Meet Me In Danfili, Philly!

Last week we were fortunate enough to receive information about the sites where we will live as volunteers! Traditionally this does not happen during the second week of training. In other PC countries, it is far more common to receive site information during the sixth week. However, because of the variety of languages different volunteers in Cameroon are expected to learn, they made the decision earlier this year to make announcements at the beginning of training to give us more time to learn new languages and prepare for our posts.

In keeping with tradition, we made a game out of our placement. Where you get posted in country is often a murky process to trainees; we have interviews with our program managers and our language levels are sometimes evaluated, but no one really knows how sites and volunteers are matched. And so, a few stages ago the trainees likened post announcement to the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, and the Post-Sorting Hat was born.

Before the sorting, we were all nervous, not really sure what our future would hold (much like the first years at Hogwarts!) One trainee wrote a great poem to start off the sorting, and two others announced our placements as we sat, one by one, under the giant paper hat we constructed. When it was my turn, I wasn’t really sure where I would be placed, but was hoping to be in a Francophone region, and to be in a post that had a well-established connection to Peace Corps with recent volunteer presence. I got my wish!

I am very excited to announce that come November, I will be moving to Danfili, a rural village in the Adamawa region of Cameroon! Adamawa is one of three regions that make up the Grand North of Cameroon, and currently the only North region that Peace Corps sends volunteers. Adamawa is majority Muslim, and the Fulani cultural group, which speaks Fulfude, dominates the region. Adamawa has several big lakes and pastures that set it apart from the more forested South and more desert-like North. Optimistically, the Bradt travel book I brought with me describes Adamawa as “sparsely populated and very hard to navigate as there are only a handful of very poor roads and the railway line.” It takes about fifteen hours by train to get to the region from Yaoundé. Because of the remoteness, volunteers in Adamawa tend to get really close to one other and their communities.

Danfili itself is a small village of about 4,500 people, and about a 45-minute drive from Ngaoundal, which luckily has a train station. Danfili had a PCV in 2001-2003, and the site was re-opened in 2013. I will be the third volunteer to be there since the post re-opened. Danfili is 80-90% Muslim, and the community is considered conservative and traditional, but open to talking about the subjects that I am learning about in training. It sounds like the village does not have electricity, but my future compound operates a generator that runs (usually) during the evening hours. I will have to travel to the region capital, Ngaoundere, for banking each month, as will the other volunteers in Adamawa. I think we’re already hoping to coordinate when we travel so that we can see one another during these trips.

I had an opportunity to chat on the phone with the volunteer who is posted to Danfili now (she will be leaving in October), and she had a lot of encouraging things to say about the work that she has been able to accomplish with the men’s and women’s groups in the village. They are already asking about me, and sharing ideas with her about projects that we can do once I arrive. I will get to meet a few of them next week when we do our site visits, and I will also get to see where I will live! I can’t wait to share the highlights of that trip with you all!

Until then, here is a picture of me when I heard that I would be going to Adamawa!

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A Day in the Life

With my third week of training underway, I thought I would use this post to share what a typical day in Cameroon is like for me. While most days stand out in some way, I have established some sort of routine.

Before PST
Every morning, before Pre-Service Training, I wake up to roosters and prayers usually between 5:30 and 6am. The past few days I’ve gone running with my host-brother Stive. Its been great to run with him because he knows the village much better than I do and knows good routes and facts about the buildings and areas we pass. I have even brought a few other PC trainees along, which has been a great way to get to know the other trainees.

After our run, we do some stretches on the lawn. Endearingly, Stive knows all of the important stretches to do after a run, and will not let me get cleaned up or eat breakfast until after we’ve done them.

After a refreshing bucket shower in our rustic pit latrine, I get ready for training and have a quick breakfast. Usually this consists of some French bread with either groundnut paste (similar to homemade peanut butter, believe it or not) or an omlete (generally 2 very well fried eggs with some onion), and what I like to consider Mengong hot chocolate. A few random instances, I have also been offered beignets, which is the best! Beignets are fried dough (think mini donuts). While they don’t usually have sugar or cinnamon, sometimes they have banana inside, which is just as good.

At some point during breakfast, undoubtedly my neighbor Rebeccah comes by, and we walk the 10 minutes to the training center together. Her host mama and my host mama are in-laws so we live literally 50 steps away from each other. On our way, lots of neighbors come out to say “Bonjour” or “Imbolou” in Bulu, which is pretty cute.

PST
Pre-Service Training tends to go from 8am-4:30pm. Generally, each day we have four 2-hour blocks where we have language sessions, technical trainings, cultural trainings, safety and security, and medical office trainings. Each day is different, but each week we end up having 10-12 blocks of language training. The medical office has fit some vaccinations into these blocks as well.

Most days our PST takes place in Mengong. On those days we have generally stayed at the center to learn about topics pertaining to public health and Cameroon’s medical system as well as sessions that pertain to Malaria, HIV/AIDS, and maternal and child health. Earlier in the week we visited different health centers, and I think increasingly we will spend more time in these communities practicing skills we will need once we get to post.

When we go to Ebolowa, we are with the Agriculture trainees, and our sessions tend to be more generally applicable to all of us, pertaining to safety, volunteer experiences, and our health considerations. I love these days because we don’t otherwise get to see the Ag folks and having new people to catch up with is refreshing. I also get to bring it back home a little with some time on the precious wifi to check email and post to you all!

We have a good amount of break time between sessions to visit the market to add credit to our phones, eat lunch, catch up on studying, relax, toss the Frisbee, and whatever else we feel like doing. Its nice to get some downtime to recharge and get my thoughts organized because I don’t often get a chance to do that once I get home.

Post PST
After our training ends for the day, I usually walk home and spend some time with the kids at my house. If I’m not quite ready for that, I’ll head to the market first to buy a packet of cookies or beignets to share with the other PCTs.

When I get home, its all hands on deck. My family is starting to get used to me being around and the kids especially LOVE having my attention. The boys like to ask me questions quizzing my knowledge on Cameroon and the United States, but they also like to ask questions like “Do you know Jay-Z? Do you know Disney? Do you know Jackie Chan?” Dodé likes to lead the boys in singing the Cameroonian anthem (in French AND in Bulu), but only if I also sing our national anthem.

The girls on the other hand, like me to teach them things while they prepare food in the kitchen. So far, I have taught them how to do the alphabet in American Sign Language, as well as other hand tricks I learned from my dad when I was little. I also taught Valerie how to waltz (kind of), and am teaching them some American songs. I’m working up to how to give more advanced directions, but they talk so fast that usually I get kind of frazzled. The girls have managed to teach me some things too. I now know how to “fillet” fish Mengong-style, and fry plantains, eggs, and potatoes. The tricky part about cooking in the kitchen is that the majority of cutting and cooking happens on the floor, and Chu-chu likes when people are on her level, so you have to be ready for her to climb onto you or over your lap at any time.

Dinner is usually ready around 8pm, and I help set the tables in the living room. As you may recall from my previous post, Marie-Claude has four nieces and nephews in addition to her five children that are currently at home to care for. Generally, I sit at the table with her boys, and the cousins sit at the living room coffee table to eat. During dinner, the family talks in French (if I’m lucky), and I try to tell everyone something I learned about Cameroon. I’m not really at discussion level yet, especially with the kids, who jump subject to subject, but my host mama is very patient with me and good at explaining things.

Last week we had some other new foods, including fish heads, chicken feet, and one night the family had rat (I have decided to pass on eating bush meat after stories from others). We also have had a few meals with fried plantain balls, which end up looking like biscuits and tasting exactly like mashed plantain. I’m a fan. I would like to prepare a meal for everyone at some point, but I haven’t quite decided what yet. Based on what I have seen around the market and in our kitchen, possibilities include French toast, chicken noodle soup, and burrito bowls. I will be sure to document.

After dinner, I’ll stay up and talk with Stive and the others for a little while, but am usually back in my room by 9:30pm to rest. I’ve been journaling every night which is a great way to review everything that happened during the day and take notes on different words I learned during dinner.

Weekends
I know this post is already long, so I’ll probably post something else about weekends once I’ve had more of them, but for now, suffice it to say that they are short! Saturday we have training until noon, and on Sunday I go to church with the family and do chores, including laundry, tidying my room, and fetching water for the next few days.

PC the PCV living with MC

As I mentioned last week, my host mama, Marie-Claude, is a widow and her in-laws are our neighbors. This includes her mother-in-law, two brother-in-laws, and their families. The Cameroonian definition of family is broad. While walking around Mengong with Stive, everyone is an uncle or an aunt, or a village brother. While I in no way know how everyone in the village is related to my household, I at least know how the members of my household are related to each other. Here is a list of the Cast of Characters for the first season of the future sitcom, titled PC the PCV, about my time in the Peace Corps:

Marie-Claude: 35 years old, MC is feisty, strong, and independent. Her husband died in an accident, and she is adamantly uninterested in getting married again or in any of the men in the village. She takes care of her three boys, daughter, and also cares for three nieces and nephew so they can go to school in Mengong. Her husband married before, and the three oldest kids are from that marriage. She runs a small bar that sells beer, sachets (basically whiskey in juice pouches), soda, and essentials like toilet paper out of the room behind our kitchen. The TV volume is always maxed out.

Stive: 25 years old, Stive attends university in Yaoundé and is in town for vacation. Stive is a hard worker and knows everyone in the village. Somewhat of a big shot because he goes to university, he doesn’t let that dominate his personality. To be sure, family and his community are what matter to him most.

Dodé: 11 years old: Dodé is the boss of the neighborhood kids. Confident and cool, he seems gruff and reserved, but when he lets his guard down, he has a great sense of humor and likes to talk in funny voices. I asked him to teach me a Cameroonian dance and he was quick on his feet to say, “I don’t dance, but I’ll dance really well if you give me money,” but later definitely saw him practicing the Macarena I taught the rest of the kids earlier in the evening.

Jean Le Blanc: 13 years old: Le Blanc is quiet and getting to the point where he’s over the kid stuff. He gives his mother lip sometimes and has been sent to bed before finishing dinner. He studies German at school, and is the best at throwing a Frisbee of his siblings. Minor plot line of the season, Phoebe subtly trying to figure out why they call him “the white one.”

Genere: 9 years old: Pronounced by the kids sassily as “Chen-ney,” he is the most gentle of the boys. He plays with Chu-chu a lot and also doesn’t seem to mind hanging around the kitchen, sometimes helping out. He was not all that interested in playing soccer or Frisbee with me and the others, but was the first to learn the sign language alphabet I taught the kids during the weekend. He says my name in a parrot voice, “faux-bay” usually.

Chu-chu: 3 years old: As a three year old who loves to dance and play around, Chu-chu is definitely the Shirley Temple of the group. Instead of eating dinner at the table, she unrolls a prayer mat and eats on the floor, while getting up to dance around or ask funny questions. Doesn’t know when she’s speaking Bulu or French, so I can never really truly understand what she’s saying.

Raisa: 17 years old: The first of MC’s nieces, Raisa is a typical teenager. She plays late-90’s pop and dances while working over our kitchen fire, usually in a vibrantly patterned cocktail dress. To school she wears a uniform (all the kids do), but always adds her own flare to the ensemble. She is the first to notice when I use Spanish words in place of French, and only sometimes laughs.

Michel: 13 years old: Raisa’s little brother. The first to say hi when I come out of my room every morning and the most blunt. One time he saw the money in my back pack and slyly said “Phoebe, the kids want cookies. Can you buy us some?” Michel tries to fit in with his cousins, specifically Dodé who bosses him around, but usually doesn’t get a say, and is often bottom of the totem pole because he is a nephew and not a son.

Valerie: 14 years old: MC’s second in command, Valerie runs the show. A talented cook for her age, she is super strong and is the one in charge of morning chores and getting dinner ready at night. Despite her work ethic, she is good at unwinding and having fun out of every situation, and always has a smile on her face, unless one of the others is out of line. I am glad to be on her good side, even if she laughs at my French more often than I care to admit.

Annie: 8 years old: Valerie’s younger sister. She is very inquisitively, charmingly, and annoyingly, 8 years old. Starved for my attention, if I show one kid how to do anything, she’s there too, demanding to also know so she can be the first to master the skill. She is playful and sweet, and not at all interested in sports. She also thinks that every time I come out of my room I have a little gift for her.

Special appearances by:
Grand-mére: 75 years old. Bows when she sees me, and sticks her tongue out at the kids. Sometimes she smells like alcohol.

Gielle: MC’s closest friend that I have met, Gielle lives near by and also has a PC trainee staying with her. Her daughter Solen is 5 and plays with Chu-chu. Her other kids, Pascal and Parfait, play with Dodé and the others, and are well behaved, kind and smart.

I hope this helps put my family life in perspective for you as you continue to read about my life during Peace Corps Training. My next post will document what a typical day has looked like the past two weeks, and I find out my posting later this week, so next week I will share all about that!