Friday, November 04, 2005

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



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