Women’s Day

Here’s an overdue blog post… Enjoy!
International Women’s Day represents a global commitment to improving gender equality, and is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of women around the world. Because last year I was traveling March 8th, I didn’t get a good sense of how the day is recognized in Cameroon, and was excited to be involved with organizing the holiday with the Danfili community. During the planning stages and throughout the holiday, I saw women gather to discuss ideas and plan for a week’s worth of activities. Danfili is more traditionally male-dominated, so women’s day preparations provided a neat opportunity to see women’s empowerment at work.

Preparations for March 8th began in early February with a community meeting, where we discussed the activities to plan and started collecting money to cover costs. The group chose a lead organizer, and agreed to have a talent show, soccer match, market day exposition, parade, and cocktail party during the week of March 8th. We also scheduled weekly meetings to train for the soccer match and prepare our talent show acts.

In the following weeks, I attended a few meetings and soccer practices to support the efforts of the women organizing the events, but was discouraged that many times these meetings devolved into complaining about why more women weren’t attending, lack of funding, and endemic tardiness. These are not new themes; many conversations at the health center and at schools touch on these same frustrations. I even encounter these in my work. The truth is, Danfilians tend to prioritize their private lives  and are more interested in community-wide activities that require minimal personal investment. At the same time, Danfilians also value protocol and formal presentations. In my observations, Women’s Day became a Catch-22; the planners began to feel pressured to have a professional, organized holiday, but had little help in realizing the activities. These motivated community members often felt unsupported and that the community didn’t particularly want to celebrate the nationally recognized holiday, but knew it would be expected of them.

 

The week of Women’s Day, spirits were high, and more women came together to help plan and participate in activities. On market day, women prepared various foods that we sold into the afternoon, including hibiscus juice, beignets, couscous with beef and tomato sauce, meatballs, braised fish, and my own addition-banana bread! Later in the week, we held foot races, prepared for our talent show, and organized the menu for our cocktail party. During the talent show, women mostly lip-synced and danced to their favorite songs, but we also had a few skits about the importance of sending women to school, the comedic side of polygamy, being clever and patient while surrounded by “villagers,” and inter-generational wisdom. At the very end, we had a “fashion show,” and we all showed off our finest outfits for the night. Apparently people were impressed with my catwalk, and declared me the winner!

Women’s Day itself was a very busy day. All of the women in Danfili were invited to join us for a parade through town, which ended at the chief’s palace. Twenty showed up, so we formed two ranks and set out with our Cameroonian flag. While marching, we sang a song about singing and marching to celebrate women in Cameroon. In front of the chief, we sang a Gbaya song and then select women shared a few words about the importance of women’s day before we all continued on to the pastor’s house to start preparing food for the cocktail party.

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In front of the chief’s palace in our matching pagne dresses

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Women’s Day food preparations: croquettes (essentially deep-fried sugar cookie dough), plantain chips, hard-boiled eggs, popcorn, shrimp crackers, beef skewers, and sugared peanuts. We used more than six liters of oil!

Each year there is a specific fabric that the First Lady of Cameroon selects as the uniform pagne that women then use to make outfits for the holiday. This is a common tradition for other holidays, political parties, and even weddings. This year’s pagne was sponsored by He For She, which you may remember hearing about as Emma Watson’s NGO to promote gender equality. When Emma Watson first announced her He For She initiative, I was in college and immersed in my ideas of feminism, gender equality, and surrounded by people who generally agreed with my views. I found it difficult then, to know that the pagne was sponsored by an organization driven to increase capacity for women’s equality, when observing and interacting with men about Women’s Day. womens day pagneBy that I mean to say that I was disappointed by the lack of participation in the activities that women spent so long to prepare. The talent show audience was mostly youth, and many of the men who were there at the start did not stay until the end. During the parade, many husbands came out to see the parade pass by, and their wives stood behind them, watching in the doorway. During the cocktail party, the male invitees were the first ones served and acted very childish and greedy about the whole affair. While walking through town, many of the men I encountered asked me where their gifts were, because to them women’s day isn’t about treating women special, its about women advocating for themselves by giving out gifts and continuing their traditional roles as providers for others’ enjoyment. Ugh, there’s a long way to go. I had to reframe how I view feminism and the messages of HeforShe to meet Danfili where they are at in terms of considering women’s gender equality. This was the first year that Danfili even celebrated the holiday, in at least two years. The women who are used to leadership positions (teachers, nurses, the wives of pastors and teachers), were fearless in leading the charge and motivating their peers to step it up and contribute to making the holiday their own. They were giddy with how positive the week went, though it was not without its hiccups and frustrations. The thing that I found most inspiring was watching how the children and young women, especially, received the activities. They were eager to play in the soccer game, to see the talent show acts, and be a part of the other activities. Seeing their mothers plan the first women’s day will hopefully encourage them to push boundaries a little more and take a more active role in women’s day as they get older. With them we will see real gender equality progress, I’m sure of it!

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Baby Phoebe, Habiba, and me in our matching dresses

The Caldera Triple

I must tell you how lucky I am. My past three weeks have been filled with travels, good friends, and visiting exciting places-including home! Back in March or April, I realized that I had unused vacation days from Peace Corps, and my close friend and I started scheming about how I could best use these days. Why don’t I come home and visit? She was planning a trip to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park, and offered to let me tag along. She and her fiance planned to run a race series called the Caldera Triple, which includes a half marathon at each park, as well as a 5km race in a nearby national forest. A sucker for all things national parks, running, and visiting friends, I couldn’t refuse their offer. In the coming weeks, I started training for our 29.3 miles by running through the “trails” in Danfili, which was no easy task. I love running, but because of various factors (read: rainy season, lack of anonymity, busy schedule, and in-country travels), my training was a little sporadic. Imagine waking up ready to run, only to hear the pitter-patter of juicy raindrops on your roof, and realizing that the whole town is covered in a slippery, chocolatey mousse-mud. Not really ideal for running. Luckily for me, at least as running is concerned, rainy season didn’t hit full swing until I had already gotten a fair amount of my training in, and before I knew it, it was time to travel back to the USA!

After taking two hour-long moto rides, an eighteen hour train ride, a five hour bus ride, and flying for nearly eighteen more hours, I made it to my first stop, Boulder, Colorado. After some delicious brick oven pizza and catching up, I curled up for sleep before we drove the eight hours to the Tetons the next day. Needless to say, my legs were restless by the morning of our first half marathon, and it showed… I finished the race faster than either of my previous half marathons! I attribute it to my jet-lag, enthusiasm over being back in the states, and the beautiful scenery along the route. The rest of the day we took in the sites, saw some beaver dams and lodges (relevant to my friend’s research), and had a wonderful dinner.

We had a whole week before the next race, but we never let ourselves rest. We were busy taking in the sites and enjoying the most of the parks. Half way through the week, we transitioned over to Yellowstone, which involved a little more driving-heavy days, but miraculous views and we made sure to take in all of the iconic monuments in the park.

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Andrew, Emily, me, and Barb after the Tetons race in our Cameroonian jerseys!

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Old Faithful

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Yellowstone River

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One of the spring pools near the Grand Prismatic spring (which was very steamy that day)

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Hiking along a beaver pond

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I made a snowball!!

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The views of the Tetons never got old. I mean, LOOK!

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A grazing sheep we saw along the roadside in Yellowstone

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The first Bison we saw in Yellowstone out of… many. They are everywhere!

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Another view of the Tetons and a tributary

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What a beautiful day! Post Grand Teton Half Marathon

The day of the 5km race was the coldest weather I have experienced since early 2015 (sorry, not sorry) and we were each feeling a little nervous about getting back to our campsite. Running another race in record time (my first 5km in under 30 minutes!), we started to head back to our campsite, saw snowfall, and turned back into town for a hotel. The next morning was one of the more difficult races of my career, but the views were still beautiful and ultimately what got me through to the finish line. Luckily the rain held off for our run, so we finished the race happy and dry, if not a little sore. Because the weather didn’t seem like it would improve greatly, we freshened up, packed up our campsite, and drove back to Boulder (another 10 hours!).

I’ll spare all the details of our next few days in Boulder, but I will say that we:
1) Discovered that the reason my laptop stopped working in October had everything to do with ants
2) Watched the new Wonder Woman movie, The Great British Baking Show, and 2002 classic PBS special, Frontier House
3) Prepared a delicious Cameroonian meal that included chicken, plantain chips, mangoes, and food processor privileges (for tomatoes, not everything!!)

Lucky for me, I was able to spend some time with my family in Minneapolis as well. My mom organized a small potluck which was a great way to catch up with friends and family and bask in the love that I have for them all. I cannot express how much it meant to me to be able to spend a week exploring the sculpture gardens, ordering too many ice creams, grabbing drinks, playing card games, cuddling, and catching up with so many of my favorite people. This week of my trip went far too quickly, but each of the moments are memorable, and ones I will cherish during the rest of my service, and beyond.

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Welcome Home, Phoebe! 

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My family all together

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Me and my aunt at a Twins’ game

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Me and my dad at the Twins’ game

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Ice Cream for breakfast? Yes, please 🙂 

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My friends drove from Milwaukee and took time out of their busy work lives to spend time with me. I feel so loved!

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No visit is complete without a sibling game of Settlers of Catan

In typical Phoebe form, I saved packing for the last two hours before I had to get to the airport, and in super-human mom form, she helped me get everything to fit and kept me from crying in the process. Saying goodbye at the airport was the saddest moment of this trip, and I wish I could have stopped time for even a few minutes just to spend more time catching up, laughing, and almost burning cookies.

So, what’s next?

Now that I’m back in Cameroon (after an exhausting marathon of travel against the tide that is euphoria of being with loved ones), I will be gearing up for my next big project. I have applied for a grant to help me fund my health mobilizer trainings in Danfili, and I need your help. The money for this grant will go towards training materials, catering during our trainings, supporting the mobilizers during several outreach projects (including door-to-door malaria bed net hang-ups, a water source maintenance project, and a fixed location HIV testing campaign in Danfili). I had been conducting these types of meetings on my own, but once I started adding up the costs, I found that it wasn’t feasible to realize the communities goals for this project, or my ideas for what I thought could be possible. The reality is that the people I work with on health campaigns are volunteering their time away from their fields and other responsibilities, and I cannot comfortably expect them to do this work without  incentives. I am excited for the opportunities that this grant will offer in helping me realize my goals of increasing preventive health awareness and access in Danfili and the surrounding communities, and look forward to sharing the progress of this project with you all via this blog! Thank you in advance, and feel free to share any comments or questions you have with me personally or by commenting.

 

Feeding the Future

In February I had the unique experience of sharing my nutrition project with the West African Food Security Partnership (WAFSP) for an upcoming USAID conference. A filmer came to Danfili and spent a few days gathering footage to demonstrate the work that I’ve done with my community, and then shared it during a meeting in Washington, DC. Not to toot my own horn, but it was an important meeting to decide if funding should be renewed for the larger program that’s supporting Peace Corps’ nutrition initiatives.

In brief, to conduct this project, I worked with a community counterpart to create four lesson plans that we shared in six different villages and women’s groups around Danfili. We focused on educating community members on four important practices that contribute to preventing chronic malnutrition, starting with the mother’s nutrition during pregnancy and continuing on until the child is two years old (First One Thousand Days initiative). Overall we conducted twenty four of these presentations, more if you count our presentations at the health center, and reached over 300 people. David and I are really proud of our work, and excited to see the changes our trainings have made in families’ nutrition. Apparently Peace Corps was impressed too, because they recommended my project to the WAFSP.

During filming, I struggled with summarizing my project into a digestible YouTube video soundbite, but I think this video does a good job presenting an introduction into my life in Danfili. I wish I could sit over your shoulder while you watch it, to point out extra things, so maybe its better that I’m all the way over here while you watch it. If you’re interested however:

00:15 That’s my little nursery where I grow basil, tomato plants, two small moringa trees, some leafy greens, and peanuts. Now that the rain has started, I’m going to transplant them to a larger area.

00:27 That little boy calls me “Nasara Bebee” and greets me every morning on my way to the health center. The town’s main soccer field is in the background.

1:06 This was filmed in my home! Restraining from any comments about how I look in these shots.

1:28 David is my friend who first taught me Fulfulde at my post. He loved our training in Bamenda (remember that?) and has carried so many lessons from the training into his personal life, and the lives of his family and neighbors. His wife recently had a baby, and he and I spoke often about the things we had learned, relating that to her health during pregnancy and now that his little boy has been born.

2:50 The famous nutrition house (remember that?)

3:12 Habiba is another counterpart I work with at the health center. That bouncy baby girl is Phoebe Lynn!

4:08 Meet Asta! This is outside her kitchen, and where I spend most of my time when I visit her at her home. She showed the young mothers how to prepare the “enriched porridge” we kept talking about in the video. Our recipe blended soy flour and corn flour with peanut butter, sugar, oil, milk, and eggs to create a thick, sweet breakfast.

4:17 This little boy is still scared of me when I come to his family’s home. I don’t think we’ll ever become friends, I can’t take that kind of rejection!

5:02 These two boys live with Asta and are little terrors. Abdoul, in the purple, is a very smart and bossy kid who takes full advantage of being the baby of the family, while Faicel, in pink, is a much more timid, gentle little boy. Can’t you tell by just looking at them? I love them both and have enjoyed watching them grow since I first arrived in Danfili.

5:30 Baby Phoebe is the real star of this video!

Here’s another link to the YouTube video, take a look and let me know what you think!