Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The wedding of the year!

The following morning we were up early and heading off to catch the bus to Bafoussam after having dumped all the excess luggage at the VSO office. We were lucky with buses and were the last couple of passengers to board (over here the bus leaves when it’s full, hence the no timetable aspect of the bus system!) The four hour bus journey wouldn’t have been too bad apart from the fact that I had the worst seat on the bus, which had no back to it and the girl sat next to me spent the entire time sleeping on my shoulder!

Arriving finally in Baffoussam and it’s true what they say about Cameroon being ‘Africa in miniature’ because of its diversity. This place was so lush and green – like the Caribbean almost. So totally different from Moutourwa! Pineapples, guavas, oranges that are actually orange and not green in colour, beans etc everywhere you looked. Seriously I could have fallen totally in love with the place; food in abundance, cool climate and beautiful scenery, if it wasn’t for the bloody bright red mud that is everywhere to be seen. Suffice to say I quickly started regretting the wearing of my new white trainers I’d bought at home. Mud up to the knees is NO exaggeration. The only thing to be thankful for was that I never actually fell over resulting in mud up to the head, despite numerous near misses!

The Friday we arrived was the day of the traditional wedding. It was supposedly starting at 10am but Sam and I didn’t arrive until 2pm. The panic about missing it was highly unnecessary as ‘African time’ made that it was only just kicking off on our arrival! In Cameroon, the traditional marriage is considered more important than the religious/civil ones and each area of Cameroon and tribe has different practices about how it must run. Fodjo and his fiancée Bibiane come from the Balimike tribe and in their tradition the traditional ceremony takes place in the village of Bibiane’s parents. Initially Fodjo enters the room where all the guests are waiting with two elders from his side of the family. It is the elders who negotiate with the elders of Bibiane’s family to decide on the dowry. Once this is done, the wife’s elders ask the husband’s elders the reason for their coming. There is then a ritual by which different women are brought in disguise in front of the husband’s family who must recognise the real fiancée! It’s like something out of a punch and judy show with everyone hollering and shouting!

After having correctly chosen (assuming they have!), there are lots of other different rituals before finally the groom’s family leaves the bride’s house to take her back to the husbands’s family house. It is as though the wife has now left her family and become part of a new family. This is one of the reasons why girls are less favoured in Cameroonian society as they are not seen as part of their birth family after marriage and therefore educating them etc is seen as an unreapable investment.

The ceremony was followed by a buffet with lots of food that neither Sam nor myself recognised, but not being shy we tucked in, only to find that we had chosen the most disgusting bright yellow vomit tasting mush you can imagine. What we hadn’t quite banked on was the fact that rather than being able to give it to the chickens or some wandering kid on the sly, the fact that we had chosen, unbeknown to us, the traditional food of Bafoussam, every guest was staring at us in a kind of expectant acknowledgement of how wonderful the food was! Had to employ the whole ‘swallow without chewing with lots of water’ strategy instead whilst trying not to grimace.

Both Sam and I were still recovering from the tiredness from the trip and so were looking forward to a long lay-in on the Saturday morning before the Church service at 2pm. How we ever assumed that this was even an option I don’t know. Just as we were heading to bed at midnight, Fodjo tells us that we’ll be out at 6am the following morning. Great. Wasn’t quite sure what on earth we were going to be doing that necessitated us being up at such a time but, sure enough, we were running round like headless chickens with Fodjo for the entire morning. The mad dash wasn’t purely selfless however and by the end of the morning my wedding outfit had been made (over here the bride and groom choose some material that close friends and family buy and get clothes made from thus solving the usual ‘what shall I wear’ dilemma as well as the ‘I hope no one else has this outfit’ conundrum.) We also had time to make a quick trip to the market to buy a wedding gift before making the unenviable mistake of agreeing to have the present wrapped. 25 minutes to wrap one present no joke. And to top it off, the bloody thing was rectangular!

The Church part of the ceremony was much like at home, apart from the fact that the bride and groom arrive together, and they are both walked down the aisle by their respective parents. There is also the rather amusing tradition of having 10 ‘cheerleaders’ that precede the couple down the aisle, performing a pre rehearsed dance routine! The animated mass, with lots of clapping, hollering and dancing from the congregation was also unlike any wedding I’ve been to at home!

Once the two hour photo session had finished outside of the Church (so much photo protocol!) there was another buffet style meal in a hall next to the Church. It was already 6pm before we got back to the house and the fact that we had to be washed and changed ready for the evening do at 8pm meant that our dreams of a good sleep were left precisely as that – dreams. Sam and I decided that whisky was the answer in an attempt to give us some energy. Over here whisky is sold in small sachets in one big packet so we bought a packet thinking that we would bring them with us to the reception and drink them throughout the course of the night. Good plan, except for the fact that by the time we were leaving at 8pm, there were only 3 sachets left in the entire packet!

After the meal, there was the ‘present giving ceremony’ before the dancing began. This basically meant that everyone queued up in a dancing line and danced their way over to the bride and groom to give them their presents. Thankfully another of my friends had given me a present to give to Fodjo else Sam and I would have only had one present between us which, when every single person got up to give a present, was clearly not the done thing here!

The 6am return to the house after dancing the night away and after having finished the whisky, red wine and all else that was provided during the course of the evening meant that the prospect of a 7am start to head back to Yaounde in order to catch the train north that evening were slightly slim to say the least….!

Friday, August 25, 2006


So, after a couple of months back breathing London air, I headed back out to Cameroon on the 24th August to start my final year as a VSO volunteer in the village of Moutourwa in the Extreme North of Cameroon. Setting down in Yaounde international airport, and all those fears that had built up about returning after my two month absence were fading once the familiar smells, sound of car horns and the somehow homely sights of tin roofed houses were yet again presented.

Slightly scared arriving at the airport about the usually obligatory X Raying of luggage at the customs point, before being allowed out of the airport. Wasn’t too sure how I was going to explain the 6 laptops, 2 digital cameras, various mobile phones, 3 memory sticks etc to the authorities! Fortunately a quick flash of the Cameroonian ID card, a cheeky smile and we were through unscathed!

Although back in Yaounde on Thursday night with Sam, another volunteer, the plan was to spend a few days down in the south before heading back up to Moutourwa, the main reason being the imminent marriage of my good friend Fodjo in the West province of Cameroon, in the town of Bafoussam. After dumping all 59 kilos of luggage (yep that is not a typo) at the hotel, Sam and I hit the streets of Yaounde for some good old street food – roasted chicken – and got back into the swing of things with the first of no doubt many ‘33’ beers over the next 12 months. Not too much of a late night though and we were soon home tucked up in bed getting bitten to death by the ever present mossies!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Reunification celebrations

So, for those of you who don’t know (and my own father didn’t despite the fact that his daughter has been out in Cameroon for nearly a year!), Cameroon is historically a divided country. Occupied in part by the British and the French (hence the bilingual tie) the country was reunified on the 20th May 1961. This date couldn’t be bypassed without celebrations therefore, especially considering there are celebrations at every possible opportunity here!

The fact that the 20th May celebrations were billed as the biggest of all the yearly celebrations frightened me somewhat, considering how big the other ‘fetes’ had been! In true Cameroonian celebratory style, marching was involved (including the marching practice and three days off school!), along with dancing and general merriment as well as that evil alcohol substance we call beer.

At school, things are still going well. Club activities have now stopped, as has teaching! Although exams weren’t starting for another two weeks, students no longer really came to school unless a lesson was programmed by the teacher…..and many teachers had already returned to their villages! On the plus side, the marking has all finished as these are national exams which are marked elsewhere, yet this relief was substituted by the mind numbing task of invigilating! FOUR hours of staring at a ceiling (or open air if it was one of the classrooms lacking a roof!) and not even being allowed to sit down. No chance of sneaking a sit down either, as there is even a teacher invigilating the invigilators!!

Other news and I have had the privilege of being invited to formally join one of the women’s group in Moutourwa; ‘Les Femmes Dynamiques.’ There are around 30 women in the group that meets once a month at a different woman’s home. There, we discuss money issues, eat a meal of fufu and sauce, drink a drink, dance around the village and then head home. The group itself provides immense support to the local women who are members. Each member has to pay the equivalent of £3 to join, and this money is saved and distributed when one of the women is in need. For example, one of our members children was ill last week, therefore we provided her with enough money to pay for his hospital visit, as her family could not afford to do so. The group also gives the local women the opportunity to have some autonomy over any money they have. Most of them work selling produce that they have made in the markets, and the group gives them a chance to save it. Each month, the women can deposit as much or as little money as they like which they can access at the end of the year thus providing them with a Bank-esque service! I have only attended one reunion so far, but I am looking forward to becoming a regular attendee…I have even bought the outfit that we all wear! The only thing left now is to brush up on my Fulfulde language skills as the majority of the women only speak limited, if any, French. At least I’ll get lots of opportunity to practise!

Sharing skills...

‘Sharing skills, Changing Lives.’ This is the VSO international motto and it is with this in mind that each year in Cameroon, the VSO education volunteers organise what is known as a ‘Skillshare Workshop.’ A selection of English teachers in the Extreme North Province are invited for a workshop run by the VSO volunteers, with the help of the Bilingual Inspector for the Extreme North as well as the British Council. Each year the theme is decided upon by the volunteers and this year we chose to focus on the theme of ‘Innovation in the ELT classroom.’

My experience of having worked on a UNA Exchange training team suddenly became invaluable as we spent a limited amount of time putting together a training style day for English Language teachers. The day itself involved sessions on lesson planning, how to encourage speaking in the EL classroom, as well as a session run by myself and another volunteer focussed on developing HIV/AIDS awareness in the EL classroom. This last session was of particular interest as it was a topic that had never been broached in previous workshops. What was surprising, and slightly disheartening at the same time, was the reception of this topic from the English teachers present. Responding to the question of the approach to take if a student tells a teacher he is HIV positive, one headteacher said, and I quote; “He should be shot.” Although the feedback from the session in general was good, it is clear that this is an area that we must focus on more and we are already planning that next years workshop should be based entirely on the topics of HIV/AIDS and gender.

At school, the computer room renovations are fully under way and the computers have finally arrived! The only delay is the problem in finding the materials needed for the renovation. For over a month now we have been searching for the tin roofing with no luck. There is a lack of stock everywhere, therefore until this is rectified the project is at a bit of a standstill. In the meantime however, we have set up four of the 10 computers in the staff area and I’ve been running mini computer literacy courses for the teachers. Hopefully, this way, when the computer room is ready for use, a team of teachers can train a group of students who will, in turn, take it in turn to train their fellow students.

The slower than anticipated progress with the computer room isn’t too concerning especially as I have accepted my school’s request to extend my contract for another year! I’d never have believed I’d be doing this back last September, but it is something that I am very pleased about and so looking forward to. Not only would I be incredibly sad to leave everyone here (even though it’d be great to see everyone at home) but this way, I feel that I will not be leaving things unfinished. By next year the computer room will hopefully be fully functional and well established and there are many other projects that we would love to realise, for example building a water pump at the school, as well as constructing disability ramps to make the school more accessible. In addition, we would love to further develop the HIV/AIDS club, which I hope to source some more funding for as well as establish a girls club in the school to better empower the female students. Fortunately though, I will be coming home for the summer so I’ll have the best of both worlds; I’ll get to catch up with friends and family during the summer, whilst come September, I’ll be able to prolong the fantastic experience that I’m living.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter break

The Easter holidays (which finished the week before Easter bizarrely enough) were spent travelling round different villages visiting friends. Three of us volunteers took the trek up to Pouss, a large village where another volunteer is based, about 3 hors drive from Maroua (add a couple of hours waiting on the side of the road whilst the driver attempts to repair the tin pot bus). The beautiful thing about this village is that the inhabitants decorate their houses with amazing drawings, using a mixture of mud and water as their paint.

The fact that the village is next to the River Logan (the river that separates Cameroon and Chad) means that there isn't exactly a problem with finding water, unlike Moutourwa! Fresh fish is also readily available which is great until you decide to bring some back for your friends and neighbours in the village and the fish turns into some mushy, smelly substance which leaks blood all over your knees in the bus on the way home. Fantastic.
Apart from those minor hiccups however, the trip to Pouss was really good and I even got to go swimming for the first time since leaving the UK (fully clothed of course what with it being heavily Muslim) No signs of Bilharzias disease as yet but I'll keep you posted.

The second part of the Easter holidays was spent with my principal's wife and son in her village, Lara, about an hour and a half west of Moutourwa. Unexpectedly I ended up staying for five days, rather than the one day I had anticipated.... Apparently they had invited me for the entire duration of their stay but clearly there had been a miscommunication somewhere along the line, therefore when I rocked up at my principal’s house in the morning before we left with only my wallet in toe, they presumed I had changed my mind and didn't want to stay! Fortunately, the clothes in this joint are kind of a one size fits all policy considering they are just bits of material that you wrap around yourself, therefore I managed to stay relatively clean! Lara was actually really beautiful and the four days were possibly the most relaxing I've had since coming to Cameroon - I did nothing but eat, wash (there's LOTS of water in Lara), eat (including a hideous experience of goats head for breakfast at 6am in the morning - yuk), sleep, play with the kids, and go on donkey rides - very scary.

We were back at school for four days before another mini holiday for Easter. Unlike Christmas, Easter isn't really celebrated here so it was just spent with a few friends in having a drink, before making dinner with the neighbours in the evening. Lest I forget the 7 big fat chocolate eggs I scoffed. I wish.

Now back at school for three weeks of frantic lessons to try and finish the programme before the mock exams which start in May. After the mocks the teaching is basically finished and the kids no longer really come to school - we don't even take the register anymore. The school year is practically over and the time for coming home is edging ever nearer....!

The beautiful sight of water in Pouss during the Easter Hols

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Trip to Lara to the home of the Principal's wife (N.B: not the goat's head breakfast, hence why I'm still smiling!)

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day

Ok well I know it’s been quite a while since my last posting after saying that I would be writing more regularly but things have been super busy here as usual.

I celebrated my first International Women’s Day on March 8th which was great fun! This basically involved loads of women getting dressed up in the international day 'pagne' (cloth that you buy and have made up) and marching around Motourwa singing feminist songs! Te proposed assembly time of 7am at the Mayor’s office for the start of the parade of course didn’t materialise ad therefore we were left to march in the sweltering heat at midday ( to give you an idea it was 56 degrees the other day!) The sad thing about it was that the reason for the lateness of ever activity involving women in the community is because they have so many tasks to complete before they can even think about leaving the house. Te most taxing of all is the task of fetching water not least because here I Motourwa there is such a problem with water. Incredibly there are only two pumps for the whole of the village (around 6000 people) so it’s no surprise that the women often go to collect water in the morning and don’t return until late at night.

The whole week running up to women’s day, and the actual day itself was a real eye opener for me. Since I am the only female teacher in my school I spend most of the time in male company as women are not allowed to go out on their own and are rarely seen outside of the house. This being the case the majority of my time is spent with my male friends apart from some of my female students although I could ever go out to a bar with them or anything like that. My only other close women friends are two of the women who own the bars where I go. There is a women’s group in Motourwa and what with it being women’s week they were holding daily meetings about the activities planned during the week and on the big day itself. I was invited along to participate which was a fantastic experience. For the first time I got to spend a decent amount of time with the local women and was able to chat with them (those that speak French anyway as my Fulfude isn’t as yet all that fluent by a long stretch!) and listen to their opinions and thoughts. Lots of events were organised in the run up to the day including a round table conference, a football match (where I came on for a brief outing!) and a cultural evening where all the women made food (I just ate it) and came and sold it whilst others performed dances. The most striking thing however is the negative image of the event by the men. There were very few male attendees to any of the events, (apart from my close male friends who came along to support me) and it’s hard to see how in the near future the disadvantaged position of women can change here. The round table conference for example generated lots of discussion about women’s position in society, but the fact that none of the women had brought along their husbands meant that ultimately all that was said was not heard by those that have the real power to change things i.e. the men. The role of education is of massive importance, and it is hoped that increased schooling for girls will go some way to increased emancipation for women.

The day itself though was great fun, even if it is uncertain if many of the women really understood what the day was meant to be all about. When we finally did start the march, it was a great sight to see all the women out in their coordinated outfits parading round the village (even if I did have to stop three times n the way to chug water down my throat!)

After the march, I headed off to continue the celebrations with my principal and colleagues in my friend’s bar before we all met again at 4pm for the ‘cocktail’ party at the Sub-Division officer’s house. This was followed by another trip to the bar, a quick rest back at the house before heading out to the soirée to dance the night away! No embarrassing opening of dances with students this time as no students were allowed in….instead I had the awkwardness of having to dance with the sub-divisional officer himself – the President’ representative in the district of Moutourwa! Not quite sure how I always get roped into these things but hey! Nine beers later and the only ones left in the venue were my two female friends who were selling the beers and Sardi, myself and another colleague along with the DJ. Benefits of this was that any requests were quickly adhered to – hence the same song got played at least 20 times over! I was rather pleased that what with Thursday being my free day at school, I had no need to set the alarm after my nine beers and 5am bedtime!

International Women's Day

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Health Club outing...

The weekend wasn't only taken up by English Club activities as we had also organised for our health club to take a trip out to a nearby village the day after the bilingual madness to do some awareness raising activities. The plan was to leave Moutourwa at 7am in a bus that we had already arranged to collect us the previous week, arrive in the village of Titing around 8 and do some general awareness raising activities in the market before holding a football match in the afternoon between a team form Titing and a team from another nearby village. All very well planned, but as usual even the best planned things seem to encounter a few problems here! The original bus didn't actually turn up until 2 hours after the proposed start time, but our spirits weren't dampened and all 27 of us crammed into a 17 person bus (I have no idea how!) and we set off for our outing. Unfortunatley the unforseen circumstances didn't finish with the late bus.....rather more importantnly, the football team from Titing didn't turn up for the start of the footie match! They were too busy enjoying themselves with the traditional wine in the market! Luckily for us, we quickly recruited some of the peer educators who had to whip off their smart trousers and shirts and get ready to play the match! The team from Titing did eventually turn up half way through the match, but I wouldn't exactly say they were in such a fit state to play!

The day in itself was really quite successful apart from the minor hitches and we managed to run a quiz about HIV/AIDS in the market before the match and then the peer educators used the opportunity to chat with the locals about the issues during the match. as well as perform sketches etc in an attempt to get the message across. Most people in the village didn't speak French, but rather their local language Guiziga, so all our activities were translated into the two languages to target as many people as possible. It was really interesting to see the attitude to the disease among the villagers...it's clear that there is still much work that needs to be done in increasing awareness about the existence of the disease and methods of prevention. When asked how he could catch HIV for example, one man replied that he wasn't entirely sure but regardless he was sure he could never be at risk because he washes himself everyday! What was concerning is that this was not an uncommon repsonse.

All in all though, the day was a success and we all piled back into the 17 seater bus to head back to Moutourwa for 6pm where we had organised a meal for all the peer educators to thank them for their efforts.

At the moment, I'm hoping to get some some funding from VSO to arrange another visit to a different village. Whilst in Titing, we also had the opportunity to meet and chat with their local commitee against HIV/AIDS to see how they appraoched the sensitisation of the population. What became evident is the lack of consesus existing between the differing local commitees. In the district of Moutourwa, there are at least 10 different commitees in the differing villages, however there is no communication or exchange of ideas between them about good practise etc. The commitee that we met for example said that if they discovered someone with the disaese they would tell them directly that the only thing that was going to happen is that they would die! Not really the supportive approach that our commitee is trying to project. I'm hoping that VSO will also provide the funding for the organisation of a workshop, where we invite all the local commitees form the area and spend a day discussing our different approaches etc. This way we can hopefully come to a consensus about how to approach the task of raising awareness so as to have more of a concerted effort in trying to reduce the infection rate here in the extreme north. Fingers crossed the application is accepted!

The peer educators at work!

27 people in a 17-man bus!

Some of the local children we're hoping to influence!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

International Youth Day

I'm getting more and more used to the fact that Cameroon evidently loves to celebrate on every possible occassion and therefore it came as no surprise that we were going to celebrate the supposed 'international Youth Day' on the 11th February (anyone else heard of it??!!) What was quite surprising however was that despite the fact that the celebratory day fell on a Saturday, we still managed to miss three days of school in preparation for it!

Unbeknown to me, marching is apparently of great importance in the execution of any kind of celebratory event. All schools from the area – maternal, primary, secondary, colleges and the like were to descend on Moutourwa to march around the sports field whilst the dignitries (ie the Mayor, the traditional Chief of the village, the divisional officer who represents the President of Cameroon in the district of Moutourwa etc) watched! This being the case, the three days prior to the celebration were taken up by march practise – yes you heard me right. This basically consisted of us heading out to the sports field at 7am and watching the students march around it for three continous hours whilst we shouted words of encouragement and advice from the sidelines – I lost count of the amount of times I found myself shouting « shoulders back, chest out, sing like you mean it ! » Army commander in the making I reckon.

The day of the actual event, we all converged on the football field at 9am to wait for the start of the events. Sticking with tradition, things didn't start on time so by the time the marching did kick off, we were already near fainting point what with the 45 degree heat and the absolute lack of any type of tree/small bush/plant in sight under which to seek shade! So, did all this marching practice come in useful I hear you cry.......well all I can say is that I was rather surprised to discover that instead of the entire tour of the football pitch that I was expecting, the 'march' consisted of a 10 metre stretch in front of the seated dignitries lasting approximatley 10,25 seconds! Not quite sure the three days of missed lessons was totally justified, but apparently most other members of staff and students were actually very put out that we didn't have the entire week off! - In schools in the town that is precisely what happens..it is just our Principal who decided that this was rather excessive!!

After the marching, certain of us were invited to the Divisional Officers residence where a cocktail had been laid on. Suffice to say lots of meat and a good few beers were consumed. We were meant to all reconvene at the football pitch at 3pm for the start of the afternoon's activities..the final of a football tournament that had been played in the week running up to the celebration. Leaving the cocktail it was already 2pm so the Principal, Xenia, Fodjo, Asongwe and myself all piled into the Principal's car and we headed off the the nearest bar to pass away the time before heading over to the footie pitch. Well after a good few hours in the bar, we decided that it was probably only polite to show our faces at the match and so we all piled in again and headed over to the pitch just in time to catch the final 10 mintues or so before heading back out in the direction of another bar. This being a major celebration in Cameroon, everyone was out in force and it was at about 7pm that the bars started to run out of cold beer, before finally ruinning low on actual beer stocks! After searching for a drinking hole that still had some drink to offer, we finally headed home at 10pm. At this point, I must say that the prospect of making it out to the 'soiree' that was organised seemed relatively low. Fortunately Fodjo was there to ply us with food and after a quick power nap and lots of water at his we made our way out to the fete where Xenia got to experience of Cameroonian slow dancing, or 'blocking' as it is commonly referred to in these parts (ie no moving, touching up kind of thing!) The necessary early rise the following day for Xenia's departure was quite problematic to say the least!

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