12 December 2009

And then there was one…

Sorry about the lack of posts as of late. I’ve found it hard to get to use the internet. You’ll notice that there’s another post right below this one that I composed a long time ago, but which I never posted… until now. That post is far more interesting.

The time between Thanksgiving and swearing-in was a blur of activity, but we made it! Agro volunteers are still fifteen for fifteen through all of training, and don’t we look good…


There was typhoid, there was malaria, there were intestinal worms, there were chiggers, there was amoebic dysentery, there were grave puncture wounds from bikes,  but we kicked ass and took copious notes. And here’s the health volunteers. I don’t mean to be separatist about it, but my big group picture came out blurry.


So we swore in as Peace Corps volunteers. There were dignitaries. There were photo-ops. There were certificates, oh my were there certificates. There were speeches courageously given in French, Fulfulde and Pidgin. We then showed our appreciation for certain members of the community with certificates, and then some other people received some certificates. Then the ambassador administered the oath of office, and we took more pictures. Then BUFFET TIME!!!


There’s me with Madame la Ambassatrice la Honorée Janette Garvey and my host family, sans Carole, who had to be in school. There isn’t really very much to be said about the whole process; it was just like a graduation or some other ceremony, except with loud Cameroonian and eighties American pop music playing over the PA system. My chef was there, and he might of gotten best-dressed with his three-piece tweed suit and matching tweed fedora. After the ceremony, I rushed home to pack, and then rushed to the party that we had at Hotel Djenne, the third nicest hotel in Bangangté. At 7 the next morning we all went our separate ways.

I arrived at my post that night, after making a trip to Bafoussam to go to the bank, buy a non-stick pan and olive oil, and eat French fries with mayo. When I arrived at my house, the dead guy’s picture was taken down from the wall, which just made the house even more empty. I lied before when I said there was nothing in my house… it turns out that there are seven raffia bamboo beds, although my mattress is too large for all of them, so it makes a U-shape on the frame. I turned one room into my kitchen by putting my stove in there, but my living room is still completely empty. The Peace Corps has, I should say, up until this point kept us quite adequately monied, but the move-in allowance that I received was wholly inadequate for opening a post and furnishing a house. With the money, I bought a kitchen counter and cabinet (on order at the menusierie), a mattress, a gas stove and tank, a voltage regulator, some small sundries, and a bamboo dresser, and this put me 35% over budget. I’ll stop griping, but if anyone wants to send me a couch or even just a loveseat via airmail, it would be greatly appreciated. Until then, no sitting allowed at my house.

Despite the lack of furnishings, I’m settling quite nicely into my house. I have a west-facing porch, so I can catch the evening sun, filtered through the leaves of the banana grove, and read on my front porch until dusk. I just finished reading Dune, which I can highly recommend. Speaking of Dune, my water situation is better than I had expected. SDC10772 That there to the right is my well, which is only about seven or eight hundred feet from my house. It was much to my embarrassment that I couldn’t figure out how to use my well at first. Every time I lowered the bucket, it would float on the surface of the water and not draw any. I tried loading a bunch of rocks to one side of my bucket, which did tilt the bucket so that it would take on water, but when I hoisted it, it stayed tilted and all the water ran out. Then I struck upon the idea of putting a few heavy rocks in the bottom of my bucket and dropping it from a significant height. This indeed did work once, but on my second attempt the weight of the rocks smashed through the bottom of my bucket upon impact with the water. Dismayed and a bucket down, I consulted Zara, Kim, Kareen, and other friends via telephone, hoping someone would have an insight so that I wouldn’t a) die of thirst or, worse, b) have to ask my neighbor to explain to me how to use a well, on par with the wheel and fire as one of the simplest technologies mastered by primitive man. Unfortunately, nobody had any answers. The next day though, when I was trying some various other methods that were equally ineffectual, my neigbor came across me and was quite kind in assisting me. You tie a rock on a string to one side of the bucket to get the bucket to tilt into the water, and then when you pull it up, it hangs agreeably to the side. Genius!

SDC10766I went on a very sporting bike ride the other day to visit Bangou, a town about 7km away where the closest volunteer lives. I very stupidly forgot to do my Peace Corps Bicycle Repair Manual-recommended pre-ride inspection, which ended in disaster. Having transported my bike to Bamena via taxi, I had removed the wheels. When I re-mounted them, I forgot to re-engage the brakes. So I jumped on my bike and started coasting down the hill outside my house, seen here from different directions. It was only when ISDC10765 reached unsafe speeds that I realized that I did not have the ability to regulate my speed. I hesitated for a few seconds, but then decided that my only course of action was to jump off my bike, which I did, skinning my knee in the process. The rest of the ride was gorgeous, though. Bangou looks out over this very imposing mountain, Mount Bangou, actually. I’m very excited to climb it, as Kareen, the volunteer, tells me that it gives wonderful views of the entire department. I tried to take pictures, but the dusty haze of the dry season foiled my efforts. Here are some other pictures I took recently, though:


This is the eucalyptus plantation that is on the ridge by my house. Eucalyptus poses pretty grave environmental problems for Cameroon for two reasons: a) Eucalyptus secretes poisons into the soil to discourage competition and b) one eucalyptus tree, depending on the size, consumes eleven liters of water a day, and a eucalyptus plantation can dramatically lower the water table of an area. The plantation pictured here isn’t too offensive; it’s at the top of a mountain, away from arable land and any wells.  One area that my host NGO is working in is alternative fast-, straight-growing timber trees such as grevillia robusta that don’t have these drawbacks.

SDC10762  Here is the valley that is at the base of the hill I live on. I took this picture while on my way to the market yesterday, which occurs very confusingly every eight days. I discovered yesterday that I live pretty far out from the center of town, about 45 minutes by foot. I think I’ve probably posted enough landscape pictures that you guys have a pretty good idea of what the West looks like, so I’ll stop posting them unless there’s something particularly compelling.

While I was at the market, I met a rather loud-mouthed but well-meaning carpenter cum tree nursery manager who was eager to show me his farms, and I was happy to make his acquaintance. I have no shortage of people who want to be my friend here, and I find that number climbing even higher after I buy my first friend a beer. Everybody wants me to bring a tractor to Bamena which, while completely unrealistic, at least isn’t as unrealistic as the guy in Bangangté who wanted me to build a hydroelectric dam.

I’m certainly happy to be at post, but it is definitely a little lonely compared to training, when I had 31 other Americans and Cameroonians who spoke great English to talk to. I’ve been writing a lot of letters which I’m going to drop into the post on Monday. Also, I’m going to open up a new post office box in Bangangté next week (for LETTERS ONLY, no packages), so stay tuned for my new address. What a predicament that now that I have all this time to write new blog posts and letters and such, I have so much less to talk about, as my life has slowed down considerably since arriving at post. Note, though, that I’m NOT complaining about the last point.

In upcoming weeks: a mini lesson in Pidjin English (mostly the few funny words I’ve picked up), some info on Cameroonian cuisine (think starch and oil), maybe some pictures of my new village friends and haunts, and who knows what else…

Wish you were here!

Thanks Given, and a Jaunt about the Northwest

I have been just the busiest guy since my last post. There are a hundred stories that I could tell about what’s happened in the last two weeks, but I don’t want this blog to be like reading my journal, as that would be terribly boring. So, I’m just going to post random bits that come particularly to mind. I just processed a bunch of pictures, so my memories will inevitably be skewed toward the events which I photographed, but what I photographed was pretty rad.

I’d like to start out by acknowledging two very special groups of people who have been reading my blog: 1. my cousins’ second and fourth grade classes. I look forward to writing with you guys, and I hope you send mail my way soon. And 2. all the moms in the states who are reading my blog because their children are with me in Cameroon but they don’t write often enough. Please keep reading my blog; I’m not creeped out, but your children are embarrassed. Also, they miss you terribly but they are extremely lazy.

All the agro volunteers are on a VACATION (!), ahem, educational field trip to the Northwest provence of Cameroon this weekend, and all of the health volunteers definitely have reason to be jealous. I thought that the West was beautiful, but the Northwest definitely is even more striking. Not only is the geography beautiful, but it’s also very nice to be able to speak English to everyone. That said, I have grown very accustomed to having speaking as loudly in English as I want to about any topic around anyone, without the slightest worry that I am being understood by non-Americans. I think I have embarrassed myself in at least one instance on account of that. For those unaware of the political geography of Cameroon, the Northwest and Southwest provinces of Cameroon, which border Nigeria, were formerly under British control between 1917 and 1960, and as such they speak English, whereas the rest of Cameroon speaks French. For reasons not understood  by me, this has alienated much of the people in these provinces from the rest of Cameroon, and has made the Anglophone regions hotbeds of political dissent, but that’s a whole other story. I don’t understand how so much political animosity could have developed over 40 years of colonial rule, but I’ll report back if I gain any insight, as this is one of my main unresolved questions about Cameroon. Anyway, I’ve digressed quite far from my intent. The mountains here are quite severe and imposing. Every time I wake, I defy the day to show me a farmer cultivating an ever steeper slope, and I am rarely disappointed by the day’s end. On this trip, we saw farmers that had tilled (in horizontal bunds, at least to their credit) on slopes between forty and fifty degrees… It’s a nightmare by any soil conservation standards, but population pressures are so strong in the Northwest and West of Cameroon that farmers have little choice but to grow on whatever land they can find. I’ve talked too long though… Check out some pictures…



That’s Barbara, my favorite French instructor and all-around #1, and Antoine, the chief of Batie, our driver, and medicinal plants instructor.

The first night, we stayed at this swell nursery and agroforestry training compound called MINEPCIG, because Cameroonians love very obtuse acronyms. I ended up buying two passion fruit vines from their nursery, which I’m very excited to plant at my house next week. There was a nice stream running right beside the dorms, mountains on all sides, grass huts for us to take our meals in, and some extraordinary demonstration gardens. They were certainly the most well-manicured gardens I’ve seen in Cameroon, at least, with hedges and nice foot paths. The hedge in the foreground of this picture is an edible green Cameroonians use to make a plate called njamma njamma. Behind that are onions, three papaya trees, and trellising on the far right are black pepper vines.


The next day, we visited an agricultural research station where they are working on improved varieties of tubers. The coolest thing was SDC10578learning about micro germplasm propagation techniques. Seen to the left (blurrily) is an Irish potato plant cultured on agar medium. The research station gets varieties of potatoes shipped from all over the world, particularly from Peru, which is the birthplace of the potato and which shares a very similar climate and geography to this area. If a variety of potato does particularly well, they can take the vegetative matter from the plant, cut it into very tiny pieces, and culture it on agar medium. In this way, they can get hundreds of clones from one potato plant. Each internode (where a leaf joins a stem) contains the necessary meristem cells for a new plant to start growing. Once the seedlings get a littleSDC10582 bigger, they are removed from the agar medium and transplanted to a screen house, seen here,  for further development. All the soil in the screen house is autoclaved (read: heated in a stew pot over a fire for a while)  and there are double doors as well to keep pests out. Finally, the potato plants are transplanted to a field 12km away, where the mature plants are harvested and shipped to farmer-leaders who can then propagate and distribute the seed potatoes to their community.

But now I’d like to come to what I consider the centerpiece of our trip. We spent last night at  the Saboga Botanical Garden outside of Baham, Northwest that was absolutely perfect… too perfect in fact.


Our first impressions were great. The lawns were immaculately manicured, and the plant displays were amazing. For instance, there was a wonderful orchid garden where all the orchids were grown suspended from logs…


After the initial walkthrough, some things seemed slightly amiss, however. For instance, there were many, many multiple tributes to the founder of the center, one Dr. Ngwa Che Francis Ntehnda, who had died two years previous.  Throughout the trip, I counted one bust, two devotional paintings, many pictures, and many assorted things – plazas, trees, rooms - dedicated to his memory.  On first brush, he seemed like a pretty interesting guy… a botanist by training who had founded the center to promote environmentalism in the Northwest. Digging a bit under the surface, the story becomes a bit weirder.

This sign introduced us to the purpose of the center…


You will notice the M.L. King Equality Centre referenced in the above sign. This is the diorama contained in the M.L.K. equality center, in which Dr. Ngwa Che takes, probably fairly, a quite dim view of the imperialist legacy in Africa. See if you can catch the subtle symbolism…

SDC10658 SDC10660

Luckily, Dr. Ngwa Che had a plan for world harmony, clearly explained in the following diagram. My favorite bullet point is undoubtedly “Reckless space exploration – Leave God’s world alone”. Most of the ideas were either environmentalist or Christian in nature, and admittedly many of them are good….


Then I found this picture of him, the first of many. The man had ONE EYE. Up until this point, SDC10707 I was debating whether or not the man was an eccentric but well-meaning environmentalist, or a cult leader. For some reason, learning that he was missing an eye left no doubt in my mind of the latter. Then we found the cross-shaped baptism pool, the bamboo maze, the caged monkey, the dozens of taxidermied animals, and the abandoned biological research lab. (Does anybody watch Lost?) And then there was this: a ten-foot high platform looking out over a grass plaza, with a desk at the top. I don’t see much other purpose other than addressing minions from a commanding height, but that might just be my imagination running wild.


Also, there were some traditional thrones placed seemingly haphazardly throughout the compound. As you can see, they were clearly the seats of the dearly departed doctor. And that is a dessicated hawk above my head. At this point in the afternoon, I imagined a few possibilities:SDC10706

1. At dinner, the groundskeepers lock the compound gates. Then a young man, bearing an uncanny resemblance to his father Dr. Ngwa Che, steps out of the shadows where he had been sitting unnoticed. He apologizes, saying that dinner had not yet been prepared. He is evasive about when dinner will be ready, but to pass the time he takes us to his armory and shows us his immaculate collection of hunting rifles. Following this, he takes us around and show off all of the taxidermied animals, recounting the stories of how either his father or he had killed each. But, he explains, he had lost the joy of the hunt. The big game animals of Western Africa are all but gone, and none of the animals that one can find in Cameroon can come close to matching the intelligence of the hunter, all but one that is. At that point, he announces that he must excuse himself to change into his sporting clothes, oh, and he forgot to mention that we have a fifteen minute head start.

2. We have an uneventful night, and when we awake, we find out that one of us is missing, but there are some freshly-stripped bones in the monkey cage, and the bust of Dr. Ngwa Che has mysteriously moved to the top of the platform overlooking the plaza.

3. Various other scenarios involving gladiator deathmatches, being chased through the bamboo maze by a mysterious ball of dark energy, volunteers becoming posessed and doing the crabwalk Exorcist-style, arcane rituals involving the baptism pool, etc…

4. I am awoken at five in the morning by someone banging a gong in the distance. Then, scared witless, I lay in bed for an hour listening to what I think is a large crowd cheering in the distance, but which I eventually decide is a cacophony of roosters from a nearby large-scale poultry operation. We have a completely uneventful night, though, and awake to a breakfast of coconut-flavored bread with margarine and extremely weak coffee. Then the whole staff is extremely congenial as they see us off, and we return to Bangangte. As you might have guessed, this last scenario is what actually happened.

Anyway, so that was our trip to the Saboga Botanical Gardens, a place that I will never visit again so long as I walk this earth.

On a cheerier note, let me finish this post by writing quickly about how our Thanksgiving went. It went wonderfully. The host father of Henry, one of my fellow stagieres, went to Bafoussam and bought us two turkeys. Henry and Patrick, pictured in the rear below, killed the turkeys, and Patrick and I gutted them.We brined them overnight and roasted them to perfection the next day, even though we had to cook one in a marmite pot on the stovetop, propped up by tomato paste cans. We then walked quite haughtily and triumphantly to the training center… SDC10563  With my friend Carl,I prepared the dressing, of which we made two kinds, pork sausage and cornbread stuffing, and cassava bread stuffing. Everyone else made a dish, and all the language and technical trainers came. It was a blast. It did make me quite homesick, though, and I think that I’ve really started missing the U.S. some for the first timeSDC10565 since I arrived here. I of course expected this to happen, but I do miss home. Oh my this post has gotten too long, I believe. Thanks for reading this far, guys. Next week, we’re swearing in as volunteers and leaving for our posts. The ambassador comes on Wednesday to conduct the ceremony, and then we leave the following morning. That means that after next week, I’ll probably have a lot more time to write blog entries and letters, and also a whole lot less to write about. Au revoir!

Appendix A: Various photos.


Pretty flower.


Sad monkey.


Strange tree.


Cameroon dance party.


Motorcycle chassis converted into bicycle.