soon.  I'll think twice next time I complain about the sniffles!  (And then I'll probably continue to whine anyways, like the big baby that I am.  But at least I'll be more cognizant!)  --Added July 26th

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Week in the Life of a PCV: Day Four

Planting rice with Madame Obama.  May 2015.
8:45AM --  After a nice hot shower and some delicious cocoa oats, I began the walk to Dzamtewutug.  Today was greenhouse day!

So what’s the deal with these greenhouses that I keep mentioning?  Well, really I should be calling them shade houses.  We’re not aiming for climate control – we’re aiming to keep birds out. (Anti-bird houses?)  In Akono, a family can easily consume several kilograms of rice each week.  However, whenever anyone tries to cultivate their own rice to save on costs, birds will come and eat the entire harvest.  In the past, families would have their children spend entire days by the field to chase away the birds.  Then as soon as the kids went home for dinner, the birds would swoop down and eat all of the rice within minutes!  Scarecrows – or “juju for bird and monkey” as Anglophone Cameroonians like to call them – don’t seem to do the trick either.  Consequently, community members have pretty much given up on cultivating their own rice, and instead they must buy it.

The goal:  to teach 50 local women how to construct these shade houses, have them each construct a shade house of their own, and have them cultivate NERICA rice under the shade house’s protection.

It’s estimated that in a 9m x 15m shade house, a family would be able to harvest up to 300kg of rice per year, thus completely eliminating the need to buy rice.

Today we invited the women to a workshop to learn how to construct one of these shade houses.  The “modern” shade house was already complete upon arrival, save for stitching up some seems in the covering.  However, the technicians wanted to demonstrated how we could construct a more affordable frame using bamboo instead of metal poles.

The construction process took all day (discounting our 2 hour late start, because of "African time"), right up until the women left for 4:00PM mass.

(Somewhere along the way, we had lunch… a hardboiled egg and plantain jam sandwich.  It was really… special.)

Watering the rice.
Stitching up the seems.
Attaching the covering.
A team effort to get the screen cover on the bamboo shade house frame.
"Modern" shade house from the inside.
"Modern" shade house from the outside.
Bamboo shade house from the outside.
EDIT:  I had previously made an error regarding the financing details of this project.   

4:00PM  --   Came home to change into pants before taking a moto (motorcycle taxi) to Mfida 4 to visit Mr. Mfugue.  (Mfida 4 is filled with moopmoops – an evil mosquito-like insect that draws blood when it bites and gives you golf ball size lumps that itch for days).

Mr. Mfugue and his wife, Adema,
observing and noting results of a harvest back in May.
Mr. Mfugue is a fish farmer: the first fish farmer that I met in Akono.  He had emptied one of his ponds for a harvest this morning.  Usually I attend harvests, to witness results and to get a bit muddy (the task requires emptying the pond, sinking knee-deep into the mud, and collecting the fish by hand).  Pond harvests are actually my favorite "work" events in my Peace Corps life.  Friends and neighbors come to help out and everyone is jovial, excited to see their success, and knowing that they will eat well and make a bit of money.  Harvest days always end with a jug of palm wine and a feast.  Unfortunately because of the shade house workshop, I was unable to attend this morning's catch.  Nevertheless, I thought I’d swing by to see how it went!

Mr. Mfugue was not thrilled by the outcomes of today’s harvest.  He caught far fewer tilapia than expected (only 700 when he had stocked the 250m2 pond with 500), and both the tilapia and catfish were much smaller than they should have been based on the daily feeding regimen over the past six months.

Nevertheless, he was able to catch plenty of fish to feed his family and guests who are visiting for his daughter's wedding this weekend.

Visiting Mfida 4 is always a pleasant experience.  Mr. Mfugue and his family have become my favorite family to pass an afternoon with.  Mr. Mfugue and his wife Adema are engaged in such a wide variety of agricultural activities that they always have something new to show me.  On top of that, all of their neighbors and family members always welcome me as if I were family (okay, not exactly like family…I never have to do the dishes!).

I spent a few minutes with the ladies in the kitchen-house who were busy making baton de manioc, and then I joined the crowd on the veranda to eat dinner:  fish, cassava, and some palm wine.  Though the conversation was entertaining (subjects included Mr. Mfgugue’s sister’s beard, voodoo dolls, and the high rate of albinism in West Cameroon), eventually I had to pull myself away to make it home before dark.

Mfida ladies making baton de manioc.

6:00PM  --  I waited on the side of the road to flag down a passing car for a ride back to Akono.  Once back in town, I stopped by the bakery to treat myself to a slice of cake (a new addition to the Boulangerie d’Akono!).  Came home, took a shower, planned on saving the cake as a treat for after writing this blog post.  Managed to write one whole sentence before succumbing to my sweet tooth.  Ate the top half of the cake because the bottom half was weirdly soggy.  (My foolishly high expectations were not satisfied.  #1 rule of buying baked goods in Cameroonian boulangeries:  have low-to-zero expectations.  But cake is cake and sugar is sugar so I wasn't totally disappointed!)

And that's a wrap for day four! 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Week in the Life of a PCV: Day Three

Not much going on today, so I'll keep it short and sweet!

9:00AM  --  Wednesday is market day!  Dressed and ready to go, I put on some sunscreen, grabbed my wallet and my market bag, and headed out to buy some groceries.

Akono’s main market day is Wednesday (a couple years ago, they introduced a Saturday petite marché, but it’s not as popular and has less variety).  Whereas evenings were the best time for market shopping in Sanguéré-Paul (anytime before 4PM and vendors would be dozing at their stands!), Akono is a perfect example of “the early bird gets the worm.”  After 10AM, you’ll stand no chance at finding precious items: all the fruit and the best veggies will have already been picked over.

Just as you might imagine, the produce is seasonal.  The types of produce available as well as the price of these goods varies depending on the time of the year.  Currently, we just finished up the season for mangoes and avocados (my favorite season) and are heading into prune and caterpillar season (much less exciting, in my opinion).

The market has a much larger variety of goods besides produce – dried fish, live chickens, secondhand clothing, shoes, jewelry, household supplies, medicines, garden tools, etc.  That said, I rarely buy anything other than fruits and veggies.

Today I spent about an hour wandering around.  I had bought all of my goods in a matter of minutes, but lingered to chitchat with various friends who were also shopping.

4 peppers, 2 onions, 5 tomatoes, 3 carrots, 8 limes, and a bunch of green beans.  Total cost = 1050CFA (just under $2.00).

On my way home, I bought a hearty bean sandwich from Mama Melanie.

11:30AM --  After enjoying my sandwich and copious amounts of tea, I strolled on over to Dzamtewutug to check out the progress of the greenhouse.

The frame had been fully constructed and a local tailor was busy stitching up the screen covering (technically it's a shadehouse, not a greenhouse).  He didn’t seem interested in conversing with me, so I snapped a few pictures and headed home again.

(Tomorrow is a big day for the shadehouse project, so more background information on this project coming soon!)

12:30PM – Mama Sofie, a fish farmer, called to inform me that she had fallen ill and was stuck in Yaounde.  Consequently, she wouldn’t make it to our afternoon pond consultation.  This came as a bit of a relief, as I was beginning to feel a bit under the weather myself.  I decided to just go straight home.

I spent the afternoon hand-washing some laundry, creating a lesson plan for JEMA's waste management project, and studying for the GRE.  As I type this, it’s only 5PM, yet I feel overcome by sleepiness.  Plan for the rest of the night?  I’ll make some tomato soup, put on a movie, and hope that I can stay awake until a reasonable bedtime hour.  (Why isn’t it dark out yet?!)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Week in the Life of a PCV: Day Two.

My morning commute.

9:30AM  --  Up and at ‘em!  I lounged around in bed until the rain subsided (plus a half an hour to give the unpaved jungle roads some time to dry), and then was on my way!  I rode my bike 12km to the cassava farm in Mfida 3, a village outside of Akono.

Tithonia Diversifolia
Whenever I have a Tuesday or Thursday free, I head over to Mfida 3, where I join a group of women on their cassava farm.  While each woman has her own personal farm, this shared plot is an experimental farm.  They’ve divided up the land into sections to test which technique produces the highest yield:  traditional planting methods, “improved” planting methods, with Tithonia diversifolia (a weed that can be used as a natural fertilizer and insecticide that wards off root-eating pests), and without Tithonia diversifolia.  So in the morning, I ride my bike through the jungle til I reach the farm, and then we work until it becomes too hot.  On my first day visiting the farm, the women were a bit skeptical of me: “who is this white girl coming to disturb our productive workday?”  But once I proved I was willing to get dirty and work hard, they warmed right up to me.  They were impressed with my hoe-wielding skills, while I was impressed by how these mamas do this every single day without their hamstrings burning as bad as mine.  These women are amazingly strong and hardworking, and more importantly, they are kind.  Ever since that first day, they welcome me with smiles and hugs, and send me away with a backpack full of mangoes.  I've learned to look forward to their company on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as much as I look forward to the wonderful workout that comes with tilling the Earth.

Mama Alphonsine counting out Tithonia diversifolia leaves.  May 2015.
Mama Helene preparing to plant cassava.  May 2015.

Anyways, I was psyched for a long day of farming, but I arrived at the pond only to find that the ladies decided not to work this Tuesday!  Nevertheless, the ride was not a total waste; my friend Ntie flagged me down as I was riding past.  Together we walked around the farm to observe which parcels were producing well and which were not.  It was hugely evident that the improved methods and Tithonia diversifolia yielded better results.  Ntie explained to me that they had obtained their objectives with this project: the women were sufficiently convinced that these new methods were the way to go.  Because they were able to see the results for themselves, they were convinced and ready to begin applying these same techniques on their own farms.  Success!!

The field today.
I had intended to continue my bike ride to visit Mr. Mfugue, a fish farmer in Mfida 4, but Ntie informed me that Mrs. Mfugue was sick and they had gone to town for medicine. 

12:00PM --  I arrived back to Akono and was suddenly super hungry, so I stopped by Mama Melanie’s food stand for a bean sandwich before going home.  Melanie is my favorite food vendor in town.  During my first weeks in Akono, she won me over as a customer by literally dragging me away from other food vendors and giving me free beignets.  Some days I’ll hang out and help her make sandwiches (at first, clients are annoyed at how long I take to crack hard-boiled eggs or de-bone fish, but they always walk away pleased when they see how generous I am with sauces!).  Today was I was sweaty from my bikeride and didn't want to linger, so after exchanging some village gossip, I took my sandwich to go.

Before getting back on my bike, I ran into Raphael, a fish farmer and the head of the cassava farm that I had just visited in Mfida 3.  We had a nice chat about work before each of us were on our way.

12:30PM --  Not even home for ten minutes before it starts raining!  It continued to rain for the next two hours.  Since farming and visiting Mr. Mfugue were the only things on my agenda for the day, and since they both fell through, I was now free to hang out.  Nobody ventures outside in Cameroon when it rains, so I took advantage of this time and had a guilt-free afternoon of reading and napping.

3:30PM --  I went for a walk to visit some friends, but none of these friends were in their usual stomping grounds:  Carole wasn’t home, Rashida wasn't in her tailor shop, Frida wasn’t at the mechanic’s shop, Patience wasn’t at her bar.  So instead I bought a kilo of peanuts to roast and supplies to make brownies later in the week.

4:15PM --  Roasted some peanuts, ate some peanuts.  Made vocab flashcards for the GRE.

5:30PM --  My legs were tired from my bike ride, but it was such a beautiful day that I decided to go for another evening run.  I returned home just in time for a quick phone call with my Mama!

Overall it was a laid back day.  My main plans fell through, which happens pretty often.  I’ve learned to appreciate days when I can lounge around and read.  Okay…sometimes these types of days drive me crazy.  Sometimes I get frustrated at the slow paced life, wishing for more structure, more work, more "to-dos".  Today though, today it was nice.

Three things that made me smile today: 
  1. My morning bike ride through the jungle was amazing as always, and reminded me how lucky I am to be here.
  2. I had a really nice chitchat with a long lost friend (talkin' bout you, Markalark!)
  3. Sour gummy worms!