Great Expectations

On the 18th of November 2015, I finished training and started my Peace Corps service. I have a longer post planned to reflect on my experiences and how  I feel a year into my service, but for now I wanted to share this list of how my expectations have changed a year into my service. Some of these may make more sense to volunteers, but hopefully you will find them entertaining even if you haven’t done Peace Corps!

Goals for service upon swearing in:

  • Read 200 books
  • Report on each health indicator at least once (there are twelve and they help define our jobs)
  • Learn awesome new skillz during all my free time
  • Win BLOG IT HOME competition
  • Translate my favorite book into Fulfulde
  • Know everyone in village by name
  • Get super fit and run the Race of Hope up Mount Cameroon
  • Avoid getting malaria, giardia, schisto, other tropical diseases

Goals for service one year in:

  • Read maybe 20 pages a week?
  • Add one new activity to my reporting form each reporting period
  • Does bucket bathing count as a new skill? 
  • Blog 2-3 times a month
  • Struggle to greet in broken Fulfulde 
  • Recognize faces of people in neighborhood when they come to the health center
  • Find motivation to travel to market town so I have more than oatmeal, rice, and other carbs all week
  • Just avoid getting called in to Yaounde by the medical office

Voting is a Privilege

On October 3, Danfili held its first  election for village chief since the 1980s. Throughout Cameroon traditional chiefdoms are highly regarded  authorities who manage the day to day affairs of village life, including land disputes, family problems, and management of community activities. Chiefs hold political and cultural responsibility for their communities and are hierarchically ranked just below state representatives. Chiefs are viewed as agents of the state, and are elected through an intricate process of vetting the eligible candidates and designating the voting committee. The final decision is made by local government officials. 

This election was a long time coming. Elected for life, the former village chief had been ill for all of my first year of service, and I never got to meet him. The role of village chief was shared by the authority of the two neighborhood chiefs, and we heard occasional updates about our chief’s health throughout the year. When he died it was a week before the start of Ramadan, and the village swelled with prospective candidates. The chiefdom is patrilineal and he only had one son, who is mentally unstable to take on the responsibility, which opened the position up to his many nephews and other male relatives. 

After months of campaigning, it ultimately came down to two candidates. Maybe three, but nobody thought he had a chance because of his reputation. At the time of the selection, an electoral body of twenty appointed voters gathered in front of the chefferie.  All of whom were men, all of whom own at least a few cattle. Cattle means wealth here in Danfili, so you can imagine how representative of the village the voting committee was. Each voter was given two slips of paper, one white and one green (a color for each candidate), and they cast their votes. These were revealed publicly, in a manner that reminded me of the reality tv show Survivor. Each vote was dramatically shown to the crowd, and when the final vote was presented, people cheered and drums played. 

The new chief was inaugurated by the regional state official (sous préfet) a minute later and everyone rushed up to congratulate him. Men stood on top of horses and musicians intimidated crowd members. There were parties the rest of the day around town. I sent my absentee ballot for our own election later that week. 

It was a fascinating, unique experience to watch the process of selecting a new chief, and especially in contrast to the election back home. My friends who did not have voting privileges shared rumors they heard about candidates- how they bribed voters and tried to butter up the sousprefet leading up to the election. Stories were shared with warning about the bad behavior of the candidates and their valor was questioned. Politics are dirty. Even with all of that, I’m so grateful that I have the ability to vote and can contribute towards my democracy. From my little blue house in Cameroon, I have felt the stress of our election, and want to encourage everyone to do their part. Go to your polling place and cast a ballot today. Exercise your democratic privilege and contribute to deciding who our leaders will be for the next four years. Do not sit back and let the rich old guys decide the future of our nation and the world for us. 

DIY Da’a

Since my Cameroonian arrival I have seen countless examples of resourcefulness and creativity.  From patching flat tires to adding extra clothes lines, Cameroonians have got it covered. I cease to be amazed by the innovative solutions to common problems, and believe that if you don’t think it can be done, you just haven’t found the right person to help you find the solution. 

One of the most resourceful people I know here is my landlady, neighbor, and adopted grandmother, Da’a Hawa. Among her credentials she cultivates cassava, corn and other local crops, sells the surplus, cares for (currently) three children, and is maybe in her eighth marriage. She is approximately 65 and has these incredibly strong arms from working her fields, chopping firewood and preparing local foods. Da’a is somewhat of a character and we don’t always get along, but she’s my Danfili grandma! Above all she wants me to stay safe, comfortable, and well fed. 

Like many Danfilians, Da’a is incredibly resourceful. She takes the phrase “waste not, want not” to heart and barely has any garbage ever…Here are a few examples to prove my point:

  • Old rusted-through dishes can be used as dustpans, garbage cans, well covers, measuring cups, rain catchers, and hole sealers. Empty containers and used plastic bags should always be stored, they can come in handy! 
  • When shown beetles, moths, worms, whatever, in my rice, beans, cabbage, tomatoes, etc. her response is always “ha, it’s nothing,” and encourages me to still use it. She also never wastes an opportunity to collect these foods’ seeds for gardening. 
  • Old clothing may have more holes than fabric, but that fabric can still be used for cleaning the floors and windows, brought for seating or shade cover at the fields, or for handling hot pots in the kitchen.

Her resourcefulness isn’t because she doesn’t have the means to buy new utensils, produce, or clothing. She has more income than many of our neighbors, especially as an independent woman. Her frugality and penny-pinching prowess have enabled her to comfortably construct and furnish her home, seek medical treatment when necessary, and care for three other people. In my observations, people stretch money as far as they can, and in doing so they are way more resourceful than most Americans, who are willing to throw anything even slightly disfunctional away. 

While the examples I gave from Da’a are silly, there are so many other examples of innovative, creative problem-solving each day in Danfili that keep me on my toes. Bearing witness to the resourcefulness of Da’a and my other community members I often think about the role of poverty. I don’t know that I can say anything more concrete than that without acknowledging the feelings I have as a privileged, white, young American who is discovering the realities of life outside of America in a very specific set of circumstances, and risk sounding naive. The truth is, many people at home have their impressions of what “Africa” is like, and what the biggest needs are. People think of the images we’ve been raised on showing mud huts, run-down cars, simple meals, and cramped classrooms packed with children. During my daily activities  Cameroonians often tell me that “this is Africa, this isn’t like where you come from,” and point to these same signs of poverty around them to prove so. I know. I see it. I am constantly aware of where I come from and how it is different from here, and the importance of being aware of that. I feel guilt in trying to defend my role existing in this place so different from home. Other times I feel indignation, pride, envy, confusion, wonder, it goes on. The realities of life are too complex to confine to a set of representative images, yet it unfolds that way again and again. In regards to resourcefulness, especially in the age of “DIY” solutions and Pinterest, I wish there was a way to flip this mentality and show Americans a thing or two about Cameroonians’ abilities to recycle, carry out home repairs, and stretch their belongings. There are so many more opportunities for international idea exchanges but because The states and Europe are “more developed” and wealthier, etc, it’s viewed as the ideal and knowledge gets passed (marketed, approved) mostly in only one direction.