Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Grandmother's words again ring true

Sickness far away from home makes one thankful for two of the greatest comforts in life: chicken noodle soup with crackers and mom. Both of which, of course, are conspicuously missing here in Jinja. Looking on the bright side of things while sweating profusely under a mosquito net and trying to block out Congolese hip hop music that’s blaring from the neighbor’s radio, it is also easy to be eternally grateful for antibiotics!

Moving on from my stomach’s first encounter with Ugandan bacteria, life in Jinja continues to welcome me. The pineapples taste just as juicy sweet, the Nile runs just as bold and steady, and my work at TASO remains both challenging and rewarding.

At TASO I completed two additional project proposals to supplement my original one. The first new proposal is for a Pen Pal Project. The goal of the PPP is to empower youth in Uganda through Life Skills learning and cross-cultural exchange between students in Uganda and students in the United States of America so youth in both countries are equipped with the skills to successfully prevent further spread of HIV/AIDS. There will be a writing competition component to the PPP also, in which students are encouraged to submit pieces on a variety of topics including, but not limited to: HIV/AIDS, future aspirations, culture, individuality and youth empowerment. My goal is for a panel comprised of the PPP’s stakeholders to judge the writing submissions and award small prizes to the most outstanding submissions. Writing competition submissions will be published on a TASO-designed blog, acting as another forum for open discussion, an extension of the PPP goal to parties within and beyond participating students.

The second proposal is for a Child Testimony Project. I want to consolidate a number of child testimonies of children affected and infected by HIV/AIDS and publish them on a TASO blog as well as in hardcover. The project will give children a chance to share their stories and know that they are not alone, a form of psychosocial healing. The published book will also be sold to raise money for school fees for the infected and affected children.

…Of course, all of this depends upon the support I hope to receive from TASO headquarters…

The original project I began with is still in the works. I identified several rural secondary schools with administrators who have expressed enthusiasm over the HIV/AIDS and Life Skills course I am currently designing. An independent volunteer, partnering with TASO for three months before he attends medical school, happily agreed to collaborate with me on the project. We will start teaching the course mid-September when the students return from their holiday. We’re enjoying being each other’s sounding board and comparing notes when culture shock strikes!

I attended a formal Introduction ceremony with my host family a few weeks back; the event definitely prompted some “comparing notes!” In Uganda, the Introduction ceremony is a large cultural event every bride-to-be hosts. It’s a ceremony for the bride and the bride’s family to introduce her fiancé to her family and the community at large. Introductions are just as, if not more, important than weddings here in Uganda. Friends, family and co-workers are often expected to contribute to the funding of the event. Actually at a staff meeting here at TASO we discussed at GREAT length—literally about 45 minutes—the appropriate way to ask for money for the Introductions of staff members. We discussed who should be included (only sisters, close friends and cousins or distant relatives and friends of friends?), if the amount donated should be noted on the list, whether or not the host should ask people individually for money, should the donation be mandatory, how much money should be given, should non-donors be revealed, etc, etc. Needless to say, it’s a pretty big deal.

After breakfast the morning of the Introduction, my family gave me the honor of wearing a traditional dress. I struggled to wrap myself up in the long, white and flower-printed fabric that I tied several times around my waist. I put on the jeweled-strapped top and tied another long piece of flowing fabric around one shoulder. Coming out to the car (waddling actually because of my inexperience walking in the thing), I met my mom and two sisters, my baby niece, and my brother all dressed up in their traditional bests. We looked pretty “smart” (the popular phrase meaning a person has great style), I thought. The two and a half hours it took to reach Kaliro after getting lost in the bush, weaving our way around herds of cattle, goats, school children, and boda boda bicycle taxis, was only a warm up for the lesson in patience I was about to enroll. As we journeyed deeper and deeper into the village, past the mud huts, rice fields and huge mango trees, my mom exclaimed with a laugh, “this is the end of the world Erica!” I smiled and forced out a concerned laugh.

We pulled up to the bride’s village, dust clogging the view through the car windows, tickling my nose and slicking my throat in dirt. My sister Maria was getting her daughter Michelle situated with a new pamper and when the brown mist settled I noticed how many eyes were pointed in my direction. At least forty children and some ten adults were staring at me from my position in the rear window seat of the car. “They’re happy to see you,” my mom reassured my apparently visible hesitance. I felt a brief surge of self-consciousness, but remembered my family was with me. We meandered (in my experience, Ugandans seem to like a slow-paced stride) over to a mango tree with a medium-sized mud house situated behind it. Following my sisters’ lead, I knelt down on the ground to show respect to the twenty local women who were seated with their children upon colorful woven mats on the dry earth below and greeted them in Luganda. My family and I sat down on an offered bench and waited for the Introduction to begin. In retrospect I say “waited;” at the time I really did not know what we were doing. But after a few hours passed under the mango tree, with the group of people not saying much at all (and when they did speak, in the local language, I was clueless) I realized we were just waiting.

It was hot. I could feel sweat collecting between my crossed legs. I could use a drink of water, I thought as I pressed my parched tongue against the roof of my mouth.
I did learn that one of the women we were seated with, dressed in a bright purple kanga, plastic flip flop sandals and a floral head wrap, was actually a bit different from the rest. Apparently I was in the presence of the former Vice President of Uganda, Dr. Specioza Wandira Kazibwe! She had flown in for the event all the way from Boston, where she is continuing her education at Harvard. I was impressed by her humility and her obvious love of Ugandan culture. The other women cheered her on as she swung her hips, smiling and dancing to the music floating over from the nearby grassy field where the Introduction ceremony would eventually be held.

Another hour or so passed under the mango tree before a truck drove by and villagers started yelling “ayyyeeayyyaayyyyeeeeayyyyaaaeee!” My sister informed me that this means the groom had arrived—and people were excited.

We gathered in our seats still waiting for the Introduction to begin. The contrast of a big tent, a large speaker sound system, flowers and decorations, well-dressed guests with the rural setting and ragged-clothed villagers surprised me. The celebration did eventually get on, and kept on for nearly five hours! I sat in my seat listening to Luganda spoken loudly through a microphone, trying to decipher some meaning out of the customs. There was cultural dancing, drums, carloads of gifts presented including pineapples, an entire cow carcass, millet, matooke branches, bags of rice, gift bags with their contents made secret, lots of shouting between the bride’s family and the groom’s family seated across the field, lots of Ugandan recorded music blasting from the speakers, role-playing and lots of drama performances and hundreds of villagers crowding around the tent to watch.

It was interesting, and simultaneously a monumental test of patience. How many hours could I go just sitting and listening to a foreign language I didn’t understand. How long could I focus my attention on the event and not my thirst and growling stomach? How long could I “appreciate” the culture without feeling agitated? I found myself trapped in a cycle of first feeling bored, thirsty, hungry, itchy from the mosquitoes biting me and shocked that nobody else appeared to share my irritation at the fact that breakfast was a LONG time ago (about 11 hours). Then I would feel incredibly guilty when I realized that so many of the villagers were used to eating one or two meals a day and nobody else was complaining. Then I would tune into the Introduction again, only to find my thoughts turning again to a sip of water and then again to the guilt of my impatience.

Soon enough, however, all four hundred or so guests were served a huge plate of local food and the party really began. Music encouraged everyone to get up and dance, the tent was illuminated with Christmas lights, sodas and beers were flowing—celebration was in the air. After filling our stomachs hurriedly as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks, my family and I dragged our weary selves into the car at about 11pm to drive the few hours it took to reach home. After the car broke down, we got out to push it along, failed, and recruited some roadside residents to help; I eventually collapsed into my bed.

On Monday at work, a TASO co-worker and friend of mine was laughing at my description of the experience at the Introduction. He told me that when you’re connected to the bride’s side (which my family was), it’s part of the culture, the custom of the event to “suffer.” There is so much of Ugandan culture I have yet to learn, study, discuss.

The familiar saying my Grandmother always wisely offers in response to unpleasant or unplanned events comes to mind, “Well, it was a good experience.”

Friday, July 18, 2008

Nangobi Nakadama

Drum roll please…after a full month of observation and needs assessment at TASO, I have come up with at least a tentative project goal. Following TASO’s 2008 theme, “scaling up HIV prevention among adolescents, the future leaders,” my goal is to work with youth in rural areas on TASO-related themes through partnership with secondary schools in the targeted communities. I’m expecting two more weeks of thorough needs assessment at four identified rural secondary schools after which I’ll develop a very specific workplan for the year. I’m thrilled! Having direction is egregiously underrated!

Beginning to find my place at TASO this week has come at a perfect time. This afternoon the three other interns, our two program coordinators and I will be traveling about five hours east of Jinja to Sipi Falls located in Mount Elgon Natinal Park in what’s called Kapchorwe District for a weekend retreat. We’re planning on taking what I hear is an epic hike past several waterfalls, enjoying the spectacular views, and relaxing by bonfires at night. I am excited for the rest and change of scenery!

The last few weeks here in Jinja have been rolling along smoothly. I feel I am integrating into my host organization and host family more and more as the time passes. The TASO drama club has even given me a Lusoga name, “Nangobi.” It makes me smile when I’m on my way home from work everyday and patients of Jinja Hospital (TASO is located right next to the hospital grounds) call out “Nangobi, Nangobi, Olyotia!” Of course, I also introduce myself as “Nakadama,” or daughter of the Kadama family, my host family name. It’s customary here to call people by their last names…So in addition I hear people calling out “Williams” as I walk around TASO grounds!

I had the privilege of traveling with TASO’s outreach team to a rural village to carry out a base-line survey. TASO works in partnership with 14 different communities, providing Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT), Home Based Care (HBC), support for income-generating projects, peer support groups, counseling trainings, and other activities. This particular community, Idudi, will be the 15th. We were collecting information on what the community members know about HIV/AIDS, where they get their information, and what local and cultural issues factor into the psycho-social components of the disease. We traveled a few hours away from Jinja, about 25 of us jam-packed into a taxi, to meet one-on-one with community members and ask them a series of TASO-developed survey questions.

After I met with a few community members, a young man named Grace showed me around the village. We strolled down the dirt roads hand-in-hand (Ugandans, like Cameroonians, love the strictly friendly hand-holding) passing the mud huts, boar holes, piles of mud bricks drying out in the sun, the maize fields, mango trees, and smoke clouds rising from families’ traditional kitchens. After a few minutes of meandering, we came upon a group of about 10 people who were mourning the death of a loved one. Grace explained to me that the large cloth canopy raised a few feet off the ground was the telltale sign of mourning—the family buries the body under the cloth canopy. I learned that it is a Bantu tribe custom to bury the body underneath the canopy until proper mourning is completed, after about one or two weeks. Once the relatives have mourned the death of the loved one, the cloth is lowered back down onto the ground.

As I sat around with the group and explained (through Grace, acting as my translator) that I was working with TASO, I ended up conducting an impromptu HIV/AIDS sensitization. The community members had so many questions: can a person get HIV if they wash an HIV-positive person’s clothes, can an HIV-positive mother prevent her newborn baby from transmission if she immediately turns the baby upside-down after birth, once a person starts taking ARV’s do they still have to wear condoms, is there a cure for AIDS in America, can TASO build a clinic in their community? It was disturbing and simultaneously fascinating to listen to the community members’ concerns. I was overwhelmed at how much misinformation they had, but inspired by their apparent desire to learn more about HIV/AIDS. I was emotionally moved by the welcome this group and several others offered me as Grace toured me around to greet the village in Luganda and Lusoga.

I am so grateful for the kind embrace I’ve received here in Uganda. Walking around Idudi felt like a unique homecoming, finding family among strangers.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"You are welcome"

Glacier International Airport, 8: 15 am on June 12--- another gorgeous Montana morning bids me goodbye. No fellow Peace Corps Volunteer travel companions, no family members to quiet nerves about the program ahead, no personal ties to abandon at home… and no regrets.

Entebbe/Kampala Airport, 8:15 pm on June 13---warm Ugandan darkness welcomes me back to Africa. A certain vow occupies my thoughts as I step off the plane: remain open, brave, positive and dedicated to being as useful as I can to the community I am here to serve. Oh the possibilities of second chances, the opportunity in a fresh start!


I have been in Jinja now for a little over two weeks. The first thing I have to say…. I absolutely LOVE it here! The next thing I must note is how much easier African culture shock is the second time around (bucket baths included).

I woke up very early on my first morning in Uganda to the sound of torrential rain; in the strangest way it was comforting and familiar. Lying under my mosquito net listening to the rain pouring down on the tin roof of the Guest House that I had checked into the night before, I felt more content and “at home” than anxious. I had the luxury of being able to remind myself, “Hey, you’ve done this before.” Actually the majority of my daily journal entries since touching down in East Africa begin with a statement about how excited, grateful, and content I am to have another shot at living and volunteering on this beautiful continent.

“You are welcome” is a phrase I now hear incessantly. It is not an acknowledgement of a “thank-you,” but rather offered to me by Ugandans whenever I arrive at work, return home, sit down to a meal, speak in the local language, or even decide to move from one chair to another. I think the phrase says a lot about Ugandan culture. I have been received so warmly by so many people and continue to be impressed by the friendly nature of my host-family, new friends, co-workers, and even strangers I greet on the street. Ugandans give hospitality a whole new meaning. Sure the children still get a kick out of screaming “Mzungu” at me wherever I go, pointing out the foreign white person who definitely sticks out from the rest. But, rather than being a negative response, I have learned it’s simply an observation of fact, of a plain and simple reality. Not unlike how my host-family continually tells me, “you are going to get SO FAT,” or “When you go back, everyone will say, Erica you are SO BIG and FAT!” Yes, like in Cameroon, being full-figured in Uganda is considered the highest beauty ideal. Time will tell if in a year I can measure up!

After a fairly uneventful week of training, the four other Foundation for Sustainable Development interns and I moved into our home-stays the weekend before we started work with our respective host NGO’s. Well, I guess it wasn’t so uneventful, as I did manage to walk through a park with monkeys at my feet, see crested cranes, crocs, African buffalo, rhinos, mambas; drove through Mbira forest; crossed over the Nile; rode on a bicycle boda boda (the common taxi form here); picnicked at Bujigali Falls; took a boat (canoe) tour on the Nile; cheered on the Cranes during their football match against Angola; went running by the “Source of the Nile;” got acquainted with the local cuisine; tried the local beer and learned some basic Luganda!

In other news, I completed my first workweek at TASO. I am thoroughly impressed with the organization as a whole, and also with the staff and patients. My first Monday was spent meeting my supervisor and beginning to absorb all the activities TASO does. In the afternoon I sat in the waiting room and chatted with clients waiting either for their ARV’s, counseling, or medical appointments. I heard several very powerful stories, simultaneously sad and inspiring. The next three weeks at TASO I will spend in observation and needs-assessment. I am so new to Uganda, the culture, TASO and the population it serves that I can’t pretend to know right away how I can be most useful. After this month-long period, I’ll develop a work plan and submit a grant to FSD’s San Francisco office. I feel so lucky I could commit to a year here in Jinja so that I can ease into the work plan gradually. In one week I have already learned so much. I’m reminded often of how I felt in Cameroon, with each day seeming to bring a whole lifetime of new, colorful experiences!

A few highlights from the week:

-Accompanying the TASO drama club to visit Wanyange Girls School, outside of Jinja Town with a view of Lake Victoria, where they did an HIV/AIDS sensitization. The 200 or so girls in the room were so excited, hootin' and hollerin', getting up off the benches to dance, as the drama club was singing, dancing traditional Ugandan dances, performing a play and poems about the realities of HIV/AIDS for Ugandan youth. I had chills watching the performance; it was so moving to watch a real attack against this killer disease.

-Cooking outdoors over an improved cook stove (basically a pot on the ground with a cavity to load charcoal and for smoke to exist) with my host sister. So far I’ve learned how to make chapatti (a thick fried tortilla equivalent), matooke, and groundnut sauce.

-Meeting with a local student about an AIDS club he wants to work with me to start up at his high school.

-Editing a TASO newsletter...I knew an English degree was the way to go!

-Attending TASO’s newly formed adolescent drama club’s Saturday practice. I had tears in my eyes watching the kids, all HIV positive ages 12 to 18, dance, sing and recite poetry under a big mango tree about how to prevent infection and live positively after infection. They are so full of hope and life that one would never guess they are sick. I am so proud of them and am in awe of their strength. Even though I have always felt absurdly lucky in my life, hanging out with these kids has just breathed new life into that feeling. I am truly speechless, dumbfounded for the lot in life I’ve been given.

I knew I was going to learn much more from my experience with TASO than I could ever imagine giving, but I don’t think I could have prepared for this. These kids’ smiles say it all.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Erica in Uganda!

As most of you know, I am no longer in Cameroon and have not been for some time now. I was caught up in an ugly bureaucratic mess with the Peace Corps that shipped me home to the U.S. before I could understand the extent of the lies, cover-ups and spinelessness of some of the Peace Corps administration I encountered.

Cameroon, tu me manque beaucoup!


On June 12 I will happily turn over a new leaf and travel to Jinja, Uganda where I will spend one year in parternship with a local NGO called The AIDS Support Organization (TASO). The U.S. organization I am volunteering with, and who facilitated my relationship with TASO, is called Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD). If you are curious, please be sure to visit TASO's website at

My new address in Africa is:

Erica Williams
PO Box 1722
Jinja, Uganda

Thank you to my dear friends and family who have supported me through my unexpectedly short Peace Corps experience and in my decision to return to Africa. I am forever grateful for your kindness. I'm eager to share what's next with all of you!

Monday, November 12, 2007


The funny thing about being a Peace Corps Trainee is that you feel you are constantly navigating through the emotional stability of a thirteen-year-old pubescent kid! One second you cannot believe what an amazing, exciting, and fulfilling experience you’re having; the next second you can’t believe how insane you were to have chosen to become a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Take this last week, for example. All the Trainees travelled to their respective posts meet our communities and get a taste of what our lives would be like as an actual volunteer. My first days in Toumi involved the following activities:

1. Being shoved in a bush taxi with seven other Cameroonians, my face nestled in my counter-part’s sweaty armpit as the taxi was consumed by smoke and by the noise of everyone shouting in Patois.

2. The minute I got out of the taxi in Toumi I was shuffled into the back private room of a bar to meet the Superfet of Bamendjou, the Prefet of another Cartier, and the attendant of the Superfet. The American equivalent to the Superfet would be the mayor of New York City, but with a level of respect in the community closer to that of God. I was immediately handed a bienvenue beer, some beignets (Cameroonian doughnuts), and was tipsy by 10:30 AM. The men had already put down several beers or cartons of red wine before my arrival that morning! Needless to say, alcohol is a very large part of Cameroonian culture.

3. Next my counter-part and I rode his moto to visit the near-by public hospital of Bamendjou, where, upon our arrival there was a group of people crowding around a screaming five-year-old child who had just been hit by a moto. The one doctor was holding a meeting with the nurses, so there was simply no available medical help for the child. Completely shocked, I followed my counter-part to join the meeting and began to wish I was fresh out of medical school.

4. I visited the Centre de Santé in Toumi, which has dirt floors, dirt walls, a pharmacy with two cubby holes of medications, about six beds with mattresses made of sticks, a birthing room with one old plastic chair and unsanitary tools laid out on a wooden table, and a next-door recovery room for the new mothers. There is an uncovered pit latrine as well as another stall for bucket-bathing; the only two restroom facilities for the whole center. The health center is run by one nurse, my supervisor. He is incredibly dedicated and motivated to doing the most for the community with what little resources he has. The whole scene nearly moved me to tears; the stark contrast between health centers in the US and in this rural village is just absurd. The recovery room is where I slept my first night of site visit. The foam mattresses were stained and home to many frightening bugs; a rat also kept me company that night. A voice in my head kept repeating, “You are in way over your head.”

5. I had dinner with my counter-part’s family, who lives across the unpaved road from the Centre de Santé. My counter-part told me that he has too many children to count, my guess is about twenty. Eating dinner in the family’s traditional Cameroonian kitchen was also quite an experience. Dirt floors and walls, chickens and guinea pigs wandering around the piles of firewood and various vegetables cultivated by the family at their nearby farm. The stove was a pot placed on top of three metal prongs, wood burning underneath. We ate a traditional Cameroonian dish called cous cous. It takes hours and hours of preparation to grow, grind, and cook the corn-based and fish-sauce topped dish. About ten of us crowded the smoky kitchen, seated on wooden stools. I was just trying to focus on something other than the guinea pigs, a main course for a future meal, that were milling around my feet. The family got a kick out of the fact that I joined everyone else in eating the dish in the traditional way, with our fingers.

6. After visiting my two housing options, other than the health centre birthing recovery room, I felt more overwhelmed by culture shock and village reality than I have since arriving in Cameroon. My two options were either an old polygamist compound: a huge abandoned warehouse with four surrounding small mud and thatched roofed homes; or living with an old village woman and her epileptic son, who was lying on a bed of sticks on the porch of the home when I arrived. This home had holes in the ceiling and walls, electricity, and a latrine covered in spider webs. The woman of the home speaks Pidgin, not French, so I had no idea what she and my counterpart were passionately discussing. After the fact I found out that they wanted to put up a new wall to section off a part of the home for me. At least ten people au village articulated that they were very against me living alone; they thought it to be far too dangerous. I am not sure if their concerns are cultural differences due to the fact that living alone is an extreme rarity in Cameroon, or if my community is not as safe and extremely welcoming as it seemed to me on my first visit.

7. Nearly approaching a nervous breakdown due to my potential housing options, I found myself being practically adopted by a group of nuns at le Montestère of Toumi! Yes, I will be living in a Dominican monastery for the next two years! My counter-part and I continued my community introductions with the group of nuns who have been living in Toumi for the past seventeen years. They heard about my potential housing options, and then immediately instructed my counterpart to gather my things and bring them to the monastery. They fed me a feast for lunch, offered me free room and board for the next two years, and handed me a key to a very safe ( multiple pad-locked) corridor reserved for occasional service groups or missionaries that stop in to stay a couple times a year. I have a bed, a small desk, and a sink with running water in my room, as well as access to running toilets and HOT SHOWERS! I was completely floored by the nuns’ immediate generosity and hospitality! They told me that they are here to help me with anything I need and that they will offer their advice on cultural insights or general counselling any time I ask. Waking up to their singing, bells ringing (their call to prayer) multiple times a day and night, and walking from my corridor straight into 6:30 AM mass in the local art-covered chapel is quite surreal. I am grateful for the way I have been immediately welcomed into such a safe haven, and the interesting experience that living so close to a group of nuns (from Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Angola, Korea, and Spain) will undoubtedly present. I can’t believe I am living in

a monastery!

8. The first morning I woke up at the monastery, I ate a breakfast of home-made bread, honey, and peanut butter (peanuts grow extremely well here) and some piping hot coffee, and chatted with the Head Nurse (I will address her as Mother) through the double-barred window that separates my corridor from the nun’s sanctuary. I heard a deep masculine voice call my name from outside. Sure enough, there was my counter-part waiting for me to climb aboard his moto and keep exploring au village. Our first stop was Toumi’s community meeting place, a large mud brick and thatched roof structure filled with about forty Cameroonian women, all dressed in the colourful traditional pagne (fabric) dresses. The second I stepped through the open doorway I was bombarded by cheering, singing, laughter, and smiles. I have never in my life received such a grand, overwhelming welcome! The women all joined together in what I believe is a Bamileke (the ethnic group of Toumi) expression of gratitude. It took the form of what Americans would call a stereotypical Native American call (hand to the mouth, covering and uncovering it to make a high-pitched yell a la Disney’s Pocahontas). The sound was nearly deafening; emotion built up in the back of my throat and I felt weak in the knees by all the joy and excitement brought on by just ME! I felt so undeserving of all this positive attention! The president of the women’s association, an elderly woman of about 75 years old, jumped up from her chair and started doing a tribal dance. She then raced over to shake my hand, singing and dancing all the while. Next I uttered a bonjour in the local Patois language, which immediately brought on another wave of cheering and laughing. My counter-part presented me to the women’s association, translating my shaky French into Patois as I tried to thank them for their generous welcome and express that I was very excited to work together with this community. Some of the women kept repeating, “On est ensemble,” (we are together). Finally some French I could understand! After some more cheering and singing, my counter-part took my hand as we said goodbye in the local Patois and helped me climb up the hill to get back on the moto. I slapped on my huge moto helmet, grabbed onto my counter-part’s thick shoulders, laughing to myself at the wonderful absurdity of the scene as we zoomed off over the rolling, green hills of Toumi!

9. My counter-part and I took a moto tour of some the many cartiers of Bamendjou, the larger town to which Toumi belongs. I felt like I had jumped into The Lion King, as I gazed at the blue skies, lush hills, banana plants, fire-red flowers, rows and rows of farming land, and the traditional Bamileke architecture of metal pyramid shaped roofs atop mud-brick houses. We passed over two rivers where children were playing and people were washing clothes. It was stunningly gorgeous! I found myself humming the tune to “The Circle of Life” as the hot sun baked my skin and my long skirt flew around in the wind.

10. The last moto stop on my final day in Toumi was again startling, this time disturbingly so. My counter-part took me to visit a home of somebody in the village where disaster had struck. We arrived on the scene to see smoke coming out of a burnt, destroyed roof that now only covered a couple feet of the family’s mud-brick house. There were two goat carcasses and one rat carcass lying on the ground next to the house. There were also several women and children sitting down in the grass, looking stunned. After one woman finished a very animated story in Patois, my counter-part explained that the woman’s mentally-ill son had burned down the house at 3 AM that morning. I asked my counter-part if there was someone to help restore the house, but he answered that the woman had no money to fix it. The family would have to continue living without a roof. I felt paralyzed by this news, I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or scream. We climbed back on the moto and continued the ride.

I have returned to Bangangte now, exhausted from the travelling and all of the new experiences, but also refreshed enough to complete the final push of training. We swear in as volunteers on December 5th; I will return to my post in Toumi the next day. I have a lot to learn. I feel like I have set off to hike a very large mountain and the clouds have just cleared enough to show me how very high its peak reaches.

It's Christmas morning!

(Disclaimer: I wrote out this entry about 10 days ago, but apparently there had been a nation-wide internet cut?! … and I was not able to put this up until now)

It felt like Christmas morning two Thursdays ago, the day we finally received our post assignments! I woke up with that child-like excitement, anticipation, and joy that for me was unparalleled by Santa’s arrival. I remember racing in to wake up my parents; Allison, Sarah and I wondering what was inside the packages that lined the family room, wondering if the reindeer ate the carrots we set out for them the night before.

Years later, wide-eyed at 5:45 am, looking through my mosquito net at the dawn’s light peeking in, worlds away from my family and friends, I rediscovered that childhood memory here in Cameroon.

My post is Toumi, a small rural cartier of Bamendjou in the West Province! It’s only about two hours north west of Bangangte. I will be working in a health center that is staffed by one nurse. I have a post-mate: Nura, an agro-forestry volunteer who’s in stage with me now. She’s wonderful, and I think we will make a great team. Supposedly I have electricity, but no running water. My goal is to be able to carry a bucket of water on my head, Cameroonian style, before the two years are up.

Bamendjou is only about forty minutes outside of Baffoussam. I know you might be thinking, sure, Baffoussam, sure. But what that really means is internet, “white man grocery stores,” and banking can all be within a day’s work. Excellent! Not to mention that our Health Technical Trainer lives in Baffoussam, which will be a great resource and support system, and, according to him, dinner and drinks chez lui plus a ride back to post…I’m not complaining!

Other news from the week: one of my fellow trainees took one for the team and let us know firsthand what malaria feels like, and another person “ET phone homed,” decided Peace Corps wasn’t for her. On Friday before site visit, I gave a presentation in French on STI’s and another one in English on breastfeeding. Apparently the emotional build-up of post announcements and the exhaustion of an assignment-packed week altered my judgment enough to say, mid-breastfeeding presentation, “my personal motto is: suckle, suckle, suckle!” Yeah, slightly embarrassing. But I did make the top-ten list in the trainee-run weekly newspaper this week!

I got caught in the pouring rain one afternoon this week. The drops were pelting me in sheets, immediately transforming the dry brick-red earth into putty. I looked over the green hills behind town and saw the most expressive clouds I’ve ever seen. Massive, billowing grey and white reminders of this great challenge and adventure that lies ahead. Great expectations, great fears, and great lessons to be learned. As I wiped the water from my face and tried to pick up my feet, which were suctioned to the mud, I was reminded of how grateful and fortunate I am to have begun this adventure.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Du Courage!

Je suis à Bangangte!

Bangangte is a town of about 15,000 to 20,000 people located in the West Province of Cameroon. It’s currently rainy season and because of that there is mud everywhere and on everything! Watching a group of Americans try to trek through the unpaved roads is quite funny. A group of school children have already cracked up at the sight of me falling on my butt on the way to training one morning. The 41 other trainees and I have been here in Bangangte now for a little over a month. Our days are extremely scheduled, packed with technical training, cross-cultural studies, and, of course, lots of French language classes. We’re up at 6 am Monday through Saturday and back home with our home-stay families by 6 pm, our Peace Corps curfew and the time it gets dark here.

Many of us aren’t used to the tight scheduling of Pre-Service Training. In some ways I feel like I’m in some kind of twilight-zone high school! But I can’t say that my time here in Africa has lacked surprises…

For one, the other week my language teacher, the two other students in the class (Rachel and Matty) and I visited the local open-air market together. Besides the general chaos of the weekly market: Cameroonians yelling out prices of avocados through megaphones, buckets of rice and corn everywhere, the sound of passionate bartering, barrels of palm oil lining the rows of vendors, and countless people shouting out, “les blanches!” (White people) as we try to navigate through the busy crowds, I experienced my first outdoor butchery. As I walked past the different furry, fly-covered cuts of mystery meats, I started thinking about becoming a vegetarian. As if to really push me into vegetarianism, a man began using a machete to chop fresh meat off of a horned animal skull. As I was trying to be as “culturally sensitive” as possible and focus on how unique this scene was from anything else I had ever experienced, my friend Matt suddenly blurted out, “Ummmm, Erica I think you’re getting some bone juice on you!”

At that moment, I noticed chunks of bone and flesh flying by my body—some of which ricocheted off of my leg! It was terrifying! My first reaction was to dart away from the scene, which I immediately did. My second, more permanent reaction was to officially become a vegetarian. Considering that Cameroon is nicknamed the “bread basket of Africa,” it hasn’t been much of a problem thus far. My two mealtime favorites are currently avocado sandwiches or packaged cookies and some Cameroonian beer (both of which I can count on my stomach accepting!).

Yesterday we had an opportunity to visit an HIV/AIDS testing and counseling center in a town not far from Bangangte. I was thoroughly impressed by the cleanliness, organization, and confidentiality of the center. For AIDS patients in Cameroon, stigma is a daunting, day-to-day challenge. On the other hand, AIDS education does take place in many elementary and high schools, including here in Bangangte. The other trainees and I will receive our post assignments (our actual locations for the next to years) in less than two weeks! I am eager to continue exploring these issues and to begin HIV/AIDS education and support in my work at post.

Last Saturday we learned how to create improved cook stoves out of natural resources. Although electricity in Bangangte does exist, many families also use traditional outdoor cook stoves in addition to the gas stoves or whenever the power is out (which is a daily reality). One can make the improved cook stove from clay, water, and chopped-up bits of dry grass. To combine the mixture, a person stomps on the ingredient pile with his or her bare feet. The mixture is then thrown onto an upside-down bucket to give the stove its shape and two holes are cut out to allow for oxygen to enter and smoke to escape. When the bucket is removed, the sun solidifies the stove. A metal grate is placed on the top of the clay creation; wood is placed below, and…Voila! You have your improved cook stove. I still have the blisters on my hands to prove it—chopping up grass with a machete is much harder than it looks!

Yesterday afternoon I decided to use our 90 minutes of free time to go on a run. I was pleasantly surprised, and my morale happily lifted, when I witnessed the use of a popular Cameroonian saying: “Du Courage!” (have courage). Five different Cameroonians yelled this encouragement to me as my legs struggled to carry me up the steep, sun-baked hills of Bangangte! I have to say it was quite moving, and I think I just might make it my personal mantra—Du Courage! Pretty catchy, I think.

Other possibly interesting tid-bits:

  1. I think I have mastered the art of bucket bathing! Sometimes it’s even almost refreshing instead of shocking.

  1. The rooster that crows outside my window every morning sounds as normal as my alarm clock…perhaps because it IS my alarm clock now.

  1. It is no longer strange to walk with goats to school.

  1. The fact that stool samples are collected in leaves at the hospital doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it did initially.

  1. At 8 pm it seems to be getting close to my bedtime; 8 am is sleeping in.

  1. Waiting 25 minutes for Internet connection is now reasonable (well, I guess I should just say do-able).

  1. I have definitely consumed more Pepto-Bismal and Tums this last month than I have the past 22 years of living on this earth!

  1. My mosquito net doesn’t feel creepy; it makes me feel (in agreement with a fellow PC Trainee) “a little bit princess-y.”

I am happy to report that all forty-one other PC Trainees and I are officially in the fifth week of Pre-Service Training! Nobody has checked out!

Du Courage mes amis!