Posted by: Matthew | Mon: April 20, 2009

Seasons and Chickens

Well its been quite a busy few months since I last posted. Late February and early March mark the end of the dry season and the beginning of the hot season. The hot season sneaks up on you as the heat and humidity slowly build like the suspense in a well written thriller until, by the end of March, you feel like it engulfs you and becomes the most prominent thought of your every waking moment. Then just when you think you can take no more (and sometimes then some!), that your brain has been permanently fried beyond repair by the constant damp inferno that Batouri has turned into, the crescendo climaxes as the first glorious thunderstorm of the season breaks in a spectacle of swirling, blinding dust, light, and thunderous commotion, drenching the town in the cool delicious rains that signal the arrival of the first wet season. The downpour wipes away the layer of dust plastered on everything by the dry harmattan winds that blown down from the parched Sahel during the peak of the dry season. This rusted dust covers everything so that the sky, the bush, and the town all blend together in a monotone reddish-brown muck. But now the thunderstorm scrubs the air clear of any lingering harmattan grime leaving a sparkling blue sky with white puffy clouds and an astonishingly green and vibrant landscape whose existence I had almost forgotten about under the dust. The pulsating color that surrounds me on the first day after the first rains is beautiful and it is one of those days that make all the shitty days seem worthwhile.

I think I wrote a blog about the end of the dry season last year, so sorry if this one is repetitive. For me, however, this remarkable transition deserves another blog entry.

But back to the ‘real world’ of work…

Quite a lot has been going on actually work wise. We’ve received the money for the chicken project and stated that, I went to the extreme north region to give some training and I started working with a quite impressive handicap association (I don’t know if ‘handicap’ is PC anymore stateside but that’s literally what they call themselves here – Association des Handicapés).

I’ll start with the chicken project since that’s probably what most of you are interested in. So we received the money in late February and right away the group called up the agriculture expert and started the training. Right away I was pleased with what I saw. The teacher, the ag expert, was surprisingly well versed in adult education techniques- a refreshing change from the normal Cameroonian educational approach (a relic of the French colonial system) of rote memorization via shouting and yelling.

Unfortunately the participation among most the youth was abysmal. Granted it was during the school year and I know it’s the youth that do all the cooking, cleaning and caring for younger siblings. Luckily, as always our ‘chef du projet’ Manga, was there to pick up the slack with his fastidious note taking and wonderfully inquisitive questions that showed he was absorbing the material.

There were some serious issues that came up in this section though, such as finding that we under estimated the budget for the food for the chickens by a whopping 50%! Running through the calculations we found that the project is still viable but will just have to cut the number of chickens in half. Later however we found that we could recoup most those lost profits by raising two fields of corn and using that to make our own chicken feed.

Unfortunately, seeing as the fields are tilled, seeded and harvested by hand, this seriously increases the work load for the project.

We have also had problems with fluctuating prices on everything from chickens feed to vaccines to the chickens themselves. Luckily none have been to great to overcome with a little tweaking on our part, but it is still often a cause for some stressful hair grabbing.

Then they dove right into the construction of the coop following the guidelines learned in the training sessions. Here again Manga took up the slack of the youth who didn’t show and bared most the burden but at least we finished in time and on budget! Now we’re waiting on our order of chickens that we placed in Bertoua to be ready, at which time we’ll heading on over to pick up our first load. Then, finally, we’ll actually be raising chickens!

I tried to put up some photos of the progress on my flicker site (viewable from the links on the right side of this page) but the internet is hopelessly slow (but at least its working). It was a struggle to get even this entry up. Speaking of, I think I am stretching my luck with the electricity so I should get this up before they turn of the generator for lunch. I hope everyone is doing well!

Posted by: Matthew | Mon: March 16, 2009

Alcohol

I am going home from the center of town after scrounging around for some dinner on the night after the “Fête de Jeunesse” or Youth Day. Youth day usually consists of a march of all the local schools and youth organizations mid morning (replete with salutes in a style probably illegal in Germany) followed by a night of general debauchery. Alcohol abuse is already a problem here (the education volunteer just caught her 7th graders doing a brisk business selling whisky in her class), but any lingering inhibitions against inebriation or tossed to the wind on youth day. I’ve been told this is the day for the youth, who are so sexually repressed normally (haha I can’t even type that with a straight face- that could not be farther from the truth) to really let loose and unwind a bit. Needles to say it’s not a pretty site.

Tonight I wonder down the row of “bars” between the meat stand where I usually buy from and the motto stand. The street is loud tonight, choked with all the kids I had seen marching in the parade this morning spilling and stumbling out of the bars clutching whisky sachets or beers that cost a day’s salary. I usually don’t get bothered too much anymore now that more people know me (or at least ‘of’ me) but tonight I get plenty of drunken ‘oooh le blanc!” and “ooooooo bwhee!” and so fourth. Getting to the motto taxi stand I search first for a Muslim driver, then failing that I spot a driver that isn’t laughing and surrounded by friends, one sitting by himself looking lonely. I figure that if I had to make a guess he would be the one least likely to be drunk and thus the best ride home for me. Of course as I get closer I see a half empty whisky sachets dangling out the corner of his mouth, just as he sees me and starts beseeching me to buy him another because, after all, its youth day and he’s a youth (he does look about 15)! I figure this might be one of the only places you’ll hear people asking you to buy them alcohol to celebrate them being a kid. Moving on the to next guy, he wants to charge me 50% more for the motto ride because it had just rained today and the road to my house always turns into a big mud whole, especially now that they had just “leveled” it. Finally the third guy agrees to take me for the proper price (20c) so I hop on and hang on as the noise, the bustle, the deranging of downtown Batouri thankfully drops away behind me to be replaced by the peaceful croaking of frogs and chirping of insects in the swamp near my neighborhood. On the way back we pass for the “police car” of our district. I noticed that he must be sober tonight as he wasn’t driving around with his lights flashing.

I don’t mean paint the whole country with one brush and call them all alcoholics, but it is defiantly a huge problem among the non-Muslim populations (generally the southern half of the country). I’ve walked by people at 9am sitting around getting drunk on palm wine asking me for money to take the sick infant in their arms to the hospital because they can’t afford it. The incredible absurdity of such situations used to make me livid, especially when the wrong people pay for it (the child died). I’ve tried reasoning with them before but their doublespeak and specious logic would make even a Bush administration spin doctor blush. I just have to keep in mind that for every 7th grader selling whisky in class there’s another walking 4 miles to class after getting up to work the fields, just to learn algebra. For every drunken father there’s one working twice as hard to pay for his children’s education. Unfortunately it’s the drunken fathers that make the most noise while the one toiling in his field does so quietly and unnoticed, and all to often unrewarded.

Posted by: Matthew | Thu: January 29, 2009

Family reunion in Addis!

I owe everyone a very big thank you- only one month after being posted on the Peace Corps website the youth group project has been fully funded by your very generous donations! I am working to get a list of everyone who donated so I can thank you individually but that might be a lengthy process knowing the bureaucracy of Peace Corps Washington. Now, as soon as the money arrives in country we will be able to start both the construction of the chicken coop and the training of the youth on chickens raising techniques by the local agricultural expert (Aunt Emily, I would love any advice, knowledge or expertise that you have on chickens, you can never have too much information!). Then, after this first month we will start buying the first group of 35 chickens from Bertoua and we will be off and running! I will do my utmost to keep everyone informed of the developments of the project through this blog.

As excited as I am to start work on this I am in the middle of a wonderful vacation/family reunion/wedding in Ethiopia. In fact I am typing this in a from the Simien mountain lodge, perched high on the edge of the Ethiopian highlands with an out-of-this-world view of the ~1700m (5600ft) drop to the floor straight below me. We decided to have a family reunion this winter in Ethiopia so we could go to our friend (Adi)’s wedding. Although I think it would have been a bit more relaxing for a vacation to get away from the frustrations and delays that usually accompany the developing world (especially when traveling in one) now that I’m here there’s no where else I’d rather be. Adi’s wedding in the capital, Addis Ababa was a wonderful, although long affair. We were only there for 2 days of the week long event, but that included a reception of around 1,000 people, lots and lots of dancing and singing, and LOTS of food! Besides getting to see Adi and her family again we also go to see quite a bit of the city. At 2,450 m (~8,000 ft) it’s quoted to be the third (but probably is actually the fourth) highest capital city following La Paz in Bolivia and I’m guessing Quito in Ecuador. To me the city feels strangely like Cairo might on a massive dose of chill pills. Plus, after the somewhat aggressive (and some might say abrasive) nature of Central Africa, the tranquility and politeness of Amharic culture was certainly a breath of fresh air, even if their language is essentially impossible.

After the wedding we headed up with Adi, her new husband Samuel, and her brother (who kindly drove us up in a UN car) and sister to see some of the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Although the road wasn’t in the best condition (to say the least) the drive did provide for some spectacular scenery, including the Blue Nile gorge (which in terms of size would give the Grand Canyon a run for its money, and is also the river that gave the life giving annual floods to the ancient Egyptians) and some breathtaking mountains. I can say that I don’t envy the Ethiopian Peace Corps volunteers for the simple fact that I would be terrified to take the public buses on these winding unpaved roads twisting around cliff sides and 1000ft drops.

Perhaps the best, albeit sobering part of Lalibela however, was getting the chance to see the village of Demis, a child my parents have been sponsoring for the past couple of years through Plan International, who lives in a small mountain side village about an hour from the town. It was amazing to see the how different yet similar village life seemed as compared to Cameroon. One moment I would feel like I was back in the East province of Cameroon then the next it would seem like I was on another planet. For a continent that is consistently lumped into one amorphous entity called “Africa” this places never ceases to amaze me with its kaleidoscope of radically different cultures and its varied environments. It amazes me to see the infinite ways in which different people adapt to the same challenges of feeding, clothing, and educating their people. Yet at the same time many aspects remain the same. No matter whether people build there house from the bamboo and red clay of eastern Cameroon or the eucalyptus poles and dark volcanic soil of the Ethiopian highlands, the impression of the structures arising as part and parcel of the earth itself rather than something foreign rudely stamped over it, the feeling that they are an extension of the surrounding environment that could at anytime melt back into it without a trace, remains the most arresting feature for those visiting from the industrialized world.

I am not trying to romanticize the hardships and the deprivation that also often accompanies those living in such circumstances. It’s all very easy to talk about this oneness with nature and then head back to my comfortable bed for the night, and I would venture that a large majority of those living in such conditions would gladly give up their earthen homes for a western style house with all attached amenities. Nevertheless, as a tourist it is hard not to revel in the ‘rustic’ beauty radiating from such scenes and celebrate their earthly splendor.

After Lalibela Kendra and Dad had to get back to work, mom and I, having no such reservations continued, on to “the Camelot of Ethiopia”, otherwise known as Gondar, and then to the Simien Mountains. While the “Camelot” comparison might be due more to the creative imagination of someone on the local tourist promotion board than any actual likeness, Gondar was my favorite place that we visited in the country. It served as the capital for many Ethiopian kings from the 17th-19th centuries, ending the interesting tradition of temporary capitals composed of royal tents. The center of town is dominated by a beautiful park holding their ruins, most of which are in decent condition. Set smack dab in the middle of town it was a wonderful place to get away from the hustle and bustle of town, and served as a great vintage point to look down on the beginnings of the ‘Timkat’, or Epiphany celebration that was starting to get underway ( the Ethiopian church celebrates it on January 19th).

After a very short stay in Gondar (in accommodations that fell somewhat short of the Hilton, and for which I am very proud of my mother for staying in!) we headed to ‘the roof of Africa’ or the Simien mountains. A plateau laying mostly over 3200m (10,500ft) and peaking at 4570m (~15,000ft) I did feel like I was on the top of Africa. To make it more spectacular the escarpment is sliced by multiple canyons and valleys that plummet abruptly to the semi-desert African plane thousands of feet below. And just to top it off the Simiens contain the largest gatherings of primates (besides humans) anywhere in the world. Groups of up to 600 geladas, as the Baboon like animals are known officially, are not unheard of. These creatures live their whole life on the dramatic cliffs, sleeping deep in the gorges to avoid the leopards and hyenas then coming up to the plateau during the day to feed on the grasses and tubers. A short hike from our lodge (claimed to be the highest hotel in African at 3260m or 10,700ft!) our guide found us a group of geladas. Sitting in the midst of a group of maybe a hundred geladas who appeared only mildly nervous of me and just watching and hearing them feed and fight and play with the dazzling mountain vistas as a backdrop was one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.

However vacations always must end, and as this one draws to a close I mentally prepare to head back home I find that I am not dreading it so much as I was last time I left in June. Cameroon is now undeniably and completely “home” and I actually look forward to getting back to the familiarity of it. I will be sad to leave the wonderful hospitality and friendliness of Adi’s family who looked after us as if we were family, as did most of the Ethiopians we met. Nor do I treasure leaving the dazzling scenery and delightful climate here, but I’ve made Cameroon home and I have less than a year left so I might as well make the most of it! The next time I leave the country it will be for good!

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, and for those of you in the northern hemisphere I hope it wasn’t too cold. Hopefully this last Christmas will be the last one I have to spend away from family. I need to start making plans to get to Florida, Georgia and Ohio!

Posted by: Matthew | Tue: December 9, 2008

Another long overdue update!

Once again I should apologize for the inordinate delays in posting. 3 months is a long time, and especially with the amount of down time that I get you’d think I’d manage to keep my blog a little more current. So today on the trip back from Ndélélé, as the goat and the two sheep on the roof got in yet another brawl and threatened to bash the top in with their hoofs, I vowed to sit down and share a little of what’s been going on in the East province of Cameroon.

Not surprisingly quite a lot has happened since September both good and bad. Let’s start with the bad so we don’t have that hanging over our heads.

Rachel (my stage mate and closets volunteer outside of Batouri) lost her counterpart on thanksgiving. He had had bad diarrhea then four days later died. I didn’t have much interaction with him, only occasionally when I would be in Ndélélé (Rachel’s village) but he was known throughout PC as a honest and hard working person. In fact the first time I traveled there, on the back on Benoît’s (my counterpart) moto in a trip from hell, he helped me tell Benoît, who I was still reasonable scared of, that I was way to sick to travel the next 300km we had planned. Anyone who gets me out of a trip through the bush on the back of Benoît’s Yamaha will forever have a place in my heart. Rachel of course is having a rough go, they were quite close.

Death provides an interesting lens through which you can view a culture. If you’ll allow me to make some sweeping generalizations of carve out some stereotypes…Southern Cameroonian culture, and specifically Kako culture, is generally very animated, conversations are filled with expansive gestures and exaggerating to the point of absurdity. If someone takes your seat on bus (I use the term ‘bus’ oh so loosely!) its appropriate to carry on as if they killed your first born, and then to let them know that by making you change seats they are in fact possible killing you as well. Thus to an American it seems like everyone is always yelling (well, they are actually) and about to break out in a fist fight (which happens surprisingly rarely). Yet for such an emotionally expressive culture that keeps nothing bottled inside, in matters of death they can be startlingly stoic. Meeting my old French teacher on the street I chatted with him for nearly five minutes before he threw in that his wife had just died a few days ago. People can be so seemingly unemotional that it really disturbed me when I first arrived. I’m not sure if it’s a response to the banality of death here or just a different way of expressing grief, or both. When I do seasonal calendars with my community groups as a way of assessing their needs they mark February-March and November-December as the “season of death,” a rather morbid way of expressing that this period of change between the wet and dry seasons is when most people get sick. I can’t help but imagine in, sort of a pop-psychology kind of way, that this is a reason it’s so hard to get people to plan and save for the future. When life is so ephemeral it follows that if you come by a little money enjoy while you can rather than cache it away for a future that might never arrive.

Interestingly, or rather disturbingly, whenever I told someone that I was going to a funeral they would get concerned and inquire if it was “my brother” who died, aka was it a white person, and look sincerely relieved when I confirmed that it was in fact a Cameroonian.
However there has also been some good in the past three months. Namely, the youth group project has jumped through all the hurdles and finally been approved by the Washington office, meaning that it is now on the web and accepting donations! I am immensely happy that the project has made to this stage as now I can be sure that this project is going to happen sooner or later. I can’t say I would be pleased if I came out of Peace Corps with this project as my only success story, but I believe this will be the most important and lasting accomplishment of my time here. The link to the project page on the Peace Corps site is:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=694-125

Anyone wanting more information is free to contact me; I have further descriptions of the project and community as well as budgets available for those interested. Hopefully by this time next year the youth group will have a fully functioning chicken farm operating completely independently of Peace Corps!

Though for now I have to get to the market before all the vegetables are gone (yes that’s right mom and dad, I said vegetables).

But before I go I want to give a ‘shout out’ to Aunt Emily for her birthday today! Also a much belated happy birthday to my sister- I still need to get your phone number btw. And if I don’t get another posting before Christmas, merry Christmas to everyone too!

Posted by: Matthew | Fri: October 10, 2008

Lost posting

This is the post that I wrote right before leaving for the Kuhn’s but lost. I should finish the posting about my trip soon

The electricity was on for the whole night last night. It was very exciting, not to mention weird to see my house lighted by the harsh fluorescent lights after getting used to the moody ambiance that the candles and lanterns cast. Few things are as unknowable as the power grid here where twenty-two power cuts in one day it’s not unheard of, nor is three months without a single cut. Nevertheless, nothing bring as much joy as the clicking of my voltage regulator announcing that, somewhere in the mysterious inner workings of SONEL (the power company), someone decided to flip on the switch marked Batouri and give us light. Never do the words of the Genesis resound more resonantly with me than when power randomly appears after a week (or two or three…) of enigmatic darkness.
“And God said ‘let there be light,’ and there was light”

Unfortunately there’s no such quick fix that appears from the heavens for the youth group’s projects. It’s not even that they need a fix, they just need some movement. I’m sure I have already mentioned the differences in the attitude and approach towards work and professionalism between local culture here and my western upbringing. I have mostly been able to reconcile theses differences, which is to say, accept that I will get half the number of things done that I had planned. With the youth project, for example, we are at nearly exactly the same point as we were when I last posted. Now normally I would consider this an acceptable pace of progress, however now that I’ve found a project I really believe in I want it to be done NOW! Recently, however, the hold up has been on the Peace Corps side of things. It’s been a really busy time for the Yaoundé office with a budget crisis (thanks for that Congress) and new volunteer groups arriving (which makes me an old(er) timer!). But at least the project looks like it’s on the right path and it will get the financing…eventually.

Meanwhile, this next week I am heading down to work in conjunction with two agro-forestry volunteers (Matt and Sarah Kuhn) posted with the WWF in a small town called Mambélé. It’s is a good two days from me on the public transport over poorly maintained unpaved roads. I’m quite excited at the chance to go down there as they might be in the most remote posting we have in Cameroon and its right in the heart of the Congolese rainforest. Although seeing as how we’ve cleverly planned this trip right in the middle of the rainy season I hope I don’t get more of an adventure than I bargained for! So I should have an interesting posting for you when I get back.

For anyone trying to call me (which should be all of you!) I’ll be out of réseaux range starting this Saturday the 28th until Saturday the 3rd, maybe longer depending on the condition of the roads, so don’t be concerned if you can’t get through.

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