Saturday, December 27, 2014

Life in Mbakaou

Hey everyone. I am back in Ngaoundéré after my first month (sort of) in my new home of Mbakaou.  Its a great town and I really like it so far.  There is a lot to say so I will try to sum up the best I can of the last month.  After the ten hour bus ride, a night in the town of Tibati and another 45 minutes in a car, I finally arrived at my new post on the bottom side of the lake of Mbakaou, where the town derives it's name.

The town of Mbakaou was founded in the early 1960s when the Dam was constructed on Lake Mbakaou.  Today Mbakaou is a major fishing village and the towns population explodes during fishing season when  men come from all over the grand north of Cameroon to fish and to buy fish.  The population is divided pretty evenly between Christians (mostly Catholic and Presbyterian, who have a church called Martin Luther King Church) and Muslims.  Ethnically, there are the Gbaya, the largest group who tend to be Christian, the Fulani, the largest and most influential Muslim group, as well as the Hausa and the Emboro who are also Muslim.  There is a Muslim chief and a Christian chief (both very nice and welcoming) in the town.

I live with a butcher named Al-Adji Awal, his two wives, eight children, brother (Hassan) and his brother's wife.  They have been absolutely wonderful to me.  His wives cook dinner every night and breakfast most mornings and they help me whenever I have a problem.  I believe culture has a lot to do with that.  They really look out for others especially in their community and those living close together.  We live in a walled compound that houses the whole family in a few houses including my own.  I have been lucky to have electricity and although I do not have running water or plumbing I have gotten use to using the latrine.  I was extremely lucky to have been left a lot of furniture and kitchen supplies from the volunteer I replaced.  Thanks Dale! (He even left macaroni and cheese!)

The Peace Corps tells us that the first few months are all about integration, but after two weeks I really wanted to get to work on something.  Since arriving, I showed up to the health center on a daily basis to prepare for work and I worked with the local volunteers who distributed the polio vaccines.  Polio is still a serious problem in three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.  As Nigeria is a neighboring country to Cameroon, there have been cases of polio in Cameroon, even one in my town Mbakaou last year (according to local health officials).

Despite those activities, which I do mainly to help out and to introduce myself to the community, I was ready to start my own projects. My official title is a Community Health Educator.  As it turns out, when I was introducing myself to village officials I found myself very welcomed by the high school headmaster to start lectures on family planning and HIV/AIDS.  My first two classes (addressing each subject) was a class of thirty students.  Both went relatively well and the headmaster wanted the same duo of classes....this time with ninety high school students. The first class, which was on family planning was extremely difficult to control.  So for my second lesson with them on HIV, I planned a game outside and was lucky enough to have one of their teachers to help me keep discipline and translate my bad French.  It went much better.  Another volunteer, Karen, advised me on the game and I feel it was an effective way to help the students understand the effects of AIDS.

When I get back to post, although I will continue working on HIV awareness and family planning (especially with the two local women's groups), my number one focus will be on malaria.  I have already seen its effects on a few individuals in town and it is one of the number one killers in the world.  Malaria is very acute in Mbakaou, because of the lake nearby.  Already a major problem in Cameroon, it is exasperated and made a major year long problem for Mbakaou's population.

I had a wonderful Christmas with other volunteers and I hope you all had the same.  Happy New Year!

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Volunteer in Ngaoundéré

Yes! I am now officially a Peace Corps Volunteer woohoo! And yes I am in Ngaoundéré, which I will get to. Spoiler Alert: Ngaoundéré is awesome.

On November 19th I was officially sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the health program.  The US Ambassador to Cameroon did the ceremony with the Peace Corps Country Director and several Cameroonian officials. One of the prouder moments for me was taking the oath of service.  According to one of the volunteers who served in the army during Vietnam, it was the exact same oath of service except we said Peace Corps instead of Army, of course.  Everyone was dressed in the same fabric but with a wide range of styles and none were the same.  It was a great event.

One if the best parts of the event was the fact that so many Cameroonian's were there.  Whether they were host families or officials, it was great seeing them there.

My host family was there and it was good to see them one last time.  I should say my host mother and father were there.  Only two of the twenty three members of the family.  The Peace Corps asked if I would recommend my family for the next group of volunteers.  I said absolutely (as they took such good care of me), but I recommended them for someone with excellent social skills who can deal with such a huge family and an army of neighbors who gravitate around the household.

I left Mengong that day and the South the day after.  Myself and five girls (four in health and one in agriculture) went first to the national capital of Yaoundé by bus with other volunteers heading to the center and east provinces.  We also were able to see my friend Mary Beth before she returned to the states for medical reasons.  Mary is one of my closest friends from training and was super pumped for going to Adamawa.  I know what ever she does next though, she will do a good job.

After a short break in Yaoundé, we took the night train to Ngaoundéré, which was impressively nice almost to the standards of European sleeper trains I used before.  I would say nicer than the St. Petersburg to Moscow train for sure.  I woke up early in the morning on the train and saw as the scenery began to change.  We were in Adamawa, and it was beautiful.

The South could best be represented by thick green jungle.  The Northwest by huge green mountains, cliffs with waterfalls and jungle like forests.  Adamawa by semi-arid land including desert vegetation and large desert hills. Just from what I saw so far.  It almost reminded me of central Arizona.  However each region is diverse, and the country as a whole is very diverse (with ten regions total).

We arrived in Ngaoundéré mid-morning and were instantly greeted by Peace Corps Staff.  At the Case (a sort of regional headquarters for volunteers, pronounced cause), we were greeted by a large group of volunteers from the region who cooked us dinner, showed us around and overall made us feel very welcome.  I could not ask for more.  I really like the volunteers who believe in being a support system for each other.  I think that will be important for me and others over the next two years.

I love the regional capital Ngaoundéré with its almost middle eastern feel (reminds me if Egypt and Tunisia in particular), kind and laid back people and yes, abundance of beef.  I like the Adamawa a lot so far and can't wait to get to post.  I have a ten hour bus ride tomorrow but I got help organizing my trip from the local staff and I will be getting help from a volunteer located near me named Victoria and my counterpart Alphonse.

I'm excited and almost at post.  I hope you are all well!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Road to Adamawa

Hello again!  Its been a while but I wanted to make one more blogpost before swearing in as a peace corps member and moving to Adamawa next week! Today I met with one of my counterparts: Alphonse, a motorcycle riding nurse.  Awesome right?  He seems eager for me to get started right away and is very busy.  I'm excited to get started.

I've been busy in the last few weeks as well.  Four weeks ago I went to the market to buy a live chicken.  I was dressed in my finest pagne (African fabric) and a collection of phrases in Bulu to no avail as the chicken salesman did not show up in time. I had to go to class but my aunt purchased the chicken instead and it was waiting for me after class.  I named it Marie Antoinette, learned a new farm skill and that night had some of the most delicious chicken I've ever had.

While in training we had a few chances to practice classes and activities on the unsuspecting locals of Mengong.  We had a nutrition lesson in a primary school.  Afterwards one of the volunteers nearly started a riot by handing out the paper cut out fruits to the children after we used them for an activity.  We escaped alive.

We ran a nutrition screening at the primary school, did an activity on attitudes of men and women with a group of high schoolers and my group taught a class on Ebola at the health center.  The Ebola class was interesting.  Some people were really interested yet others were not too concerned.  The class focused on the current crisis, causes and prevention.  I talked about prevention.  I think with the way Paul Biya is handling the airports (masked doctors screening arriving passengers) and the borders, and the way many Cameroonian's eat bush meat (monkeys and bats are the main potential Ebola carriers), it is more likely an Ebola strain starts in the rural regions here then spreads I through the airports.  Either way it is unlikely in the near future.  I hope.

All for now, next blogpost in Adamawa!  I hope you are all well!

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Hey Everyone I need to divide this post into two parts: My sight visits in the Northwest and my new post in Adamawa!!!!

Journey to the Northwest

I'm back from Fundong in the Northwest region of Cameroon. I had a site visit with five other volunteers (three in health and two in agriculture) and we made the ten hour journey to the regional capital of Bamenda from our training center in Mengong (and Ebolowa for the agriculture for volunteers).  Upon our dusk arrival at the Peace Corps headquarters in Bamenda, we caught a cab that took us on the two hour mountain journey to Fundong. We arrived and met Jon who was the volunteer we would follow around for the next few days.

The Northwest is beautiful with large green mountains and lots of waterfalls.  The Northwest is a big tourist hit for its scenery and I can see why.  On top of that the people are very friendly and they speak Pigin English (English with local words and in a local dialect).

Jon showed us a water catchment that he and his counterpart worked on providing fresh water for the village below, and we met other volunteers who worked with local farmers and an agricultural bank.  On Sunday (and Saturday) I made the wild journey back across the country on an upset stomach.

My home for the next two years!

I am going to Mbakaou, Adamawa for my post!  I know so far that it is a town of 4,200 people on a lake.  I will try to hold off on the details until I get there and post about it then.

The ceremony was pretty fun. Someone made a sorting hat and read off the location as we wore the hat.  We then scooted to various parts of the room to stand and cheer with people going to the same region.

When we came back to Mengong from Ebolowa (where we learned our sites) a bunch of people in the van were singing out loud and suddenly stopped when a police officer poked his head into the van at a checkpoint.  He just laughed and let us on our way.

That's all just more training and less wifi in the next few weeks.  I hope all is well back home!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Church and Site Visit Preparations

Hey everyone.  There is not too much to report on this week.  I still have lots of training and my French is slowly improving.  I'm learning a lot about public health and health problems in Cameroon.  With my family I have been carrying water from the nearest well....which is exhausting! I also went to a Catholic Church service in Mengong.  It was really cool seeing the same service I would see in a Catholic Church in California in West Africa but with some Bulu (and some French spoken) as well as traditional (Christian) songs and outfits in the choir.  Also I have learned to scale and gut a fish and will hopefully learn to prepare a chicken as well with my home family!

Next week I will be going to a volunteer post with three other trainees to see the life and work of a volunteer in Fundong, Cameroon.  Fundong is in the Northwestern province and is well know for it's many tribes with their deep cultural roots.  It is also a Pigin English speaking region.  It is also mountainous which I love!  The week after that I will find out where my own post will be!  Lately we have been interacting more and more with current volunteers who are a wealth of wisdom and stories.  However I think the volunteer post visits will be particularly interesting because I will get a real taste of how I will be living and what I will be doing.

That's all for now!  News on my sight visit next time!

Au revoir!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Back to Freshman Year and Cacao Trees

Hey everyone.  As I am writing this I have three young children hanging on to me, watching what I am doing. I have completed my first week of training. I like it so far and the Peace Corps certainly seems to know what we need in terms of practical and language training as well as other topics like medical and safety training.

Saturday, my home stay father and I visited the bush farm where he grows cacao in the jungle on a hill.  We were armed with machetes for the weeds and snakes.  It was interesting seeing his farm meshed into the jungle and up against the hillside, rows of cacao trees.  Soon he will sell them to distributors (from there they will end up in producing chocolate).  We reached the top of a nearby hill where the Orange cell phone antenna is and returned down to the village past the Presbyterian seminary.

On Tuesday, we visited the Mengong health center to see a nurse led meeting on mother and infant health.  It was pretty well organized and the health center definitely appeared to be a good model of a properly run health center in Cameroon.  I found it very significant that prices for the treatments and medications were posted.  This is not always common and it prevents corruption and allows the patients to know they are paying proper prices.  This instils trust from the community towards the health center and even the government.

I like training but can see why volunteers struggle the most during it. Along with intense training, we have a language barrier, culture shock, life in a home stay family, adapting to a new lifestyle (like using a latrine and bucket showers) and common sickness.  Also, all of this happens at once.  However I think everyone in our group is handling it very well and this adaptation process is essential for our two year post.

Right now training reminds me of freshman year of college: it's a whole new environment, there is a heavy class schedule, I have roommates I struggle to relate to (ie. my home stay family) and if one person in the dorm/training stage gets sick....everyone gets sick.

I'm really liking Cameroon and although I know there will be hardships ahead, I'm optimistic.

Au revoir!

Photos on Facebook!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My first week in Cameroon

Hey everyone I'm here in Cameroon at last serving in the US Peace Corps' health program.  I am living in a small village in Cameroon's South Region (yes that's the name of the region) called Mengong with a host family of 16 family members.  It is part of Peace Corps to have a local home stay while we are in training.  My homestay father is Monsieur Bruno and he is a bush farmer.  Six of the family members are his children and three of them constantly visit me with joyful smiles and "Alex"!   At first they laughed at me a lot because of the communication divide and other reasons I'm sure but it is better than an awkward silence.   I learned just to laugh as well.  The food here is very good.  I was worried about missing American food although I have been thoroughly impressed with the local cuisine. At my home stay house, it is generally rice with chicken or fish in one delicious sauce or another.  Breakfast is omelets with onions, tomatoes and spices with bread.  Last night I attempted to have fish head although I admit I did not eat all of the crispy pieces of the head. I tried.  Briefly.  I was also taught by them to hand wash my clothes in the Cameroonian fashion.  A few men who were neighbors and extended family asked me why I was learning to wash clothes.  I had to explain in French I would not have a wife at my Peace Corps post when I finished my training.  They also provide warm water for my hand bucket showers.  On Sunday I plan to attend church with them and at some point see the Nigerian films Monsieur Bruno likes (the Nigerian film industry, which is famous in Africa is referred to as Nollywood). Overall my home stay family is kind and very hardworking.

I have started training in the last few days.  I started intermediate French and stared my health education training.  I'm beginning to get more details on the work the Peace Corps wants us to do and the challenges we will face.  We also had a lecture on Ebola from the representative of the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in Cameroon.  They are very confident Ebola will not reach Cameroon and if it does it will be stopped quickly like it was in Senegal.  In the lecture we also learned all the basics of it: origin, spread, symptoms etc.  The first day of training we also received a warm welcome by the local officials (the mayor, head of the gendarme and the presidential representative). Tomorrow we will be talking about safety and security.

I really think it is wonderful we have been able to meet important officials (like the above mentioned) who regularly discuss the large scale issues, as well as the US ambassador to Cameroon (who was very nice), and at the same time live with the locals to understand their needs and lifestyles.

Right now I am serving with what seems to be a great group of volunteers in both the Health program and the Agriculture program.

I will try to post pictures when I can and illustrate my post with more stories.

Au revoir!

By the way this post was meant for last week.  An update of this week soon!