The ideas expressed below are not endorsed by or representative of the U.S. Peace Corps.

Also, I'm aware that "obviousment" is technically not an officially accepted French word.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


I’ll start off with an apology. I told myself that I was going to be better about chronicling the end of my service and the associated emotional and logistical aspects of leaving Cameroon and returning home. But as it turns out, there were better things to do with my final few days at post (and even my first few months back home) than sit at my computer writing about the only subject that I found myself talking and thinking about: leaving. And besides, I had another online project that was occupying a significant amount of my technology time (and internet bandwith): my friend Anna and I started a blog dedicated to the many potential uses for Laughing Cow cheese (La Vache Qui Rit) in a primarily cheese-free culture. It turns out that the possibilities really are close to endless.
Special shout-out to this crew. 

            A few weeks before I left Cameroon I had a conversation with my grandmother during which she compared my impending departure from Cameroon to the departure from a particularly meaningful summer camp. Convinced she was minimizing my experience, I brushed her off without much of a thought. But as it turns out, grandmothers know best. Climate aside, my time in Cameroon was nothing like summer camp. But the process of coming back from a place that is so wholeheartedly other- that one is more familiar than I ever would have expected.

            During one of my first weeks back home my dad asked me what I missed about Cameroon, aside from specific people. So caught up in the wonders of the developed world, my answer: “nothing!” was a bit hasty. How could I miss a way of life where daily inconveniences and struggles took up so much of my mental processes? Three months later, I’ve had a bit of time to think about some of my favorite parts of life in Cameroon and the aspects of life that I truly miss.

            The first two are easy. My first longing was for fresh tomatoes, no matter what time of year. To expand this a bit further, the tropical fruit in Cameroon was second to none. And while my market access was quite a bit better than most other Volunteers, we all enjoyed some of the best avocadoes,
A highlight of my reunion tour cross-country trip. Davis, CA, is
a truly wonderful place. 
pineapples, and mangoes that we have ever tasted. At one point I learned American businesses had tried to import Cameroonian pineapples, but were halted because Cameroon pineapples are 18% sweeter, resulting in a faster fermentation rate. We wouldn’t be able to import them quickly enough to avoid serious spoilage. What a shame.

             While I will never say that Cameroon’s public transportation system is superior to the one in America, it does have one major advantage. Hitchhiking is common, safe, and often the best way to get around. Volunteers often called it “taking a private car”, a rebranding that I found hilarious. To put it briefly, you could get basically anywhere in the country by standing on the correct side of the road, stopping any and all passing cars, and explaining where you were trying to go. Sometimes they would take you there, sometimes they would take you part of the way, and sometimes they would drive past while deliberately avoiding eye contact. What fun! One time I found myself in a car with a man who asked the driver to avoid stopping at any checkpoints because he was travelling without an official ID card but with the equivalent of $800,000 USD. The other passengers and I made the driver stop immediately and we all got out. That day was less fun. Here in America, hitchhiking is no longer considered socially acceptable or safe. There is rising interest in ridesharing, but it lacks the spontaneity (or excitement) of true hitchhiking. And don’t even get me started on the inefficiency of national need for vehicular independence.

I missed this.
            This brings me to my last point, which is a bit harder to explain. The main part of life in Cameroon that I miss is the ‘assumed interdependence’ that permeates the general way of doing things. Cameroon is far from being a Socialist country, but it does have an unofficial community-based safety net that America seems to lack. Friends and neighbors would routinely offer to help me carry my heavy items, markets experiences were always infused with a touch of personality and light-heartedness, and there is a collective understanding best summed up by the expression “on est ensemble”-we are together. America experiences this sentiment sometimes; we shine most often at our very best and when faced with the very worst. But nearly every day in Cameroon exemplified this idea: when my neighbors sent over a plate of dinner because they knew it was my favorite dish, when someone would stop walking wherever they were going to wish me a “Happy Sunday!”, when all meetings started with a prayer for group members and their families. I am nearly as far from being an expert on American culture as I am from being one about Cameroon. But I would wager that many American would be better off if we approached our fellow neighbors and citizens with a bit more of an interdependent mindset. Because we really are together.

Four of us and this table have spent some time in Cameroon!

            I’ll close off this blog with a sincere thank-you to my friends and family both here in America and back in Cameroon. As much as I learned what I have to be grateful for here in America-supermarkets, subways, and clean drinking water come quickly to mind- it’s those of you that I have in my corner that I really needed. Thanks for the letters, emails, phone calls, and those late night-Skype sessions when the Internet was really strong. Thanks for coming to visit in rainy season when the road down to my house was more of a mudslide, and thanks for coming in dry season when the taps ran dry. Thanks for sharing two years of your lives with me and reminding me that you just can’t hug every cat.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Meeting Called due to Rain...and a Funeral

I had my final monthly farmers’ group meeting today. No one came. I shouldn’t have been surprised; attendance is spotty at best, and more often simply nonexistent. But I have been trying to work with this group for much of the past two years and had to hope for the best during what was to be my last meeting.

This isn’t to say I haven’t learned anything during my time in Cameroon. I showed up to the meeting a solid 45 minutes late after confirming with my counterpart Pa Max, the group president that the meeting was still going to take place. But 20 minutes after I arrived I was still the only attendee. And then the rain started coming down.

A quick call to Pa Max resulted in the reason for the lack of attendance: in addition to the ever-present rain (a permanently acceptable reason not to show up somewhere), a member of the local church community had recently passed away and thus all the members of the farmers’ group were paying their respects at his family compound. Pa Max had forgotten about this when we had talked earlier in the day. It’s an easy thing to forget; it seems like there is always a funeral going on somewhere in the village and attendance is all but compulsory.

It’s easy to get frustrated in situations like these. Weekly meeting attendance seems like it will be a minimum requirement to get the group functioning more smoothly. But honestly, I can’t really blame people for not coming. They have farms to tend, children to watch, and a plethora of church and church related activities to attend. And the meetings tend to start late, spend a lot of time rehashing past meetings, and rarely serve any tangible benefit to attendees. And all attendees are required to give a small amount each month for the upkeep of the group bull. As far as I can tell, if you don’t attend the meeting you don’t have to pay your share.

Max arrived at the meeting and offered to take me back home. He had to pick up a few of the group members on the way-they were all headed to the funeral and it happened to be right around my neighborhood. While we were waiting for one of the members to get in the car Max apologized for the group’s apparent lack of motivation. The conversation continued with the other members got in the care, albeit with a slightly different tone. Augustin asked me (as he has many times in the past) what I have learned from my time in Cameroon and if I have any recommendations as I prepare to leave. I find this question to be a tricky one-I want to give an honest opinion and offer recommendations that are within reach. So with a quick glance to Max I suggested that Cameroonians would do well to respect standing commitments and learn to keep time. The members in the backseat were instantly full of explanations and were quick to remove themselves from any sort of blame. If Cameroon had the levels of infrastructure or professionalism found in the developing world, it would naturally follow that people would be better about keeping to a schedule. But as it is, there are too many delays and barriers and unexpected events!

And that leads to one of the frustrating aspects of life here. My opinion, that it all comes down to individual accountability and responsibility, was all I had to offer in response. And I do believe what I told them: that change happens at an individual level and blaming the larger system is both pointless and frustrating. But it’s really a tough sell. Why show up for a meeting on time when all the other members can be counted on to arrive an hour late (at least?)

I came to Cameroon without a real sense of international development and its complexities. My life in a village directly adjacent to a regional capital has allowed me to experience development in many of its forms, ranging from governmental programs and international aid organizations to much smaller “common initiative groups” typically based in villages. And all I’ve learned is that there isn’t a set path to success. But the one thing that my experience has taught me is that the best predictor of success is motivation at the individual level. So I’m really hoping that the frustrations of working with Unity Farming Group are surpassed by the successes of its individual members. And that they see Pa Max for the leader that he truly is.  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Walk in the Woods: Cameroon Edition

Ever since the early days of training I’ve known that logging and resource extraction are both major environmental issues here in Cameroon. The most visible examples of this are the flatbed trucks packed with what appear to be whole tree trunks lumbering along what must be Cameroon’s smoothest roads-the ones leading to the port in Douala. Cameroon has an incredible amount of native biodiversity and I would imagine that the condition of local infrastructure (not to mention government bureaucracy) has delayed exploitation of the levels that exist in other countries. But as much of the natural resource extraction takes place in the rainforest (a cool 13+ hours from where I live), I hadn’t given the issue much thought over the course of my service. And an additional issue to consider: I come from a country and culture that encourages consumerism and by extension the natural resources that it requires. It felt a little hypocritical to critique a country for taking advantage of the commercial interests of much wealthier ones.

But I was talking to an agricultural technician named Josephine at the local office last week and she told me about the severity of deforestation in our own area. My village sits just on the border of an urban area, but it still primarily agricultural and has a definite village feel to it. Incidentally, today was the installation of the “local traditional council”, which is separate from the governmental local council that covers the same area. 

Josephine proceeded to tell me about the extreme deforestation that continues to take place in the Mendankwe forest; apparently many people head out to the forest each day and cut down trees to sell in town for use as firewood. Mendankwe is uniquely situated for this kind of deforestation, as the close proximity of Bamenda means a large client base that doesn’t have immediate access to potential firewood. And many people still prefer cooking outdoors over a wood fire (or in a “country kitchen” separate from the main house), as it doesn’t require relatively expensive bottled gas.
The landscape here is stunningly beautiful; we sit at somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 feet and the whole area is encircled by even taller green hills. I had been told many times that many people in the village hike up these hills each day to do their farming, but had never known one of these farmers well enough to be invited along. And I was too intimidated to explore them myself-those hills are steep!

But my luck changes this week when Josephine invites me to come get a glimpse of the Mendankwe forests and see some of the deforestation firsthand. We meet at the traditional fon’s palace and are soon clearly outside the village limits. The path up the hill becomes quite steep, but the presence of women carrying huge farming tools on their heads is enough to keep me moving. And I quickly begin to notice the large number of people hastily walking down the path with large bunches of branches balanced on their heads. Eventually the path flattens a bit and I realize that what I had imagined to be hills is really just the beginning part of a large elevated forest. Or what used to be a forest-there are huge tracts of cleared land dotted with many stumps. It feels almost like a scene out of the Lorax.

And this was one of the smaller loads I saw!
And still the parade of wood-carrying people continues. There doesn’t seem to be a specific demographic to these trekkers-we see many young women but also some women and men of all ages. These people certainly have to be commended for their physical commitment and stamina. Most of them are wearing flip-flops or adult “jellies” sandals and are all but running down the path with a huge amount of weight carefully balanced. I begin to notice that some people (primarily men) are carrying what appear to be already milled boards. And sure enough, we eventually come upon a mini-

sawmill complete with chainsaws (with a man using ear protection!) and logs too big to be carried down whole.

Milling logs too big to be carried down whole.
Deforestation is an issue that Josephine cares deeply about and she has decided that the best plan of action is to encourage modern beekeeping techniques in an attempt to provide a replacement income source for local residents. As a plus, bees benefit from an abundance of nearby trees, which she hopes will convince people to plant some trees back and leave the remaining ones alone. I admire her optimism and wish that a more comprehensive solution were also on the table. She lost me on the details, but explained that logging has only been allowed since 1962, which is right around when Cameroon gained its independence. Apparently one of the local politicians opened up access to the previously protected forest in an attempt to gain popular support. I can only imagine that it worked out quite well for him.

Evidence of deforestation notwithstanding, the walk is a beautiful one. We walk down to a patch of replanted forest and Josephine stops to point out a beehive that a farmer she worked with has placed. The hive is nearly falling off its post and it is clear that it has been there a long time. But Josephine’s enthusiasm is infectious and soon we’re both imagining the potential for this land. The small patches of farmland only add to the possibilities, although the steep hike up would add to the challenge.
The issue of deforestation in Mendankwe is clearly a complicated one. While there are no international entanglements at play, the needs for firewood and unrestricted access to timber continue. In addition, the majority of the reforestation efforts (where they occur) consist of eucalyptus saplings, which have extremely high water needs and lower the water table. Given the severity of recent dry seasons, it appears that the issue of deforestation and water availability are connected and will need to be dealt with in the near future.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Is it Possible to Have Too Many Shrimp?

            In a few days the newest group of trainees will meet up in Philadelphia to prepare for their departure for Cameroon. This happens twice a year, but this group is of particular significance to me and my fellow stage-mates. They are the group that will serve as our replacements, as many of them will take over posts that we are currently serving.
            Given the clear-cut timeline of Peace Corps service, I can’t claim that this milestone snuck up on us. Our imminent departure has been a common topic of conversation lately, ever since our Close-of-Service (COS) conference a few weeks ago. The goal of the conference was to help us prepare logistically and emotionally to leave Cameroon and return home, a transition that we have repeatedly been told will be more difficult than our arrival in Cameroon. But the conference also celebrated our collective successes these past two years, and my group of Volunteers has a lot to be proud of. I’m sure that many of you back home have been aware of the various security issues that have affected Cameroon these past few years, and we had a staggering number of Volunteers relocated because of some of them. But not a single member of my group left due to relocation, and all of them embraced their new towns and work projects with enthusiasm. We’ve endured frequent street harassment, terrifying medical ailments, and dramatic cultural and linguistic barriers. And we still got quite a bit of work accomplished. Our programming team was proud to announce that all of the health indicators have been met ahead of schedule, and we are well on our way to accomplishing our agriculture targets.
            The conference was held in the beach town of Kribi, as a sort of celebration of our two years of service. The rainy season weather made the waves more of a hazard than usual, but we still enjoyed some time on the sand and some of my braver friends made it into the water. We also enjoyed some of the best seafood that Cameroon has to offer-one night we went down to the fish marina and I feasted on a kilogram of shrimp. It seemed only fitting-Cameroon’s name originated from the Portuguese word for shrimp-Camerones!
            One of the more surreal parts of the conference was the realization that it would be the last time that we would all be together in Cameroon. We all flew over together when we arrived, but our departure is staggered over a few weeks to allow to the medical team to give us our final clearance. I learned about some of the exciting COS trips my friends are have planned-one group is headed on a West African tour, another from Tanzania to Johannesburg over land, and yet another on a three-month Eastern European odyssey. It might be fair to say that PCVs tend to have a bit more wanderlust than the average American…
             As for my plans, I am opting for a weeklong “extended layover” in Morocco. I’m ready to get back home and catch as much of autumn fun as I can, but the opportunity seemed too good to pass up and I was able to convince a few of my friends from home to fly out and meet me. The trip is still in the planning stages, but the more I learn about the wonderful things to do in see in Morocco the more excited I get.  
            Now that I’ve been back from COS conference for a few weeks, the imminence of our departure feels quite real. I have started telling neighbors and other daily acquaintances when I will be leaving Bamenda, and many of them seem surprised. I guess I have lived here long enough that people have forgotten that I have to go home eventually. I am in the process of preparing for my final projects, sorting out all of my accumulated possessions, and doing some planning for Morocco and my return home. It definitely isn’t time to start saying good-byes yet. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

Everything Closes on Shabbat

I landed in Israel after dark on Friday night, meaning I had arrived at the beginning of Shabbat. Much of the country closes down on Shabbat, including public transportation and many stores. This wasn’t a problem for me-my friend Scott was at the airport waiting to pick me up. But it was certainly a reminder that I had arrived in a country even more religious than the one I had temporarily left behind.
            Scott and I headed over to his friend’s Shabbat dinner, where a group of his Frisbee friends were still gathered. My family celebrated Shabbat when I was growing up, but it has been years since it was a normal part of my week. We had arrived too late for any of the religious part (if it even took place) but were just in time for post-dinner chilling and some wine. No complaints here. Scott is a big Ultimate Frisbee player and he and his friends had just finished working at a camp for Arab and Israeli kids to come together to play Ultimate. As far as I understand it, Ultimate is a self-refereed sport, and the idea is that conflict resolution on the playing field has the potential to expand to larger reconciliation between the two groups.
            The next few days were spent exploring Israel’s major cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Our first stop was the Jerusalem “shook” or market. The shook is an incredible hybrid of organized American stores and chaotic Cameroonian markets. All of the food is divided into small stores off a central pathway, and each store is distinct and organized. Shopkeepers are eager to draw potential customers towards their products, and don’t hesitate to use the outdoor space as additional display. We bought a kilogram of the best grapes I’ve eaten in the past two years, and I was happy as a clam. But the best was yet to come-we continued on and found a man selling cream cheese and smoked salmon. One of Scott’s friends had picked up a few dozen bagels on his way over, so we took our purchases and made a picnic breakfast in a nearby park. I could have left right after breakfast and the trip would have already been worth it.
            We spent that afternoon wandering around Jerusalem’s Old City. It was far too hot to be outside for too long; I was grateful to be making a return trip and thus free to pass on many of the “must-see” sights located in direct sunlight. We passed numerous tour groups struggling in the afternoon heat, including one decked out entirely in matching pagne (West African fabric, potentially the world’s least breathable material).
            Our search for a cooler spot took us to the stone church where Jesus allegedly ascended to heaven. My Birthright trip had (somehow) missed this particular site during my last visit, so this was a new landmark for me. And it was an incredible site to see-apparently multiple sects of Christianity had tried to claim the church as their own, but finally agreed to share it and each decorate their own small sections according to their own traditions. Some rooms are ornate and gilded, while others are more reserved and “traditional”. In a city (and country) typically thought of as home to Jews and Muslims, it was an important reminder of how many groups can claim the land for religious reasons.
The frisbee was the only thing we never left behind.
            Having gotten a short-term fill Jerusalem’s history, we headed to Tel Aviv the following day to appreciate the attractions of a more modern city. Between an afternoon on the Mediterranean beach, happy hour with mango margaritas, Japanese food on a outdoor patio, and a parking payment system so complicated you need a smartphone to navigate it, I was thoroughly reminded how wonderful life in a cosmopolitan city can be. 
            One of my goals for my time in Israel was to refresh my long-dormant SCUBA diving skills and get back underwater. Scott and I had both gotten certified in college, but he hadn’t been diving since our certification dives in that cold Minnesotan lake. He was game to strap on a tank again, so we signed up for a refresher dive course off the beach in Tel Aviv. When they learned how long it had been since we had been diving (nearly three years for me, five for Scott) and where we had gotten certified, the team at the dive shop had a hard time taking us seriously. But we both remembered our skills and were soon out in the water, where we saw a few schools of fish and even a seahorse!
            My cousin Amir and his family coincidentally live in a kibbutz just across the highway from  Scott and I spent an evening having a picnic with Amir and his family at the kibbutz’s community pool, and Scott and Amir discussed hosting a cross-community children’s event centered on Frisbee. More than just more than just a highway divides the two towns; they have history, language, and culture to overcome. But it sounds like some community integration programs have already begun, and there is definitely the potential for a bright future ahead.

the town where Scott lives. The two towns are no more that 15 minutes away from each other, but have wildly different feels to them. Amir’s kibbutz is home to Hebrew-speaking Jews and almost has the feel of a socialist commune; whereas the main language in Scott’s town is Arabic and the plethora of speed bumps do little to slow down the young people racing their cars through the streets.
            We spent the last part of the week taking a mini-road trip up to the northern part of the country. To break up the three-hour drive (Israel is so small!), we decided to stop in the city of Haifa to visit the Baha’i Gardens, of which I had never previously heard. But as soon as we entered (after passing the modesty dress code check) I was blown away. The gardens are set on the world headquarters of the Baha'i faith and include a 19-level terraced garden and shrine to the Bab, a Baha'i prophet. We inadvertently arrived just in time for the daily English-language tour and learned about the history of the Baha'i faith while enjoying the incredible view. It was fascinating, beautiful, and stiflingly hot. We also learned that although Israel is the homeland for the Baha'i faith (or perhaps because it is), its adherents are not allowed to make Israel their personal home.
The Baha'i faith values symmetry as part of beauty. I was
blown away!
            During my last two nights I had two very distinct reunions-first on my family’s kibbutz for Shabbat, then in Jerusalem with a couple of Cameroon RPCVs. On Shabbat we said the traditional prayers, ate my first challah (Jewish braided bread) in two years, and enjoyed time with some far-away family. But the next night was special in an entirely different way, when we met up with two Returned Volunteers currently living in Cameroon. I had overlapped with one of them, but the other was a Frisbee friend of Scott’s that I had never met-just another example of what a small world we live in. Just as we were about to order our pizzas, power went out in the entire neighborhood. The two of them swore that this was a rare occurrence in Jerusalem, but we all had a good laugh about it. We might have left Cameroon, but it was enough of a reminder that we’re never really in control.