Well we did it! The volunteers in my province and I carried out the Piggy Bank project that I have been coordinating with Tim for the past year! We went to 7 different high schools, in the course of two weeks, and sent the message out to children that saving money is an important value that can make their future brighter!
During the course of each seminar there were roles for the five Peace Corps Volunteers involved. We started each event by handing out 100 numbered tickets to the students, which were taken in exchange for a piggy bank or caisse at the end of each seminar. Dan Lillis served as a wonderful bouncer when organizing the excited students and making sure things never became too chaotic! Once the children were settled into their seats, Tara Smith, an Education Volunteer, would give a brief introduction of Peace Corps and the participating volunteers. Following, Abigail Hyduke and Dan Lillis, both Agro-forestry Volunteers, performed a sketch comparing two students – one who saved and one who didn’t. Tim Hartman, a Small Enterprise Development Volunteer, then analyzed the sketch and pointed out important aspects and described them in depth. He highlighted three important reasons to save: for emergencies, for big purchases, and to follow their dreams. Autumn Brown, another Small Enterprise Development Volunteer, then involved the kids in an activity in which they calculated their necessary and non necessary purchases, showing them that saving little by little works out to a lot in just a few years. The kids were always very excited when giving real-life examples of saving money. We encouraged the continuation of this energy when Tara Smith would teach them The Savings Song, a beat used from a popular Cameroonian song which the lyrics were modified to motivate the children to save. We collaboratively created and performed a dance to go along with the song, an illustration of putting coins into piggy banks (see the video on youtube!). Watching five Americans sing and dance was a great way to end the seminar. We were hoping that this song would remind and encourage the kids to save, and when leaving the school after the seminar, we would often times hear the kids singing the song and dancing along with their piggy banks… this is when we knew that the project was successful.
THANK YOU to all those who contributed- for believing in the project, in our work, and in the children that are the future of Cameroon.
Get a closer look at the project from videos that are soon to come at www.youtube.com under the username of Mlle.Tara.Smith.
“Nothing really ever works, but everything works out okay.”
There is one word that describes this weekend perfectly: Collaboration. In Batibo, a town not far from Bamenda in the Northwest province, a cultural festival took place thanks to an ambitious Agro-forestry volunteer named Seth Shapiro. Peace Corps volunteers, Cameroonians, and even some Spanish and Germans working here made it to the event. Everyone worked together for one common goal of sharing cultures and understanding each other.
My particular role was performance. I was supposed to sing with both Angel and Anne, who both play guitar, but some of the songs were cut, due to the late start of the event. I did enjoy the practice session in the morning before the festival began with Angel, when some children gathered around us to listen to us play “Let It Be” and “No Woman No Cry”. There was a nice breeze, we were pumped and ready for the day, and the strumming of the guitar inspired most of us to sway along, a few children dancing and singing along. This was no doubt our best performance. When the festival’s activities actually began, singing the national anthem I could tell that the microphone was cutting on and off at its own will. Angel was able to play “Billy Jean” and we performed “Let It Be” for the audience composed of an arena-like field full of booths for different groups and vendors on the outer sides. While it lasted, it was fun and I think people appreciated it.
Some gracious notables hosted all of the volunteers that attended in the evening, in their house that so much resembled Los Angeles. We ate turkey and mashed potatoes! This was along with some traditional Cameroonian foods, such as plantains, cabbage salad and ndole. A generous British woman who grew up in South America and who married a Cameroonian many years ago hosted many volunteers at her house. It was especially delightful because her six children are our ages, studying or married in other countries around the world, and so she treated us just like that- it was like visiting family.
But my favorite part of the weekend happened spontaneously. Insisting that we not go to sleep, I convinced five volunteers to go out dancing in Batibo. One of the notables that hosted us offered generously to take us out in his jeep. We ended up in a hall where originally Seth’s band would have played, but no one ended up going out that night; Cameroonians awaited the arrival of Peace Corps community, entertaining themselves with karaoke-like performances and dancing. If we would have not come, they would have been sorely disappointed. When we figured this out, Sarah turned to me and said, “You have to sing something! I don’t care if you want to or not, you have to!” As tired and worn out I felt, I agreed to sing No Woman No Cry, by Bob Marley, even though Angel had not come out to play the guitar. I didn’t know how well it could go with only the commitment of some white back up dancers.
The stage was my own the moment I walked up the stairs, and all the fatigue I had disappeared in the adrenaline I got. The entire hall stared at me. The microphone worked much better than the one that had been used at the festival and I was gratefully surprised. I told them that I was sorry; I did not have a guitar, but that maybe they could help me out with this song… I asked them if they knew No Woman No Cry and they responded approvingly. So I started in, Said I remember when we used to sit… in the government yard in Trenchtown… and their hands came together in support. Suddenly we had a beat all our own, and then there wasn’t a bit of nervousness in me. I was singing to the beat of Cameroonians claps, and for this energy and collaboration, I was swept away by my audience. It was especially significant when we all sang, everything’s gonna be alright, everything’s gonna be alright… they all cheered and sang along, and it was obvious that they really like that part. I thought to myself, this is why I do music. And If I had to choose one moment to represent hope, this would proudly be it. All of us singing together, to the beat of our own hands, swaying and singing along, that everything’s gonna be alright…
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
I can hardly find the inspiration to write it all down because everything feels so normal. I am more or less starting to dwell on the fact that I will be leaving this place, and a piece of me behind when I go, which is something I don’t necessarily want to think about. Although something whispers into my soul that I will be back, that the people and culture have soaked into me enough that I will be connected for the rest of my life no matter what.
I have just come down the stairs and noticed a crowd of people at the Carrefour. Then a moto revs up and speeds away, and 30 children run behind, screaming. Qu’est-ce qui se passé? I ask my landlady, who I call la maman du quartier, and she tells me that a woman was on the moto. Apparently someone bet this woman that she could not drive a moto, and she obviously proved them wrong. Good for her! And this is the only thing about my day that reminds me how different the cultures are.
I have been eating out a little too much. When there is grilled fish always available in the evening time just a few minutes away, it’s hard to resist. Especially since cooking takes so much time here. It’s so easy to cut up a papaya in the morning for breakfast after doing cardio, but lunch and dinner is another story. I prefer spending my time, anyway, on applications for funding for the water well I am determined to have installed for the Kentaja orphans by the time I leave this country. Or preparing a radio show that happens every Tuesday evening. Or organizing the Savings for Youth project that will be put into action during our tour at the end of this month. I have a pile of wooden banks in my spare bedroom, ready to go. It was my turn to lesson plan this week for Tim and I’s Club Success that we do with high school students here, based from the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It always gives me a good French lesson to translate the ideas, and teaching young adults to live according to their principles feels like the right thing to do. I will be going to a cultural festival in Batibo this weekend, on the 22nd. I have been preparing to perform a few songs there. I am satisfyingly busy.
Eric is coming to visit me in January, and I have been making itineraries and talking to Ernest and other friends about when he will be here. It’s funny to see someone else so excited because someone I care about is coming. Ernest swells up with pride when he’s telling his friend that our friend is coming to visit. I don’t think I will have much left to do with all the organizing that Ernest is doing.
And I’m at war with a mouse. Or maybe more than one, I don’t know how many there are at this point. They have just recently stepped way over their boundaries in my home. Just a minute ago I saw one just walking down my hallway like he owns the place, before noticing me and running and hopping away. I cornered him in my closet, but I am so afraid of mice that I don’t want to get too close to them, and this one in particular resembled a hamster, just looking at me with big black eyes. All the more reason for wanting him out. But he hops and I scream and we’re in another situation full of adrenaline, one that we both don’t envy. I originally planned to catch him by throwing a sheet on top of him, but then I realized that I would actually have to pin him down then or else he would just run out from underneath it. I grabbed the Axe body spray… I figured it would be strong enough to drown him in fumes, and if nothing else the room would smell good and remind me of Sminu for the next week. But he outsmarted me, gathering enough courage to leap out and run past me, as I stood there screaming like a fool, thinking to myself this situation is definitely not one I know how to handle appropriately. I miss Franck. He killed two of them while he was here during his time here with a designated mouse killing stick. But I don’t even have enough guts to pick it up because I can’t tell which end is for your hand and which end is the part that squashes the others.
As I am sad about leaving, I am excited about returning home to see everyone at my roots once again. I often fantasize about cheese and driving my own car and sleeping on a comfortable mattress.
I am also excited about my upcoming adventure of going to the Philippines, experiencing life there, trying to learn the language, and broadening my knowledge once again in a cultural, spiritual kind of way. I am excited about experiencing the music business, and seeing where I land in 6 months.
I also realize that I need to think about money and investments in the near future, and don’t want to run from it. On top of a couple student loans, I have a kid to support now, and my very own ideas to try out in the way of business. I in no way want a lifestyle that splurges and spends money (I think I would feel guilty buying things I don’t really need, given what kind of circumstances I have seen here and just how thankful I am to live in such a prosperous country), but a lifestyle that is instead invested and committed to the common good of people in need. This is my goal now. I have experienced how fulfilling life is when I spend it thinking of others. Not to sound like I’m a saint or anything; it really just feels good when I come home after a day I devoted to the people around me that are in need of something that I can give them- be it time, knowledge, understanding or hope.
“Some things you will never fully understand. You can only attempt to understand.”
I have been drinking more palm wine in the last few weeks. I like that it is naturally tapped from trees, and therefore has no carbonation and chemicals like beer does. I like to go to my friend Unity’s bar with Ernest. We sit on the wooden benches and relax over a couple cups that cost no more than a few cents (I believe 1 liter= 100 CFA). We talk about everything and nothing. But a particular day came with surprise that sparked an entirely different kind of conversation.
Ernest stepped out and I was talking to an Anglophone man that was also sitting there with us. He began to tell Unity where to put a stick that she had in her hand. She moved it around on the dirt floor until he decided the spot was just rite. She jabbed the stick there, before closing the door. I was about to yell at him for being so bossy to her, but then he started digging in this spot she had put the stick, and I realized that I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t do anything but watch. He dug for a while, then uncovered a chicken head in this exact spot. He then told Unity to get some red oil, which he poured over and did a little chant-like prayer, before spitting on the head and covering it back up with dirt. Ernest returned in the middle of this, and I immediately started asking questions. What just happened? He told me that Unity had some people on her side of the family, who were not happy with her and wanted to harm her health, and through the ways of black magic, cast some sort of spell that landed a chicken head there spiritually. You should also know, also, that Cameroonians usually eat chicken heads, so it wouldn’t make sense that it just ended up there. I then asked Ernest how did he know that was buried there? He explained that he himself had felt that something was wrong within the bar. Fewer people started coming in to drink her good quality palm wine, to the point that she was even closing early, around 8 P.M. instead of midnight or 1:00 A.M like when she had been closing before. Ernest knew that Unity had family members that were not supportive of her, and this led him to feel that something was wrong, so he called this Anglophone man to do something about it, otherwise known as a traditional healer.
I can’t tell you much else than this. I only know what I saw, and I think what I witnessed was something that is real, but yet beyond me. I am still quite shocked. What really gets me is that they did not know I would be coming there, so it’s not as if they would have rigged this- and why would they? Ernest is my best friend here; he is always honest with me. Maybe the traditional healer was right to say that I would never really be able to understand it!
Yes We Can. -Barack Obama, Elected President of the United States
I feel that I should talk about the way that Barack Obama and last night’s Presidential election has had an affect on my life in these past few months, and few weeks especially, living as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa. While I will state that this blog does not reflect the views or perspectives of Peace Corps or the American government, it’s just the way that I have been seeing/living history from this side of the world.
Cameroonians LOVE Obama, many of them just for the mere fact that he is partially black- and partially African. It has been a conversational game in these last weeks, villagers asking me who I voted for, and if I could even vote. When they tell me that they want Obama to win, I ask them why, and some of them don’t even know why. And even when I tell them that Obama is for abortion (its illegal here), against the ban on gay marriages (homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon; we have legalized polygamy, however, which can be used as a great discussion tactic to compare the two), they still remain supportive of him. Why? I think because Barack Obama represents the American dream. In just one generation, his father immigrated to America, just like most of our ancestors did, and he was born into a life of that allowed him to be nurtured to be the dynamic, well-educated, inspired for change, and multi-cultural person that he is. He is somehow understood by everyone, and I hope that this will change America’s image for the better. I tell Cameroonians that Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy, the creator of Peace Corps, for his eloquent and inspirational speeches, and another level of pride comes about. Perhaps Obama has already changed our image for the rest of the world.
I will admit that I considered skipping the ordeal of voting by mail… a Volunteer had to bring my ballot from Yaounde, so that I could fill it out and send it back to the Peace Corps headquarters by a travel agency (bus). When the Director received it, he had to find the name of the county judge for me, since I didn’t have the information and couldn’t get online to get it at that time. But in the end… I was very glad that I did, just for the mere fact that Cameroonian citizens are interested in my involvement as an active citizen for the United States, and I have enjoyed telling them that I voted, how I voted, and educating them on the issues that have been presented. They are proud too, and in some way I think that the volunteers that live among them represent them (“we are together”), and to know that we voted is, I think, somehow like they took part in this election too. This election has not been just about Americans though. This is about the world, that seems was destined to give Obama this opportunity to make peace among everyone.
On Monday, I held a special class lesson in which I gave my students an educational, biography-like text about Obama, and passed around Newsweeks so that they could look at pictures. Many of them had never seen what he looked like, and like many others, supported him without knowing much about him. They were very receptive, and I was happy with their class participation for those two hours.
Then Tuesday came- the day everyone had been waiting for. I mean everyone. People were yelling out Obama at me in the streets, and everyone was talking about the moment that would soon arrive. I even guilt tripped a few villagers into saying that they would buy me a drink if Obama won (this is completely acceptable in Cameroonian culture). I decided to stay in my village and to experience watching the elections with other Cameroonians, but at 3A.M. it ended up just being my best friend here, Ernest, the guardian of the building, and myself, sitting in the bar watching and waiting for results over palm wine. The streets were empty. We had watched documentaries about Obama and the clips of both candidates were entertaining, but the results hadn’t yet arrived and we were falling asleep in our chairs. And all we knew was that Obama was doing much better than John Kerry had done. So they walked me home and I went to sleep, with my alarm ready to wake me up in the next hour, to beep Richie for an update.
Let me take a moment to explain beeping in this culture. In Cameroon, and in most of Africa I believe, we will dial someone’s number and let it ring once or twice, with the intention of hanging up before the receiver picks up. I have learned that this can be a wonderful communication tool when used correctly! For example, Tim knows that I am en route to Nkongsamba if I beep him. Mom knows that I want to talk to her if I beep her once, and that it’s only urgent if I beep twice. If my counterpart Sintia asks me a question in a text, I will beep to positively respond, or as to say yes or ok. Other times, Cameroonians will simply beep so as to say, I’m thinking about you or How are you doing? I typically beep back so as to say, I am doing well, thanks, and I am thinking about you too!
But everyone knew what this meant this morning at 5:30 when the final results came through. Next thing I know, I am waking up to a beep from Autumn, a text from Richie that says Obama won the votes in almost all the states, then from Sminu that says he’s got it, and finally from the Peace Corps Director of Cameroon: “Congratulations to Barack OBAMA!” What else was I to do but beep out my enthusiasm to friends and family?! Volunteers began beeping me, and so that is how it became one big beeping, election results party in my bed!
I am happy with the way I celebrated Obama’s victory, and along with the rest of the world, I look forward to being a part of the history of these next four years with him- and continuing the celebration by drinking the beers that my fellow villagers owe me!