Monday, October 26, 2009

A lot of time has passed since my initial posting. To keep you up to speed, I made the journey to the North in one piece. Site visit signals the first time that stagaires are permitted out of the Bangante bubble and are exposed to the reality of travel and life in Cameroon. It can be a pretty intimating experience given each volunteer’s language ability. This anxiety is further compounded by the aggressive and confusing nature of travel in Cameroon. While this was the concern of many a stagaire, I was primarily concerned over whether my small bladder would survive hours of travel by train and bus. For anyone who’s even briefly made my acquaintance, you’ll know that having a small bladder has frequently plagued me.

To travel to the North, you must take an overnight train that departs from Yaounde, the capital, which will arrive in Ngaondere. Before our travels, stagaires to the North were warned that travel time on the train can vary anywhere from 12 to 30 plus hours “depending on if the train derails.” Given this, we were prepared to expect just about anything. The trip up north started off on uneven footing. Tickets for Sunday were booked so our journey was delayed till Monday evening. This would give us precious little time at our sites, and that was provided that there were no interruptions in between. A mixture of miscommunication and poor planning ensued but we fortunately all made it onto the train with our counterparts in one piece.

Before our travels, one volunteer had said he was excited to take the train because it seemed a bit romantic. When I first looked at the trains, it was as if I was reliving a moment in pursuit of yet another Chicago apartment after looking at a listing that said the apartment had a vintage charm, a euphemism for apartment that is badly in need of repair. The trains are very old and jerked violently at each stop. I had the fortune of being in the bathroom at one particular stop. Despite having perfected my leg muscles for all sorts of squatting, my balance was ill prepared for a sudden jerk. I missed landing into a train toilet by an inch, but it provided much comic relief. Perhaps I should have followed the advice of a current volunteer who warned against using the bathroom unless it’s dire.

Romantic, the ride was not, but we all felt a bit like we experienced a moment out of Darjeeling Limited. However, in our case, we had cockroaches versus pretty girls accompanying us on our way. The one advantage to traveling during the night was the fact that we were given a good view of the stars. It was refreshing and relaxing to just stand and stare into a night lighted only by the scattered stars.

Once we arrived in Ngaoundere, I had only completed ¾ of the voyage but I was tired and felt grimy from the long and hot train ride. I quickly descended the train and struggled to keep pace with my counterpart through a very crowded, pickpocket friendly train station. As we boarded our first bus my counterpart assured me that this trip would only take about 4 hours. I calculated that if I continued to drink no water, I could survive the journey without pulling over the bus. Less than 30 minutes on the road, the gendarme twice pulled over our bus in search of bribes. I tacked another hour onto our travel. Our bus continued to make random stops to allow passengers to stretch their legs and buy goods on the side of the road. In the afternoon heat, I felt like I had relived a scene in The Last King of Scotland as James McAvoy makes his commute through Uganda by bus (I’m not quite sure why I was so prone to making movie parallels during this trip). At one particular stop, my counterpart boarded the bus with a shoebox and a look of excitement. He asked if I wanted to see what he had purchased. Unsuspecting, I politely obliged him. It was much to my extreme shock and horror to find that the box contained two birds. And these were not just any birds. These birds were Senegals, a bird that I was well acquainted with during my time working with a bird specialty product business in Chicago. That relationship with those birds was much impaired by the fact that I have a death like fear of anything that flies. I was paralyzed and asked him politely but forcefully to shut the box and keep the birds at a safe distance from me. It turns out that my counterpart studied biology in college and was interested in creating a bird sanctuary in his home. It was likely a moment when he thought to himself, “Silly Nassara.” When we finally reached Garoua, the provincial capital of the North region, I had survived being smashed into a row of 6 adults and two babies in a row of seats designed for 4. I was hot, tired, dehydrated and dirty and desperate to finally reach Guider. I was told that we would have to wait in Garoua for an hour or so until the bus was reloaded with passengers for Guider. So much for a direct bus. As I sat on a bench exhausted I observed the activity around me. Men washed themselves, lowered their heads to their mats and prayed. Mothers’ wrapped clothe around their waists and adjusted their babies to their backs. A small boy stopped and sold me an orange. A too dry, out of season orange never tasted so good in my life; it temporarily quenched my thirst.

When we finally loaded the bus for Guider, my counterpart realized that a bird had escaped from its box. Panic ensued as other passengers apparently were equally afraid of birds as I. After the bird had successfully clawed a passenger and beaked my counterpart, it was put safely back into the box. Dusk was setting as we pulled away from Garoua. I stared at my watch for the 10th time in 10 minutes. I couldn’t recall feeling this uncomfortable for such a prolonged period. Our bus made one further stop to allow Muslim passengers to pray for the final prayer of the day. I rested my head on the seat in front of me and closed by eyes. My heart sank as night fell. I was ready to stop in Garoua and go no further. Mentally, emotionally and physically, I realized how far I was from the South, and from everything that had become familiar. It was a moment where I sincerely doubted my ability to be so far removed. We finally pulled into Guider 5 hours longer than expected, and 34 hours after departing Yaounde. Bailey, the volunteer I was to replace, met us at the station.

The following day was a whirlwind of activity as Bailey attempted to show me everything of necessity in Guider in just a day’s time. This high speed of activity was little aided by the fact that it was unusually hot for rainy season. I stuck to everything. Seeing Guider made me excited about its possibilities though in many respects I just felt like I was experiencing initial tourism enthusiasm.


Coincidentally, my post mate is half Thai and a former expat of Thailand. She attended the same international school in kindergarten as I did for high school. We also found out we knew of the same families. Small world.

Another coincidence, my host family also housed the volunteer I replaced. Having the opportunity to talk to her helped clarify some issues I had with the family. It should suffice to say that my opinion of the smallest child and my instincts about the father were quite spot on. In spite of how much I enjoyed members of the family, it was a lapse of judgment that I was placed with them.

I left the following morning prepared to make the journey back. With only a day’s time spent at my home for the next two years, I wasn’t quite sure what I thought. Before leaving for site visit several PC staff members asked me how I felt about my posting and reassured me that the North would grow on me. It made me doubt myself a bit. However, seeing other volunteers assured me that I was not the only one who had rough travels and seemed disheveled and uncertain.

The End of Stage

While going through training with a group of Americans was without a doubt beneficial for our collective morale, it also encouraged us to stay together and branch out less into our communities. In many respects, the environment was too guarded. I was a mixture of excited and nervous to be on my own. I was looking forward to cooking for myself and living on my own (free of children).

I was not sure how much or how little I wanted to see other volunteers once I get to post. Before coming to Cameroon I was clear that the intent of being here was not to sniff out an expat community. In Guider, that should be a non-issue. Beyond a staff of Chinese doctors and nurses that remain on their compound, there are no other foreigners here. Much of that will help me become well integrated into my community. Though I would be half way between two major meeting points, Maroua and Garoua, the two provincial capitals, I hoped to stay at post as much as possible during the first few months.

Towards the end of stage, there is a general sentiment that we were all just going through the motions. My brain had more than gone on overload. I felt like I had plateaued in French and Fufulde. My patience was wearing.

Traditional Power Structures

Although Cameroon is technically a democratic country, traditional power structures still exist in the form of Chefs, or traditional leaders. These Chefs still arbitrate culture matters such as marital and religious conflicts that may arise in a community and such matters are often deferred to them first in spite of the fact that they can also be handled administratively. This seems to happen in part out of respect for tradition but also and more tellingly, because people believe that their democratic administrative system not only is slow but unjust.

Chefs are also appointed a particular status by the administration. Depending on their status, some Chefs have voting rights within the administration. In a culture where polygamy is accepted, a Chef’s wealth is often reflected in how many wives and children he has. This can be financially burdensome because the husband is not only responsible for financially covering all the needs of his wife, he is also liable for her extended family.

PC arranged for us to meet the local Chef in Bangante. The meeting consisted of a meet and greet with the Chef followed by a heated Q & A session. Among some of the more notable things that the Chef said, was that all men of the world are polygamous and those who oppose polygamy are simply hypocrites. He insisted that all men have many wives and relationships and one would be foolish to think otherwise. He remarked that during his brief visit to America, he found this practice to be well and thriving. Although one volunteer gave the Chef the benefit of the doubt and argued in his defense that he thought the Chef meant to speak to human nature’s carnal instincts, I interpreted his message quite literally. It wasn’t just his stance on polygamy that angered me; it was his indifference to real social issues that affected his community. As a traditional leader, a Chef holds a lot of influence on a community and therefore has the ability to affect change. When the Chef denies the presence of inflation and attributes the increase in prices to ‘geographical’ differences and some sort of bad interpretation of textbook economics you wonder whether change can ever come about.

Becoming a Volunteer

After 11 weeks of intense training, stagaires finally swear in as volunteers. My stage arrived with 30 volunteers and swore in with all 30, which is pretty remarkable considering that in all the recent stages, a few stagaires decided to early terminate. Despite how eagerly anticipated swearing in is, it was not a particularly momentous occasion. It was full of the usual protocol. For me, the most exciting thing about swearing in was that I finally had health insurance as an officially recognized Peace Corps volunteer. Perhaps that this was my priority suggests my mental fatigue by that point.

I prepared to again make the journey up North but this time with all my luggage and belongings that we had accumulated over stage, which included a water filter, bike, footlocker and several manuals. Traveling up was a lot less painful than the initial journey but no more comfortable. It was bitter sweet saying goodbye to all the other volunteers I had just spent almost every waking moment with over the past 2 and a half months, but it was time.

Home Sick

My first week in Guider was difficult. I found myself very lonely in the early mornings and night. I knew before coming to Guider that the first 3 months would likely be a difficult readjustment period as I would learn to navigate alone. After being surrounded by nothing but groups of people during stage, the sudden loneliness is jarring and at first, overwhelming. That first week I found myself frequently teary eyed. I missed my family intensely. For someone who’s grown up with family overseas, this came as a surprise to me. Luckily, as you learn to go to bed and wake up to a new day, some of that solitude and homesickness subsides.
But as I noted in an earlier entry, PC service is characterized by its continual ups and downs. For example, faced with a slower, confusing week, I awoke this morning from a dream of me departing Chicago and my family for PC. I awoke with such a heavy heart and a very immediate sense of homesickness. Inevitably, these are the sacrifices we make and I will learn to deal. At confusing times like these, hearing from people back home can really lift your spirits. Thank you to those who have called, e-mailed or sent letters. On hard days, they pull you through.

Flies Galore

We’ve all seen photos of African children covered in flies on TV or in magazines soliciting donations. What I didn’t realize is that its not just children who haven’t bathed that are covered in flies; it is everything in the North. They say you can spot a Northerner at a bar because it is only Northerners who will cap their beverage to prevent flies from landing in their drinks. Flies in Cameroon are aggressive. They will land on your face, your arm, and your leg or fly directly into your eye with much audacity.

On Being Chinese

I’ve already commented on being Asian in Cameroon. Can you imagine finding out that one of the most prominent fixtures in Guider is a Chinese hospital staffed by mainland Chinese? It goes without saying that it’s made it even more difficult for me to explain that I am not in fact Chinese, that I do not work at the hospital and that hee-haw, does not mean anything and would be as silly as saying boubou and assuming that meant bonjour in French. Normally, when young children yell Chinoise or hee-haw at me, depending on my mood I may correct them, but more often than not, I just respond simply with bonjour. At times its funny (and 2 month in, I now rarely find it funny) and other times, just extremely grating on your nerves (which is most of the time). If nothing else, the common misperception that I am Chinese provides me with an easy way of fulfilling goal 2 of Peace Corps and that is to educate Cameroonians about Americans. I can do this by dismissing the myth that all Americans are white. And oh yeah, that I am also Japanese American, not Chinese.

Explaining America’s cultural diversity is interesting because I can easily parallel it to the diversity in Cameroon. Cameroon is a crossroads of cultures from sub-Saharan Africa. There are approximately 300 ethnic groups represented within its borders. The people of the North are themselves descendants of tribes in Sudan, Chad, and Nigeria most commonly. This is the reason that Northerners also look a lot different from Cameroonian’s in the West and Southern regions. Northerners’ have very distinctive features. They have darker skin complexions and generally longer, thinner faces and facial features. They tend to be tall and slender.

Loosing My Counterpart and Labor Movements

Small Enterprise Development (SED) work is extremely varied and depends largely on the volunteer and its community. Counterparts can play an important role in helping a volunteer integrate into their community, assist with initial moving in logistics, and act as a guide during their 2 years of service. For the most part, I was very happy with my counterpart. Although as the general manager of the bank, Credit du Sahel, he was extremely busy, I was assured that if I needed anything, I could ask. Feeling relatively comfortable with my counterpart was an initial concern. It was a setback for me to find out that he was being transferred to a new post in the East of Cameroon, significantly removed from my post. This, however, was a promotion for him and so in that respects I am happy for him.

Transfers, or affectations as they call them here, are very common. I haven’t quite figured out the efficiency of labor movements but in both the private and public sector, employees are constantly transferred to new posts on average it seems, every 2 years. I’m not quite sure what that does in terms of sustainability for a community. In fact, I find it to be quite counterproductive in that it often removes people of talent and prevents them from building a community. Community development depends on stability, a common cause and finding people who feel invested in their respective communities and can mobilize others. Unfortunately, many people in Guider are in Guider only temporarily.

My Home

I am living in the same house as Bailey, the volunteer I replaced. It is a good location as it is off a large road that is about ½ kilometer from the main market in town. My house basically consists of 4 cement rooms. One room has been transformed into a kitchen. That transformation consists of a gas tank and camping stovetop. There is no sink, counter space or cabinetry. I have water and electricity, which is a mixed blessing. I have a flush latrine that confuses me. I figure if they were going to make it a flushable toilet, they mine as well just made it a western toilet. I have one sink in the bathroom. Since there is no other suitable place for washing, I wash dishes and clothes outside where there is another water faucet. This is common in Cameroon. In fact, showers are usually built outdoors. Within my concession, my house is the exception as my shower is indoors.

Returning to my description about my house being a cement block, Bailey’s father rightfully called our home a Japanese torture box. It didn’t strike the builder to install two windows in each room to allow for circulation, or to make the windows bigger than a prison window. It ensures that my house is a natural sauna. I hope this description does not put off any prospective visitors.


If Pepto-Bismol pink had a cousin, it would be the horrifying blue that now is painted on my bedroom walls. Apparently, what colors mean across culture lines are very different. Although I very explicitly stated I wanted dark blue walls, I ended up with a color that’s only rightful place would be in a nursery school. A different sense of aesthetics, or what aesthetics means has been a hard concept for me to grasp. Interior design is not something that is prioritized here, seemingly even among the rich. As I stared at my single coated walls, I just sighed. This is Africa. There wasn’t much else I could do. So I’m dealing with my bright blue (UGLY!) walls.

Finding My Sanctuary

When I first arrived at post, I had remarked to my running partner that I would really like to start a garden. Initially, with the newfound time on my hands, I was determined to start new hobbies and pick up old ones. When I was little, I would spend time in the garden with my Mom and Dad as they planted their garden. It was a ritual to plant the tulip bulbs each year. Come spring, I would play in our backyard and anticipate their blooming. As such, gardens have always been a place where I am at ease. It was much to my delight when my friend took me to possibly, the only nursery that exists in Guider. There I found my sanctuary among an array of flowers and plants. As my welcoming gift, the gardener and his sons generously helped me start my first garden. The gardener and his family have since become a family that has really welcomed me into their home. I regularly visit the family. The gardener is quite interesting as he is one of the few Cameroonians who actively pursues a hobby. He is the delegate for a cooperative, or GIC, as they are called here that promotes environmental awareness, greening and reforestation. The North suffers from logging. His GIC is part of efforts to plant trees to counteract this.

Finding My Place

The terrain for a woman in the North is full of intricacies and complications. Culturally, there are a lot of taboos for women. To facilitate integration, it behooves me to observe many of the cultural norms. For example, it is not really acceptable for women to venture out alone past 7pm, when night falls. The streets are not well lit either so it ensures that past that time you are at home. Between 7pm and the time I go to bed, it provides me with down time to just decompress.

There is no café in town, or really, acceptable place for a female to just sit and relax. Guider has two restaurants in town (They both serve the same menu. Conveniently, they also both seem to run out of the same 4 dishes that are on their menu at the same time.) However, you do not find groups of women at the restaurant eating together. In fact, the only people who eat outside of their home are single men who do not have wives or mother’s to prepare food for them. If I buy street vender’s food at night, I’ll pick it up and return home but refrain from sitting down to eat with other men. For the time being, bars are strictly off limits until I am well enough integrated into the community. The bars largely serve the small Christian community in Guider. At this early stage, I fear that being at seen at a bar would jeopardize my reputation. The common association is that you are a prostitute if you are at a bar. That most familiar places to me are off limits makes it difficult for me to feel like I can relax and socialize any place other than my home. But even using your home as a meeting spot can be problematic. Inviting a man into your home, even if he is just a friend, can be misinterpreted as someone you are sleeping with. In a small community, people talk and word gets around fast. In Guider, reputation is everything.

While you also commonly find men congregated together in groups of 5 to 10 sitting under a tree or by a call box, you rarely find women congregated together in public unless it is in the morning or evening when they are selling beans and beignets. This is because culturally, a woman’s place is in the home. Most women are responsible for domestic duties and to raise their many children. Some women may generate a modest salary by engaging in small business activities like selling peanuts or beignets, but these are activities that are still firmly rooted in and around the home. For these reasons, it has been hard for me to meet and make friends with a lot of women. My one, good female friend is a 40 year-old divorcee. Unlike other women, she does not have a husband whom she has to answer to, nor do her children live in Guider. She also speaks French and thinks very independently of others. In many ways, she is the exception.

This being said, I am also not always held to the same standards as women here. I do plenty of things that are considered unfeminine here. For example, I run on a daily basis, watch Champions League, work outside of my home, do not have an interest in marriage and am not inclined towards children. Cameroonians think all of these things are a bit bizarre but tend to let me just be. It is as if I exist in an asexual realm at times.

Respecting Protocol

In Cameroon, protocol is a big part of everyday life. There is a code of behavior that dictates everything that includes authority figures. For example, upon arriving in Guider, one of the first things I had to do was to meet all the local authorities. Failure to do so is often seen as disrespectful. At meetings and any other functions such as weddings and ceremonies, the person of greatest authority is greeted with much fanfare. You are expected to stop what you are doing and similarly greet the person with a formal handshake. That is of course, if the person in question will shake a female’s hand. They do not always.

I find myself often attending functions and meetings out of respect to whoever invited me. Sometimes, I find these formalities obnoxious, unnecessary and degrading but in a culture where these relationships can make or break your work, you do not want to fall out of favor.


Particularly as a female, volunteers are urged to be very prudent especially when we first get to post. Friends within Guider have also reemphasized this point. But for me, learning how to be at once prudent and integrate into my community has not been an easy exercise. It is necessary for us to integrate into our community by forming relationships and being open to people. It is hard for me to know how to form strong friendships while keeping my guard up. For one, I have never been a person with secrets. I have generally been a pretty trusting person. For the most part, this has served me well despite that it also exposes to me a lot of risk. Finding myself in a situation where I again must be very discerning is challenging, as I am not familiar with a lot of the cultural clues. It is difficult to know whom you can trust.

It is also hard to identify people’s true motives in getting to know you. Like in Thailand, there is a perception that Americans are all wealthy. This means that part of the attention PCVs receive stems from the fact that people believe if you fall in love with them, you can be their sugar momma and take them back to America. The irony of this is that while PC’s stipend is adequate, it by no means allows you to live in the lapse of luxury. The concept of a volunteer in a society where everything has a price is just foreign. Everyone thinks you are being generously compensated for your work.

Throughout stage, women are also continually told that we should get used to marriage proposals and unwanted attention. Though many women volunteers often complain of being harassed by Cameroonian men, I think there are good ways of deflecting attention. Telling people that I am allergic to marriage and children and am never returning to America seems to be a pretty effective repellant. This tends to work on strangers or acquaintances but is probably less effective on people who know you well. Regardless of the fact that PC says we should always be culturally sensitive, I think sometimes you just must be frank even if it’s rude by American standards. You find that what is rude in America is not necessarily rude here.


In Thailand, haggling is an intrinsic part of the culture. But to a foreigner’s benefit, there are also set prices at stores to give you a sense for what things should cost. The problem in Cameroon is that prices are rarely ever set so its impossible to have a sense of how much things should cost. I struggle to go to the market to just buy nails without asking a friend for help because I’m afraid of being ripped off. The merchants of Guider will quickly learn that if you start off at a ridiculously high price with me, you will immediately lose my business. Although one volunteer remarked that this is the fun of haggling, I see little fun in it. I refuse to haggle with someone who fragrantly rips me off. In other situations, I tell merchants I didn’t ask for the foreigner price, I asked for the real price, the Cameroonian price. At some point, I will get taken, and probably pretty badly, but as long as I can help it, I will delay the inevitable.


The North is considered a semi-desert area. As a result, it is hot in the North year around. The heat is even more concentrated in cities and small towns like that of Guider. Guider has different seasons, but not the same type of seasons we think of in the States. Guider has a rainy season that coincides with its planting season from the start of June to September. During rainy season, Guider gets a brief relief from the heat. But during any rainstorm, Guider is at a stand still. The town is literally paralyzed by the rain. Nothing moves. Between October till the end of November, Guider experiences a mini-hot season. The town is again immobilized. The heat definitely makes you lethargic. I find myself frequently taking naps around mid-day. From December to February, temperatures drop to a refreshing 80 or so. During this season, Guider is cloaked in winter hats and down jackets. March till the end of May is affectionately called the hot season. During the hot season, temperatures can reach up to 130 degrees. The people of Guider say the heat is so excruciating that it keeps you trapped in doors. Other volunteers remark that a breeze provides little relief as it is simply hot air being blown in your face. I eagerly anticipate what 125 degrees feels like sans air conditioning. At 90, I find myself showering 2x a day and sleeping without my sheets. The last volunteer recommended freezing bottles of water and sleeping with them outside during the hot season to cool down.

The culture of the North and South (being the west, east, and central regions of Cameroon) are significantly different. For one, the culture in the North has a different pace of life. Things operate slowly here. People constantly ask me why I am hurrying places. To be honest, when they do ask me this, I am typically moving at my slower walking pace so I don’t constantly invite questions like that. Southerners are also typically more aggressive than Northerners. They are generally louder, more talkative and more freely express opinions. The South tends to generally have more French and Western influence. On the other hand, Northerners tend to be a lot more reserved. This reflects in part, Cameroon’s colonial history. Much of the North was colonized by the Fulbe who brought their language, Fufulde and their religion. The clothing of the North also closely mirrors the clothing of other Muslim populations. Generally, Southerners do not feel they can relate to Northerners and vice versa. Many Southerners are in Guider as a result of job transfers. Though I love Guider, many Southerners view Guider as a job demotion.

In Guider, work hours whether in a formal or informal work place, revolve around the climate and prayer hours. Muslims observe 5 prayer times, one in the early morning around 5 am (the mosque located a few doors down from my house assures that I am woken every morning at 4:45am for the call to prayer), 1:30pm, 3:30pm, 5:30, and 7:30. At 1:00pm, right before the biggest prayer of the day at 1:30pm, you can count on the fact that most, if not all shops and venders will shut down. Shops will gradually reopen around 4:00, and will close by 6:00pm. You quickly learn that there is no little regard for hours of operation.

The North is beautiful in its own way. It is not green and lush like the South. During dry season, I am told that the only distinguishable color is yellow. The dress is unique. Many men will wear long ankle length tunics over pants of a silky, cotton material. They are called boubous. The embroidery on their tunics is elaborate. For fancier occasions, men will wear layers of cloth. The colors are often very bright and rich yellows, pinks, purples and blues. These bright colors set against their dark, deep skin is a beautiful contrast of colors. The houses are typically constructed out of mud and have thatched roofs. In Guider, there is a mix of homes that are constructed out of cement with metal roofs and mud huts. It provides an interesting variety. The North is a lot poorer than the South. There are a lot less amenities, like internet, available to me here in Guider.

Guider is known for the Gorge de Kola, a magnificent Gorge that seemingly springs out of nowhere in the dessert. During the rainy season, the Gorge rapidly flows with water. Local fishermen dare to risk their lives and scour the water for fish. The Gorge will be a primary attraction during Guider’s cultural and tourism exhibition in December.

In terms of French, the accent of the north is different from the west is different from a Parisian accent. It has been a process learning to adjust my ear and speech to those accent changes. There are times when I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the way I am pronouncing a word is the ‘correct’ way to pronounce it but am corrected by a Cameroonian nonetheless. Many times it is hard for me to know who is saying it incorrectly. This has made it difficult for me to depend on listening as a good way to improving my French.

The quality of French in the North suffers largely due to a lack of education. Many children do not attend school in the North for a variety of reasons. At times, there is a lack of means and other times it is because the child or the family refuses. Since Fufulde is the local language, children will not learn how to speak French unless they attend school. This is often the case with women in the North. Education levels among women vary significantly. Some women are not educated at all because the family does not believe education has value for a woman who’s place is in the home. There is a sense that uneducated women also help to maintain the status quo as it pertains to power relations. Even for girls who are schooled, it is not uncommon for girls to be wed very young before finishing high school. Male education is also prioritized over female education and so if it’s a question of limited funding, the boy will be sent to school ahead of the girl.


After working hard to get my French to a point where I can comfortably participate in meetings and hold conversations, it was much to my disappointment when the first thing that was remarked about me was that the Nassara doesn’t speak Fufulde and must learn it immediately. This is hardly a culture where positive reinforcement exists. You’re not quite sure what you spent the last 2 months agonizing over as you stand in the market conversing in French only to have it translated into Fufulde. French is taught in schools but Fufulde is the language of choice even among those who speak French fluently. As noted early, since women in Guider and its surrounding areas often do not speak French, it behooves me to learn Fufulde. However, despite its necessity, I have not felt overly enthusiastic or motivated to learn the language. While I can do basic salutations and market haggling, I have not really dedicated myself to learning Fufulde. Largely, I think this is because I’m still exhausted from French. Fufulde is coming along slowly but surely.

The other week I went into a village. To prepare for this, I wrote a speech in Fufulde figuring that this would help with the language divide. It was almost funny when that speech which had been initially translated from French into Fufulde, was then translated from Fufulde into Guidar. I figure you just can’t win. Cameroon is regarded as Africa in Miniature not only because of its diverse geography but because within its borders, there are 239 different languages represented.

One of the funny things about being exposed to so many different languages is that you learn effectively how to zone out all languages: French, Fufulde, Guidar, and English. During a recent meeting, a friend turned to me and asked me if I understood what was going on. I turned to him and told him that honestly, I stopped listening after the introduction, which was about 30 minutes prior. This would be funny if I did not do this everyday and with great regularity. The truth is, I’ve learned to tune out a lot of things.

On Modesty

Before coming to Cameroonian, after much deliberation I decided on outfits that were functional and conservative but that still reflected my taste. On finding out I was going to the North, all the clothing that hit my knee and were relatively loose fitting were no longer considered very modest. Knees in the North is what cleavage is in the West. Pants were also ruled out as too suggestive because they show a women’s figure. Women often wear long dresses with elbow length sleeves and head coverings. Some wear veils that partially cover their faces or just a head wrap of sorts as the Koran considers hair immodest. Just like in the U.S. where there are several denominations among the Christian community, so there are divisions among the Muslim population. There are Muslims who abide strictly by the Koran and then there are those who drink, dance and wear more western cut dresses.

Nonetheless, in effort to try to observe local dress while my ankle length dresses sat at the tailors, I’d been wearing loose fitting knee length skirts. I have also been wearing the only shoulder covering I own which is way too hot for 90 degree weather, but I figured, these are the sacrifices you make. Those efforts went right out the window one fine morning when the back of my skirt was tucked into my bag. Forgot modesty. With my whole rear end exposed, I gave Guider a big, fat good morning that they were sure never to forget. Considering that knees in this culture are considered suggestive, who knows what type of impression my little butt had on the population of Guider!


I have always considered myself an open person to different types of food. In spite of that, I have struggled to find things that I like about food in the North. Couscous is the staple food of the North. However, it is not the couscous that we are familiar with in the US. Couscous in Cameroon is a food that is prepared from ground flour, millet, rice or soy. Its consistency is soft and slightly sticky, almost like Thai sticky rice or cold cream of wheat. But that is where the similarities end. It is served with a variety of dipping sauces. I’ve struggled to come around to its taste. During Ramadan, to break the fast people would commonly serve a soupy, porridge like dish called bouille. As I struggled to drink the bouille without obvious gag relax, I counted the days till the end of Ramadan when I had assumed that Bouille would no longer be served. The problem with this assumption is that it was absolutely wrong. Bouille is a staple dish to the North.

Since I haven’t developed a taste for the food here, I have enjoyed learning how to cook without prepared foods and the many amenities we have back home. Its made cooking a challenge to be sure but on days when it is not 100 degrees outside, it’s relaxing. With only a simple gas stove, I’ve learned how to bake cookies using a heavy iron pot. If you fill the bottom with sand and place two small empty tuna cans on the bottom, you can simulate an oven. Since peanuts are one of the staple agricultural products here, I’ve enjoyed cooking with peanut paste to make cookies and Pad Thai among other things. It is also a relief to have fewer preservatives in my diet since everything is fresh.

Destroying the myth

A fellow volunteer brought up a point during our training sessions that I’ve touched on in my earlier blog entry. She noted that when we say we can get away with particular behaviors because we are ‘white’, or that we will be treated to certain levels of privilege in our communities, we reinforce this idea that ‘white’ or being American is better. She remarked that the problem with this attitude is that we cannot empower people if we allow them to continue subjugating themselves. As an American, I am undoubtedly granted access to a variety of things that I would not be had it not been for my passport. It is often times hard for me to know what to say or to do in these situations. By not accepting certain hospitalities, you insult your host and cause more of a scene. However, by accepting this differentiated treatment you also support the status quo.

When an influential figure in the community remarked that the problem with Cameroonians is that they had no national pride like Americans, I responded that many Americans do not feel particularly patriotic. Time and time again, I hear Cameroonian’s criticize their country and fellow countrymen. This causes me to cringe. There are plenty of valuable things to be learned in Cameroon that cannot be learned from abroad. In my opinion, the best societies are those that are open to change but can also continue to hold fast to particular traditions and customs, not loosing sight of who they are. This particular notion was reinforced recently when I fell ill with Malaria. Had it not been for people’s generosity and willingness to take me in as family, two attributes that are typically Cameroonian, my bout with Malaria would have been much worse.

On Getting Malaria

Although I am a very healthy person in general, I tend to be susceptible to a lot of common illnesses (which would lead you to believe otherwise about my health). But in that regard, I tend to also encounter difficulties doing common things. Before even coming to Cameroon, I told friends with certain knowledge that I would get malaria at some point during my service. However, I didn’t anticipate getting malaria within my first few months at post. The first three months at post is an odd period. You are trying to get a feel for things, integrate into your community and meet people. Thus, falling severely ill at the start is hardly an ideal time. Nonetheless, leave it to me, a girl who also conveniently ran her first marathon during the hottest marathon in marathon history to also succumb to malaria at the very start. This should tell you a bit about my luck.

My Dad rightfully noted that I was treated to a cultural experience via hospitals and healthcare in Cameroon. When I decided I wanted to come to Africa, I had wanted to embrace every aspect of its culture. Thus far, I’ve been treated to a wide range of culture. In the North, one’s health is regarded as the most important thing in life, and with good reason. The salutation in Fufulde consists of several questions inquiring as to one’s health.

When I arrived at post, I was ill for a few days with flu like symptoms. I figured it was a mixture of the long travel and fatigue that had taken its toll. It occurred to me that my symptoms were also malaria like but I figured I would wait it out. When I recovered after a few days later, I dismissed it as just the flu. Over the first few weeks I’d intentionally kept myself very busy to keep my mind from wandering. I woke up Monday morning prepared to do my early morning run with sharp stomach pains on my right side. The pain was sharp enough to deter me from running. When the pain persisted throughout the morning, I was concerned that it may be my appendix so I contacted PC’s medical office to let them know of my situation. Uncertain whether it was just a stomachache, I decided to continue my day as planned. I left for a 9am meeting and only once I was out the door did I realize how excruciating the pain was; I could barely walk. When I arrived at the meeting I excused myself from the meeting and asked for the doctor’s phone number instead. Still unconvinced that I should seek medical attention, I wanted to take the doctor’s number just as a precaution if I took a turn for the worse. Only after being coerced into going by being physically dropped off at the hospital, did I see a doctor.

Explaining your symptoms in another language is always tricky. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation. Even so, they ran a test to ensure that it was not my appendix, which felt to me more like an examination for the pregnant (which, naturally in Cameroon, the men of the hospital joked that I was pregnant. Totally not funny.) When I returned to the doctor’s office for my consultation, she ran through a list of probable causes for my pain. She said it was not my appendix but I may have amoebas, which then evolved into, “perhaps it’s your diet.” I explained that diet alone usually does not cause a fever or body aches, both of which I began to develop over the course of my consultation. As she finalized her notes, and I was prepared to leave she said, very flippantly, you have malaria. I paused and looked at her confused. The whole while it seemed I was the girl who cried wolf. My seemingly non-existent illness reassured me why I shouldn’t be so quick to rush to the hospital. I asked how she was able to determine that without a blood test (but resisted the temptation to ask why she didn’t make the malaria assessment from the get go). She explained that I would need a blood test. Since my temperature had not been routinely taken, I asked if she could take my temperature, as a fever is a normal sign of malaria.

As I grew increasingly weaker and dizzy, I was told that I would have to walk to one end of the hospital to locate the laboratory. When I finally arrived at the laboratory, I was then instructed to walk to another end of the hospital to pay for the test and then trek back again, unaccompanied to receive a blood test. In Cameroon, before a doctor will agree to see you, everything must be paid for in advance. It is the least accommodating system I have seen for the sick. As I nervously watched the lab technician draw my blood, without gloves or any other sanitizing agents, I wondered what was more dangerous, the possibility that I had malaria for sometime, or the high probability for infection given the disregard for basic sanitation. In spite of my deteriorating condition I was instructed to go home and await the results, which I would have to physically pick-up at 2pm, in 3 hours time. Well aware of the fact that there was no way I would garner the strength to pick-up my results, I asked a friend to pick-up the results for me. Thirty minutes after my friend left, I took a severe turn for the worse. I suddenly struggled to breath regularly, had unquenchable thirst and felt a numbing sensation in my hands, legs and back. I began to panic. Fortunately my friend was able to immediately pick me up and take me back to the hospital.

In Guider, there is not really an emergency room. If you want to see the doctor immediately, you better hope that you either have a connection or are somebody worthwhile. Thankfully, since the General had escorted me to the hospital in the morning, I was seen ‘immediately.’ As I clung to my friend’s moto, I grew increasingly delirious. I felt like I had lost nearly all feeling to my limbs. It was a moment where I really thought I could die. When you are really sick, articulating yourself in your native tongue is not always easy and often not really comfortable. Doing the same in French is even rougher. At one point, the doctor said she wanted to operate. This only encouraged me to panic further. Only after talking to the PC staff in Yaounde and consulting with another doctor did she change her mind.

As I lay on a dirty hospital bed and was paralyzed partly by my own fear, a crowd of onlookers strolled in and out of my room to stare at the girl who was crying and convulsing, thinking she was dying. I sat there for a good hour as onlookers walked in and out of the room to stare at the Nassara. People literally walked through the open door, called others who then came, stared, and then left again. I was in a revolving door circus act and I was its main attraction. There is absolutely no such thing as even basic privacy in Cameroon. All the while, I remained untreated. It did not occur to anyone to take my temperature even though they noted that I was very hot, nor did it seem to register that they should have treated me preventatively for malaria in the event that I was exposed to a cerebral strain of malaria. They only assured me that they were trying to track down the lab technician to locate the results of my exam. When an hour later they were able to finally locate the lab technician, the doctor concluded I had a very high level of malaria in my system for someone unaccustomed to it. This was the reason I was in such an agonizing state. However, rather than then treating me, they instructed my friends to purchase all the medicines they would need to administer. Conveniently enough, although malaria is the most commonly treated illness in Cameroon, they did not have the majority of medicines that I required. Once my friend was able to retrieve all the different medicines from 3 different pharmacies in town, they finally administered an IV.

My stay at the hospital was not a comfortable one. There are no such things as visiting hours, patient privacy, sanitation etc. Two friends of which I’ve known only for a short while volunteered to stay with me the three nights I was in the hospital. Unlike in most modern hospitals where there is an emergency bell and an attentive nurse who would respond to it, such luxuries do not exist here. It requires that a family member usually stay with you. Since I don’t have any family members here, my two friends alternated around their prayer hours to ensure that someone was with me during the night. In a culture where people have very little, the concept of family is fluid and those that visited me throughout my stay at the hospital, brought me food and stayed up with me during hours of the night when my fever prevented me from sleeping. Unlike in the U.S. where there is a comfortable reclining chair that someone can sleep in, the hospital could only provide a small, backless wooden bench.

One early morning as I listened to the three stooges argue over which medicines had and had not been administered to my IV at 3 am, I closed my eyes and just said a prayer. Part of the miracle is not only surviving malaria, it’s surviving it in an African hospital. The medical situation leaves much to be desired not least because the conditions within the hospital are so rife for infection. Part of it angers me, I am not sure if they simply do not care to dispose of needles and cotton swabs in a way that is sanitary but disposing of them on the floor is clearly not. Nurses administering needles without gloves or assumingly unwashed hands only spread contamination.
On the third day, after getting approval from Yaounde, I made my escape out of the hospital.

As a healthcare debate consumes Americans right now, the thought of it is almost maddening. In comparison to what Africans are subject to here and what Americans have at home, I am just confounded. As you lay on a dirty hospital bed in a room littered with used products, you wonder what all the debate is about. People need healthcare, and adequate, sanitary healthcare at that.

That being said, had people not extended their generosity to me, malaria would have been a million times more challenging if not more lethal. I am very grateful to the many people who showed me unspeakable kindness and continued to keep me in good spirits.

Humans are Adaptive Creatures

Part of what intrigued me about Peace Corps is that it would move me so far outside of my comfort zone and force me to adapt. Even though I make pains to respect local culture, it does not mean that I should cease to be myself.

I was offered the horrible advice that as a female in the North I might consider not running. Fortunately, I contemplated that advice for a second and dismissed it. To avoid children from chasing after me yelling “Nassara, Nassara” or “Chinoise, Chinoise,” I start my run at 5:30 and take roads that are sparsely populated. I also bought the longest, baggiest pair of shorts I could find at the market. Running has always been my outlet. Here, it is provided additional relief and good alone time. It is also allowed me to familiarize myself with many parts of Guider. Though motos are the preferred method of transport here, I prefer to walk most places. At 1pm when the sun is intense, I receive a lot of crazy stares when I walk to and from meetings.


I arrived at site the first day of Ramadan. Ramadan marks the end of the Muslim lunar calendar. It is a 30-day long fasting period during which Muslims fast from sun up to sun down. This allows Muslims to repent to God through a period of cleansing before the new year begins. Muslims mark the end of the 30-day period with a grand celebration. Women, men and children will buy new clothes and shoes. Women will have their hair braided and have henna drawn on their hands and feet. Women also spend days cooking in advance for the celebration. On the day of the celebration, hundreds of men descend on the mosque to pray together. The traditional leader and Muslim authority, or Lamido, as he is called in the North, arrives with an entourage of horses.

After the prayer, the celebration begins. I’ll have to admit, it was the first grand celebration I’ve ever participated in that did not include any alcohol. But it was enjoyable nonetheless. In Cameroon, friends and family will migrate to different homes wishing each other Barka de Sala, Bon Fete, or Happy Ramadan. Each house that receives guests are expected to provide guests with food or a meal regardless of whether they are just strangers. Since a substantial meal is considered anything with fish or meat, Ramadan is often a very expensive time of the year. It was fun, but towards the end just trying, running from house to house to greet friends.

Many Cameroonian’s were disappointed that I did not partake in the fast. I politely explained that the first few weeks I arrived at post, I didn’t think it would be the best idea to go without food and liquid just as I was adapting to my new, very hot environment. As it turns out, that was a pretty good call considering that I was likely ill with malaria all the while. I will likely fast for part of the period next year.

Learning Patience

Unlike Education volunteers who are assigned to a high school, SED volunteers, while often assigned to a microfinance bank, do not have a set role at the bank or in the community. SED work is based on a combination of the volunteer’s abilities and interests and the community’s needs. This allows each SED volunteer to tailor their work accordingly. SED volunteers must seek out projects themselves and individuals with whom they can work and collaborate. But it takes time for all of these things and relationships to fall into place.

I have always been a very proactive person and embraced a busy lifestyle.
It has been difficult for me to just watch and observe. Although I feel like I’ve done a good job attending a variety of meetings in my community, I feel anxious just sitting idle. I am reminded that the first three months at post are really a time for observation. Realistically speaking, it is impossible to truly know and understand your community within less than 3 months in order to begin initiating projects that truly correspond to the needs of the community. In fact, different volunteers who have also experienced the same restlessness have noted that some of their projects that they put in place at an early stage may have even been a disservice to their communities. Though well intended, they were not well grounded in the realities of their respective communities. This is a really important point in development work.

The pace of life in the North is markedly slower than the Bamileke of the South who are noted for their strong work ethic. Part of the reason why volunteers argue that Peace Corps still sends volunteers to the West and Northwest regions despite they’re relative wealth is because volunteers are more productive there. Volunteers will often despair that Northerners are lazy and unmotivated and are a product of a top-down system. While these things may be true, I am convinced that it is insufficient and unproductive for me to remark that people are simply lazy. How do you learn to motivate people, or perhaps putting the question differently, what are we not understanding about what motivates people here? To assume that the same things motivate people things can be a foolish and dangerous supposition.

For example, when I was discussing income-generating activities with a group of people one individual remarked that he didn’t want to make a lot of money; he only wanted enough to meet his family’s basic needs. When I asked why, he remarked that his extended family would demand money from him if he were wealthy. This is a common mentality. At first I thought it was just foreigners who were subject to Cameroonian entitlement, but in listening to others I’ve found that generally people believe that if they have less than you, it entitles them to something from you. While I find that Cameroon’s collectivist culture can aid the development process in certain respects, it also can seemingly hinder it.

It is also been a challenge being a female trying to effect change in a patriarchal society. Although this is definitely not the case with everyone I’ve worked with or met, and it should be noted that there are those who really embrace me and my work regardless of my sex, being female is definitely an obstacle. It is often hard and very tiring being talked down to and being cut off when in mid-sentence. I am naturally an inquisitive person, which drives me to ask a lot of questions. It has been very hard for me not to show my frustration when I’m rudely interrupted or ignored all together. This is even more challenging when you know you often have more expertise than someone else.

I hope that being exposed to some of the grim realities at an early stage, while disheartening and disconcerting allows me to learn how to understand this environment and hopefully learn to navigate through and around some of these obstacles.

Microfinance in Theory and in Practice

The purpose of microfinance is to give those who do typically are denied credit, access to critical capital to allow them to expand their businesses. Nonetheless, what you find is that in order to turn a profit and pay employee salaries, microfinance banks need to reduce transaction costs. Transaction costs tend to be even higher here because there is no automated system and so everything must be done by hand or in person. For example, this meant that I had to travel with a colleague 3 ½ hours by motorcycle to different villages near the border of Nigeria in order to inform clients that credit repayments were due. As a result of this, the very poor are often excluded from microfinance operations. The very poor are still unbankable in this respect. At Credit du Sahel, the minimum deposit for a savings account is roughly $45 and for a checking account, $100, which is still unaffordable for most. In fact, these rates mirror those that you would find in the States. Similarly, other conditions that are attached to these accounts are also those that the very poor find difficult to meet.

Targeting Less Bankable Clients Through VSLA

Village Savings and Loans is a complimentary service to those provided by microfinance banks in that they serve a segment of the population that microfinance banks cannot reach. VSLA groups re composed of 10 to 25 self-selected members and have a similar structure to the groups initiated by Grameen Bank. These members decide on an appropriate amount to save each meeting. This amount is designated as a ‘part.’ These parts are often worth somewhere between 50 cents to a dollar. Through VSLA, a member can save as little as 1 to 5 parts per meeting but are obligated to save at least one part per meeting. These savings are then used to generate loans. The amount of their loan is a function of the amount they hold in the VSLA box. Individuals are only allowed to take out a loan that is 3x the amount they have in savings. This functions like collateral and protects the group in the event of default. It also ensures that there is adequate funds that can be generated for other loans. Loan recipients pay back the loans with interest, which accrues at a monthly rate that is decided upon by the group. At the end of the first cycle, which lasts no longer than 9 to 12 months, profits from interest rates are redistributed to members based on an individual’s savings. This ensures that the benefits stay within the group. It is also helps show people in a very real and immediate way that there is merit in savings. Savings can be a very difficult concept to communicate in Cameroon.

I was really excited to begin working with several VSLA groups Bailey helped form since I believe such services must exist along with microfinance banks. In my thesis, I stressed that microfinance must live up to its mission to serve the poorest of the poor otherwise its practices become no different from a commercial bank. VSLA is at the heart of true microfinance practice in that it exists to further extend outreach to these individuals. VSLA recognizes that the very poor cannot save at the same level as other individuals and therefore cannot meet a microfinance bank’s requirement for deposits and withdraws. It also addresses the fact that the needs of the very poor are hard to predict and must be given leeway in certain areas.

When Credit is a Disservice

The American economy is still feeling the side effects of giving people credit that by most measures, were uncreditworthy. Despite that this should encourage people to be more prudent, particularly when loaning to the poor, I find this not to be case in Guider and much of Cameroon. Financing is abundant.

I have found that credit and grants (aid) can be even more detrimental to the poor if they do not know how to manage money or do not know good business practices. In the North, I find that this often is the case. People look to volunteers as a source of financing. People have continuously come to me and stated that their primary problem is a lack of financing. In reality, in my limited time here, I have found that the problem is not one of financing but of poor business management. More often than not, small businesses in the North do not have a system of accounting and have deceiving income statements, if income statements at all. Whether or not this is what the bank sees fit, I am working on feasibility studies, business plans and teaching basic marketing and accounting to help ensure that when individuals do receive funding, either through loans or through grants, that this money can be used productively so that growth is sustainable.

My primary recommendation to NGOs and other donors is to provide business consulting before giving aid. Many individuals do not understand how a loan works, what interest rates are, how to calculate interest rate, how to determine a business’ break-even point or even if a business is profitable. By training entrepreneurs how to do this, it ensures that the root of the problem is addressed first. Without this critical base, no amount of money will solve the problem if the business is poorly run. Issues that lie within the business must be resolved first for credit to have its desired effect. What is interesting to me is that I overlooked this issue all together in my thesis. In fact, in the majority of the literature I came across, the assumption was that the poor were entrepreneurial. The problem with this is that I do know if the terms were ever dissected. Does entrepreneurial mean that people understand how to create a cash book or manage their inventory? Does it mean that they understand the components of marketing and how to better position their business? I do not think so.

While Credit du Sahel is my counterpart, I spend my most meaningful time outside of the bank. SED volunteers are designed to be volunteers for the community and as such, are encouraged to work directly in the community. By working with clients of the bank at their businesses and non-clients as well, I can fulfill both obligations. One of the small businesses I am currently working with has merchandise resembles that of general store, random and confusing. Trying to convince people to focus on just a few products, and complementary products at that is hard in an environment where all stores replicate each other in that their shelves are all crammed with a great assortment of products. Business’ like these can benefit from basic business principles, not credit. Credit is useful once these businesses have achieved a level of self-sufficiency. Providing credit at this juncture distracts from the real problems that exist and complicates the numbers. Owners will often take loans and struggle to make repayment. As opposed to integrating them into more formal financial services, they are further excluded as they refuse to take another loan and have no increase in income with which to deposit into a savings or a checking account. The argument is purely linear: help the small business and it will grow and increase the capacity of the bank. In theory this should increase a bank’s loan capacity and enable them to target poorer segments of the population.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

For Joya

My older sister, Joy Miyoko Fujii married Edward James Holcomb on Saturday, August 1st in a civil ceremony in Georgia. I am so happy for the them and just wanted to take this moment to congratulate the two of them. It is also moments like these that I feel very far from home. But I love you both very much and am glad you are waiting on me for your real ceremony in Hawaii. Ill see you in 2011.
Pre Peace Corps

Growing up with parents who were anything but conventional, my life has been a constant adventure. And it is largely because my parents have always encouraged trying new things that I have similarly sought a variety of experiences. Last March, I was entirely uncertain what I would do post graduation. For the longest time I had talked about going to Africa but seemed unable to find a suitable way to go that did not include raising my own support or paying for a volunteership. I applied for Peace Corps on a whim after being encouraged by other friends who had recently started the process but was uncertain where it would take me.

After meeting with a recruiter and reading more about Peace Corps’ (PC) small business development program, which is largely microfinanced based, I realized how fitting an opportunity this would be. Having spent the past year researching microfinance for my thesis, there was no better way to supplement this learning than through actual field work.

Further, PC appealed to me on several levels. I wanted to go to a part of the world that I would unlikely ever live in on my own while I was young enough and crazy enough to embrace the unknown. On top of that, service has always been an important component of my life. But it’s not just any type of community service work that I am interested in. For me, projects that are more rewarding are those that are sustainable and truly community need based. While many donations and projects are well intended, they often are misguided because they fail to understand the importance of local context. By contrast, PC encourages projects that are locally grown. And lastly, on a personal level, PC would force me to confront different fears (like public speaking!) and challenge me in ways that nothing else would be capable of doing.


When I first applied, I never anticipated the mountain of paperwork that would stem from an application nor how frequent a visitor I would be to my doctor’s office. For those of you considering PC or in the process of applying, a word to the wise, do not choose your medical history evaluation as a time to check every yes box you can. I did and paid a heavy and long price for that. Unless it’s serious and/or life threatening, just check NO. It is a miracle I made it through medical clearance with the amount of red tape I created for myself.

But a part from the medical setbacks, I did not anticipate the other obstacles. Long story short, I would’ve received an invitation in September for a December departure to Guinea had I not shot myself in the foot with my medical confessions. I did not receive an invitation and due to the madness that generated from that mess/confusion, I was ready to abandon ship when I unexpectedly received an invitation to Madagascar for February. Though 3 months past my initial departure date, I did the math and figured I could wait the additional 3 months. So I waited. I extended my job, apartment and a relationship. In January, two weeks after I had quit my job and a day after moving out of my apartment, news broke in Madagascar. Riots had erupted and several protesters were killed. Riots ensued. I read the news with great trepidation knowing that this would inevitably impact my service. PC in Washington dodged questions. Finally, on February 2nd, 10 days before my departure, we received word that our assignment was postponed till March 9th. Having already fought a long battle w/ PC medical, I was ensure whether I should continue to press on or just give up. I ultimately decided that it would be silly to throw in the towel if it just meant waiting a month. After all, I had waited a year by that point. Nonetheless, caught entirely off guard by our postponement, February proved to be an emotionally difficult month for me. I had emotionally prepared to leave and a month’s delay, while only a month proved to be harder than expected. I had no job or home at that point.

Throughout February, negotiations were ongoing. People were hopeful that the situation would improve. Over the next month, I followed the news almost hourly as the situation continued to develop. The riots died down and then flared again. The situation, while not particularly reaffirming, was not currently violent. As a result, Washington was still prepared to send us. So, I packed my bags and donated my belongings. I finally threw out my bed after holding on to it till the very last day as a precautionary measure. As I was printing off my boarding pass that night before my departure, I checked the news as usual. Staring me in the face, BBC’s headline read “MADAGASCAR: ARMY LAUNCHES MUTINY.” My heart sank. I knew that if the army was involved, it was a done deal. I checked my email and phone. No messages from PC. It was 7pm and my flight took off in less than 12 hours. I said my goodbyes anyway and moved forth.

I arrived in Philadelphia for staging where I met my fellow volunteer class. As we waited in line to check in, rumors circulated that a current volunteer had notified us that PC had decided to close the post. Considering the amount of rumors that had circulated and the continued state of uncertainty we had experienced over the past month, if our assignment really was canceled, we wanted to hear it from the horses’ mouth. Once the whole group had finally gathered, in walked the assistant director of PC. She greeted the group and went on to say, “I’m here sending my best from Washington. Unfortunately, I cannot send your best home with me. None of you will be boarding a plan for Madagascar tomorrow.” The room sat in stunned silence. I wasn’t sure what was the appropriate reaction. I was so drained by that point; I could neither cry nor scream so I laughed in disbelief. PC explained to us that if minimal security measures are not in place – and in this case, the gendarme had refused to accept orders from the President, PC could not send us anymore and our service was effectively canceled. We were then told that because we had not submitted any signed paperwork, we were also out of the PC network and therefore PC was not required to provide us with anything. We were all effectively jobless, homeless and without insurance. With family overseas, my situation was all the more complicated. I truly had nowhere to go, and had just ended a relationship 6 hours prior. PC did do what they could to assure us that Madagascar stagees would be a top priority for reassignment.

Less than 48 hours after leaving, I arrived in Chicago, so emotionally, physically and mentally drained. I was neither sad nor mad. I was too tired to think. Embarrassed, I did not tell anyone beyond a couple friends that I was home. I didn’t want to talk about it. I was sick of it. The next day, I spoke to my recruiter and was told that I had received a new invitation for Cameroon for an assignment in June. I was assured that that was the soonest departure I could receive. I reiterated that I did not have a home, my bags were packed and that Costa Rica, which had left the day before, would be a fine assignment for me. My recruiter didn’t budge. I was given additional time to think over the offer. I did my homework first this time and read about Cameroon’s political and social history. It was not reaffirming but I figured I would accept. Unconvinced I would actually go, I started looking for jobs again. As fate would have it, an internship I had interviewed for as an interim job during my month of delay led to an interview for a full time job. I gladly accepted and began to think about seriously staying. I had dreamed about working for this organization. I moved forth with the rounds of interviews hoping that either the job prospect or Cameroon would fall through so I wouldn’t have to make any of the hard decisions myself. Unfortunately for me, that did not happen. As I stared a job offer in the face, I had to seriously sit and consider what it is I wanted. If I moved forth with Peace Corps, there was no guarantee that there would not be political upheaval in Cameroon. After all, a coup in both Guinea and Madagascar did not set a good precedent. I also could not predict my health or whether I would even like Cameroon. In spite of all the unknowns, after much contemplation, I decided to take a leap of faith and rejected the job offer.

Its difficult for many to understand why I still wanted to go to Africa so badly and would end a strong relationship and forego a job with an organization I long wanted to work for. Declining the job and following through with my application to Peace Corps was not an easy decision, but it was a critical choice. I knew that if I did not have the courage to follow my heart now, I would likely never find the strength to do the unconventional thing later. While I had the luxury of making that choice, I knew if I did not give Peace Corps a shot, it would not only contradict everything I’ve ever said about living a life of conviction, but even worse, I’d eventually regret it.

Cameroon at Last: June 2009

I apologize for the prolonged delay in writing: I terribly underestimated the internet situation here. Judging from the fact that other volunteers seemed to blog regularly, I figured I would be able to access a decent internet café at least once a week. While at my current training site I do have access to a few internet cafes in town, they are anything but reliable. I spent a whole hour waiting for one page to load and 30 minutes waiting for my e-mail to actually open. When the 2 line e-mail was actually ready to send, the screen closed and ended my session. It has been a lesson in patience to say the least.

I have been in training for the past month and a half in a small town called Bangante which is located in the western region of Cameroon. It is a quaint town that is blessed with rolling hills, red mud roads (which aren’t a blessing when it rains) and weather that is refreshingly cool for Africa. It even gets kind of chilly. The rich geography has provided the perfect backdrop for running. Another volunteer and I run daily. My 6 am runs in Bangangte as the town is just rising is my favorite time of day. Bangangte at 6am is picturesque. In many respects, the geography of the west resembles that of Hawaii.

In spite of some of its geographical similarities, Africa is a whole different animal. I assumed that living and traveling in developed countries would give me a sense of what Africa may be like but I think it is those experiences that misinformed me most. Because everything runs differently here. Water and electricity outages are the norm in Bangangte even though Bangangte, and the western region of Cameroon is comparatively wealthy. Traffic and travel is crazy. I visited my host mom’s village the other day and didn’t know what alarmed me more, that my cab driver – and I use the word cab loosely - was drinking bootleg whisky out of a bag or that his car was so dilapidated that I wasn’t sure which would likely kill me first, his car or his driving. I luckily made it to village in one piece.

What people say about intense ups and downs in Peace Corps is absolutely true. Since being here for a month, I am fortunate to have had very few lows but know that on any given day my emotions frequently fluctuate. Everything you seem to experience you experience with such intensity. On days like those, the other stagiaires, who are an awesome group of individuals, are a huge source of support.

During training, I have been staying with a host family. The Fotso family is a family of 7. I have a great relationship with my host mom and host brother and sisters. My brother is 19, and my 4 sisters are 17, 15, 11, and 5 in age. They have become a source of great comfort and relaxation for me. Alternatively, I am a source of entertainment for them as they watch me awkwardly figure out how to wash my laundry by hand, struggle getting water from the well and fumble around in the darkness of the frequent blackouts. I enjoy spending evenings with my family after a long day of classes and feel like I can be myself around them. The family dynamic in Cameroon is interesting. Cameroonian’s respect traditional gender roles which is common in many a developing country. My host father is largely absent and I have very little interaction with him.

I also have the privilege of living with their 5 year old. It has been the most trying part of my home stay, and I’m being absolutely serious. It should suffice to say that before coming to Cameroon I didn’t know exactly where I stood on children, but after being terrorized (I have bite marks to prove it) I am pretty convinced that I never, ever want children if there’s any possibility I would ever end up with a child like this one. This, by the way, is the diluted version of the story that will not get me in hot water.

As far as culture goes, I love the football culture here! I saw my first Cameroonian football match with my family a few weeks back. Bangangte played and beat a rival club team from the capital, Yaounde, to advance to the finals. It was a really exciting match. Cameroonian football matches come equipped with menacing guards wielding AK-47s, and lively fans who love to sing and dance. Everything about Africa is so animated. I love it. It was also at a certain moment during that game, smashed between 4 other people in a seat designed for one, with a loud horn blaring in my ear that I realized how incredibly happy I was to be in Africa. Looking out at a dirt field with a lively crowd it seemed just like a picture out of National Geographic’s – and the way I imagined Africa to be. It is the Africa I’ve dreamt of for a long time. At that moment, I realized how truly fortunate I am to be here. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought this day would have been possible back in March.

Nonetheless, I miss the US and Chicago more than I had expected. It’s a lot of the little things that make me nostalgic like riding the L into the loop every morning, walking to the Lake or going to the Park. I also really miss American food. Cameroonian food relies heavily on a high carb diet - rice, lots of potatoes and bread - that is largely saturated in palm oil. I’m learning to stomach the food but am looking forward to making my own food with about 1/20 the amount of oil. I figure I can manage for another month but then again, I did eat my reserve 3 bags of chocolate in 2 weeks. I also miss the news and feeling like I’m in tune to what’s going on in the world. I have no idea. Entertainment news never interested me much before and hardly interests me now. Its pretty indicative when the only piece of news other volunteers received from back home is news of Michael Jackson’s death. I guess that’s not what I really meant by news updates. Having the economist, regardless of how many weeks old it may be, gives me a refreshing sense of what’s happening in the world.

My terrible underestimation of the internet also extends to other things. Cameroon is just a lot more poor and underdeveloped than I had anticipated. And Cameroon is still relatively wealthy compared to its neighboring countries. Inflation is a major problem in Cameroon. The stipend can be hard to stretch. When toothpaste, toilet paper, and eggs cost almost as much if not more than what it does in the States, but the level of development severely lags behind, it suggests the poor state of the economy. There are only raw goods here and very little western brand influence. For example, if you want pepper, you have to go to the open market and buy it from a sack. Packaging or processed goods do not exist here. For our 4th of July party, we had to visit the butcher, pick out our meat and visit each stall separately to buy onions, garlic etc. Even in the big towns, a supermarket at most has the selection of a 7-11.

Cameroonian’s are obsessed, and I mean obsessed with having “clean feet” and shiny shoes. Perhaps I failed to mention that Bangangte is a city that is known for its red mud which has permanently colored its building and streets. No matter how lightly I tread, my shoes will be caked in mud by the time I get home. Nonetheless, my family insists that my shoes be clean when I leave the house. Culturally, I’ve found that cleanliness means different things. I’ve learned to just not look around too much or ask too many questions.

One thing that has been frustrating about training is how volunteers use the word American and white interchangeably. The problem is that it perpetuates that stereotype in Africa that all Americans are white. I find it ironic that Peace Corps mission includes teaching others about Americans and the diversity of Americans when Peace Corps volunteers themselves seem incapable of conquering that misnomer. The problem with this assumption is that minorities invariably are treated differently in Cameroon. Continually referencing examples of how white Americans are treated and given a position of privilege in Cameroon is terribly unhelpful to minorities who will not and are not regarded the same way. Let me just tell you, when the gendarme pull over my bus looking for a bribe, the bus driver did not point to me as his get out of jail free card. If anything its, does that Chinese migrant worker have her papers?

But by the same token, there are some things that are really funny about being Asian here. Like, take for example, the first time a cab stopped for me so that the driver could yell “HEEHAW” at me while making a donkey face (supposedly, some singer got it wrong when he sang a song saying hello in different languages). In a million years I don’t think I ever expected that greetings. Or, for example, while getting my photo taken for an id card at the police station, the photographer stopped suddenly and firmly instructed me to open my eyes. Don’t worry folks – they were wide open, or as wide open as Asian eyes do get. The “Chinoise!” doesn’t bother me, the being followed and aggressively screamed at does, but for the most part, just laughing about it seems the best option.

July 8–ish

If I make it through till the end of training, I will swear in as small enterprise development (SED) volunteer on August 20th. The work of a SED volunteer is varied but largely consists of developing the capacity of local businesses as a consultant. Unlike foreign aid that physically constructs schools, roads, buildings etc the idea of a SED volunteer is dynamic where the emphasis is really on developing the capacity of local entrepreneurs through skills transfer. What is so appealing about this is that it ensures that development is sustainable, locally driven and empowerment oriented. Do I have qualms about my work? Absolutely. I feel poorly equipped to go over income statements and feasibility studies.


Throughout the first 5 weeks of training, trainees nervously anticipate their post assignments for the next 2 years of their service. SED trainees had no idea where each post was much less what each posts’ needs were in order to deduce where we might possibly spend the next 2 years. In a geographically diverse place like Cameroon, the anticipation mounts. The west is beautiful and rich in vegetation. It is also the most developed region of Cameroon. Fruits and vegetables are bountiful and cheap here. The north, by contrast, is dry, dessert like, extremely hot – about 120F and lacking in diverse agricultural produce but culturally rich. Because it is even more underdeveloped than the rest of Cameroon ( or possibly as underdeveloped as East region of Cameroon) and the culture is decidedly Muslim in many parts, the working conditions for many volunteers is difficult. For some reason, I had a strong sense that I was going to the north. Part of me wanted a post in the west, but for reasons I recognized were wrong. I did not come to Africa to lead a life that was particularly comfortable or that tried to resemble what I had at home. In fact, I didn’t even know it would be an option but training in the west has made me very comfortable with its amenities. Before coming to Cameroon, I wrote in my aspiration statement that I believed Africa would be a shock to my senses and would challenge me in ways that I did not perceive. The west would not provide that type of environment in the way that other areas could.

Nonetheless, as we received our post one by one, I’ll admit, my heart sank a bit as a pinned my location on the map, second furthest away, straddling the extreme north. Staring at the cluster of SED volunteers in the west, I felt immediately alone as the only female among 3 other male volunteers in the north. Talking with the staff about their decision helped reassure me that they had a lot of confidence in me, but did not entirely convince me that I would be able to withstand the north. Access to credit is critical in Cameroon. Microfinance has been particularly effective in other regions of Cameroon but has struggled/failed in the North. The hope is that I’ll be able to work at a very grassroots level to improve the system. Though we weren’t given even a days time to reflect on this before meeting our counterpart institutions whom we will work with at our sites today, I know that this experience will be highly rewarding in part because it resembles what a lot of sub-Saharan African is like. But more importantly, I’m reminding myself that if I am truly here to serve, then the needs of my community come above and beyond my own personal demands and comforts.

I reached my French level here and have begun studying Fufulde which is the language of the North. French in Cameroon is different and at first difficult for me to understand but I am able to hold my own with my family and assigned company. Some days are more trying than others. Learning Fufulde in French is also an added challenge. Some days I feel like I do not speak anything well. I managed to utter a sentence that was neither French, Thai or English. Training has kept me busy from 8 till 5 everyday and then some with homework and projects. There are days where my brain is just on overload but being busy has been better than being idle.

July 9, 2009

I met my counterpart today, which is a microfinance bank. My counterpart seems nice but it is hard to gauge what he will be like in a work environment. For many female volunteers, how we will be treated/ the level of legitimacy we are given by our counterparts is a major preoccupation. Particularly in the north where social attitudes are much more conservative and rigid, the environment for a female volunteer is difficult. I will be leaving Sunday morning for my site visit. Since it will take me roughly 2 days travel, I will not be spending much time at site unfortunately, but it will be exciting to see nonetheless. I am replacing a current volunteer there who will be closing service at the end of August. I am a mixture of nervous and excited for the adventure ahead.