“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!

A world full of feeling makes it impossible. -Bradford Melius, PCV

Days like this I don’t want to give up to tomorrow, because everything could change by then. When the weeks start to run together and all you have to divide the chapters of time are your emotions that turn about, one way or another, up or down, you try your best to cling on to the good ones. There is a fine line between the focus on what you are accomplishing and what seems unfixable here. My life is a constant evaluation of what I am able to give of myself, and what I am not able to give of myself. It is a line between inevitable guilt and grand purpose.

A cultural assembly took place at my school today, where all of the school clubs presented themselves, including my English Club. It would have normally become a very long day -until the food and drinks were brought out- but I spent some time with Sintia, my counterpart- my fellow female English teacher, who is Anglophone and voluntarily single, which are all aspects I absolutely love about her. In fact, I don’t know that I even know of any men that would be able to open their hearts up as wide as hers seems to be; I was comfortably pleased with our friendship when she paid for a taxi ride home when I did not have change, and then called me (which is more expensive than a text) just to make sure that I arrived home safely. It feels so much sometimes as if everyone who befriends me expects so much from me, that it becomes me doing all the giving and them all the taking. I am definitely more aware and cautious of others that approach me in my current situation. So it’s extremely nice when you find those few that take you for who you are and have a desire to give to you, too.

Before the cultural assembly, I was urged to take on three additional hours of teaching for another class. Three hours in addition to what I’m already struggling with, and soon to be having secondary projects to work on. When I said no, I was told that I should re-think about it…but I also was given a large guilt trip about being the last hope, with such a need for teachers and with all of the struggles that we face here in Africa. I should not have had to negotiate my sanity with him, but there I was explaining why I could not volunteer myself more. Yune once told me, “We are volunteers, not slaves…don’t let anyone make you do anything you don’t want to do”, and I think I needed someone to say it out loud so that the thought would come to me in times like these.

After the assembly, I went en ville and Sintia helped me get my wicker cane furniture into a taxi. When I arrived back to village, there were six petits waiting to run up to the taxi and carry the furniture inside. Each one of them anxiously wanted to work for me, pointing out everything in the house that was unclean and disorderly. I didn’t mind much because I knew they were right. So I found myself giggling as I looked around and saw six children perfectly content to wash the floors, wash laundry, clean dishes and take the trash out. I asked my landlady at the boutique in front of my house, is this normal? She responded with a question: “They would be there with you, wouldn’t they?” And so that is how I gained six little friends, and my very own personal care takers. I even got some grading finished while they were here, cooking beans and rice (the beans were a gift from one student). My house now smells of rice- a sweet, homey, aroma that I always associate with the Abrils’. I’m reminded that if you embrace the community, they will embrace you back…or that if you just come to your door, there is usually someone there that would like to come in….and no matter how I’m feeling, it could be the best thing sometimes just to open it up wide and see what happens, because feelings change.

Au village:A Normal Day

I woke up, destined to find Martiale and to finish up business in town to get his dossier started up at the lycee. After boiling water, eating oatmeal and knocking out the buckets of dishes with Yune on the porch, I was on my way on my way to find Martiale. But I stopped in my curiosity about the noticeably large amounts of blood on the side of the road. The Anglophone that lives there was standing around as others cut apart animal bones and tendons of a goat, among other body fluids exposed, that I learned they had killed just that morning- a tradition to celebrate/mourn death. His mother had passed away 9 days before, and they were to kill a goat and feast that day to properly say goodbye. Too bad you do not have a camera, so you could show your family the traditions here, he told me. As much as you would have loved photos, I’m sure, you will have to do with out them. Martiale and I continued on into town to where one must make an official request or demande to enroll a student into school. A worker wrote out the letter for me since there was so much protocol I did not understand how to do. We paid and waited. I pulled out the English textbook and showed Martiale. He learned the numbers. Two goats ended up running into the establishment, but were quickly thrown out by one of the office workers. We finally finished up business, so we walked back to the carrefour where the cars leave to Nkongsamba. I was shoved into the front, between the stick shift and the other front passenger (always thankful for the extra padding on my butt!) After a few minutes, we rolled out, stopping for other passengers along the way. We arrived in Nkongsamba, where I was to go to the bank and internet café. I scurried across the busy streets, full of motos- many of them inviting me to ride with them, many of them knowing that I live in Bare even. But I didn’t make it to the cyber. Instead I was called out to by an acquaintance from the Parthenon, a bakery/white man store that is located just on the strip. We had a juice and a Malta, as I was feeling open to forming bonds with people at that minute, and would have felt guilty if I had chosen cyber over integrating- although this was just at the moment, because I thought it may be a good idea to make this friend. It was nice, talking to an educated man with many hopes and dreams, which gave me a bit more insight to the country. A couple hours later, I walked into the cyber which was full. My mom is going to kill me if I don’t get some photos or blog up soon! I was thinking, but computers were taken and I was persuaded to go to Tim’s house to take a shower. Why his house? Did you see the word “shower” first off? Secondly, but so much more importantly…he has an instant hot water heater! So my herbal essences and I made the walk to his house, for hummus and shower. It was very much worth it. I went to the bank and tried the cyber afterward, but the connection was up and down and I was only able to send off about three attachments. Ashia. Next time, Mom. This is Africa. Finally, I was once more tempted by my American cultural roots. I dodged into the bakery to get some Gouda cheese. Sometimes you just have to because you can! I was quickly hauled into a cab afterward, back to village, where I made the evening walk back to the house. Yune had just made some pasta with salmon, an added bonus to a wonderful day. A klonk klonk klonk on the veranda barrier from Martiale and he welcomed me back home… you’re back from Nkongsamba. Yes, I am back home.

If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You’ll see that there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.

– The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Now is the time I am finally alone, and I force myself to write this blog, or it will not become part of my routine like everything else.

Like walking the ten minutes or so from what is now my house to the girls center, down the muddy path between houses, in which 9 out of 10 of them include people outside or on their porch yelling out at me, “Bonjour!” The first day being here and feeling a bit strange, I can say that I never once felt alone. One cannot feel alone when babies are struggling to talk, yet they make an effort to get out “bonjour” to you, the American that everyone knows as a teacher, that everyone’s happy about because you’re going to help raise our children. It doesn’t get old, no matter how many times you say it.

Like bon apetit! No one ever forgets to say that. Even at the last bite, Cameroonians still feel entitled to giving you that phrase of politesse– and it’s said more as if the person saying the phrase gets more gratitude than anyone.

Like cleaning my feet from time to time on what is now my porch, scrubbing the mud and dirt off and being satisfied at how white my feet can actually become again… To look up and see Maman (the entire village calls her this) walking by and asking a question or telling me something like “Ferme la porte ou si non les moustiques vont te piquer!” –something that reminds me that she is going to look out for me.

Like market days in Nkongsamba. They happen every Sunday. Tim and I tell each other “Happy Market Day!” and we go out into the thriving streets on a quest for food and to bargain over what must be equivalent to nickels (but it’s the principal of knowing that we are no longer getting ripped off). Makes me feel productive.

Like washing my clothes in a bucket. Yes, I still do this myself! And I have been warned about the mango fly, so since a good story told by a fellow PCV, I have been very careful to leave my clothes to dry for three days in the house. I don’t know if I could bring myself to cut open my own skin to pull out a worm or fly, if it’s there long enough. Hey, you know what though… I never lose my socks in the dryer!

And boiling water the night before so that I can put it into the filter the next day.

What is difficult to become routine to is patience for what does not happen on my schedule, or the schedule that was originally put into place. The tasks that would take a few minutes take hours. Going to the cyber could be a very stressful task depending on my mood, because sometimes I cannot stand waiting for ten minutes while an e-mail is sending. Meeting with the proviseur requires a book because you were told be there in the morning…and you know you’ll be waiting. Patience is something I must reason myself into having. It’s never my schedule. Waiting will have to be done.

What else I will struggle with are the numerous marriage proposals that I receive. In the last journal that our training stage published announced me in The Mosts as “Will have the most boyfriends in Cameroon.” Although I’ve been firm about refusing, I need to have encore more boundaries. I have stopped shaking hands with men that want to greet me, because it’s happened twice that the men pulled me in to try to kiss me. His friends found it funny; I found it violating. And when I don’t tell them I am married already, I’m told that I’m never leaving. I usually chuckle, but I did become quite fearful when a maman told me that I would not be leaving because I was going to marry her son. Part of what scared me was the way that she hugged me, tightly like Mom does when she doesn’t want me to go anywhere. I guess Mom’s the only person that can do that. Recently a colleague has made some steps to making our relationship less professional and uncomfortable. He is looking for a wife, and he is trying to convince me that I do want a relationship when I feel it was already enough that I even gave him an explanation for that. At 22 years old and looking around at the many women who are my age, married and with children, I find again that I am not just Mom’s baby or the baby of the family- I am just a baby in the whole scheme of things in this world.

Routine also shall involve rides in cars that sometimes start with screw drivers instead of keys, that are filled up when four people are sitting in front and another four are in back… and having no space to yourself and you’re just thankful you aren’t embracing a smelly person. And looking out at the scenery that sometimes privileges you with the most beautiful green mountains and hills and trees…and other times looking at the shacks of houses that I remember feeling sad about when I first saw similar conditions on the bus ride from the airport. At the time, I felt that Cameroonians were terribly unfortunate and deprived. Now I feel more that I’ve just been extremely lucky my entire life. We live out of necessity here. In America, we live so luxuriously, so extravagantly. I knew this before, but now I live a life that constantly reminds me.