Life in Video

10 May

So much ridiculousness has transpired over the past several weeks, I’m not quite sure where to begin.  Crocodiles & whiskey for lunch, 3rd grade field trips to ape sanctuaries, breaking down my front door (karate kick style), getting called out for being white at the cabaret.  You know, just all in a day’s work.

Until I figure out how to describe to you, my fair reader, the way in which some of these sumptuous adventures have unfolded, I hope you’ll enjoy a few arbitrary videos.  There are captions for a wee bit of context, but really, your imagination will probably fill in the blanks better than anything I could try to impart.  NOTE: while I have some skill with video editing, I have absolutely no skill with video capturing (sorry, Digital Learning Commons, to disappoint).

Kids of all ages line up to start the much anticipated Easter egg hunt (during a visit to my friend’s former Peace Corps village).

A late night out in Yaoundé brings dancing and singing… right to our table.

Allison and I only travel classy.

This one’s for mom.

The proud football team of microfinance institutional partner ACEP Cameroun lines up for a photo.

Love Tap

26 Mar

It’s official: I’ve been living in Cameroon for seven weeks.  With all of the ups and downs experienced so far, I feel on occasion like a bipolar disorder.  Sure, we Fellows knew to expect a fair share of trials/tribulations in our host countries.  In fact, the amazingly awesome staff of the Kiva Fellows Program (affectionately known as “KFP”) even shared with us this handy graph:

trying to avoid the trough of disillusionment

And it couldn’t be more spot on.  Every time I think I’ve “got it figured out” here in Yaoundé, life turns around and smacks me in the face.  Like… literally.  I got slapped on the face.  By a complete stranger.

This little event got me to thinking about gender roles in Cameroon.  It goes without saying that I haven’t been here nearly long enough, nor have I done any kind of formal research, to make definitive claims on the issue.  I will, however, give some anecdotal evidence of trends I’ve seen.  First- all of the loan officers (and management team, for that matter) at my host microfinance institution are male.  There are female staff members as well, but most serve in administrative roles.  At the same time, almost all of the clients that I’ve met are women, and small business owners at that.  The loan officers have also been beyond respectful to me, and in fact have contributed to one of my most humbling and happy days here so far.  It was right before International Women’s Day and my first time heading out into the field…. I was excited.  And nervous.

the fearless team: Loan Officer, Team Supervisor, Kiva Coordinator, and... driver!

We piled into a company SUV (freshly washed, like they all are, every day).  Before we even got to the first client, the driver pulled over to a roadside stand, as requested by one of the loan officers, to buy a c.d. in English for us to listen (and sing along). We chatted and laughed about the differences between American and Cameroonian music, and they poked fun at me (rightfully so) when I mentioned I’d been taking indigenous dance classes.  While visiting our third client of the day- a seamstress working in one of the more impoverished areas of town- all four of the loan officers insisted on buying me a dress that she’d made from the country’s unique International Women’s Day panya (fabric).  “I’m not sure it fits, but it really is beautiful”, I said.  “Try it on!” they replied.  So there, in the middle of the dirt road, I swooped the dress over my head and Kiva polo shirt (donated graciously by the KFP team).

the dress. and one of my newest roommates.

They oohed and ahed, and with a quick exchange of their cash the dress was mine.  I insisted, “let me pay you for it, please!”  They told me not to be ridiculous, and when I proudly wore the dress the next day I was stopped at least 10 times on the street by strangers, all who gave sincere smiles and compliments, before arriving to the office.

Ah yes, but back to the face slapping.  One thing that I came prepared to potentially deal with in Cameroon was being objectified by the opposite sex.  It happens in many cultures and communities across the globe (the US not to be excluded), and while I certainly didn’t want to be that jerk who presumes the worst, I felt that setting certain expectations was a smart idea.  Unfortunately, in Yaoundé this objectification happens every day, without fail.  Sometimes it’s really just all in good fun.  Sometimes it’s because I stick out like the proverbial sore thumb (“La blanche!  La blanche!  Je vous aime!”).  But on occasion, when there’s physical contact involved, it’s just plain upsetting.  Late last week I walked down to the bakery (so maybe I have an addiction to pain-au-chocolat, what?), and as I was standing on the sidewalk, looking in one direction for cars to pass so I could safely cross the road, a man jumped in front of me just as turned my face and put his hand, not so gently, on my cheek.  “You’re so beautiful!  Let me walk with you.” He looked me in the eye, laughed, and then casually walked away.

neighborhood street, field visit 1

What’s the best protocol in a situation like this?  Is it my duty to say something like, “hey, that’s inappropriate!” or maybe to give a look of disgust?  Or, perhaps it’s more effective to ignore the perpetrator.  Will either method have an effect?  I’m not yet sure how I’ll handle this next time, but I do know that I want to speak with other ladies in the community to see how they feel.  There are so very many stereotypes and preconceived notions by Westerners of how life must be in an African country, and I want to do my part to dispel them.  But I also want to be honest about my experience.  So far these peaks and troughs have only made the lines between what “defines” Cameroonian culture all the more grey and blurry.  Really though, who wants to live a life where every experience fits perfectly in its own preconfigured box?  I most definitely did not come here to Yaoundé to lead the exact same life I had in California, so I guess I better grab the reigns and keep forging along!

To Net or Not to Net

6 Mar

(my apologies in advance for the strongly opinionated, rambling and somewhat academic nature of this post.)

You’re spiking a fever, you can’t stop throwing up and your head is throbbing. You are somewhere in Africa and have managed to become infected with malaria.

They say that every 60 seconds, a child dies from Malaria. The catch: malaria is a completely preventable disease. You might be wondering, “why is this important?” Sure, it’s written into the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. But there are so many challenges we humans face, it’s almost numbing sometimes to hear statistics like this.

When you learn that simply by sleeping under a bed net every night, a mother could prevent herself from catching malaria and thereby not have to seek out and pay (a whole lot) for medication to treat it, you wonder why she would decide not to. An alternate example: a young boy becomes infected with malaria and cannot attend school for a full week. He too did not sleep underneath a bed net. Obvious repercussions ensue. You also learn of all the other negative impacts malaria can provoke within a community, an economy, a country. Then, you discover that the cost of such nets is only around $8, and quite often they are given away free of charge… and you scratch your head in confusion and disbelief as to why someone would choose not use these types of preventative products.

Countless programs exist to combat the pressing and grave issue of malaria by promoting bed net use. Nothing But Nets, for example, has a pretty hardcore goal: to end malaria deaths by 2015. That’s only three years from now. Working across sectors with partners such as the World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, various UN chapters, and even VH1 and the National Basketball association, this campaign packs a lot of punch. These are the kinds of programs I learn about and think, “wow! What a great idea. Oooh, and their website is awesome! I’m sure they’ll have huge success.”

However, things are always so much more complicated and complex than they seem. For starters, the actual use of donated bed nets is often dictated by cultural norms of the communities where they’re given/sold. These nets are also commonly produced in countries outside of those that benefit from their use, thus taking away certain economic opportunities.  Another potential explanation for the variations in bed net use I find to be especially relatable: for the past few years I’ve been studying international development and nonprofit management, and there’s an adage that i can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard:

“a change in knowledge does not equal a change in behavior”.

And oh how true this is. Think about it- all of your friends that are smokers, who know and understand the facts about its dangers… but continue to smoke regardless. Or all of the times you drive to work by yourself when you know carpooling would be better (for many reasons, like traffic, environmental protection, etc), because of motives perhaps more important/convenient/cost effective for you.  This is one justification for why thinking that education is a sort of silver bullet (like I once did) for resolving development or really any sorts of issues is simply not true. Education is only one piece of a much larger, often convoluted picture.  But i digress…

It is this concept, the difference between knowing and doing, that brings me back to the main topic at hand and underlying purpose for my writing today. In my Cameroonian bedroom there is a bed net; it’s made of pretty lace and hangs gently over the bed. I am fully aware of the importance to sleep underneath this net, yet I’ve found myself strangely tempted not to. There are a few reasons, none of them good:

the culprit in question

  • Reason #1: It’s uncomfortable– You feel almost trapped or claustrophobic. Also- waking up in the middle of the night and almost (or actually) tripping awkwardly onto the floor after forgetting the net is there, I have found myself frustrated/embarrassed/sore several times.
  • Reason #2: It’s different– Sleep time is supposed to be restful time, and thus the stubborn part of me wants to sleep freely without something hanging so closely to my face, just as i would back home. The net is a constant reminder that I am in a totally different country and continent, so far away from the comfort and familiarity of my former apartment.
  • Reason #3: It’s hot– Okay, maybe (definitely?) this is all just made up in my head (especially considering the fact that the bed net is literally composed of a million or so tiny holes). However, when the evening temperatures of Yaoundé reach a “cool” 80 degrees and there’s no AC to speak of, one is enticed to do whatever necessary to keep from sweating all over his or her sheets.

Now, I’m not going to even pretend to be an expert on the complicated matter of malaria and bed nets, but I do think they are interesting topics worth considering and (despite downsides and complexities earlier mentioned) certainly worth spending the resources to fight against. And if I don’t get my act together, I might just be experiencing directly some of the very real and very unpleasant effects that this disease is so talented at provoking.

Celebrating locally (Bantou dance, Mardi Gras and other delights)

15 Feb

I’ve always had difficulty shaking my hips like the pro’s, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.  One thing I have never had trouble with, however, is dressing up in ridiculous (read: highly un-sexy) costumes.  On one single day, both of these phenomena came together for a magnificent explosion of culture and life (okay, maybe “explosion” is a bit dramatic).

This past Saturday I had the very exciting opportunity to take a local dance class taught by Georgette, a Cameroonian from the Northeast part of the country (predominately English-speaking and touching the border of the Central African Republic) and wife of my new friend James (a Director for one of the local Peace Corps projects, and coincidentally a super awesome guy).  Georgette picked me up and we headed to the class, held in an old abandoned nightclub with dirt floors and faded posters still strewn about its walls.  Two gentlemen arrived at the same time as us, and we walked up to the gate together past the baby chickens running around (can’t take it! too precious!).  As Georgette tried to get a hold of the other dancers, one unanswered phone call after another, it became clear that the “class” would be just her and me. *Gulp*

a broken bongo drum

In a nutshell: the experience was an absolute blast.  We learned six steps, all involving moving feet, chest, arms and hips together at the same time… and fast.  There were lots of laughs, especially when Georgette insisted that I perform the routine on my own as she pretended to be an audience member.  Oh, did I mention that the two guys were playing live bongos the whole time?  So cool!

As we walked back to the street after class, Georgette and I chatted about her dancing background, which I knew involved indigenous Cameroonian dance… but when I asked at a certain point in her story, “what brought you to Shanghai?” she replied that it was during her time with the National Ballet of Cameroon.  Whoa.

Later that night, my new roommate Kaitlin and I ventured out to a Mardi Gras gathering hosted by a Greek woman who’s lived in Yaoundé for over 11 years.  I felt lucky to have received the invitation (as I imagined being stuck inside the apartment all weekend long), but apparently there was a strict “no costume, no entry” rule.  Normally I’d dive into my drawer of costume accessories back home and whip up something Halloween worthy, but since I’d left the tutu’s, fake noses & moustaches back in California, I had only Kaitlin’s friend’s face paint (and matching devil horns?) to count on (thank you, Erica!)  The gathering was a bit on the awkward side, especially since I knew only a couple of people, and I felt uncomfortable that the only Cameroonians around were either serving food & drinks or were standing outside the gate, guarding all of our safety.  Perhaps it’s naive and my experiences over the coming months will help explain this kind of common separation between expats and locals, but so far I’m not loving it.

The party was relatively uneventful, but one thing did make the night stand out: purse burgers.  Right before leaving, we noticed a platter of sandwiches headed to the party’s banquet table, and Kaitlin, Erica and I schemed a plan to hamburgle some dinner on our way out.  What I thought to be bologna sandwiches were in fact freshly-cooked hamburgers, individually wrapped and still warm to the touch.  A couple of hours of screaming at party guests over the ridiculously loud music and anxiously watching the guards outside of the door were all made worthwhile by this unexpected tasty treat.

the getaway vehicle...

In fairness, I did meet some really interesting and nice people at the shin dig.  And, I have a great idea for this year’s Halloween costume!

Ephemeral (week one)

9 Feb

Day 1– the office: tiny espresso mugs, pink cell phone cases, new workstation = in the Executive Director’s office, super funny dudes

Day 2– lots of ants in this morning’s cereal (ate them anyway); full Internet access at work (wired); all chairs at the rotisserie had “Georgia Dome” imprinted on their back sides; power outage 5 times; Manga Francois won’t stop calling; first homemade meal

Day 3– came upon “exogenous” and SWOT analysis in Kiva due diligence report for my local employer, found myself way too excited about this; torrential downpour and consequential power outage and house flooding; first mosquito bites; Nutella

Thanks, Danielle, for not letting me leave the States without this!

tiny Nutella, big taste

Le Foot

4 Feb

It’s hard to describe how this, my first full day in Yaoundé, unfolded.  But one thing in my future is now certain: my sweat glands are gonna get a work out like none before.

Promptly at 8:00am there was a loud knock on my hotel room door.  I awoke from a fitful sleep and answered cautiously.  The hotel clerk said that the Director of the bank was downstairs to see me.  How random, exciting and thoughtful!  …except I was still groggy and in my pj’s.  I threw on some clothes and had a nice chat with the gentlemen, who insisted I call him if I need any help, even in the wee hours of the night.

View of Yaoundé, from Hotel le Diplomate

As I later walked down the stairs of my room at the Hotel Azur, I hadn’t made it one flight when I came upon my new Cameroonian b.f.f., Manga Francois.  Last night this guy not only drove me the hour-long, super traffic-ridden route from the airport (on the cheap) but insisted on taking me hotel to hotel after I told him how much I had paid for Azur.  He was determined to find a more reasonable place for my entire four-month stay.  We also grabbed a bite of some local cuisine, a whole grilled fish with some plantains and a crazy vegetable variety whose name totally escapes me, and chatted it up with a couple of policemen.  Everyone at the “restaurant” (outdoor picnic tables with bottle openers and empty beers scattered here and there) was gathered around a small t.v. playing a live news telecast of the Minister of Communication.  Apparently some drama had recently unfolded where a woman claimed her newborn baby was stolen when in fact she got rid of it (later found buried in a dumpster) and had adopted another.  Men and women were arguing with the story the Minister was dictating.  My French is still a bit rusty so I’m sure I missed something, but the bustling arguments were incredible.

streets of Yaoundé

So because I did not have a telephone number he could call in advance, Manga had come (completely on his own accord) to pick me up and help me run a few errands.  We tried finding a SIM card, but after several failing efforts he began driving farther away from town.  We were headed to the stadium for his soccer match.  This was delightful to discover, though my plan of finding an internet café to tell the fam I was alive quickly disappeared.  We drove through traffic like I’ve never seen before (sorry, Central and South America… Yaoundé has you beat!)  The pavement slowly began to disappear below us as we approached the neighborhood of Manga’s soccer game (“le football” or “le foot” in French), and all that was left was bright orange dirt.  Of course, I didn’t have my camera for any of these moments.  Manga brought this up as well and I hung my head in shame.  We walked by his teammates, almost all of whom greeted me warmly before stripping into their soccer gear (look away!) and the match began.  Dry, red clay was flying to and fro, and the opponents’ coach was yelling so fiercely I thought he might have an aneurism.  In the car I could easily understand Manga’s French, but here with his comrades it was an entirely different story.  I felt disappointed of all the years of language study under my belt and yet still having trouble understanding. “How am I going to work with a bunch of strangers at this bank if I can’t even communicate properly?” I thought.  Doubts and fears of what I was doing here in Africa began flooding my brain and body, and I almost found myself tearing up.  Ridiculous!  I had had the amazingly good fortune of what might as well have been a personal assistant to me these past 24 hours, and I was watching a live, action-packed soccer game in the hills of Cameroon.

After the match we continued on our mission for the phone and internet café, both successfully accomplished.  Manga introduced me to his cousin at the phone stand and his uncle-in-law on the corner where he insisted on buying me some yogurt.  We went to a tiny chicken rotisserie (lots of bones and feet), and then I retired to my hotel.

As I write this it pains me how difficult it is to describe the scenery, both strange and wonderful, of this city.  Hopefully with some more practice I’ll get better… with my words and with my camera.

Ah, Jersey

2 Feb

Today is the day.  I’ve been packing, cheering, studying, worrying, sweating, networking, interwebs-searching, excitedly anticipating, and fundraising for this day for a while now.  It’s the day I embark on my most epic of adventures thus far: to serve as a Kiva Fellow in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

But during all this time of daydreaming what I will see when stepping off of the plane in Cameroon, its new and foreign culture, I neglected to appreciate the other two cultures I would experience first: New Jersey and Brussels.  Immediately upon landing in Newark at 6:00am local time this morning, the flight attendant greeted us over the intercom.  It wasn’t until I heard her delicious accent that it dawned on me: holy crap!  I’m in Jersey!

This is what came to mind (forgive the terrible quality):

Do you guys remember when SNL was actually cool?  When Dana Carvey preached his Church Lady preachings and Chris Farley wooed us with his humility?  I certainly do.  Maybe it wasn’t ever really cool…. but I was dorky enough not to care.

Anyhow, my day hanging out in the Newark airport was less than exciting, so I’ll only remark on two things.

  1. New Jersey tap water is really tasty.
  2. To the woman who was smoking in the last Terminal C bathroom: shame on you.

Next stop- Brussels!