Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Women's Day 2010

International Women’s Day: Cameroonians don’t believe this day isn’t celebrated in the United States. “But it’s international… and you are American women. How can you not celebrate it?” Good question. So what is it about women that we celebrate here? We celebrate the equality of women. Our subdivisional officer stressed that it isn’t the government who gives equality to women. It’s each individual woman who claims it. And though a third world country is hardly an easy place for women to claim equality, there are plenty who impress me with their independence and open minds. Just the other day I met a woman in a taxi who told me she’s too young to get married. She’s 28! Most Cameroonians would consider that well beyond the marrying age. She commented, “My house is only big enough for me. Where will I keep a husband? The first bedroom is where I sleep. The second is my office and the third is my dressing room.” I had to ask her, “Don’t people pester you about living alone?” I know I’m asked all the time why I would want to live alone. “Yes, of course,” she replied, “but you simply have to explain to people that you have the right to live exactly as you want. And this is what I want.”

Some argue that women’s day has become all about the women’s day clothing material. They call it a fashion show. You see, every year, a new women’s day material is sold (usually in 3 different colors) and women are expected to buy some and have a dress made. And usually, there is actually a fashion show. I noticed only the women who were wearing this year’s material were asked to march in the parade. It’s unfortunate since the material isn’t cheap and I know many women who would have wanted to buy the material but simply couldn’t afford it. I was happy when the subdivisional officer made a comment about this also. His speech began with, “Women’s Day is not about the tissue.” He reminded us 3 times. I don’t blame him at all.

The Community Health Agents of my village (which was started by my former postmate) gave a demonstration to women on how to use women’s condoms. The demonstration received much snickering and looks of disapproval from the crowd--yet the agents were very serious about their message and offered free condoms to the crowd. I didn’t see anyone refuse a free sample.

I mostly stood in the sun taking photos. The sun was fierce and I noticed a sunburn once I was home. My dress was a simple, traditional “kabbah,” which is similar to a moo-moo or nightgown in the states. It’s comfortable but not my idea of fashionable. However, Cameroonians get a kick out of seeing me in kabbahs. My post mate, Kim, sported a kabbah as well. Hers was a lovely shade of yellow.
That’s it for today!

Monday, March 1, 2010

the value of a colorful sticker

My students take their stickers seriously. All exams are on a 20 point scale so anyone who has 15 or above is rewarded a sticker. This sequence, the stickers feature dinosaurs. I’m amazed at how excited my students get over stickers. I’m almost sure I’m the only teacher who has rewarded them a sticker in their lives. But it’s more than just a sticker… it also means they have a good shot at being a group leader this upcoming sequence.

I might have mentioned how in my classes of younger students, they’re divided into 6 groups and compete for points every sequence. The group with the most points gets rewarded at the end of the sequence. Last year, I changed up the groups myself every sequence and just called them “Group 1, 2,…” etc. Students were complaining that I wasn’t being fair in choosing groups but honestly, it was completely at random. This year, I changed things up a bit. I choose the six students who have the highest average in my class that semester to be group leaders and sort of in dodge ball fashion, they choose who is in their group. I realize choosing teams always leaves the same kids picked last but with the size of my class, it just seemed to work better for everyone. The kids are happy with the arrangement. Group leaders don’t actually choose their closest friends as one might think. And they know who might cause disruption problems if they’re sitting next to their certain students, so they’re very strategic about it. Disruptions cause the entire group to lose points and group leaders definitely keep this in mind. This arrangement has transformed my classroom. I hardly feel overwhelmed by the amount of kids per class anymore. In fact, my younger groups of 70 are easier to handle than the 40 terminales (seniors) who cannot be motivated with friendly competition or candy. What motivates the terminale students? I have yet to find out. Many of them are actually my age and aren’t the least bit intimidated by me. I have to ask these students to leave the classroom on a daily basis.

So, what do I give the winning team in the younger classes? There are about 12 students per group and they get a point added to their final group as well as some candy or pencils, ink pens, etc.

This year, they also get to choose their own group names. Some examples have been: Obama, Champions, Hollywood, Purple Flowers, Beyonce, and New York.

I realize I haven’t posted any school pictures on the blog yet. I’ve never felt all that comfortable bringing the camera to school but there’s only 3 months left. I’ll have to post some soon! Wow, is it March already?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

happy mardi gras!

Fat Tuesday… try explaining “Mardi Gras” to native French speakers. Once I explained it’s a gluttonous holiday before Lent, they understood the concept (sort of). My cat, Gumbo, likes celebrating ANY holiday. He's such a party animal.

To celebrate, we made red beans and rice big easy style. Delicious! Le bien est bien.

My post mate, Kim, and I made a king cake! Well she did it mostly since it was her second time baking one. Of course, that was back in the states. Here, we were met with several challenges. Not only was it a vegan recipe but there’s no food coloring and we didn’t know what to do about filling. We settled with 2 fillings: soy cream cheese (?) or something like it and chocolate. For color, we used grated lemon and lime peel and to make purple, we mashed dried blue berries and cranberries. It worked! I hope everyone is enjoying Mardi Gras. I hear since the Saints won the super bowl, the party just doesn’t stop!

I guess I'm getting better about blogging. Who knew?

Friday, February 12, 2010

youth day

Youth Day was yesterday. It’s something kids look forward to all year (especially if they’re a part of some kind of entertainment). It’s a series of performances and then a parade, which all the local schools participate in. Afterwards, they reward prizes to the best performance and best march in these 3 categories: preschool, primary school, and high school. Last year, I started a majorette squad which was our high school’s “performance.” We did “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, remember? Last year, we won both performance and best march. Well, this year we did it again.

This year, I was a little less optimistic about Youth Day than I was last year. I suppose I became less oblivious to some of the unsettling aspects of the day. Many of these children (even the school’s performers) are given no sort of refreshments and are asked to wait nearly all day standing in the hot sun. Afterwards, some of them have to walk 10 kilometers or more back home. Even the competition winners looked anything but enthusiastic. They were frustrated, hungry, and tired. Also, the parade marchers miss a week of school in order to practice for the parade. I’m left wondering, “To what extent does this benefit our youth?”

Don’t get me wrong… there are some rewarding aspects of the day. The talent show is entertaining and you can tell this is something the kids really enjoy. This happens the evening before the parade. A lot of these kids practice all year to showcase their talents and it’s really enjoyable to watch.

This year, the majorettes did a routine to “Boom Boom Pow.” Their choice—not mine. Last year, I met with this squad several times a week, teaching them to twirl and incorporate dancing to create a routine. Last year, it was a lot of work… but the girls really loved it. And there’s no majorette squad around quite like them (they twirl wooden batons and dance American style to the Black Eyed Peas). This year, however, it wasn’t quite so challenging. The captain and co-captain by now have learned how to keep their squad in order. They hold practices without me. They’ve created routines without me. It’s no longer my squad. It’s their squad. Next year, they’ll do it all on their own. So, is baton twirling the legacy I’ll leave behind? Believe me, it wasn’t the intention I came to Cameroon with. It just sort of happened. I’ve been asked by a fellow volunteer, “What are you teaching this group of girls?” By that, she means it’s no peer educator group or health group or even an English club. It’s not the typical volunteer secondary project. But I’ve seen these girls form bonds with each other. They’ve become confident and learned collaboration and even leadership skills. They lean on each other. They love that they’re a part of a respected squad. And that’s good enough for me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

extended vacation

I’m finally writing about my holidays at home. I've named this post "extended vacation" because yes, I did spend more time than I planned in the U.S. but also because my mind sort of still feels like it's on vacation. Just about every aspect of my vacation was absolutely amazing. As most of you probably already know, Elliott proposed. It was such a sweet moment in the French quarter and my engagement ring is so beautiful. I honestly couldn’t have dreamed up a better moment than that one. A couple of people have asked me to write about the particulars of making a long distance relationship work. But honestly, I have no trade secrets. I’m just lucky that I’m with someone who wants it to work as much as I do. If I can give advice, it would be this: don’t let the odds discourage you but at the same time, accept the idea that long distance might not work out. Either way, if Peace Corps is something you want to do, by all means, take that chance.

While at home, I got to see friends and family I haven’t seen since June 2008 (which is everyone isn’t it?). Most of my friends have new houses, new significant others, and new jobs. Just about all of them have Iphones, which seem to be their 2nd significant others. No offense guys but I was surprised how the awkward American social barrier got even wider with the invention of this gadget. I was happy to see that my best friends are the same people I remember and it was really easy hanging out with them. It was odd, however, to see how some of my family members acted around me. It was as though they didn’t know what to make of me. I was happy to see all of them, of course, but I was sad to feel like I didn’t recognize some of my own family. And I don’t mean I didn’t physically recognize them. Apparently this last year and a half has been hard on some of you guys. I only hope it gets better.

I got stuck in New York for 4 days since I missed my flight to Casablanca. Luckily, Lauren was there to rescue me. She even lent me warm clothes.  It’s been years since I last saw her. We caught up, talked about Cajun food, and she showed me the city. We watched Avatar in 3D! It’s odd how I got stuck there but was it serendipity? I owe you one, Orange.

Now, I’m back in the village. Readjusting to life in Cameroon has been sort of strange. When I wanted to find a new phone charger in Yaounde that first day back, I walked through the market, getting hissed and yelled at. I didn’t miss that at all. It’s impossible to blend in here. It was nice being able to drive to Best Buy with no one paying any attention to me. I also really enjoyed going to the grocery store whenever I wanted. I could think of absolutely anything I wanted for dinner and Elliott and I would get the food we needed and voila, dinner would be ready in a matter of an hour or so. In Cameroon, if you get a craving for something like meatloaf (which happens to me all the time) you have to plan days ahead, usually making a trip for ground meat. None of us have ovens, either, so we have to find other ways to bake things. Oh! And it was nice not having to hand-wash my clothes. However, there are some things about Cameroon I missed. I missed how peaceful it is in my village. I never feel like I don’t have the time to do things I want to do here. I missed my cat, Gumbo and I even missed my students and their enthusiasm. I have less than 5 months here and though I’m excited to get home and plan a wedding, there’s no denying that I’ll miss it here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

still here...

Alright, I’ll attempt to catch you guys up. Summer came and went… really fast. I was mostly busy with Elliott’s visit (1 month) the new training (those guys have already been sworn in as volunteers for almost 3 months now) and GRE studying (eesh). Elliott did a great job detailing his visit. And that actually wasn’t the first time I’ve “broken” a water valve and had to deal with water gushing everywhere. I’m thrilled that I had the chance to share my experience with him. It was a bit odd… that feeling of two worlds colliding… but it was great, nonetheless. We spent a night at the Hilton in Yaounde. It was the closest I’ve been to America in year… I took a hot bath! I drank Heineken and slept on a spring mattress. We had pina coladas and real cheeseburgers. It was absolutely amazing. I felt sorry for the taxi driver who drove me from the airport after I left Elliott there for his return flight. Saying “goodbye” this time was even harder than the first time. Why? I guess because when we were parting ways on that what-now-seems-like-forever-ago day, there was the excitement of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer ahead. All was going to be new and unknown. But this time, I had to take a bus back to my house that now feels well broken into and still had reminders that Elliott had been here. There was his sock on my bedroom trunk and the bottle of wine we didn’t open and even remnants of the mud he tracked all over the floor (heh).
My computer broke in August. Cameroon is not kind to electronics. But now I have a refurbished Inspiron mini. I think these things are perfect for volunteers. They’re affordable and very lightweight yet durable. If you buy one refurbished ($250 and if it breaks, it won’t be such a tragedy like when a relatively new $800 inspiron breaks). I’ve got a portable disc drive (almost bigger than the computer) for when I want to watch DVDs.
School began in September and I was given a schedule similar to last year. I get to teach one of the same classes I taught last year (6em2 which is now 5em2). I wanted to be able to have at least one of the classes for a second year. However, that might have not been such a good idea. Last year, they had time to “figure me out” and they know what they can get away with. I was feeling my way around and they were sort of my guinea pigs. This year, with my other classes, I knew how to begin the year. So far I’ve been in school for two months and I’ve had to discipline NO ONE in the other classes… but the disciplining in 5em2 is on a daily basis. *sigh* But these are the kids (a group of 62) I’ve come to know by name and who’ve come to know me. They hold a special place in my frazzled heart.
My host mom’s sister gave me a new kitten. That’s him you see in the picture. His name’s Gumbo and he chases his own tail. He also eats my electricity bills and farts a lot. But sometimes he can be really cute.
December will be a crazy month since I’ll lose my 2 post-mates. :( Their time in Cameroon is up and now they’re onto bigger and better things (like learning Arabic). They were only a 5 minute walk away and honestly, having Americans nearby, really helped to keep me sane. There were always movie and dinner nights where I could vent in American English and they understood exactly how I was feeling. I love my Cameroonian colleagues but some things just don’t cross that great cultural divide. The good news is that one of my post mates will be replaced with a new: she’s a Tulane student and a registered nurse! I had the chance to meet her and I know we’ll get along great (even if it’s only for 6 months). That’s right, by the time my new post-mate settles in at post in a few weeks, I’ll be three quarters of the way through my service… and I’ll also be leaving for a one month vacation. I get to spend Christmas and New Years at home! (thanks to Elliott )
So, hopefully, I’ll be seeing some of you soon!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My Month in Cameroon: A Guest Entry

Where to start? How about a humorous story? Okay, here goes. On the first weekend of my African adventure, on the beaches of Kribi, we checked into Hotel Le Paradis. Upon arriving at our room, we found that there was no hot water in the shower (not a shock, most hotels we’ve stayed at didn’t have hot water). We could see where the theoretical hot water knob was detached from the wall, and the valve that the theoretical hot water would be dispensed from. Brandi decided that she would attempt to fix this problem. She began to pull the fixture the half inch or so it would take to maneuver the knob back onto the valve, as I said “Don’t force it.” Actually, I had gotten as far as “Do…” when I was hit with a blast of water in the stomach, as Brandi had pulled the entire fixture off the wall, releasing a torrent of water into the bathroom, immediately beginning to flood it. She ran down to the office while I looked around for a knob or something to shut off the water (nothing in there, it was controlled from the outside), and someone came to turn off the water, and show us to another room. This one had hot water (But no working TV).

Here’s another one. We were on the bus from Yaoundé (capital city of Cameroon, where my plane landed) to Bangangte (where we would catch a cab to the town of Bazou, where Brandi’s house is located). The bus pulls over to stop at a small market where someone was getting off, also so anyone could use the bathroom if they wished. A bunch of children run up to the bus selling various food items (Brandi bought some Meat on a Stick, coated with some kind of pepper. Not bad.), and one in particular stuck out. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but afterwards, Brandi filled me in. Here is their loosely translated (based on what I was told) exchange:

Boy (to Brandi): Hey, buy these limes for that big boy there!

Brandi: He is big, isn’t he? Are you jealous?

Boy: No, I am skinny because I run. He probably does not run.

He’s got me there. Little punk.

So what else is there to talk about? Since I’ve been here, I’ve tried various foods for the first time, such as crocodile (was okay, not great. Brandi says the first time she had it, it was much better, but she couldn’t remember the name of the place, so we ended up eating it at another hotel down the road). While in Kribi, we also went to a fish market on the water where they’d have boys catching fish, bringing it up, and you could choose your fish to be grilled for you. We had red snapper (Kuni was right…very tasty). We’ve actually eaten a lot of fish, often with a sauce of some sort (Brandi says her favorite is the peanut sauce, and it is excellent). And the spaghetti omelets, a staple of Cameroonian breakfasts, were very good as well.

Also, we got together with Brandi’s host family (the family who she lived with for the first few months, and who helped integrate her into the culture), and took a car to Foumban, where we got to see the old palace, which had since been turned into a museum. It was pretty nice, got to see some artifacts and such going back around 700 years. We also did some shopping, where Brandi’s host mom took over with some shrewd negotiating. Well, it would be “negotiating” for most people, she tells the merchant what she’ll pay, and will not budge from it at all. And more often than not, she gets it. Got me a pretty good price on some stuff, too. Oh, and on the way out, we saw the chief, just chilling on his porch, reading a book.

Besides that, it’s been a lot of hanging around at Brandi’s house in the town of Bazou, preparing meals (lots of rice and pasta, and some sandwiches, mostly), doing laundry (by hand, hanging out to dry), and generally living the African life (Cold shower or bucket bath? Take your pick.). Honestly, the accommodations aren’t bad. We have electricity (most of the time), and running water (cold only), so it isn’t as primitive as one might think.

That’s about all I have for now. Today’s my last (full) day in Bazou, tomorrow we head back to Yaoundé, and on Monday, I’ll begin another 24-hour journey to get home. So, I guess I’ll see (some of) you in a week or so, and maybe I’ll have more detailed stories too. Until then, this is guest blogger Elliott Kuhn, signing off.