Amazing Race Meidougou

As I mentioned in my last post, the health trainees just returned from site visits, which are an important part of training. Before going off to post, we get to experience traveling independently so that when we swear in we have a little idea of what traveling to post will be like. Thus, in this episode of my future sitcom, we break from the normal cast and set to offer an exciting look into traveling in Cameroon.

The first thing that you need to know about traveling in Cameroon is that it takes time, and lots of it. Of the 49,000 km of road in Cameroon, only 4,000 km are paved. The most popular mode of travel depends on the distance, but is generally public since few people have their own vehicles. For shorter trips, you can usually secure a spot in a taxi or ride a moto (motorcycle). For longer trips, buses of various sizes are very popular. For even longer trips, train is the best way to go. Here’s a brief rundown of each mode of transportation to spook you a little:
Motos are really fun, but also probably the most scary. I am an avid bicycle rider, but before Cameroon I had never taken a ride on a motorcycle. In some situations riding as a passenger on a moto is the most efficient and economical option, so Peace Corps gave us each an awesome astronaut helmet so that we can be safe, and I know how to identify careful moto drivers. Usually, motos only hold the driver and one or two passengers, but I have seen motos with 3 passengers and a baby before.

Of the taxis I have been in, there have been anywhere from six to eleven people, and the biggest car was a 1998 Nissan(?) hatchback. Cameroonians really know how to squeeze! On a recent trip, we drove 40 km with the hatchback open and two people sitting in the trunk (don’t worry, it wasn’t me!)  This is common. It is also common to load cars with LOTS of stuff, as rental trucks don’t really exist. I encourage you to browse Google images!

As you might expect, the definition of bus is vague enough to include anything from a 12-seat vehicle to a large, cushiony coach bus. Generally, you buy your ticket at a station day of and wait until enough people have also bought tickets to warrant the bus to actually depart. Alternatively, some buses will pick you up en route if you stand on the side of the main road they travel on, and hope for the best. In addition to people, frequent passengers include mini people (babies), pets (goats), and alarm clocks (chickens).

 

Traveling to Site Visit

For site visit, I was fortunate enough to go to my region for post along with the others  headed to Adamawa! Which brings me to the fourth mode of transportation: trains. The Adamawa region is a long journey from Mengong (in the South region of Cameroon), and generally more comfortable and efficient by train. The train from Yaoundé to Ngaoundéré departs every evening at 7pm, and arrives at 9am the next day. Lucky for us, there was a derailment so our train didn’t depart until midnight, thus we arrived in Ngaoundéré at 2pm the next day.

Despite the fact that I could have flown home in the same amount of time, the train ride was quite enjoyable! In my sitcom, the train ride would consist of a montage featuring me, a current volunteer named Alex, and another trainee Jess, sharing a sleeping compartment with a friendly, yet skeptical, man from the Grand North. At first he was apprehensive about sharing a compartment with us (especially two women), but by the end of our long trip, through a comical ongoing readjustment of loudspeaker volume, air conditioning temperature, a funny run-in at the dining car, and an assortment of smelly foods, we became friends! By the end of the trip, he was telling us about his family and work, and asking why we weren’t married yet.

Because we took so long to get to Ngaoundéré and our host lives a few hours from there, we decided to spend the night at the Peace Corps Adamawa house, where we got to meet regional staff, and a few other volunteers in the area. This was great because this house is where I will stay every month when I pick up mail, do banking, and check in with all of you!

 

The Day in the Life of a Current PCV

One of my main goals during site visit was to gain a better understanding of what daily life at post in Adamawa will consist of. I was really excited to stay with my host, Caitlin, along with two other trainees. Caitlin’s community is in the east, not too far from the Central African Republic (CAR) border. The population of Meidougou is about 13,000, and is composed of Gbaya and Fulbe ethnic groups which creates an interesting dynamic, but they live in harmony. Caitlin got there about a year ago. Her post-mate is an education volunteer who decided to extend for a third year as a volunteer to carry out a community grant project building a new high school. It was great to spend a few days with them both in their village to see what life is like for volunteers, and I’m excited to be able to visit with them once I move to post.

Caitlin’s work in Meidougou revolves around the district health center, which is designated to serve about 17,000 people and consists of a medical chief, two nurses, a nurse aid, and a handful of community health workers. In reality, Caitlin’s counterpart, who has worked as a nurse’s aid in Meidougou for a number of years, does most of the patient visits.

On our first day, Caitlin brought us to the health center and we arrived during the tail end of their nutrition distribution. Eastern Adamawa has a large refugee population from CAR, thus many NGOs are present to provide relief services to the community, including the distribution of this product called Plumpy Nut, which is basically a fortified peanut butter used to help children put on weight and avoid malnutrition. While at the center, we also met a woman who had just given birth a few hours before! Our second day there was the Prenatal Care visit day, so we saw Caitlin and her counterpart conduct an educational activity with the women present, and sat in on a few prenatal consultations. I plan to write a little about what I have learned regarding maternal health next week, and will share more then!

Aside from the health center, Caitlin and her counterpart manage a women’s community care group that meets once a week. They held a meeting while we were visiting, which was great because I anticipate that I will be doing a fair amount of this sort of work in Danfili. This particular care group consists of about fifteen Gbaya and Fulde women, ranging from 15 to 60 years old. The care group model is based on training a group of peer educators to visit other families in the community and share information on various topics. This particular group focuses on maternal and child health topics including malaria prevention, nutrition, water sanitation, and hygiene. They also have a savings and loan component to their group, which helps the women set aside money to help down the road with medical emergencies. The women were incredibly excited to have us join their meeting and prepared skits for us where they acted out the lessons that they teach to their neighbors. It was awesome to see how proud and confident they were in discussing the importance of preventive health in their community. In my future sitcom, this scene would feature their enthusiastic skit demonstrating the importance of using a mosquito net. The group meets outside under a mango tree, and after their meeting ended, they presented us a platter of 20 (or so) wild bananas. (In the sitcom, it will be a platter of mangos).

The rest of our visit consisted of Caitlin’s great cooking (yay American comfort foods!), and lots of conversation about life as a PCV in Meidougou. I have heard from many people that the days seem slow, but the weeks fly by, and am excited for the change of pace after training.  It was helpful to hear Caitlin’s opinion about what makes a successful volunteer, and to hear from her and others in Adamawa about types of projects they have done at their posts. Before site visits, I was feeling disconnected from the work that we’re preparing to do, and this trip provided some  necessary hands-on exposure to what it will be like at post. Get ready for some exciting tales over the next two years!

I was joking with the other trainees once back in Mengong that the return journey was like an episode of Amazing Race, as all 22 of us attempted to make it back to Mengong from various regions of Cameroon. Here is a quick summary of what all went down:

  1. Jess and I shared a train car again, this time with another trainee named Becky and a woman traveling to the economic capital, Douala. Our compartment was double-booked, which required some last minute shuffling of four extra passengers but was really not a big deal (but would have been dramatized if we were on reality TV).
  2. Once we got to Yaoundé, tensions would rise as we struggle to make our way quickly through the security check involving a soldier looking through each of our luggage, and the shocking realization that my PC ID was misprinted with an expiry date of August 2015. After sorting that out (in a dramatic manner of course), we had to find our way to the bus station across town and buy bus tickets, find lunch, and barter down unnecessary baggage tags.
  3. While on the bus, a tire blew out and the proper tools were missing so we waited around two hours for another bus to come by with the right tool for us to remove the tire.
  4. On another bus, two of my stage-mates who went to the East were thrown up on by a kid in the first hour of a four hour bus ride. In the Amazing Race episode, this would of course include dramatic confessionals
  5. Meanwhile, the group that went to the Northwest got stuck behind traffic from a bad accident and didn’t arrive to Mengong until 9pm. With dramatic flare, this would of course include one of the teams that will end up winning this season of Amazing Race.

Until next week!

P.S. While on site visit, I learned what my new mailing address will be, and updated the bottom of my blog to reflect such (scroll down!) I promise that the first one to send me a letter will receive 1000 CFA!

My First Month in Cameroon

With training nearly half way through, it is difficult to summarize what the past month has been like for me, as it is for all volunteers. Some days speed by, while others seem to never end. I have struggled with simultaneously feeling incredibly alone and without privacy. As anyone would, I have questioned myself, why I am here, who I want to be, and how I will grow. I have found new friends in surprising places, and been humbled by their experiences and our conversations. I have been a passenger in cars, motorcycles, trains, and buses. I have been thoroughly confused and thoroughly confusing while speaking in new languages. I have craved foods from home and discovered new favorites. Some days I laugh my way through my French lessons, other days I excuse myself to release a few tears before convincing myself to go back to class. No matter what the day is like though, I find reasons to be happy here and excited for what the future here will bring.

With everything that I have experienced since I arrived in September, I know there are a million more experiences to be had during my next two years in Cameroon. Thank you for following me on this incredible journey, and for your encouragement, curiosity, and patience.

I am so grateful to be surrounded by such supportive fellow trainees and staff. This week we had site visits so I got to visit Adamawa. I will be writing about that visit and posting the next time I am able. So stay tuned!

Learning to Cook All Over Again

One of the most important aspects of Peace Corps training is integrating with your host family. This can be done in many ways- through playing games with the kids, attending church with the family, helping with chores, visiting the market, and my personal favorite, cooking. Like any popular sitcom, la cuisine de ma famille will be a prominent setting for my future sitcom. Before and after school, the kids come to the kitchen to play, hang out, and sometimes goof around, so I usually find myself in there catching up with the kids and hoping to help with dinner.

It wasn’t until this past weekend that my family decided it was time for me to learn how to cook with them. On Saturday afternoon, I went to the market to buy things to make my first traditional Mengong dish, la poisson. Stive and I bought three nicely sized Tilapia from the fish market, as well as some tomatoes, peppers, an onion, condiments (really celery, basil, green onion), and rice from a vendor just outside.

On Sunday afternoon, Valerie called me to the kitchen. It was time. I walked into the kitchen and all of the kids were there, waiting. Coincidentally, the fish were also wading  😉 (thawing in a bowl of water). We don’t have a freezer, but our neighbor does and they must have guarded the fish for the night, as they were still semi-frozen.

Me and Valerie cutting the fish

Me and Valerie cutting the fish

I consider myself a fairly adept cook, but must admit that I do not have any experience cooking fish, so learning how to prepare it in Cameroon was all kinds of new. I scraped the scales off of the fish, cut it open to remove the gills, etc. and cut each into 4 pieces. The kitchen is set up quite differently from what we’re used to in the US, and so all of this was done using a giant (dull) machete and a plank of wood set on the ground. Valerie was very patient with me, and the kids were surprisingly quiet during this process. Except Chu-chu was running around as always.

My mama returned from a church meeting and took over my cooking lesson. She got the rice started, and then we continued the food prep.

I must have proven either proficient or incompetent with the machete, because to prepare the sauce, I was given a different knife and a cutting board. Either way, with familiar tools the family was quite impressed that I knew how to cut vegetables and peel ginger. My mama even told Annie to watch carefully to learn how I dice tomatoes (success!) Traditionally they mush the ingredients together with a special grinding stone and cutting board, but chopping works just the same. Mama used the stone and I used the knife. Once all of the ingredients were prepared, we went outside to the fire.

I will never complain about a finicky stove burner or oven again. To start the fire, we first had to pack it with wood shavings. To create space for the fire to reach the pot or pan, Valerie set a wine bottle in the pot and packed the shavings around it, using the bottle to create a sort of chimney. She also inserted a tube at the bottom to create space for oxygen and wood to reach the fire and keep it going. After filling the container with wood shavings, Valerie took her shoes off and stomped on the shavings to pack them down and poured extras on top. I am glad they were there to show me; I’m not confident that I could have figured this out on my own!To cook the sauce for the fish, we heated up palm oil over the fire until it was hot then removed it from the heat, setting the pot on the ground. Using a long ladle, I added the chopped vegetables and seasoning, to let simmer. After putting the pot back on the heat, I added the fish (also using the long ladle, to avoid oil splashes). After a minute or two I gently stirred and added about 3 cups of water. After covering it with a lid, we let the fish cook for probably 10 minutes.

Here is a photo of the cooking stove

Here is a photo of the cooking stove

The family was quite impressed with my cooking skills, which was great to hear. Likewise, I continue to be amazed with theirs. My family and those around us are incredibly creative, resourceful, and swift. I look forward to learning to cook with them more often on the weekends, and hope to prepare a special meal for them before I leave for post!

In the excitement, I didn’t have the forethought to document the final result, so instead of a photo, I leave you with the recipe for you to try on your own. Let me know if you give it a try!
Mengong Fish
Serves 12

Ingredients:

2-3 fish, quartered and de-scaled
4 tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 green onion, diced
1 onion, diced
Celery greens, finely chopped
4-5 spicy peppers, crushed (any kind of pepper you  enjoy)
Approx. 2 tsp. minced ginger
Oil (I found out that my family makes their own palm oil. If you are in a hurry, your favorite cooking oil will do, but the flavor will be different!)
2-3 cups of water (less if you want a thicker sauce)
1 Tbsp. white pepper
Salt
2-3 cups of rice

Directions:
1. Depending on the fish that you have, you will want to prepare it to your liking. In Mengong, it is typically cut into strips, including the head and tail, and cook it with all the bones in it. After filleted to your liking, toss with a pinch salt and set aside.
2. To prepare the sauce, first crush or dice the tomato, green onion, onion, greens, and peppers. Add ginger, salt and pepper. Heat a pan with about 2 tablespoons of oil, and sauté these ingredients over medium heat, 2-3 minutes. Add the fish and water. Cover and let cook over medium heat until fish is done.
3. Serve fish and sauce warm over rice. Bon Appetite!