Monday, November 12, 2007

Absurdity

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.

4 comments:

Rebecca said...

Hey Erica,
Im involved in this orginization at school called Invisable Children. Im sure you've heard about it, but in case you haven't; it's an orginization that informs highschools all across America about the children living in Uganda and in the Rebal War.The following link will take you to their homepage:

http://www.invisiblechildren.com/theMovement/

So anyway, in this orginization they raise money to help the people in Uganda build schools and set up an educational system.

I went to an Invisable Childrens meeting resently, and I was amazed at how many fundraisers Los Gatos students are involved with. Now, I wish to help out as well, so I've come up with two ideas.

My first idea is a phot gallary. I'm in photography with Mr. Donovan at the moment, so I figured that he could assign a project for the class, and then I could take some of those pictures and display them. We would raise money through admission and selling coffee (we can get coffee shops to donate).

My second idea is more "spreading awarness" oriented, and this one involves you. I know you're a writer, and that you are in Africa at the moment, therefore I was wondering if you could write a letter that says a little about your experiences with the cultural differences, any profound person that you've met and their story, or about African struggles in general. It deosn't really matter what you write about, but I was hopeing you could write something. I know a lot of people at Los gatos who love and respect you, and I think your words would touch not only them, but everyone who reads it.

The letter that you write would either be put in El gato or the Weekender, maybe even both; whatever you wish.

Thank you Erica, for everything! I know that sometimes you must think about America and everyone here, just know that we are all thinking about you, everyone is, all the time. We love you; I love you, forever,
<3 Rebecca <3

Jennifer Kuropat said...

Awww...Er Bear! I have to admit, you are such an eloquent writer...I had tears running down my face through this whole blog. The things you are experiencing are so inspiring and really hit an emotional spot for me. You have to be one of the bravest women that I know. When I read that you were taken in at the monastary by nuns it seemed like a God-sent protection for you after weighing your other, less than desirable options. The time you spent there is going to be a roller coaster, there is no doubt about it. From soaking in the culture, to getting stuck in the mud you are going to see so many life changing things. Take every moment in...you are truly on the adventure of a lifetime and you will grow so much. I have you in my heart and I really look forward to reading about you. Please be careful, and I miss you very much. You are so brave, so strong and so lucky to be following a dream of being able to help others. I am beyond admirable and I can not wait for you to come home and share your stories.
All my Love!!!
Jen...ny pooh :) ha

Mike Bandy said...

ER BEAR!!!!!
My parents just forwarded your blog to me. I'm all caught up and will be checking it first thing every day at work. Sounds like you're having an unbelievable growing experience. Cameroon isn't quite like downtown Whitefish huh! I'm not sure the best way to get in touch with you. I'll keep posting comments, but if you can send me a short e-mail to michaeltbandy@gmail.com.

P.S. you're an amazing writer and good ole Tom and Linda think that you will easily be able to publish your experience in a book at the end of 2 years.

Talk to you more soon!!

Love,

Mike

Anonymous said...

We all know you are being ramrodded by the PC. You are not alone and we all support your efforts to do the right thing and stand up for yourself. You are an exemplary volunteer. We love you!