Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Au revoir, Bafia!

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

Today, I wanted to take the opportunity to finally blog about the training, the people and the town of Bafia itself.

Bafia is a medium-sized town in the Central province of Cameroon, around 2-1/2 hours west of Yaounde. It has a busy central district and a rather rural residential quarter where we are holding our “Stage” or Peace Corps training. The picture on the left is a square close to the Prefecture and several other government buildings. This view is not really indicative of the town (though there are some really nice spots here, including an adorable bar/restaurant with wicker furniture, umbrellas and a palm-tree setting that would rival any vacation spot). This is a square recently built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cameroon's independence, and it's near the residential quarter.

Our Peace Corps training began in early June, and will finally end on Wednesday the 18th of August. That will be our swearing-in ceremony. For all intents and purposes, we are done with training as of Friday, but we are now packing and sorting out all the loose ends.

I am personally in the Education program, meaning in my case that I will be teaching Computer Literacy in a high school in Bandjoun. To prepare for that two-year assignment, I had French language training and 5 weeks of “model school” in which I taught IT classes in French to real Cameroonian students. The process was the same as for any other high school: I gave lectures as well as lab practice, gave and graded assignments, gave a final exam and final grades to the students. We had many technical sessions before this to prepare us for doing this. After model school finished, I participated in a lengthy process of filling out report cards and calculating the class averages, best in class, etc. The closing ceremony of model school a week later was attended by local officials and media, and small prizes were given to the top two students in each class. One of my students was interviewed on television since he won the top marks in every subject (in spite of being only 10 years old in the equivalent of an 8th grade class!)

During training, it was very important to start integrating with the community right away, and also to start using and practicing the local language. We all stayed with host families to help with the integration process. Since we were in a Francophone region, we were all initially encouraged to use French among ourselves and with our host families. My host family consisted of a retired couple and some of their grandchildren who are staying with them either permanently or temporarily. At one point I counted 9 individuals staying in the house besides me, yet it never felt crowded. The house was more spacious than it appears from the outside!

There was only one bathroom, however, and that consisted of an outdoor latrine with two entrances. The left was for the parents and me while the right was for everyone else. However, no one felt comfortable using one side if the other side was occupied. That made for some anxious waiting at times!

The father of the family held church services in his home four times per week. These were Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening (5-7) and Sunday morning (roughly 9:30-12). The services consisted of a lot of joyful singing and percussion accompaniment. At times, I chose to stay out later with other volunteers, and that was fairly easy to do. Our curfew was 7pm, the nearest bar/hangout was 10 minutes away, and that was approximately when it became too dark to see anymore!

My host father was also a retired school teacher. He was always very anxious and willing to help with my training projects and language training. For example, I interviewed him for a cross-cultural project on religion in which he shared with me that he had been Catholic and switched to a non-denominational faith because the Catholics discouraged reading the Bible and he felt much of the doctrine was created at the Council of Nicea long after the events happened. When asked what he thought of the proliferation of religions in Cameroon, he thought about it a while and then concluded that poverty was the reason. With the lack of public options for social security here, he felt that churches fill that role in this community.

At the end of June, following language assessment and an interview, we were assigned our posts. These were based on both our skills and preferences, compared with the needs of the post itself. Each of us then had the opportunity to see our posts first hand - very exciting to see the location where we'll be living for the next two years. First, we met our counterparts, host country nationals who are members of the community in which we will be staying, and who personally accompanied us to our posts and would be responsible for us during our visit. At left is the meeting in which we met our counterparts for the first time, and then had break-out sessions to brainstorm how to deal with cross-cultural challenges that would arise.

Afterwards, we got on a bus to Bafoussam, and after a short two hour ride I had the opportunity to see Bandjoun for the first time. It was quite different from what I had seen of Cameroon! Both Yaounde and Bafia are fairly tropical: humid, lush and full of interesting birds. Bandjoun was up in the mountains enough that the air was cooler and dryer, the forests consisted of eucalyptus trees (imported/planted of course), and the avifauna was a bit plainer. Fiscal Shrikes sat on the wires in place of the colorful Little Bee-eaters, for example. What I was able to see of the town was very nice: I saw my rental house, which sat atop a hill from which I could see some montane scenery and beautiful traditional houses in the distance.

The house itself had two bedrooms and two pieces of furniture: a bed and a dining room table. And wooden chairs also. My predecessor had lived there and left a lot of used clothes (many times to small for me) and books. I did appreciate the Simpsons book in French! The power was out frequently, and the water was not running the entire four days I was there, so reading the Simpsons book was a great diversion. Also, the town was only a 5-10 minute walk, and it had everything one would need other than perhaps a 7-11. Though there’s a wooden shack – no other way to describe it - on the corner that takes the place of a convenience store. You can get cigarettes, whiskey sachets (yes, plastic bags of whiskey for the equivalent of $0.20), fresh baguettes, chocolate spread, bleach, soap, and several other common household items.

My counterpart (whose name is Stella) is an English teacher at the high school. She was very helpful, taking me to meet officials and showing me the high school. She encouraged me to try the local cuisine also: beef foot soup (bouillon de patte de boeuf). When I ordered for myself the next today, I took the rice and meat, which is typically in a rich tomato-based sauce. That was delicious, though I was not a big fan of hoof soup.

Returning, I felt very comfortable in Bafia. Bandjoun was a bit cold, and I welcomed the warm humidity of the central region at that time. As the weather warms up at the end of the rainy season, I am now having doubts! I am now looking forward to cold rain (just like back home in Seattle…)

I should mention that my host family was awesome! That’s Alexia, a university student and granddaughter with her own baby at left. The family kept an extremely clean house. They had the meals out early for me, and reheated them if I was late. At various times without my asking they boiled my water, (re)did my laundry, filled large buckets from the well so I could do laundry, swept my room, and made my bed. I had to tell them to stop doing those things because I needed to practice doing them myself!

Only regret is that I could not practice cooking because they didn’t have a kitchen. They only had a fire pit over which they cooked everything. But I think I can handle cooking with the gas stove I have at post. Washing red mud out of my clothes by hand will be an interesting part of life in Bandjoun that I am probably not yet prepared for.

I also want to talk about the Peace Corps staff and other volunteers. The language trainers were very patient and helpful. Although the training at times seemed disorganized, it came together and I feel pretty well prepared for my two years.

I am also impressed with my colleagues, who are by and large mature, well-educated, socially-conscious and adventurous. In fact, it’s humorous for me to watch the interactions between these personalities and the Peace Corps admins, who struggle to get people to follow rules: a 7pm curfew, one beer per day (!), letting PC know every time you leave your house, etc. It sometimes seems like the idea of following rules would be opposed to the personality of someone who would sign up for Peace Corps. But I digress, and that is of course only my own viewpoint - by and large, everyone is conscientious and here to make a difference, not to make waves!

But here we go. Thursday I will start a two year assignment in Bandjoun. I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be, so bring it on.

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