Saturday, November 19, 2005

A very difficult week

This past week has definitely felt like one of the longest since I arrived here. After spending a long weekend with my friends in Moutourwa, thanks to the announcement lat Thursday night of a national holiday to mark the start of the three week long census (not that any of us even saw a census representative on Friday) I started the school week in good form.

Our monthly teachers reunion which was due to take place on Friday night was suspended as the host teacher's mother had passed away. A notice was given to the teachers on Monday to inform us that we were all going to pay the teacher in question a visit that evening to express our condolences, as is the tradition in Cameroon. After finishing school on Monday afternoon, I came home to eat and have a siesta before meeting the other teachers, only to receive a call from my sister to inform me that my uncle had died whilst on holiday with my aunt.

It's no surprise that following this news, this week has been one of the longest and hardest since being here. It's only now that I realise how far away from home I actually am and how difficult it is for me to get back, given the very isolated nature of the Extreme North Province. The guilt at not being at home at a time like this to be there to give support to the rest of my family is something that I find really hard to face up to.

Fortunately, everyone here has been immensely supportive and I feel that over this past week I have become even closer to my close friends here. Not only have they had to put up with my frequent teary moments but they have refused point blank to leave me spend an evening alone, instead making sure I am with them, even if they have just come round to sit with me. Fodjo has had me round for dinner every day this week, he has sat with on numerous occasions whilst I have been upset and he has cracked endless amounts of jokes in an attempt to cheer me up. The Principal has also been a great support. Initially, I was not planning on telling many people until persuaded by Fodjo that I had to and I was ultimately really pleased I did. The Principal reproached me for even considering not telling everyone else and explained I'm part of one big family in Moutourwa and that everyone is there to support me etc etc. He's also had me over for lunch and is taking me out for the day on Sunday in an attempt to take my mind off things. I'm just thankful that at least I have phone network here so at least I have been able to have some contact with my family even though I can't be there.

Tragically, the sadness didn't stop there this week. When I went to school on Tuesday, I was told that one of my A Level students had collapsed and died the previous night. He was fine in school on Monday, he was in top form in my lesson at 2pm. Apparently he went home from school and was studying in the evening when he said he didn't feel too well, went out for a run and collapsed and died on the way back home at 10pm. He was only 22. Like many students who come to school in Moutourwa, he was from a nearby smaller village and therefore lived away from his parents with his younger sister who also attends school. There is a lot of superstition here, especially surrounding death and consequently no time is wasted in burying the body. This is also influenced by the Islamic culture where the dead are buried as soon as possible, often even before family members have had a chance to see the body. The other reason for this is the fact that, in the villages at least, there is no way of conserving the body. Unfortunately, like the teacher situation, there is a severe lack of doctors in the villages in Cameroon and more often than not it is unqualified nurses who pronounce dead the bodies. This has led to many stories of people who have been buried but who have actually more than likely been in a coma. The reality of the situation here though is that even if that be the case there are not the medical facilities to deal with this scenario and therefore burial is the only real option. Andre was pronounced dead at 10pm and was buried back in his village at 2am the following morning. Tomorrow we are heading off to his village to pay our respects to his family.

Friday, November 11, 2005

'La Soiree!'

I spent a very good couple of days in Moutourwa last weekend. The school cooperative had been elected (they are the group of students who manage the budget for all the student club activities) and so Saturday was the official 'launch' of their activities. Festivities were programmed to start at 730am but as I am now getting more used to what's known as 'African time' I didn't bother turning up at the 'stadium' (the dust football pitch) until 9am just in time for the start of the action! First up was a speech by the president of the cooperative, before all the 'dignitaries' ie the President, the Principal, and myself (how I count as a bloody dignitary I'll never know!) were taken around the different stands of every club at the school. Amusingly enough, there is even an IT club, although apparently only one of the members has ever seen a computer! Hopefully this'll change when we get the computer room up and running!
This visit was followed by a football match for the girls. Thinking that I had fulfilled my 'dignitary' role of turning up I settled back in my shaded seat to enjoy the match. Little did I know that I was to be called upon to 'launch' the match ie. I had to walk into the centre of the pitch and kick the ball first to start the match. All very well apart from the fact that as soon as the ball moves off the centre spot, both teams come charging towards it whilst I'm attempting to leg it off the pitch in flip flops! I then discovered that I was a prime target for the students in the Radio club to come and interview me over the microphone during the course of the match – no rest for the wicked!

Due to the heat here the festivities were stopped at 1130 before recommencing at 1600 with the boys football match to give everyone the time to get indoors away from the heat and to have a siesta. No such siesta for me though now that our English club is in full swing. We meet twice weekly on a Wednesday and a Saturday so we headed directly to school from the stadium where we learnt the words to Westlife's Fool Again song which we then sang minimum 10 times! The boys and girls alike were up dancing and singing their hearts out – they love it!

After the second footie match, I went for a good feed at my friend’s house who thought this was necessary to stop me falling over at ‘la soiree’ in the evening where muchas beer would be consumed! Unfortunately my other friend clearly also had the same idea as just as I had finished eating as much as possible at Fodjo’s, my friend Sardi calls to tell me to come over to the house to eat! After two hefty dinners I wasn’t sure if I could actually fit any beer in especially considering that, like all drinks over here, everything is XXL so each beer is ¾ litre!! Fortunately all the dancing that I then undertook at the ‘soiree’ soon digested all that food and left sufficient space for litres of beer. Yet again, I didn’t get out of ‘opening’ the dance, although this time I was partnered up with a fellow teacher as opposed to a student so the embarrassment levels were slightly decreased! The flowing warm beer meant that I had no shame in getting the old ‘butterfly’ routine out. Those who have been fortunate/misfortunate enough to encounter my ‘special’ dance will probably be surprised to hear that it actually went down a treat and I think I have created a new following of butterfly dances in this part of the world :) Headed home around 430am, and after consuming a big bowl of semolina to curb the munchies, fell into bed.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Settling In and the real work begins ...

Approaching my eighth week here in Moutourwa and I can't believe how quickly the time is passing...not only am I beginning to panic about how quickly this school term is flying by and how much there is left to do, but I am also quietly fretting that my year here is going to be over far too quickly.
School is going very well. I feel much more settled and teaching and controlling classes of 100+ kids feels totally normal now! The amount of work there is left to do though is slowly dawning. Cameroon likes celebrations, that's for sure. Since being here, we've already celebrated, Teacher's Day, Career Advisor's Day, Sports Teacher's Day, Ramadan (the Extreme North of Cameroon being predominantly Islamic), and this Friday is Pupil's Day, all of which mean a day off school! Apparently, all these days are 'international,' not that I've ever heard of any them! Covering the 14 units in each book to complete the curriculum seems even more unachievable considering that from the second term onwards these celebratory days are even more common! This feeling is compounded by the fact that each term we have to set two sets of 'mock' exams. All very well but by the time you've given the exams, marked them and spent a couple of lessons going through error corrections, I'm not quite sure when exactly you're meant to teach!

Living wise, all is going exceptionally well. I have spent the last couple of weekends in Moutourwa, rather than heading out to Maroua. This way, I've been able to get to know my neighbours much better and other people in the village as well as giving me time to mark all the hundreds of papers from the first set of tests! I've got more used to the water situation and can judge much more when I need to ask my neighbour to fetch me some, although saying that I have run out at the moment so I'm sitting here sweating buckets, sucking on limes in an attempt to quench the old thirst whilst I wait for my neighbour to come back from the well!
I still haven't quite mastered the old cooking either to be honest but fortunately I'm getting quite into the Cameroonian trick of turning up at people's houses at lunch time! This way I'm actually getting fed. My friend Fodjo is especially good at taking pity on me and often actually 'beeps' me to tell me to come over! I did repay the favour the other day when I made chick pea curry and fried potatoes which he thought was the most bizarre thing he had ever tasted!
My neighbours are Muslims and so have been fasting for the past month as it has been Ramadan. They eat at 3am before sunrise and then break the fast at 6pm once the sun has set. To break the fast, they first drink a delicious nutritious drink called 'la bouille' made from crushed peanuts, boiled milk, sugar, water and lime juice which takes about 3hrs to prepare. Now that I'm good friends with them I have been getting regular evening deliveries of this bouille so I at least feel that nutrition level wise things are on the up!

As for the heat, I can't really say that I've fully adjusted but the sun seems less oppressive than when I first arrived. Although I like to tell myself that this is because I'm becoming a sun baby and adjusting accordingly, everyone here likes to tell me that has nothing to do with it and in fact it is because the 'cold' season is setting in! Hmmm, I'm not so sure their idea of 'cold' is quite the same as mine, especially considering the other day the vice principal was wearing a coat and complaining that the cold weather was setting in and it can't have been less than 28 degrees! I have so far resisted the temptation of buying a fan though in preparation for the hot season when apparently you don't even bother to turn the fan on as it just blows hot air!

Having spoken to other volunteers, it's dawning on me that I've been really lucky to find myself in this community. People here are so open and friendly and I have made some really good friends, not only work colleagues but neighbours, students and the like. In the village itself, even the gawking from the children is subsiding somewhat as they become more used to me. I have had some clothes made too from Africa cloth so dress wise I seem to fit in slightly better too which may have helped somewhat!
Thus far into my trip and I haven't read more than 60 pages of one book! Suffice to say that loneliness hasn't really been a factor, apart from in the first couple of weeks. To be honest, I'm finding it difficult to find enough hours in the day to do all the things I'm doing! A typical week day consists of getting up about 5.30am, having a nice cup of tea i (if there is sufficient water that is!), followed by the twice daily bucket wash. Fortunately most days at school I don't start until 8.15am so I can take my time getting ready and listen to the radio (if the signal is good) before heading off to school on foot. Every day at school is different and I finish at different times so the time I get home varies greatly. Most days I am home by about 1.30pm though. Due to the heat, everything stops from about 12.30pm until around 4pm when the visits recommence so these few hours are usually spent cooking, lesson planning and getting some shut eye!

Ramadan festival was today which meant no school. I headed off to school this morning to fill in report cards (which takes lots of time considering the number of students!) before heading to various people's houses to wish them 'Bonne fete.' Unbeknown to me you do not just go to someone's house, wish them Happy Ramadan and leave, oh no. You stay maximum 45 minutes at each house and, because everyone is so generous and welcoming here, you are expected to eat a full on meal of fufu, meat and sauce followed by at least two cakes for dessert and drink at least one litre bottle of Coke or Fanta (being Muslims soft drinks are the order of the day). This was fantastic the first house we visited and I was very pleased that I wouldn't have to think about what I was going to eat for lunch..... however by the sixth house, the old stomach was beginning to start rejecting everything else I was attempting to shove down it and the old food sweats were breaking out! Coupled with the general sweating from the heat, these food sweats, as I'm sure you can imagine, are rendered that bit more unpleasant. Attempting to make polite conversation whilst repressing the urge to release a mega burp after 6 litres of pop is no easy task I assure you! Suffice to say that on returning home at 2pm I had a good lie down in an attempt to give me body time to digest the overload! At least now I know what to expect for Christmas!

Until next time……

One month in....

Apart from the permanent state of perspiration, the mossi bites that have turned my legs into volcanic craters and the fact that I have already had to compromise my vegetarian status, things here in the extreme north of Cameroon are going extremely well! On arrival, two weeks of VSO training gave us the opportunity to start adapting to the very different culture that awaited us here before finally being shipped off to our individual placements. All that North South training about cultural perspectives, stereotypes and difference really has taken on a whole new meaning now that I am actually out here!
This being my first time in Africa, there have been many things that have initially either shocked me or left me in utter awe. My village, Moutourwa is a good size and takes about 30mins to walk from one end to another. There are about 6000 people who live here, mostly in mud hits that line the dust roads from one end of the village to the other. On arrival in the capital, Yaounde, we whisked by this area of town where the mud huts were prominent and therefore it is only since coming to my village that I have encountered first hand these types of houses but it is amazing how quickly certain things become incredibly normal to you when you live with them day to day. In fact, it is only on getting to know people, discussing their different situations and seeing malnourished children on a daily basis outside your house, that you really start to understand some of the hardships that people here are facing. Despite all these difficulties however, the main thing that has struck me since I have been here is the wonderful generosity of Cameroonian spirit and the strong sense of familial ties and loyalty that prevails. What is also striking is the deep religious beliefs that exist, sometimes paradoxically, alongside the traditional beliefs. There are over 250 tribal groups in Cameroon and yet the country has been in a state of peace for years which I'm sure has to do with the accepting spirit of the Cameroonian people. Here in the extreme north, the religion is predominantly Islam however many other religions exist side by side without problems, demonstrating the tolerant nature of the people.
Living-wise, I am slowly adapting to all the new challenges. Trying to judge how much water I need and when I'm going to run out and how much water to filter has caused a few problems and there have been a few moments when I've realised that I've used too much water to do my washing up and have no water left to drink! Not great in 40 degree heat! Fortunately my neighbour has taken pity on me and collects my water for me from the well which is probably a good thing considering I got laughed away from the well when I turned up there the first day!!
Food, or lack of, has probably been the most challenging thing here. Vegetarianism? What's that?! I can safely say that I would be without food at all if I did not eat meat here! Staple diet here in the North is fufu and sauce containing meat if it's a special occasion. Me not being the greatest chef in the world, this has been proving quite difficult to get the swing of. Basically pasta and tinned sardines have been the staple diet of Rebecca in the month I have been here! There is a market once a week on a Tuesday where you can buy some onions, tomatoes and guavas but that's about where the fresh fruit and veg ends! Suffice to say all those 365 vitamin tablets I lugged out with me in my 41 kilos worth of baggage are seeming more and more like a good purchase! I have eaten round friend's houses quite often which has been a blessing and my neighbour is taking me to the market next Tuesday and then we're going to cook together to see how the hell you actually use the different ingredients here to make something that is not onnly edible but that also tastes nice!
As for the school, things are going very well. School starts at 7.15am and finishes at 3.00pm but by 12.30 most people have left because it's too hot to continue lessons. With an average of 95 in each class the body heat that's generated doesn't help the heat situation! This week I've given my first set of exams and today marked 105 pieces of work form one class. Considering I still have 4 other classes to mark, I think it's safe to say I'll be staying indoors this weekend! The school itself is very basic and there are a severe lack of resources. Fortunately though, the previous VSO volunteer started a library so at least the students have some access to books, even though it is limited. I have applied for money form the British High Commission here in Cameroon as we hope to rennovate one of the school's classsrooms to turn into a computer room to house the 3 computers the school already owns. Hopefully this way we can fulfil the school's objective of increasing the efficiency of the school administration as they will be able to store records/templates etc on the computer.

I've been settling in reasonably well here although emotions are a bit of a rollercoaster still but I guess that was always gonna be the case. The time is flying here – I can't believe I've been here for over a month already but at the same time being in the UK feels like a million years ago! I'm actually really lucky to be in my village because the people are so friendly and because they have had a volunteer before, they know more what to expect. It's a bit different though with me being a girl given that in this culture women really are looked upon as second (maybe even third!) class citizens. It's a good learning curve for them and myself though and I've had some really good conversations about the role of women with my neighbours and some of my friends and colleagues. The past few weekends I have gone into Maroua, the big town to stay with other volunteers and for a bit of a break form the village ie to get a good meal (I dont eat here!) and have a shower rather than a bucket wash! This weekend I went in on Friday but I decided to come home on Saturday morning as there was a big footie match on with Cameroon playing Egypt for the World Cup qualifiers, and as football is a religion here I thought the atmosphere would be much better here in the village at my friend's house. The atmosphere was great...not many people here have tele's so those who do put their TV's outside and everyone crowds round to watch! All very well until the electricity cuts out at the most important period of the game! Unfortunately Cameroon didnt win so no world cup for us next year which really sucks but we managed to go and drown our sorrows regardless. There aren't many 'soirees' in the villages so when one is organised it is a massive event. Some students from the village who were heading back off to university next week organised a soiree which we were invited to. My best friend here (he's also a colleague) is called Sardi and we headed off together after a couple of beers in a bar first. Turned up at the hall and there were millions of students standing outside and the girls were inside dancing. Sardi told me that the guys have to pay to get in so they stand outside and watch first until lots of girls arrive before paying to enter!! It was an excellent night but just like being at a school disco when you're 12! A couple of other teachers also turned up and we sat around drinking beers and chatting until all of a sudden my neighbour (one of the older students who had organised the soiree) turns up at our table to ask me if I would 'officially open' the soiree!! Having already knocked a few beers back I readily agreed not really knowing what this would involve....I soon found out as the music stops and my name is called out over the microphone to come stand in the middle of the hall and bloody slow dance with this student!! The funniest part about the whole thing was that slow dancing here involves not moving from the spot and basically standing there hugging one another – oh the shame. Fortunately it was rather short lived and they turned the Cameroonian music back on and everyone got up to join us for a boogie! There is an even bigger 'soiree' planned for the end if this month so at least this time I'll be a bit more prepared!

Well, I think that about does it for this installment! There's so much that's new, exciting, different here it's difficult to even know where to begin explaining things! Will try and be a bit more regular with the ûpdates so they're not as long as this! Will also try and send personal emails soon