The Cameroonian Finale

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I have recently returned to the United States after a year of living and working in Cameroon. Many emotions are running rampant through my mind and my heart…yearning to be back in Cameroon especially with the women in Widikum, gratefulness for having the wonderful opportunity to experience the Cameroonian culture and gain a broad perspective on development, anxious of deciding what to do next and be in a transition, and joy to see my family and friends again.

Ma I, Rogers (my coworker) and I in Widikum

Elizabeth, a seamstress in Widikum, and I demonstrating her work

I know I hadn’t written a blog posting since April having gotten completely caught up in the work; I am also a person who doesn’t set aside the time to reflect which is a weakness. But, I am doing that now… Since April, as you can imagine, like in your life, many things have occurred. The greatest, most memorable activities included holding two four day business and leadership trainings with 38 women living with HIV. Twenty of the women have received loans to start and grow their businesses in order to increase their economic, health, and social livelihoods. Many of the women engage in businesses including tailoring, selling food items, fish, shoes, palm wine, oil, etc. The training included sessions of confidence building, leadership, good customer service, marketing, record keeping, and business planning. It was absolutely an amazing, unforgettable experience to see the women grow. Just to put the training in perspective, many of the women have a limited educational level and haven’t attended trainings or been in a classroom setting for many, many years. They engage in household activities, raise their children, and attend to farm duties on a daily basis; some of the women are widows and have lost their husbands to HIV and others have to tend to their husbands and partners. They didn’t view themselves and their work in society as important, but through the training we shared our stories and did various vision exercises for them to reflect on their daily activities and life experiences, and how what they do, contribute to the society. The women inspired me since many of them have overcome so much, especially as it relates to stigma of living with HIV.

Women in Widikum wearing their "I am a Leader" Shirts

I’ve come a long way since my last blog on how I viewed HIV and learned so much about the challenges persons living with HIV face as well as the realities in Cameroon. Before, when I walked into the room of the women, I first defined them as persons living with HIV, not as powerful women, women who have touched my lives, women who I love. As I picture my experience here now being back in Chicago, I first think of my women in Widikum…Ma I…Terese…Elizabeth, their smiles, their love, and their dreams of having better lives for themselves and their children. I miss them greatly, but know that I will be sharing their stories with family and friends and working to support them in the small ways to help grow their businesses and build a better life.

Although this year hasn’t been easy; it’s probably been one of the most challenging experiences professionally, it was the most rewarding and taught me so much about the little things that matter in this world…relationships. I just want to thank all the people who have touched my life this year, who have challenged me personally and professionally, and who will always have a special place in my heart…To: Ma I, Elizabeth, Terese, Rogers, Nicoline, Lum, Deborah, Ralph, Kenneth,, Paul, Dustin, Justine, Elphie, Carmen, Catherine, Sharon, Caroline, Greg, Fikir, Eric, Sidiki, and all my other VSO friends! Thank you!

I also want to share my Top Ten List of Cameroon:
1.Business Training with my women in Widikum and Batibo
2.Singing of Cameroonian Jesus Music during every activity and in all taxis and public transportation; beautiful bright colors of dressing
3.Tennis everyday with my dear coach Paul
4.Motorcycle rides in the early mornings to play tennis and to our visits from Batibo to Widikum; feeling the cool breeze on my back and flowing through my hair
5.Discussions with Rogers on politics, values, goals, and dreams.
6.The Green, Lush Mountains and Palm Trees of the North West
7.Climbing Mt. Cameroon at over 4,000 Meters Above Sea Level
8.Seeing giraffes at Waza National Park in the Far North
9.Hiking through the rock mountains of Rhumski in the Far North and staying at the chief’s house in the village
10.Fish at Jana Market with the volunteers, lunch dates at Century with my dear friend Dustin, and Ping Pong tournaments

I will be compiling the pictures and more details about my experience and the women who have touched my life through a website…www.inspirecameroon.wordpress.com. I will be sending an email when it is ready to be viewed…until then, thank you for reading and thank you for your support and encouragement through my amazing journey in Cameroon.

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Updates, Updates, Updates!

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I hope this blog finds you all well in your personal and professional lives. I’ve been meaning to write updates for the last few months, but the routine has interfered. So much has happened since I’ve last blogged such as climbing the highest mountain in West Africa, Mt. Cameroon, finishing an organizational assessment for SHUMAS, and starting a new position with the Cameroon Medical Women Association focusing on health issues of women and children especially related to HIV/AIDS.

So let’s start from the three day trek up Mt. Cameroon at 4,095 meters above sea level. For Christmas and New Year, other volunteers and I travelled to Mt. Cameroon and to Kribi, a beautiful beach town. We endured a challenging trek through various landscapes including grasslands, prairies, lava rock, and forests. It was extremely hard especially getting eaten alive by killer ants (I stepped in an ant pile while going to the bathroom) and let’s just say I had ants in my pants. But despite all of that, the views were breathtaking and it was an amazing accomplishment. I have posted pictures on Facebook so check them out at the following link: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=309973&id=565656317&l=2bf34133b9

In terms of work, many things have changed. I was originally working for Strategic Humanitarian Services (SHUMAS) as an Organizational Development Advisor. Some issues occurred with the other VSO volunteer and the organization in which VSO Cameroon made the decision to transfer me to another organization, especially one that better matches my skills sets. Things ended well and I was extremely busy during the months of January-February conducting an organizational assessment. I interviewed staff, board members, and partners as well as facilitated two focus groups with beneficiaries in order to get their perspective on organizational strengths and areas of improvement. I compiled and analyzed the data, wrote a report on the findings and recommendations, presented the information to staff, board, and partners, and developed a priority action plan with the stakeholders. I have been assisting SHUMAS in small ways by giving feedback on their newsletter and their volunteer opportunities as well as will facilitate a Strategic Planning session in June.

I must admit that I am so much happier in my new position as a Resource Mobilization Advisor working at Cameroon Medical Women Association (CMWA). It fits my skills sets as a social worker, the work environment is extremely welcoming and I have the opportunity to contribute to various aspects of the organization. A little about CMWA…CMWA started in the early 90s as an organization for female doctors to promote the health of the women and children, especially working in the area of HIV/AIDS. CMWA carries out programs in rural communities on HIV/AIDS treatment, intervention, and care including sensitizations on HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention methods, HIV testing, and counseling to support groups of persons living with HIV. I officially started March 1st and since then, I have learned so much about HIV and the impact it has on families and communities. I am doing many different things from carrying out business training for women living with HIV, facilitating a strategic plan, planning workshops for community volunteers such as HIV counseling and confidentiality, and coordinating a committee to seek out funding for its advocacy campaign on access to treatment in the North West region of Cameroon.

Before working at CMWA, I had no exposure to persons living with HIV (PLWHIV) and realized that I had many of my own myths that I needed to dispel. First myth – PLWHIV are sick and physically look sick. I am currently working with many individuals with HIV who look “normal”, like you or me. By taking their anti-retroviral treatment daily, PLWHIV, too, can live healthy, relatively normal lives. Myth 2 – less educated persons are at more risk to contracting HIV and resisting safe sex practices than those who are more educated. HIV can affect anybody, whether educated or non-educated. I’d like to share a story with you. My co-worker, Rogers, and I went to the first deputy mayor’s house of one of the villages to ask for statistics on the population. She welcomed us into her house and gave us an approximation of the population. We chatted and she told us that she had recently retired from a position as a Senior Agricultural Specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture and wanted to get involved in politics. I asked her if she would be interested in training the support group members on plantain multiplication. She said that she would be happy to and that she is also positive. I was completely shocked and also very touched that she shared with us, two complete strangers, her HIV status. I thought how could a woman of a very successful career and the current mayor have HIV? But I realized then that HIV is only an illness; it doesn’t define who a person is or what they do or believe in. It shouldn’t rule over a person’s life. Persons can live long, healthy lives with HIV if adhere to the treatment and eat well. But adhering to treatment can be difficult when drug shortages and access is not consistent….but that is for another blog entry.

I currently find myself at a great space personally and professionally. It took about 6 months to be at this space, but through the ups and downs, the challenges and the successes, I have learned so much about myself, others, and development. I look forward to the next 5 months here…playing tennis, working, building relationships, and living life.

Thank you for reading my blog. I will try not to let it be 4 more months until I write. Please keep me updated on your news too!

Yours Truly,
Nia

In Loving Memory

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People dying of curable diseases plagues many countries in Africa…it is something that we have read about in academic journals or newspaper articles. Until today, these terrible realities were something I only read about, but today I feel the deep sadness of knowing a young woman of 29 years old, Perpetua, that lost her life to tuberculosis. Perpetua was a woman of great enjoy and energy that participated in SHUMAS Social Rehabilitation Center for people with physical disabilities. She had been learning hairdressing as a trade to eventually become economically self-sufficient by creating her own business. She always had a smile on her face. At lunchtime, I would always go downstairs and talk with the participants. We always said hi to each other and talked about the day. She was actually one of the women who attempted to get me to eat grasshopper.

On Friday, I asked another participant at the Training Center where Perpetua was and she told me that she went back to the village because she had been coughing up blood. It did not sound very good, and a sudden thought popped into my mind that something terrible could be wrong. And today, the program manager told me that she had passed away. I just couldn’t bear to believe it that someone with many years left to live could die of an illness that is curable. It happens every day… thousands of times a day here in Cameroon and in Africa. Typhoid, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, all diseases that are curable that we, as westerners, get vaccinated or take medication in order to avoid contracting these illnesses. But here, death is rampant of children, men, and women who don’t have access to these medications or medical treatment because of the lack of economic means…of poverty. It is the divide between the haves and have nots. People who could live if only they had the money to receive treatment. How enraging and incredibly devastating at the same time. The most devastating thing is that it becomes so commonplace here that people just get desensitized…something that just happens. That is not an excuse and should not be normal. But the desensitization is also a defense mechanism because if we actually stopped and thought about the millions of people who die of curable diseases each year it would completely enrage and devastate us, but would also call us to action. I ask all of you to remember Perpetua and all the millions of other men, women, and children who die of curable diseases each year. In loving memory…may God grant them peace and eternal happiness.

Ever had the urge to eat grasshopper?

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If you are wondering what the food in Cameroon is and tastes like, read no further. Usually, Cameroonian dishes consist of djama djama (sort of like spinach), plantains, delicious smoked fish, fou fou corn, and chicken. Is your mouth watering yet? Today, I also tried a Cameroonian specialty, grasshoppers. Some of the women in SHUMAS rehabilitation center serving people with physical disabilities had been talking about eating grasshoppers. The german volunteer had tried them a couple of days ago, so I thought I should live up to the expectation too.

I met the women during lunch and they had the crisp grasshoppers waiting for me to eat. Even though I was dreading eating the grasshopper, I proudly held it to my mouth and began chewing. It was very crispy, but then I bite down a little harder and juice began to swirt out. Whatever internal organs it had, I definitely tasted. Yuck! At that point, my eyes opened widely in disgust and I wanted to hold my ground and swallow it, but knew I couldn’t do it alone. Luckily, I came prepared with my apple, so I took a bite of it and started swallowing. But as I attempted to swallow, I couldn’t quite get the image out of my mind that I was eating a grasshopper and the squishy sensation of it’s internal organs, so I started gagging. I quickly ran outside and spit out the reminants of my apple mixed with grasshopper. Although I was so relieved to not be tasting grasshopper anymore, I felt defeated. I went back to the women and told them that I was sorry that I didn’t live up to the quest and that I would try again another time. Will I try it another time? That’s a good question…Stay tuned.

Cameroonian’s American Lottery & More

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I know my second blog entry is well overdue. I have been holding out in order to ensure I have some fascinating stories for you. I can’t believe that I’ve been here for over 2 months now. At least once a day, I say to myself, “Wow, am I really in Cameroon?”

Throughout my nine and a half weeks here (but who’s counting?), I have taken advantage of striking up conversations with Cameroonians regarding various topics including politics, life in the United States, globalization, and health issues. These conversations have forced me to think about my privileges of being white and from the United States as well as the grave inequalities that exist between the developing and developed nations.

So what did some of these conversations entail? Just to keep you reading, they involved gasoline prices and the American lottery. How interesting, right? My colleague, Emmanuel, and I were conversing about his trip to Berkeley to attend a conference on agriculture in 2008. He described in detail his shock at the gasoline prices being so low. I thought for a minute in my United States centric perspective… what do you mean? Our gas prices are so high that they are forcing people to take public transportation and move into the cities in order to cut down costs. But, he put me in my place and explained that in Cameroon, the gas prices are $5 per gallon; (a good average monthly income here is 50,000 francs which is $100). He was completely disgusted at the fact that Cameroon and other African countries produce oil, but still have higher gas costs than countries like the US that import their oil. How could that be, he asked? And what could I say? It’s because developing nations always get the short end of the stick…that countries like the United States control trading agreements and determine the benefits and regulations? So, I ask you that the next time you find yourself starting to complain about the gas prices, think about the gas prices in Cameroon and in most developing nations and recognized that we do have the long end of the stick.

And now, (drum roll please) to the American Lottery story….so as I was riding in the taxi going to French class, I saw a sign on a store saying “American Lottery”. That was one of the moments where I thought, “Am I really in Cameroon?” I was quite perplexed. American Lottery? How innovative! They are selling lottery tickets for the Illinois Mega Million all the way in Cameroon? How could that be? But then I started seeing more signs about the American Lottery throughout Bamenda. It took me a couple of days to begin to piece it all together, and, at once, the light bulb went off! YES, the American Lottery!!! Cameroonians are buying lottery tickets to be selected to receive a temporary residency card for the United States. Now, I get it!! I couldn’t believe it took me that long to figure it out. My US centric perspective, I guess. The story gets better. I actually met a man who had just bought his lottery ticket. He told me that he has been buying a ticket for the past couple of years, but hasn’t had any luck yet. He is hopeful though. His dream is to work in the US for a couple of years and then save enough money to continue his university education there. I then burst his bubble and explained to him the severity of the economic crisis and the effect of employment opportunities. I told him that one of the reasons I came to Cameroon was to work since I had been unemployed for 9 months and was having a hard time finding a job…I compared finding a job for me, like winning the lottery; for every one position, there are 150-200 applicants. If only you could have only seen his facial expression. He was in absolute shock. How could that be? How could I, from the US, the most powerful country in the world, come to Cameroon for work? What? Well, the conversation intensely continued as he and other man brought me back to reality and politely stated that although I had a difficult time finding a job in the United States, I had the choice and privilege of coming to Cameroon, and also had easy access to the visa…no lottery or questions asked. I humbly agreed and when our conversation finally ended, I wished him luck in his lottery quest.

I hope you enjoyed the stories and have some food for thought. You might also be asking yourself about my aspiring tennis star updates. Well, I am pleased to announce that my forehand is almost perfect and I am slowly improving on my backhand game. I hope to be ready for my first competition in early 2011. In my next blog entry, I will be reporting on the pig roast for American Thanksgiving, updates on work, and much, much more! Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

Arrival to Cameroon!

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Yaounde, Cameroon

Cameroon

So it’s been a little over a month since I arrived in Cameroon. I found myself writing several blog entries, and then erasing them since it could not quite capture the reality for me here in Cameroon. Where can I start and how can I paint an accurate picture?

On my journey from Yaoundé, the capital, to Bamenda in the Northwest Region, where I will spend the next year living and working, I was stunned at the luscious greenery, the rolling hills, banana trees, palm trees, and other agricultural crops. I found myself thinking, “Wow, what an abundance of natural resources!” But how come Africa has been depicted in the media as a continent infested with diseases, full of barbaric people and practices, extreme poverty, extremely dry, and without resources? That is NOT the case!!!! Africa, including Cameroon, has been exploited for hundreds of years and as a result of international policies, trade agreements, corruption, colonization, and many other social, economic, and political factors, Cameroon as a country and Africa as a continent remains underdeveloped. Through these blog entries, it is my hope that I will paint another reality for you, my audience, to begin to see Cameroon and Africa at large as something more than what is depicted within social media, a nation and continent that is full of potential and that aims to achieve social and economic development for its people.

Bamenda and its Beautiful Waterfall

 That being said, I would like to start by describing some of my significant highlights thus far in Cameroon.

1. Obama is everywhere. Taxis are the main mode of transportation, and I am not exaggerating when I say that in every 9 out of 10 taxis, you will find a sticker of Obama and the American flag. People also walk around with their Obama shirts, and there is even a restaurant on the main commercial street called Obama’s. At the market, a local vendor was wearing a watch with President Obama and the First Lady Michelle. It actually looked as if the President was getting a little frisky with his wife, by kissing her on the neck…but that is beside the point. It seems to me that the Obama craze is bigger here than in the United States. When, I was at a community meeting, I began to talk with the Pastor and a local teacher about the popularity of Obama. The teacher actually took out his cell phone and played Obama’s inauguration speech for me. Can you believe it? The Pastor left the room for a minute and brought back a book of famous speeches of Obama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

They communicated to me that Obama signifies much more than coming from a Kenyan father, but that he is an eloquent speaker and embodies change in Cameroon, especially in North West Cameroon. Just a little background information and side note…Cameroon is divided into Anglophone and Francophone regions. The Anglophone region comprised of North West and South West has not been equally represented in politics and achieved similar access to social resources as the Francophone region. The President of Cameroon, Paul Biya, has been in power since 1982. With elections coming up in 2011, Obama signifies change to the people I have met. They see a glimpse of hope and potential change within their political system.

2. The people. Throughout the day, no matter what time, from sun up to sun down, I see children, women, and men carrying firewood, shoes, water, vegetables, fruits, anything you can imagine, on their heads. I don’t know how they do it. I even tried but the bucket immediately fell off my head. What posture and strength!

Marketplace in Belo

Of what I have observed within my daily living and work environment, people are working to improve development for their families and communities. From the roadsides to the marketplaces, women and men set up their stands of fruits, vegetables, and electronics in order to support their families. Also, within my organization at Strategic Humanitarian Services (SHUMAS) as well as other NGOs, they are working to improve the livelihoods of communities. For example, SHUMAS engages in multiple program areas including women’s microcredit, school construction, water, health, Bio Farm, and a social rehabilitation center for people with disabilities to learn trades in hair dressing, cane weaving, jewelry making, African embroidery, sewing, etc. (www.shumas-cameroon.org).

During my first day at SHUMAS, the social rehabilitation participants and the staff welcomed another VSO volunteer and me very warmly by singing songs and explaining the program areas. I am excited to assist the organization to build their organizational capacity.

Hike in Belo in the pouring rain

3. Tennis…Who would have thought that tennis would be played in Cameroon. I didn’t! But, it is. And you are looking at the newest tennis club member at Ayaba Hotel. I have been taking lessons every morning for less than $4/hour from a national team player. Who can beat that! Look out; you might see me at the next Wimbledon! But really, my goal is to compete in the next club tournament. More updates to come.

So this concludes my first blog entry about my life in Cameroon. Thank you for taking the time to read it. I will be posting more for you to follow. I appreciate your comments and questions!

Another side note…I am in Cameroon as a volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas-Canada (CUSO-VSO, www.cuso-vso.org). As a volunteer, we are asked to raise funds to offset the costs of volunteering. If you are in the position to give, please visit my fundraising page at http://my.e2rm.com/personalPage.aspx?SID=2797542. All funds raised will go directly to CUSO-VSO to support its work of recruiting, training, and sending volunteers to work where they are needed. Thank you!!!