HIV and Gender Forum, but in Paradise

Earlier in April, I had the opportunity to take two community counterparts to a training surrounding the connection between gender and HIV. The training was an important opportunity to do some more structured planning around some projects I am hoping to do next year with my community, and it was a great way to discuss my ideas with my counterparts and learn more about Danfili.

For the forum, I brought my counterpart Astadicko and the guidance counselor/teacher at the secondary school. They both worked with the previous volunteer, and have good connections to people I’m hoping to work with in Danfili. They were also excited to spend a few days in Kribi, where the training was.

During the three days of the training, we talked about gender and the expectations along gender lines that exist within various cultures. The second day we discussed violence against women, gender equality, and talked a little about HIV stigma. The third day was focused on action planning in our communities and using what we talked about during the training to inform our projects in our communities.

I talked a lot about gender and identity during my time at Carleton, but this was a totally different context for those conversations. There were nine volunteers and fourteen Cameroonians, ranging from conservative Muslim women to liberal HIV counseling nurses to young single men. Each of us has a different history and concept of gender, and I wish we had more time to discuss our differences and similarities across gender. I am still learning what gender norms exist in Danfili, and my conversations with Asta and Abadam were fruitful, but I still have lots of questions and want to better understand the context of our town and how my work surrounding women’s empowerment  will affect the community.

At the moment, I’m planning on a girl’s group for fourteen secondary school students. Based on a scholarship program, I plan to have  monthly meetings with the girls to talk about goal setting, health, girls’ empowerment, and other lessons as they make sense. Over the course of the year, we will also complete a community service project of the group’s choosing. I used this training to talk about some of the details of the girls’ group with my counterparts, and we also planned some projects with the Mere Liders and les Hommes Dynamiques. I will write more about this soon, I’m sure 🙂

Kribi is a port town in southern Cameroon. Known among Cameroonians as an excellent fishing town, it also had beautiful beaches and a unique waterfall that opens into the ocean. Here are a few photos!



Lobe Falls of Kribi




Lobe Falls of Kribi


A beached jellyfish



Choosing dinner! We selected the far right fish


Dinner is served! Green sauce is addicting. Orange sauce is spicy (also addicting).


I wish I had snatched one as a souvenir (next time!)


Astadicko, my counterpart


Abadam, my second counterpart and guidance counselor of the secondary school


Beatrice, a counterpart for a volunteer posted in Ebolowa



Mi Don Wolwa Fulfulde

In many ways, learning a new language is like mathematics. You have different formulas for creating sentences with variables that change depending on whether you want to say something about the past, present, or future. There are other rules to make the conventions of a language easier to understand. Learning new vocabulary is like solving proofs: once you struggle to figure out a new word, it tends to stay in your memory bank of words. If there’s a word you don’t know, you can fill that space with X and a gesture, and people usually sort out what you’re trying to say.

That’s been my language learning process with Fulfulde. I started out learning the basic conventions of verb conjugations and basic vocabulary, and have gone on from there. Most infinitive verbs end with -ugo, some examples include: Doggugo (to run), Dillugo (to go), Wartugo (to return), and Nyamugo (to eat).
-For future tense, you replace the suffix with -an (doggan, dillan, wartan, nyaman).
-For past tense, you replace the suffix with -i (doggi, dilli, warti, nyami).
-For present tense, you begin with don, then replace the suffix with -a (don dogga, don dilla, don warta, don nyama).

To negate a sentence, regardless of verb tense, you replace the suffix with -ay (doggay, dillay, wartay, nyamay) or -ata if you really NEVER will do something (doggata, dillata, wartata, nyamata). These conjugations hold true for each personal pronoun: Mi (I), A (you), O (him/her/singular they), En (we), On (you plural), Be (they plural).

With this knowledge, you can now say things like:
I will run. I have returned. I am going. I am not leaving. I am never eating.
Mi doggan. Mi warti. Mi don dilla. Mi dillay. Mi nyamata.

Here are a few other verbs for you to practice with:
Wolwugo (to speak)
Nannugo (to understand)
Defugo (to prepare food)
Darnugo (to sleep)
Andugo (to know)
Yiddugo (to need) *fun fact: “A yiddi ma” means I love you.
Hokugo (to give)

There are only three irregular verbs (be, mari and woodi) and all mean “to have.” A be sabbajo haa Cameroon. (You have a friend in Cameroon).

Because these verb conjugations can leave things kind of vague, it is important to know how to say things like tomorrow (jango), yesterday (kenya), today (handey), now (junta), evening (kikidey), and again (fayne).
Mi doggan kenya. Mi warti kikidey kenya. Mi don dilla junta. Mi dillay fayne. Mi nyamata handey. 

The most common way to ask questions is to simply state the sentence and add ‘nah’ to the end, (A warti na? Have you returned?) or employing interrogative particles: toy (where), ndey (when), moy (who), noy (what), ngam (why). Sometimes, dume  is also used (tell me). For example:
Mi warti. I returned.
Ndey dume? When? Tell me.
A dilli toy? Where did you go?

Greetings are also a very important part of Fulfulde. One way to show respect is through prolonging greetings. When people encounter one another, these greetings can be quick (How are you?-I’m good), or last forever (How are you?-I’m good. How is your health?-Its good. How is your family?-They are good. How is your work?-It is good. How is your land?-It is good, etc.) These customs do not require patience, eye contact, or actually listening to the others’ response, so often times both people are speaking at the same time and then switch roles. Here are some of the most common greetings for you to try out with your friends!

Sannu. Hello.
A wasarti na? How is everything?
Jam bandu na? Is your body good?
Noy sombri? How is the fatigue?
A finey jam-na? Did you sleep well?
A saarey jam-na? Is your concession well?

Responses to these greetings can be used pretty interchangeably:
Jam kooh dume. Fine, thank you.
Jam. Good.
Alhamdulillah. Arabic phrase, meaning “Praise be to God” used by Muslims.

Okay, I think I’ve given you a lot to ponder, so I’ll 
Sey yeehso.
 See you soon.
Sey toh mi warti. Until I return.
Sey fadiri. Until morning.
Sey jango. Until tomorrow.

As always, Useko. Thank you.

All the Young Ones

I had a conversation today with a staff member of Peace Corps Cameroon about youth and how I have turned to them to get to know the community in Danfili. Families in Danfili are very big, and kids are everywhere, which makes them good resources for learning about the town and daily life.

When there is a new visitor with Astadicko’s family and I missed the window to ask their name a second or third time, I ask her kids who the person is, where they live in Cameroon, and how they are related to their mom. For part of my community needs assessment, I had secondary school students fill out a survey on their health practices to better understand some of the population and their understandings of malaria, nutrition, and illness. Nyadong, 19, is one of my go to friends when I have questions about cultural norms, different practices, or even how to cook with a new ingredient. When I want to impress Da with a new Fulfulde phrase, I’ll test it out on Nyadong and Hawa and they’ll correct me if I make a mistake, and help translate conversations when Da and I don’t have the same words. Getting help from kids for these sorts of things is less intimidating than asking my colleagues at the health center or even Astadicko and they are usually pretty adorable and hilarious about it.

I also enjoy interacting with kids and young adults and for whatever reason, they enjoy spending time with me too. Not a day goes by without Hawa, Nyadong and at least one other friend stopping by the house to see what’s up, play Go Fish or color. I have a few photos of my family that I like to show them, and they are always interested by my siblings and want to know what their lives are like. I often think about how growing up for me would be different had I been a Danfilian and not a Wisconsonian or Minnesotan. So I thought I’d compile a list of some of the differences and similarities growing up at home versus Danfili.

In Minnesota, seasons are determined by clothing items. It was officially fall when you could no longer go outside without a sweater or close-toed shoes. In contrast, it was quickly spring (or even summer) the first day you were able to go outside barefoot or in shorts. In Danfili, people bundle up a little more when the seasons change (on rainy days its might dip to upper 60s but is otherwise generally in the 80 or 90 degree range) but seasons are more defined by rains and growing seasons of different crops. Right now is the rainy season planting time and every day folks are going “au champs” to plant peanuts, corn, potatoes, manioc, okra, and this hearty squash they call “melon” among other things.

Imagine that instead of growing up with an ice-cream truck circling the block on hot days, you grew up climbing nearby mango trees and finding fallen avocados? Instead of going to the grocery store and sitting in the cart, you were strapped to your older sister’s back while she sold beignets in the market. Instead of watching a movie in the backseat of your parents’ minivan on trips to visit grandparents, you were sitting on another person’s lap in a two door car with eight other people squeezed together.

I think a lot about the ways that Danfili is different from home, but I am also struck by how some things (while still, to some extent, different) are really quite the same as back home.

For example, some of the most popular foods are eaten with our hands. Couscous with sauce, grilled fish, beignets, and mangoes require no silverware, same with hotdogs, pizza, sandwiches, and many other classic, popular American foods. Furthermore, no matter where I live, there will always be a kind, warm grandma forcing me to eat another helping of: pancakes, sasiskas, or goulash; Aji de Gallina, Papa Rellena, or pollo a la brass; or couscous, poison braise, or kombi.

A few more similarities:

  • Kids travel in packs. My neighborhood friends and I were always together, and in summertime we often spent the whole day roaming around at our parents’ requests. On my way to the health center most mornings, I can count on seeing the same gangs of friends roaming around along my route, finding goofy things to do to stay busy.
  • Teens (everyone) love their cell phones. Even in a town where electricity is only available through using a privately run generator, people are incredibly dedicated to keeping their phones charged so they can stay in touch with friends and family near and far. There are a few shops that specialize in phone charging, where people drop off their phone with its charger and come back a few hours later. People play music on their phones, store pictures, and surf the internet, just like back home. And teachers are just as strict as mine were when it comes to using cell phones in class. If your phone is confiscated during the day, you fight like hell to get it back from the teacher/administrators.
  • Behavior and Mood. Now let me tell you: Despite my Danfili friends’ claims that American kids are different from “les enfants d’Afrique” they are sadly mistaken, and I was just a freak of nature. (Note to self: Either my parents needs to come visit to share stories of my terror days, or maybe I should change some of the stories I tell about my family so that I’m the naughtier one, not Rosie…(we all know who started the spaghetti dinner as a form of self expression expo of 1998)) Kids make mistakes, kids act goofy, kids act shy, kids will be kids! I think a key difference here (and this is by no means universal) is how people direct their kids’ energy, curiosity, and sense of identity. School is valued to varying degrees, and creative expression is not fostered or valued as it was for me during my adolescence. I struggle with the line between respecting cultural norms and advocating for these children when something happens that  disagrees with my values, but like all things, communication is the best way to work through differences.

Every day I notice other things that simultaneously remind me of home and set my experience apart from where I have been up to this point in my life. I love talking to my Danfili friends and playing with the kids in my neighborhood/family when I’m feeling lonely, cooped up, or also happy. Around the world children are spirited, curious, and don’t mind getting their hands dirty (or covered with spaghetti sauce 😉 Rosie). On my difficult days, the familiarity of kids making goofy faces, wanting to sit on your lap, or show you their new drawing  transcends the distance from my family and reminds me that I am only as far from home as I make myself be.