Sunday, July 20, 2014

ICT and Me

Although I was in the Health sector as a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the most fun things I did during my service had nothing to do directly with health education, capacity building, or community mobilizing.  One month, I reserved a projector the volunteers in our region shared to conduct some trainings during the day.  Taking advantage of its use during the evenings, I invited kids and adults from the neighborhood to come to my house to watch films projected against the wall.  Complete with scattered cushions, speakers, and popcorn prepared over a fire, chez moi was instantly transformed into a fairly decent theater!  We had a great time over the course of two weeks watching various films I had acquired in French; the audience really loved She’s the Man.  (Adolescent Bynes disguised as a boy...What’s not to love?!)  It was really rewarding to expose kids to new media and it got me thinking about the possibility of using technology as an opportunity for cross-cultural sharing merged with international development, either by using educational programs directly or talking about some message from a movie or television program (gender equality, the role of fatherhood, the environment, etc.) so it becomes informative as well as entertaining.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn share anecdotes in their book, Half the Sky, about the power of media as it relates to development. The first is Robert Jensen and Emily Oster’s "The Power of TV:Cable Television and Women’s Status in India",  which looks at increasing female autonomy with the advent of this medium. The second cites a 2008 study in Brazil that found a correlation between the broadcasting of soap operas in various areas and declining fertility patterns. The broad idea is that it is not only the introduction of this form of entertainment but the content as well which matters. As people see a way of life that allows for upward mobility, increased consumerism, and the circulation of new ideas and attitudes, they subconsciously emulate these behaviors.

I saw this on a micro-scale as I chatted with women during weekly antenatal consultations at the local health center I was partnered with in rural Cameroon. At 11:30am, the tiny black-and-white television was brought out and set up in the patient area. Those present (staff, patients, and family members) watched the back-to-back stories and -- during commercial breaks advertising mayonnaise and tomato paste -- heatedly discussed what was going on in the characters’ lives. It was a chance for social bonding while also being exposed to new and different (even sometimes highly unrealistic) cultures and scenarios.

It might sound like a bit of a leap, but one can’t deny the effects of the media on social and political outcomes. “Our findings have important policy implications for today’s developing countries. In societies where literacy is relatively low and newspaper circulation limited, television plays a crucial role in circulating ideas. Our work suggests that programs targeted to the culture of the local population have the potential of reaching an overwhelming amount of people at very low costs, and could thus be used by policymakers to convey important social and economic messages (e.g. about HIV/AIDS prevention, children’s education, the rights of minorities, etc.) [Ferrara et al].”

From projecting movies at my house to allowing Cameroonian friends to use my computer, I saw first-hand just how much this outlet can improve people's lives. As technology rapidly develops, those with access (i.e. typically urban populations) are able to latch on and use these tools for social networking, employment, etc. Typically this only serves to create an even greater divide between them and those in rural, isolated areas. Although it was small on my part, the Internet allowed a few people in village to research the world around - and beyond - them and connect with family and friends near and far through email and Facebook. Although I'm torn by the unequal pace of this infrastructure compared to the development of other resources like water/sanitation/roads, I think there are lessons to be learned. And, perhaps, opportunities for the two to become mutually beneficial...  It gave me many ideas that volunteers could implement combining health topics and technology – capitalizing on the novelty and excitement of the latter to share the important messages of the former.

Although many Peace Corps Volunteers who served in the 1970s/80s speak fondly of their disconnect from technology, I think it enhanced my effectiveness as a volunteer.  While living and working abroad, the Internet allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends.  More than this though, I was able to research strategies to deliver key messages on everything from diarrheal diseases and malaria to dental hygiene and nutrition.

Now, having traveled on four continents, I literally have friends all over the world.  The Internet allows me to connect with these people on a regular basis to share ideas, encourage each other’s work, and collaborate.

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Did you go back from where you came? / If I get there, will they have my name? / If they don't, I'll only have myself to blame / For all these things, true happiness is having wings"

The morning of December 1st was a frenzy of packing and cleaning, with the neighbor kids hauling away the last of my things. In a whirlwind of tears, I said my goodbyes and tightly hugged the people who had been my family for two years.  It was incredibly emotional and it wasn’t until I was halfway out of my village when I remembered I hadn’t said goodbye to my faithful companion – my cat, Cardamom. 
I lugged my stuff up three flights of stairs to the office in the regional capital and barely had a moment to catch my breath before running last-minute errands, including picking up items from my tailor in a nearby town.  Of course, this trip was a typical transportation experience with the driver demanding 2000CFA for the journey that is set at 500CFA.  After sharply explaining that this wasn’t my first day in country, I’d lived in Bapa for two years, and that I’d pay the normal price thank-you-very-much, he had the nerve to ask if I talk to women in my village the way I spoke to him.  (“No, because they don’t treat me disrespectfully like you are” was my only reply.)  Because of the fast turnaround at the tailor's, I had to take the same car back, but the return trip was more courteous.  The next day, I haphazardly organized my belongings and had one final spaghetti omelet with volunteers in the West before making my way to the capital.            
I had imagined my last week as a PCV would be an opportunity to hang out in the company of other volunteers and enjoy the amenities that Yaounde had to offer.  Instead, it was spent running around to various appointments (exit interviews, dental cleanings, medical exams) and filling out an endless amount of administrative paperwork.
Because I was traveling afterwards rather than going straight to the US, I took cash-in-lieu for the value of what a return ticket would cost.  I was glad that a friend went with me as I carried several thousand CFA on my person to pay for a ticket through a Cameroonian airline. 
Rather than eat out in the city for each meal, I decided to cook one night.  Walking down the hill from the Peace Corps transit office, I found a small outdoor market.  When buying an assortment of vegetables, it is customary to receive a “gift” (cadeau) here or there.  Because I only wanted one small pepper (I was cooking for a group that didn’t like food as spicy as I do), I asked for this to be my cadeau since the cost is practically negligible.  The woman told me that, in this case, a gift is two peppers.  I explained that I only needed one so she could keep the other, but I had to chuckle when I got back to the kitchen and saw that she had snuck both of them in the bag.
I had been feeling sick for several weeks, but brushed it off attributing it to dust from the beginning of dry season and general stress from closing up my post.  Unfortunately, it continued to get worse so my last few days in-country were even busier with extra trips to the lab for blood work.  I was exhausted and kept vacillating between sleeping and a raging fever.  I still had papers to fill out and reports to complete, but I really appreciated the support from other volunteers.
I had to apologize during my exit interview with the country director for my unprofessionalism - sneezing, coughing, and wearing flip flops - but she was gracious and understanding.  In a flash, it was time to gong out.  I was burning up at 102° by then so was miserable and crying because I didn’t feel well.  (I knew I felt horrible but it wasn’t until a few weeks later that I was finally diagnosed with pneumonia in a Parisian hospital.)  The ceremony was very long but my Program Manager and her Assistant said very nice things and, before I knew it, I had gone from being a PCV to an RPCV (Returned).

Close of Service (Before)

Peace Corps Cameroon Country Director and me

Officially RPCVs!!! (Note I'm wearing a sweater because my fever was actually making me unbearably cold.)
These lovely ladies helped me tremendously in my final week (and are apparently basking in my radiating heat).

Always exciting, rarely clean: the case (volunteer transit house)

Hunter's farewell:  "What can we do? / Nothing"

My farewell:  "We suffer...SINCE and UNTIL!"

For the last two days in Cameroon, I attempted to do some souvenir shopping and winter clothes for my upcoming trip to Europe.  From bargaining for nearly half an hour over the price of a tablecloth to trying on jeans in public in the large outdoor market, it was my last opportunity to be completely immersed in what Cameroon had to throw at me.  Or so I thought…
 We packed up and made our way to the airport.  All the others in the group had an earlier flight out so I was left by myself in the waiting area for awhile.  I made final phone calls to friends in-country before attempting to check-in for my flight.  While in line, two “forestry” representatives called me out to question the contents of my baggage.  We went a few rounds before they asked me to see their supervisor – but told me to leave my bags in line.  I followed them the 75 feet but they thought it was silly that I wanted to keep an eye on my stuff.  As usual, it was that strange blend of taking yourself way too seriously yet still being unprofessional (the “boss” was a lady half asleep with her head and upper body sprawled out at her desk).  When they demanded 4000CFA ($8), I asked to see the paperwork that would require that outrageous sum and of course, they got angry with me.  Tired of arguing and too exhausted to care at this point, I did something I had prided myself on avoiding in a country where corruption and bribery is the norm – I paid the money. 
Then, when checking in with the CamAir ticket agent, they stipulated that my bag needed to be wrapped in plastic.  I protested to no avail and then went to see the men who do that.  Of course, they said the fee for this was 2000CFA.  I didn’t have this amount so had to go see their boss and plead my case.  I hadn’t wanted to spend my last few hours in Cameroon groveling, but somehow it was a fitting ending.  He agreed to take whatever money I did have and I came up only a few hundred CFA short.  I even gave him every last small 5CFA coin which he tried to refuse.  I knew the reason why so I said in exasperation, “Oh right.  They’re cursed aren’t they?!?”  He seemed shocked that I knew this village fable.  I told him to keep them and give them to kids on January 1st and followed it up with: “See, I gave EVERYTHING to Cameroon.  My money, blood, sweat, and tears.”  As I was about to leave, he asked if I had gotten married to a Cameroonian man and all I could do was laugh as I thanked him and headed for my gate.  Before I knew it, the plane was taking off and I was beginning the next step in my international adventure…    

And thus concludes this blog.  I want to thank everyone who read my accounts and followed my tales.  I appreciate your interest and felt so encouraged and supported along the way.  It was a pleasure to share this experience with you!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"Wherever you go / I always know / 'Cause you make me smile / Even just for a while"

I’ve now put several months and thousands of miles between Cameroon and I, and need to gain a little closure on my experience by finishing this blog so I’ll wrap-up my last month in village - November.

To thank some women in my village that helped with the Field Trip, I spent one morning making chocolate cakes with my neighbor, Monique.  Although the recipe is simple and it comes together quickly, it took each cake an hour to bake inside my makeshift Dutch oven on my indoor cookstove so it was a long, lazy morning.

Election Day brought sun and time to run errands, with a few of us volunteers coming together to learn the results.  Leading up to the election I had a few conversations with Cameroonians about the way the process works and how I was voting.  I even got to tell my anecdote about eating breakfast “Obamelets” since the joke works in French, too.  I had wanted my vote to be informed, so spent an entire day in October using my slow Internet connection to research all of the candidates and issues on my absentee ballot.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was wrapping up my service, but I was especially patriotic this Election Day.  In between reading exit-poll projections, I enlisted the talented Kim to cut my hair.

I’d been in need of a cut for awhile and, in typical Cameroonian fashion, the power went out just as she was about to begin so the initial cut was made by candlelight.  She did a fantastic job and I was really pleased to get rid of more than 11 inches, which I was able to donate to Locks of Love.


By 4am, I was the last one still up clicking “Refresh” to learn election results so I threw in the towel and got a couple hours of sleep.

I got to head to Bafia yet again to teach First Aid one last time to the newest group of trainees.  Luckily, I was there on the day they got their post assignments (many of them replacing members of my group) and was able to share in their excitement and answer questions about the unfamiliar names of villages they knew nothing about.  It was a surreal and bittersweet experience.

In making my way back to Bapa, I took a detour and made a side trip to celebrate with my friend Marcelle as she was honored with the title of Mafou/Queen of Bandrefam.  I was nearly late since the car I was in had radiator problems and overheated every 10km but I made it to the ceremony just in time.  It was such a pleasure to see her village show their appreciation and I was surprised that, unlike so many fêtes, it remained fairly tame and low-key.

In response to a need expressed by women in my village about the frustrations dealing with saggy boobs,  (see earlier blog post [near the end]), my final project at post was an odd – but important – one.  I walked away from that day’s presentation happy with the information exchange that had occurred, but unsure how to do anything in a meaningful and sustainable way.  Several months later, a woman in the U.S. came across my blog entry discussing this issue and reached out to me.  She asked if I would be interested in providing free bras to these women if she organized a collection among her friends, neighbors, and co-workers.  I spent a month reflecting on the offer, knowing that the gesture was generous but that becoming the Oprah of Bras (“YOU get a bra!  And YOU get a bra!!  EVERYONE gets a BRA!!!”) didn’t exactly fit into the Peace Corps model of development.  Eventually though, I conceded with the justification that it met a community need and, as my post was not being replaced, I had no personal responsibility of ensuring that my successor didn’t walk into a situation where they’d be confronted for two years by people asking where their soutien-gorge was.

Once she had the go ahead from me, the woman got to work collecting and shipping 170 new and gently used bras.  On my end, I organized a Women’s Health Day, advertising that this would include a bra distribution campaign.  Want to get people interested in attending one of your events?  Mention that there will be something free and hang up posters all around your village with hand-drawn pictures of bras… :) 

One Sunday afternoon just after church let out, we opened up the health center for this day, including a discussion and proper fitting where women were measured and informed what their true band and cup size was.  We touched on the causes of sagging breasts (again, mentioned here) and a few other health lessons and also had shea butter made by a Bangangté women’s cooperative for sale - highlighting its use in minimizing the appearance of stretch marks and softening skin.


The day wasn’t as organized as I had hoped (always to be expected, for sure, but not helped by my involvement in a minor moto accident en route to the event, counterparts not showing up, and a general lack of time to prepare due to it occurring in my final weeks at post).  However, I envision that a similar project could be carried out using the opportunity to thoroughly talk about women’s health issues, including numerous topics surrounding the theme of breast health such as: breastfeeding, breast cancer detection screenings, and the traditional but tragic practice of breast ironing/massage.

In the end, the lesson I learned was that what at first seemed to be a vanity issue - a matter of simple aesthetics and concern with appearances - has deeper implications.  Understanding the true obstacles and consequences to this particular behavior (that we assume should be relatively easy to change) showed itself to be quite complicated the more I probed.  It is an unfortunate reality that women in Cameroon must typically rely on men financially – not only for themselves but to ensure their children’s health, education, and other expenses are covered.  Thus, their concern with how they look is a direct link to economic insecurity.  It’s a complex and nuanced problem, but a fascinating reminder of gender inequality and how we must bridge the gap and involve both parties in taking ownership of the health of their families. 

The highlight of that day though, was the fact that as I was walking home a Cameroonian friend stopped to tell me that her daughter had recently given birth to a baby girl and she asked that the baby be named Charmayne!  (Finally, having an obscure French name was useful!)  I was walking on Cloud Nine the entire way home.

The power remained out in my neighborhood for the last weeks of service so I decided to head to Nkongsamba a day early for a presentation – without notifying the volunteer who lived there (no electricity = phone dead).  Unfortunately, I first had to walk the hour-and-a-half to neighboring Batie in the rain since there were no motos to be found.  Then, I relied on my hitchhiking prowess to catch a ride with a tanker truck hauling palm oil in that direction.  Hoisting my soggy self up into the cab, I had no more than gotten settled when the driver demanded 7000CFA ($14) –  7 to 10 times the actual price.  I used the last shred of patience I had and countered with a joke: “Do I LOOK like Paul Biya (President of Cameroon)? … Do I RESEMBLE his wife, Chantal?  Do you think if I HAD that kind of money I would be searching for a ride by the side of the road?”  We all had a good laugh, and proceeded…though he insisted that I’d have to spend the night with him if I couldn’t get ahold of my friend.  I assured him that she would be there and, although I did indeed somewhat surprised Tess, I received a most comfortable welcome.    

The next day we did a soap-making demonstration at a hospital followed by fabric dying.  The technique was fun to learn, though there wasn’t a great system for moving people through quickly.  In the end, I was proud of my work and left with a few great pieces.  

Beautiful mountain in the distance


I also helped lead a soap-making demonstration in my friend Martine’s home.  She has 6 daughters and was looking to supplement her income in order to afford to send them to school.  One day, we made the trip to Bafoussam together to buy all the ingredients so she could get her business started.  I was so happy that someone was going to actually put the skills to use and that this could indeed be a sustainable project.  The woman that runs the shop where I buy all the supplies was terse, but in the end very helpful in helping Martine learn how she could economize even more and still turn out a quality product.

For our last Girls Club, we held a small party at my house.  In anticipation, I made a carrot cake and a chocolate cake.

My counterpart, Silvere, had been at my house in the morning and, while she braided her daughter’s hair, agreed to help out by giving her testimony of how she became a nurse.  I didn’t know all the struggles she had encountered along the way (failing the tests, financial set-backs, etc.), but I was in awe of her story and proud of the girls for listening intently and asking really perceptive questions.  We paused for refreshments and an informal discussion of strong African female role models (researchers, a Cameroonian pilot, etc.)  They gave me a woven basket as a gift and a summary of what we had learned and then it was time to get silly taking pictures.

For Thanksgiving, I made a pie using the precious apples I had found in Bafoussam and then chocolate chip cookies with Monique and Laure.  Sometimes all it takes to put you in the spirit for the holidays is to bake.  Pamela, a neighboring volunteer, brought tofu and we made a festive little meal.

Closing my bank account in Bafoussam took a handful of hours and nearly as many people to interact with.  Blatant corruption came in the form of various responses for the closing fees to shut down my account.  I had to eventually hand write a letter essentially begging the higher authorities to let me close my account.  This, from the same institution that had me draw a map of my residence when I opened the account.  Oh Cameroon…   

The last week in village was spent alternating my time between cleaning my house to close it up and walking around saying my individual goodbyes.  The Chief had asked if I wanted a customary large send-off but I told him that I preferred more personal interactions so it was a win-win.  There was a lot of koki (my favorite meal) eaten and a lot of pictures taken:

Koki in the banana leaf it is cooked in

Bapa Health Committee

On my second-to-last night in Bapa, a friend collected the furniture she had purchased from me and then, I settled in for a quiet evening with Monique and her family.  We had arranged to make koki together.  Then, as a farewell soiree, the kids read goodbye letters to me and I started crying.  Even today, as I write this, my eyes well up remembering that very special night.

Pouring the liquid mixture into banana leaves and tying the bundles off to cook

Giresse and Derick

Family photo

Laure and me
I never realized how much I towered over Mimi (and baby Derick)

Cristelle reading a sweet letter the kids wrote for me

A touching moment between Monique and her youngest sons
My last day in village was a day for laundry, packing, and thorough cleaning from floor to ceiling.  I gave the last of my gifts and spent the night by candlelight in an eerily empty home.       



Saturday, January 19, 2013

“One day baby, we'll be old / Oh baby, we'll be old / And think of all the stories / That we could have told”

I left Cameroon behind in December but still feel that I need to wrap-up this blog by writing about my last few months there.

We had an interesting conversation in Girls Club about thinking about problems in terms of their root causes versus symptoms.  Then, we continued with our paper bead-making while listening to music and stringing necklaces.  Part of the scholarship funding for the A2Empowerment recipients covered other incidentals related to school so I spent a whole day in the outdoor market (marché) bargaining for a math textbook and a bookbag.  
The girls showing off their jewelry creations

In the middle of making rice one evening, my gas bottle ran out which meant going to my neighbor’s to cook over their fire.  The kids watched in disbelief at what I prepared – “What?  You’re going to eat that rice without a sauce?”  (And I didn’t dare let them see the chemically-induced orange powder I had for making macaroni and cheese.)  As it turns out, when I can’t heat food, I eat like I’m going on a picnic: potato salad, salsa and bread, pasta salads, etc.  The day that I could finally break away to refill my bottle, I unfortunately had trouble finding a moto so had to carry the tank all the way to the center of village.  By the time I got there, I was sweaty but (un)luckily, we secured it to the moto and took off just as it started to rain.  I arrived to Bafoussam looking worse for the wear - which seems to be my normal appearance when I reach the regional capital.   Once I had a stove again, the kitchen creations resumed.  I tried being adventurous with a recipe I found for carrot/ginger/banana/lime soup.  Unfortunately, it sounds better than it tasted so I stuck with the standbys from then on.
Rosemary onion pizza

Oatmeal cookies
For the second monthly meeting of Girls Club, I prepared beans to the best of my ability.  I can’t say they were used to the taste of tomato paste and cumin, but they were good sports and ate it all.  We had a roundtable about a current event from an online newspaper which turned into a fascinating discussion about domestic abuse and the messages that revolve around it from their various spheres of influence.  I was so proud of the girls for their candor and sharing their insight.

At the end of the month, I welcomed the next group of Peace Corps Trainees to my village for their field trip.  Because the length of training had been cut down, trainees no longer get to see their actual posts on site visit so this was intended to be an opportunity for them to see a “real” PCV in action to give them a glimpse of our lives and the work we do.  I programmed a very busy day for them which, in retrospect, I should have known would never be accomplished in its entirety.  With 24 of them and only one of me, it was a little overwhelming, but also great to share my experiences and answer questions.
The day started late (what else is expected?), and of course involved being delayed even longer at a gendarme check-point where they accused us of having more people in the vehicle than stated (simple counting could have cleared that up…but I digress).  The bus slowly trudged to Bapa but we finally reached a point where the driver refused to continue due to the steepness and instability of the dirt path (sometimes I forget exactly how “en brousse” my village is).  With a last-minute change of plans, we changed the location.  Murphy’s Law continued to reign as I attempted to have the soybeans ground.  The machine broke halfway through meaning I waited while a few men tried to fix it – a repair literally involving splicing wires and shoving them directly into the outlet.  The soy demonstration took awhile and involved a heavy downpour just to keep things interesting.  We also managed to squeeze in a quick soap-making demonstration and a lunch of beans and beignets before the group had to depart.  I helped with the general clean-up and returned home exhausted. 

(Field trip photos courtesy of Jaclyn Escudero)
The kids pitch in to help me grate the powdered laundry detergent

Finally, I rounded out October by seeing my former counterpart be officially recognized as the new chief of a neighboring health center.  It was a proud day for me to see her recognized and the potential that this new post provides her.
One of many long speeches necessary for an event like this