Thursday, August 28, 2008

More photos!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It's Official: I'm a Peace Corps volunteer

On the 22nd, we all swore in at a ceremony in Bangangte, where all of our host families and town officials came to support us. The chief, the mayor, and a representative from the embassy came. It felt like graduation, and essentially was a sort of graduation. I’m the only volunteer really close to Bangangte, so when I presented myself and named my program and post, I got a big round of applause. I sort of felt like a celebrity (?). Afterwards, there was a lunch for the volunteers and their host families. It reminded me of high school, where after graduation, a bunch of families went to Toby’s restaurant to celebrate. I tried to tell my host mom that I got déjà vu of my experience after high school, and I think she got it, but who knows? My host parents have called me twice now to make sure I’m okay and I’m not too lonely. Aren’t they awesome? After dinner, I was approached by the mayor of my post, who said he considers himself my second papa and that I can go to him if I have any problems. I was also approached by a woman from Bangangte, who worked with the volunteer I’m replacing. She has a center in Bangangte for girls who have quit school for one reason or another. She teaches them a trade so that they’ll be able to work. Essentially my job would be to teach them English and maybe some computer skills. I think I’m meeting with her in a couple of weeks. We’re encouraged to have secondary projects, and this one sounds pretty interesting. If it doesn’t work, I’ve got some options in my village. One of my post-mates (remember there’s a married couple in my village), is thinking about starting a girl’s club. So, depending on the amount of work I’ll have, I think I’d like to be involved.

I’ve been in my village since Saturday and so far, everyone’s been really nice. My counterpart, the vice principle at my school, was responsible for setting up my house. It’s been painted, cabinets have been built, and modern toilets were put in (with two flushing options.) I know, right? I have to say it’s a bit fancy. It’s also pretty big so it’s awkward having a big house with nothing in it. I’ve got a bed and that’s it. It’s also not my bed because the school is building me my own bed with a table and some chairs, but it’s not done yet.

Yesterday I went to the provincial capital to do my banking and found a few things I knew I wouldn’t be able to find in Bangangte or Bazou. I found a really nice iron, a stove top, frying pan, peanut butter, cinnamon, various spices, oatmeal, some utensils, cheese, and a few vegetables you can’t find around here (cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant.) I’d love to able to fry some eggplant but I have no gas for my stove yet. That’ll happen tomorrow in Bangangte. Market day’s tomorrow so I’ll see what I can find. Oh, so to give you an idea of what buying things in the market place is like, I’ll include a passage I wrote to Elliott, describing the process:

It was weird walking around the market buying things. I had to bargain, which really sucks. Like, I go up to the guy I bought a few things from and I’m like, “How much is this?” Referring to the frying pan, he was like 7,000. So, I do what my host mom would do and I gasp and say, “That’s a ridiculous price!” Then I say, “My friend, give me the good price,” and he goes “6,000,” and I gasp again, and say “2,000.” He says “5000,” and in the end, I pay 4 and buy a few things more from him, telling him if he gives me good prices, I’ll buy more and come back to him for other items… so he did. He gave me a stove top for a really decent price. Twelve thousand. Really not bad for a stove. And that’s how you do it… for everything! So, it takes forever. Sometimes you have to walk away. Buying my pillow and sheets took at least half an hour because the vendor wasn’t negotiating, but when I’d walk away, she’d take a little off… until I said, “This is my offer. And that’s it.” And she said, “Ok, give me the money.” It’s so funny and annoying. But I feel like I have to bargain. I can’t stand being ripped off.

I’ve also placed an order for a couple pieces of furniture for the kitchen: a piece for the stove and gas and a large shelf for foods and utensils. I suppose after that’s finished, I’ll start to worry about a bookshelf and some furniture for the living room. It won’t pay me to go extravagant here since I’ll only be here for 2 years… and I did have plans to live modestly. I already feel like my house is a bit too much, especially since I wanted to live like the people around me and since I knew I’d be living alone. But if you look at my neighbor’s houses, I think you’d agree that there’s a difference. But, it’s a nice place and it fits the Peace Corps requirements for security.

School here starts September 8th but I was told not to expect the students to show up for a week. That’s fine. I’ll use the time to get books, resources, and set up schemes of work and lesson plans. I really need to start thinking about my job as an educator. It’s a complicated process here. Lots of paper work and things to consider. But, it’s essential to plan, right?

So far, I really have no complaints. I live in a nice house in a beautiful village with nice people and two super nice volunteers who help me a lot. My counterpart’s great. I’ve made a few friends in the market who told me where to find things. There’s also a restaurant, where I’ve been eating my meals and the guys there are really nice and they know how I like my coffee. I don’t even have to tell them anymore. They also know how to season my omelets and bean sandwiches, without it being too peppered. In general, the people around here season their foods A LOT, even more so than Cajuns. I’m serious. You’d think being from Acadiana would have prepared me for spicy food. No. Everything is incredibly spicy. I’ve also got two pepper bushes on the side on my house. One is a yellow pepper that’s really popular. It’s just referred to as “pimont,” and there’s another bush with tiny red peppers. I was told these are extremely hot. I’m wondering if they’re chipotle peppers? I’ve seen some pretty cool plants here. I’ve got a ton of banana trees all around my house. I’ve got a papaya tree and I think there are some sweet pea plants around my house. Lantana grows a lot here and so does hibiscus. Mango season is over. Ugh. But I hear the pineapples get better after rainy season. Also, the watermelons are coming up. I can’t wait till they’re nice and sweet.

Well, that’s the gist of my move to post. It really wasn’t bad. And I’ve been sleeping well, even if it’s on a thin piece of foam. Oh, let me take this opportunity to wish my sister, dad, grandmother, and A’mya happy belated birthday! I hope I didn’t forget anyone. Oh, I’ve got a different phone number at post, since MTN doesn’t really work well here. You can e-mail me for the number. Love you guys!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Training comes to its end

(Editor's note: This entry written August 16th.)

Bangangté has offered me a wealth of experiences and has essentially introduced me to life in Cameroon. I only hope the knowledge I've gained here will help me once I get to my village. So far, I can say I have a limited base of French that I can build upon, some knowledge regarding Education in Cameroon, and a few aspects about the culture. Peace Corps, at one time, used to send volunteers to Cameroon, drop them off at their post and say, "Okay, here it is," and that was it. I suppose the idea of some cross cultural training came up not long after. Thank the "gods" because I may have seriously panicked if I would have been "tossed in the water" my first day. As it is, I'm still nervous about being a volunteer and I've been in Cameroon for nearly three months.

Tomorrow the trainees are heading to Yaoundé to set up some banking and essentially do all the necessaries that are involved for the end of training. We will travel back to Bangangté on Wednesday, have our swear-in ceremony on Friday, and head to our villages on Saturday. The ceremony should be interesting because all 36 trainees bought the same tissue to have outfits made out of. We'll all be dressed the same. Should make for interesting photos, I imagine. I'll be sure to share those with you eventually.

On August 23rd I will toss all of my bags into a "trés grande" house, complete with a huge living room, kitchen, 3 bedrooms, two baths, and a functioning doorbell. (Not what I expected when I signed up for Peace Corps). However, I'll have plenty of space for visitors and dance parties.

Today, the trainees presented their cross-culture presentations. We were assigned a project to explore and we were supposed to give a fifteen minute presentation in French on the subject. My subject was "witchcraft in Cameroon," which amazed and frightened me at the same time. It's amazing the scale in which witchcraft apparently affects life here. Sometimes, AIDS, malaria, and all sorts of things is blamed on magic of some kind. I say witchcraft, but it's really a term that should be taken loosely because there are all sorts of magic that exists here. There's the evil kind, the kind that heals, and the kind that helps people with all sorts of other tasks. Keep in mind I'm just telling you what I learned in interviews. I haven't experienced anything first hand and I have no opinions on the matter. I was also told that people are believed to sacrifice family members to "get ahead" in business affairs. I hope I never find out whether this is actually true or not. This is just a small amount of the information I received. If you want more, e-mail me… I have to be careful what I write in a public blog.

Speaking of this being a public blog, my friends and family are telling me people actually read this, so now, I feel pressure to make it interesting. I do keep a journal that I write in just about every day and recently I wrote about an experience in the market place. It's not amazingly poetic but it's something to share:

"So, today I spent some time in the market and realized that just because I'm American, I may have not gotten the best bananas that a vendor had to offer. Because I don't know any better. It's true, I can't figure out what makes one banana better than the other and I don't think I have the guts to demand anything other than the bananas I'm given. I even heard the women tell the boy selling me, "She's an American." And he grabbed different bananas. Damn it. I've lived in America all my life and haven't learned the simple art of appreciating and learning fruit… and maybe vegetables too. Now that I'm in Africa, I see people collecting it from the trees and from the earth every day. I see people haul it to the market on huge wheelbarrows. So, I'm determined: if there's one thing I'm going to learn in Africa it's going to be the "art" of fruit. I'm going to learn which fruits are better than others and how to tell what's the tastiest just from looking at the outside. My host mom can do it. She can look at a pineapple and tell which one is sweet and which one is sour. Sadly, they all look the same to me. But one day, I'm going to get the best fruits that vendors have to offer. That way when I go to a grocery store in the states, I will know what's really behind the life of fruit. I won't ever take it for granted. At least I'll try my hardest not to. And in truth, I have a feeling that once I taste the fruit from the grocery store, I'll quickly realize that even the fruit meant for "the American" will probably have tasted better than anything I can toss in a bag at Wal Mart. Damn you, Wal Mart. I don't miss you. Not at all."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sacred Forest

(Editor's note: This entry written August 1st)

So, we've been in Bangangte for almost two months now and we're just now learning that there's a "sacred forest," which I don't know much about yet, but I'm pretty interested in. I mean I see it every day… I just had no idea it was "sacred." What exactly does that mean? I've heard that's where the animal spirits live. There's a belief that people of the village share a soul (?) or something of this nature with an animal and if the animal is hurt or dies, something ill happens to the person. I'm not completely sure as to the details, but when I find out, I'll let you know. We're visiting the chief of the village on August 10th (I think) and I might just ask him to tell me some stories about the sacred forest.

This week we've been continuing with model school and I've been teaching the terminales and sixiemes. A brief education lesson: In Cameroon, the lycee (or high school) has seven levels. It begins with the sixiemes, and continues on to the terminale class, who takes the Baccalaureate so they can go to the university. If not, they repeat terminale. During model school, I have taught only sixieme and terminale and nothing in between; this is a huge jump in grades. Essentially, I teach beginning English to 9-10 yr olds and then I teach Intermediate English to 18 year olds. Well, actually some of those kids are my age, if not older. In my sixieme class, I've just had to make learning a game so that they stay interested. Otherwise, I have problems with discipline. In my terminale class, I teach argumentative essays and my biggest problem is getting them to form their own opinions. Unfortunately, the education system is designed so that students copy work, memorize work, and take the exam. There's no critical thinking at all. Just marks. That's all that matters. When I asked my students to give me an opinion, I got stuff like, "I think my mother went to the doctor for medicine." And the English was good, but no opinion there. So, I was like, "Well what do you think about it?" Eventually, I got some opinions and after a couple of days, we were writing outlines for argumentative essays. The sixiemes, on the other hand, are learning parts of the body. It's such a transition. But, it's beneficial for me because I've learned that's what I'm going to be teaching when I actually go to post. I'll also have quatriemes for 3 hours a week. I'm not worried. They're somewhere in between, right? My main concern is preparing the terminales for the Bac, which is pretty difficult. I've seen it and it's not very easy. One volunteer told me in his terminale class of 100, only 4 passed. This actually breaks my heart. I want to prepare them for the exam, but this late in their life, how can I teach them to march to the beat of a different drum? It's difficult; more so than I thought, actually.

Swearing-in is only three weeks away. My God, time has flown by. I can't believe I'm leaving this town so soon. I only just go to know my host family. I only just got to know the other trainees. We'll all be splitting up and spreading out across the country. My biggest fear once I get to post in the loneliness I know I'll feel at first. It's actually pretty normal. That first night I fear will be torture. I will be, for the first time in my life, completely alone. Right now, I'm only a trainee, so I don't know exactly what it means to be a volunteer on my own just yet. That will be "Brandi time," when I'll be forced to really get to know myself. I suppose I'll need gloves for all that dirty work.

Yesterday, I received a care package from Elliott. It takes me a month to get them but it feels like Christmas when I do! I got music, and a series, and some snacks! Oh me oh my, was I happy. Someone has to send some books because I'm coming to realize I'll have plenty of time for reading. Seriously. I've already gone through the Chronicles of Narnia and three other books. And I haven't been here for two months. Used books are the best… don't buy new ones. Also, I'm so jealous of you guys who get to read Breaking Dawn when it comes out tomorrow. It's an awful pain I feel in my heart. But I'll be getting it in about a month so no spoilers, please. It'll be torture waiting. Will Bella really become a vampire? The suspense is terrible.

I just want to say I really miss my friends and family. Corey and Amy, I miss you oh so much. Tell me what's going on in your lives. I want to thank my friends at the BN for the photos and the emails. Thanks Nathan, Arlecia, Roz, and Erica! Once again, it feels like Christmas to get so much info. You have no idea how much I already miss my job at BN. Although Peace Corps is great, there was an undeniable comfort working amongst people I felt I could talk to about anything. That's hard to come by here. I miss being able to just get drink and wings and chat all night about difficult customers. Don't take those hot wings for granted, folks. I really miss them. Some of us trainees have had conversations about food back in the states that have lasted an hour or so. We all really miss it. When I get home, I'm going to eat loads of Mexican food. And I'll have to ask my dad to cook my favorites. He knows what I'm talking about.

Tomorrow, we're having an 80s dance party and I'm pretty excited about it. I'll try and take some photos. I'm just excited I get to stay out till 9pm. I'm serious. I have a curfew of 6pm. The Peace Corps curfew is actually 7pm but mine is 6 because that's what my host mom prefers. I tried the whole, "But I'm 23 years old," think but in her eyes, I'm her child, who can't be out in the dark. It's interesting.

Well, that's all. Till next time…