Saturday, 22 June 2013


What do you do when you find yourself evacuated, forced out of work, in limbo, bored and in a foreign city? Go to the beach of course!

Que faire quand tu te fais évacué, en congé forcé, ennuyé et dans une ville étrangère? Aller à la plage bien sûre!


 My nouveaux colocs. My new roommates.
Acke, Marianne and Kembo

 Kembo's first swim in a lake.

 Kembo n'a pas trop aimé sa première experience dans l'eau...

 He cried at first but eventually came around to having fun.

 Marianne se prépare pour sauter à l'eau.

 Kembo avec tonton Djawe

 Les villageois qui embarque pour la première fois dans une pirogue...


Friday, 31 May 2013

Leaving Bogo

I’ve been shut down. This morning I left Bogo with heavy bags and an even heavier heart. I took one last look at my little house, now empty; it looks abandoned like someone left in a hurry...My neighbours came out to see me off, but I could barely look at them without being overcome with emotion. It’s all happening so fast. My return home has come to an abrupt end. And the words I wrote a couple weeks ago in my last blog are now coming back to haunt me.


A goodbye gift- it has my name on it.
Je savais que le jour où je devrais partir allait venir, mais jamais je ne l’aurai imaginé ainsi.  VSO quitte l’Extrême Nord.  On se fait évacuer. Pour des raisons de sécurité que je ne comprends toujours pas, on m’a forcé en quelques jours d’abandonner mes projets, mes partenaires, mes amis, ma maison et ma communauté. Je venais tout juste de rentrer « chez moi » avec une énergie et une détermination renouvelée et prête à affronter tous les obstacles- tous sauf une : être évacuée.

 Last meal of mocoroni be biftek at the restaurant.

Moi et Saad 

I use the word evacuated, but it doesn’t accurately describe our situation. Evacuated implies that there is some kind of immediate danger like gunfire in the streets or bombs going off, but I’ve never felt the slightest bit of danger in Bogo. In fact, I probably felt safer than I ever did back home because I know everyone from the local authorities and police, to my neighbours, to the guy selling onions in the market were looking out for me. In a year and a half, I’ve never had a single incident in Bogo where I’ve felt threatened or in danger. In fact, the only problems I’ve had have been with other volunteers and with VSO as an organization. In fact, I wonder if I might not be at greater risk now in a foreign city where I don’t know anybody and I am more likely to get robbed, harassed or aggressed. Not to mention that I am closer to Nigeria now than I was before... 
 Dernière rencontre avec l'APEE de Mororo

 Harira and I

 Je trouve que ça n’a pas beaucoup de sens mais il faut que je fasse confiance au jugement de VSO, de toute façon je n’ai pas le choix. Il y a quelques semaines je disais que je voulais rentrer à la maison, maintenant qu’il y a une vraie possibilité que je rentre plus tôt que prévu je regrette mes paroles. C’est vrai que je voulais bientôt partir mais pas comme ça; pas sans avoir eu la chance de bien mener mes projets à bout; pas sans avoir eu le temps de me préparer et mettre de l’ordre dans mes affaires; pas sans avoir pu avertir et saluer tous mes partenaires, groupes, amis et voisins.  Ça me fait mal, et le fait que je ne comprends pas du tout de quel danger il s’agit rend la décision encore plus difficile à avaler. Et comment est-ce que je peux expliquer ça à mes partenaires, aux gens avec qui j’ai travaillé et qui j’ai abandonné? Comment est-ce que je peux leur expliquer qu’en effet je ne suis pas parti pour rien mais qu’il y avait une raison? Que c’était pour ma protection et mon bien-être. Pour me protéger contre un mal invisible…

Aurevoir aux gars du restaurant

Yesterday, I found Aissa with tears streaming down her face. I cradled her onto my lap and the two of us cried for a good twenty minutes. We didn’t speak. What could I possibly say to this precious child who has been with me since day one of my arrival in Bogo and who has called me yappendo (auntie) for the past year? What could I say to make it all okay, to make my departure seem less harsh? I’m sorry little one, I didn’t mean for it to end this way. I didn’t mean to abandon you. Siu siu kaddi. Ça va aller. Tout va bien aller. Insha’Allah.
With my neighbours - Hadjia, Nafissa, Aissa...
Quel est la suite? Je ne sais pas encore. J’attends de savoir ce qu’on va faire de moi maintenant, mais je ne crois pas que je vais rester encore longtemps au Cameroun. Si je ne peux pas être à Bogo, je n’ai pas envie d’être ailleurs. Surtout, je n’ai pas envie de créer d’autres liens d’attachements avec les gens et avec un village seulement pour les couper d’ici six mois quand mon contrat est supposé de finir. Je n’ai pas envie de revivre les dernières journées de larmes et d’aurevoirs avec une autre communauté dans six mois.

 Le jour du départ, on charge les motos.

I’m trying to see things in a positive light; to tell myself that everything has a reason and if I have to leave Bogo it is because I am meant to be somewhere else. I am trying to see it as a new experience, one that will hopefully make me stronger, and as an opportunity to explore new places and try new things. I don’t know where I will be going next or what I will be doing, but I know I will be going with my head held high and eyes fixed on the horizon. The adventure doesn’t end here.

Bouba et Djawe qui m'ont accompagné à Maroua.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Coming home...Or is it?

Tonight I arrived back in Yaoundé after a month’s vacation in the “civilized world” where I enjoyed such luxuries as flushing toilets, hot showers, unlimited high speed internet access, real books (that people read for pleasure!) and lots of ice cream and chocolate. Looking out the window of the taxi from the airport, I was filled with mixed feelings. I had the sense of being somewhere new and seeing things for the first time, but at the same time I had a sense of familiarity almost like the calm excitement you feel when after a long period away, you approach your destination and you start to recognize the scenery around you, then you know that you are home. It was then that I realized how much Cameroon has grown on me. Despite all the problems and frustrations, and despite how discouraged or homesick I sometimes feel, I’ve become attached to this dusty little country in the armpit of Africa. 

 My Cameroonian family who always looks out for me and shares the little that they have with me.
Recently my level of motivation dropped and I have been thinking a lot about going home (which probably had a lot to do with being back in my cultural comfort zone and with having access to running water). In conversations with family and friends, I am often negative and pessimistic, painting this awful picture of a miserable, poor, hot, dusty, and backwards region where the food isn’t very good.  But the truth is there are so many things I love about this country, and in particular the Far North, that I know it is going to break my heart when I leave here.

It makes me think that perhaps the best and most meaningful relationships or experiences we have are not the ones that come easily, but the ones that we have struggled and fought for. I have often described my experience here as tough, tougher than I expected and in ways that I couldn’t predict. But I didn’t  come to Cameroon looking for a free ride neither did I expect the work I was going to be doing to be like summer camp; I came here looking for a challenge and I got what I asked for and maybe even a bit more. At the end of the day, I am grateful for all the experiences I have had, the good and the bad, for each one has helped to shape me into (I hope) a better person. Mostly I feel very lucky to have seen and felt so many things in my short lifetime that I can honestly say I don’t regret any of it. 

 Dili and Mathias- two bright young boys who acted as my tour guides in Rhumsiki

So as I drive through the night time streets of Yaoundé, filled with life and music on a Saturday night, the feeling that rises up above the rest is the feeling of being blessed; Blessed to have had such a fortunate and privileged life; Blessed to have had so many wonderful memories; And especially, blessed to have been at the receiving end of so much kindness, generosity and love from so many people. Whether family, friends, acquaintances or even strangers, I have been especially lucky when it comes to the people that have been a part of my life. How many people, near or far, have touched my life and in some cases, profoundly altered it?
Before leaving for Cameroon, a friend offered me a book call the kindness of strangers (edited by Don George) as a parting gift. The book is a collection of travel stories by different people who have been helped out by strangers in surprising and unexpected ways. (Book description: A timely collection of inspiring tales, The Kindness of Strangers explores the unexpected human connections that so often transform the experience of travel, and celebrates the gift of kindness around the world.) I feel like I could have written that book based on my experiences alone and there wouldn’t have been enough pages to fit all the acts of kindness I have received. Just in the past month, how many people have bought me diner or an ice cream? Offered me a ride or given me a place to sleep for the night? Called me to see if I was okay and if I needed anything? Gone out of their way to accommodate me and help me out? Shared with me and taken care of me?

Saad and Djawe goofing around at the restaurant where I go to laugh and unwind. The owner, Saad's father, calls me sister and treats me like family. He occasionally offers me a free meal or juice.

When I was in India, a friend told me that “if you travel with a good and open heart, people will be good to you and will open their hearts to you”. In my life, I have found nothing to be truer. I also hope that it means that in some small way I have done something good or shown some kindness to all those people who have been good to me. So to all those people who have been a part of my life, I want to say thank you, although it can never be said enough. I can only hope that I can give back even a small portion of the love, kindness and generosity that you have given me.

I know this sounds a bit like a goodbye, but it isn’t. I still have a long journey ahead of me and a lot more love to give.  But as I get ready to head back to the Far North and to the challenges that await me, I have a lighter heart, a heavier bag (weighed down with snacks and presents for my kiddies), and a stronger resolve to make the most of the time I have left in Cameroon. 

“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and to try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
Maya Angelou

Friday, 22 March 2013

Les femmes à l'école

J’arrive de l’école des mamans ou les femmes de niveau 1 étaient en train de faire une dictée. Des femmes qu’il y a quelques mois ne savaient même pas tenir un crayon, écrivent maintenant des mots comme « patate », « banane », « Amina » et « petite ».  Plus tard je m’assoies à côté d’une femme de niveau deux pour l’aider avec son exercice de lecture. Entre temps, la monitrice me raconte l’histoire de Doudjo, une femme qui récemment est devenue la monitrice d’un autre cours d’alphabétisation dans un autre quartier.
Deux femmes revisent leurs exercices d'alphabétisation

La monitrice m’informe qu’il y a quelques années Doudjo n’avait même pas finit son école primaire. Elle avait quitté l’école en CM1 (l’équivalent de 4ième année). Au moment ou elles se sont rencontrées, la monitrice, qui est aussi la directrice de l’école maternelle, faisait la rémédiation avec sa petite sœur qui était en CM2 (la dernière année à l’école primaire) et se préparait pour ses examens de fin d’année.  La monitrice a proposé à Doudjo de venir suivre les cours de rémédiation avec sa sœur afin qu’elle aussi puisse compléter et réussir son certificat d’études primaires (CEP). Au début Doudjo  a refusé en disant qu’elle n’avait pas les moyens pour faire le dossier du CEP. La monitrice a insisté en lui disant  de ne pas s’inquiéter pour le dossier, elle-même s’en occuperait.  Doudjo a suivis les cours avec la monitrice qui a aussi préparé et payé son dossier de CEP. À la fin de l’année, Doudjo a écrit et a réussit son examen. La monitrice l’a engagée comme maîtresse à l’école maternelle ou elle travail depuis cinq ans. Cette année, elle a été recrutée et formée pour enseigner l’alphabétisation à d’autres femmes qui n’ont pas eu l’opportunité d’aller à l’école.
Les femmes sont concentrées à apprendre.

Doudjo continue à apprendre et à s’épanouir auprès de son mentor qui lui conseille toujours sur comment bien enseigner à la maternelle et à l’alphabétisation. Elle cherche toujours des nouvelles opportunités pour développer ses compétences et être plus active. Doudjo est une modèle parfaite pour ses élèves et l’exemple vivante des bénéfices de l’alphabétisation pour les femmes. 
Quelques femmes avec qui je travaille qui attendent le défilé du 8 mars.

À toutes les femmes courageuses, comme Doudjo, qui osent poursuivre leurs rêves; et aux femmes dynamiques, comme la monitrice, qui donne de sa force aux autres qui ont moins de chance qu’elle afin qu’elles aussi puissent avancer- je vous souhaite une très belle journée de la femme!  Je ne peux pas exprimer à quel point j’admire votre courage et votre détermination. 
Les femmes des centres d'alphabétisation qui défilent le 8 mars.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

I am a girl

« Sometimes I think it would have been better if my mom never gave birth to me. Or it would have been better if I had been a boy.” The confession I heard today from a 17yr-old girl faced with an ultimatum from her father to get married by the end of the month. 

Raised in the south, in the second largest city in Cameroun, Douala, Aminatou is a bright young girl who speaks fluent French and is better educated than most girls her age in Bogo despite quitting school early because “it isn’t very good for a Muslim girl to be too educated”. She went to trade school instead and learnt how to sew. Ever since she has been making a living for herself and even accepted to teach a group of young girls how to sew too. Sewing is an acceptable job for Muslim women because they can work at home and don’t have to leave the house. However, the classes for the young girls proved difficult to achieve when her father at first refused on the basis that it isn’t proper for a young woman to be leaving the house to work. The reasoning behind that being that she might get used to it than be disobedient and difficult to control when she gets married.  (Muslim women aren’t allowed to leave the house at all in their first year of marriage. Talk about trust issues!)

It seems to be a widespread belief among both Christian and Muslim men that working women are both troublesome and querulous. I met one young man who blamed his mother for the fact that his parents always fought. He believed it was best to marry a young virgin (preferably someone you don’t know too well) because that way “you would be her first and she will always fear you”. I tried to explain to him that a healthy relationship was based on trust not fear, and that if he really wanted a happy and peaceful household he would love and respect his wife not terrorize and control her. Unfortunately, I found out about two months later that the young man had a baby so at the time we were talking he was a) already married, or b) found out he had knocked a girl up and had to get married in a hurry. He told me he was 21yrs but he didn’t look older than sixteen. It’s hard to tell here...

One of my colleagues had an experience where she asked a man how he could tell which women were prostitutes and he gave a description that closely resembled the Christian women who sell their goods in the market. (Muslim women are not allowed to sell or even buy goods in the market but will send unmarried younger sisters or daughters to do the work. Yet another reason why they aren’t in school.) While yesterday, in a girls workshop, we (myself and two other volunteers) were told that girls aren’t allowed to wear long tunics with pants (what is known as the Indian or Arab style) because “they would look like prostitutes”. The funny part is that is exactly what all three white women in the room were wearing. Luckily we were told that it was okay for us, but Bogo girls have to wear the traditional pagne skirts or dresses. Oddly enough, this isn’t a Muslim or Christian rule but rather a matter of tradition. The tunic which is known here as the Arab style is commonly worn in many Muslim countries as well as India. Some of the more modern, educated women of the elite will wear tunics including the Sous-prefet’s wife which leaves me to believe that forcing girls to wear only skirts is another “idée villageoise”.

I can see why Aminatou might wish to be a boy. Life here just isn’t easy for a girl. They have so few rights, yet so many obligations (the main ones being to bear children and cook). I feel a painful tightening in my chest and my stomach every time I witness another girl being taken away to be married off; every time I meet a woman who is ill or has an infection but her husband won’t give her any money to go to the hospital or buy medication; every time a girl is pulled out of school because she has to help her mother at home or go sell things in the market; every time a woman is prevented from doing something because her husband won’t allow it. It hurts and I feel so powerless to do anything about it. I spent an hour and a half this morning discussing Aminatou’s predicament and trying to give her advice. She’d asked me to help her, but she knows as well as I do, there is very little I can do other than be supportive. Any intervention from me would just make her father angry (which I don’t want to do because I actually like him and consider him a friend despite his draconian ways when it comes to his daughter. In all other subjects he is open minded, generous and kind, but holds very traditional beliefs when it comes to his daughter’s future.  I have a hard time understanding the contradiction...) and he would mostly likely dismiss whatever I have to say on the basis that “my culture is different from theirs”. So what do I do? What does she do? How do I help a friend? I would like to say that I have the answer, but I just don’t. 

Yesterday, we heard a testimony from one very active woman in the community who told her story to the group of young girls and how she was forced to marry at 18 but then found the courage to leave him at 20 because it wasn’t working out. She continued to study and even did a few years at University (though eye problems forced her to quit) and stayed single and working. She now runs the media centre at the post office, she is active in several organisations mostly in health, but also the young girls group which she founded. She is a strong, independent woman and a good role model for the girls. It gives me some hope for Aminatou that even if the marriage does go through, not all will be lost. I just hope that whatever happens she will find a way to be happy.