House, Office

I think the last time I uploaded pics of my place I had no living room furniture or a kitchen counter. With the help of my friend Gedeon, we built really handy kitchen counters – Andy height. I also finally saved enough money to buy a full living room furniture set of amazing handmade quality. As you can tell, this is some top notch artisan stuff. The cushions I bought separate. These pics were taken back in September by Bryce, the American executive director of GeoAid, the nonprofit I work a lot with. This is what my living room and kitchen look like now. Pretty comfortable, I have to say.

living room bookshelf Ngoyla Trip Sept 2012017 kitchen2hallway

I’m also really lucky to have office space (and materials!) to use. Here is the office of GeoAid Cameroon’s Lomie operations, the space I work out of. My trusty counterpart Octave and I share it.

outside the compound inside the compound door1 P1040225 the office octave at his desk my desk

Arthur

There aren’t many Westerners that come through Lomie, but from time to time one breezes through for one reason or another. And white Westerners – lest you had any doubt – are easy to spot in this neck of the woods.

There was Sarah, the American Fullbrighter who was here for a couple of weeks (and whom I never actually met)… There was Jessie, another American doing research on forestry and land use planning/management (I spent just one evening with her while she was passing through. We discussed our work here, upcoming theses, and the legacy of French colonialism over far too many ‘33’s)… And then yesterday evening while out for a jog, I met Arthur.

I’m always torn about whether or not to pretend to take notice or care who other white people are here. The truth is, we’re unusual in Lomie – and so one naturally takes notice (just as everyone else in the village does). And because it’s so far from where white people are usually from, it arouses curiosity. But another thing happens to me too: A counter-reaction to my initial reaction of “Who is this blanc(he) and what are they doing here?”, which is “But why should I care who they are? And why should I be curiously attracted to what they’re doing in my village? I don’t react like that to anyone else here without a white face…” I feel strangely self-conscious caring, but it happens anyway.

Anyway, back to Arthur.

Just as I was turning down a long dirt road, I spotted a sweaty, skinny, very dirty white man Little Engine That Could-ing his bike and lots of bags up the last hill that leads into town. Not only was I curious to see another foreigner, but a guy on a sweet bike with enough bags to suggest he was on one hell of a long trek. So I stopped and stared the way dogs do when you’re doing something peculiar that they can’t take their eyes off of. Arthur, seeing my tilt-headed visage, politely rode over and greeted me.

“Francais?” he asked. “Non, Americain” I replied. “Oh, then we can speak English” he offered. “And you?” I asked. “Czech.” I asked him where he was headed, where he was going, how long he had been riding, etc. He said he had come from Abong-Mbang (126k away), and was on his way south to the Congo, then DRC, then north to Chad. Jesus. Seriously? This guy is nuts, I thought. And awesome. So about 2 minutes after meeting him and exchanging the usual ‘who are you and what are you doing here’ info, I decided he was kindred spirit and asked him if he was staying in Lomie that night. “Yeah, I heard about a cheap hotel – the Capitol. Do you know it?” “Sure,” I said, “but why don’t you just crash at my place. It’s nicer than the Capitol, I have a spare room and bed… And you look like you need a good washing.” And so we agreed to meet in the center of town in about an hour, after I finished my run and after he had a chance to look around town. About an hour later I spotted him walking his bike and 50 kilos of gear around centre ville, earning similar stares to the one I had given him earlier.

After he unloaded and washed up at my house, I asked him if he was hungry. “A bit” he said. “Well I was going to grab a bite with a friend of mine, another volunteer here. There’s a cheap place with great food nearby” I suggested. “OK sure. I’ll probably just take a juice, but I can join you guys.” Bullshit dude, I thought. Needless to say Danielle and I both ordered large plates of beef and rice, hoping that he would take some. He did. And the next morning I made one of the biggest breakfasts I have ever made.

Long story short, Arthur is riding 5,000 kilometers through Cameroon, Congo, DRC, and Chad in an effort to expose the scourge of illegal elephant poaching in Central Africa. He rode 2,000 kilometers around Cameroon on a previous trip, where he learned about the problem. Now he’s expanding his efforts. He hopes to make a documentary about his adventure, and will be tracking his voyage through his blog at www.mikov.cz. (He said to give it a few months before he is back in a place with fast enough internet to upload).

Arthur: du courage brother. Stay safe. Hope to catch you on your return 9 or so months from now.
Serge and JoJo help Arthur load up Arthur

PC Cameroon’s 50th Anniversary Fair

First, let me say that Chantal Biya – Cameroon’s shy and beloved First Lady – is one awesome gal. Not only is her hair les cheveux of legend, she couldn’t be a nicer or more regal and elegant lady. Let me explain how I know this:

One of the first priorities of the new country director was to increase Peace Corps’ profile in this country. Everyone knows Peace Corps, but not many people know what we do. So the new director organized a 50th anniversary celebration / showcase of our activities here. Each of the ten regions and each of the five sectors (Education, Environment/Agriculture, Health, Youth Development, and Community Economic Development) were given a table to show off examples of our work. About eighty PCVs in total and a couple of Cameroonian counterparts from each region attended. Octave (my colleague at GeoAid) came through in a major way and brought a selection of artifacts and products that people from the Lomie zone produced (and that Octave, myself, and others trained).

Somehow – very last minute – it was decided that I should be the one to represent the East and address the First Lady. Needless to say I was honored to do so. CRTV, the public news channel in Cameroon even did a 5-minute long news segment on it. Octave and I both had lots of people in Lomie telling us they saw us on the news.

Octave is still glowing from everything (you can see how tickled he is to be meeting the first lady. He’s the short guy in between the two white guys in blue shirts :)). He even mounted a massive photo of him shaking Chantal’s hand in his living room wall.

Jakob, Octave, me Jakob and Chantal me and Chantal Introducing the table cameras everywhere Octave explaining the products

I also put together a video slideshow that we played at the East region’s table. It’s a selection of photos and videos from a handful of volunteers here showing where we live and what we do. Thanks to Michelle Hood, Mike “Sampson” Burbidge, Shonna Kaye Ferree, Eddie Rosenbaum, Justine Little, and Steph Gasior for providing so much great material.

I was really impressed by how well the event went. Congrats to Jackie (the new CD) and the entire admin team and volunteers organizers on a job well done, and to the new volunteers for successfully completing training!

Social Enterprise Trade Fair and Global Entrepreneurship Week

It’s not uncommon for development workers to get frustrated and discouraged by the lack of traction our efforts often have (just see my previous posts in this blog). But this past week was an awesome jolt of optimism for me. I spent it in Yaoundé at the invitation of a local NGO, YES (Youth Employment Services) Cameroon, where I participated in the annual ‘Social Enterprise Trade Fair’, part of Global Entrepreneurship Week – sponsored in Cameroon by the U.S. Embassy, the British High Commission, and funded in part by them and other US and UK foundations. The goal of the week and its numerous lectures and workshops was “to inspire young people to embrace innovation, imagination and creativity; to think big, to turn their ideas into reality and to make their mark.” I’m happy to say I think it was a success!

My role was that of facilitator and judge. Along with another PC volunteer and frequent collaborator, Cherlin Charles, we facilitated some sessions on social entrepreneurialism (“Business Ideas and Development” and “Business Management”) and served on a panel that judged participants’ business plans – the top three of which received 1 million CFA (about $2,000) in seed money. I was really impressed by the motivation, curiosity, and general spirit of the seminar’s participants.

Development can sometimes be a ‘three steps forward–two steps back’ process. But this event definitely felt like forward momentum. I congratulate all the participants and organizers on a job well done and heartily thank Gilbert, Estelle, Oscarine and the rest of the YES Cameroon team for inviting Cherlin and I and treating us so well. I know next year will be even better. Plus it gives me more things to do in Yaoundé when I’m obliged to be there! (I’m thinking a “how to write a good business plan” session might be next…) Anyway, thanks again to everyone and I look forward to working with you all again.

Traditional medicine maker "Business Ideas and Development" presentation group activity I am hilarious The participants The newsletter

A Shift in Perspective

It occurred to me a few days ago when my family asked via Skype to tell them something wild I had seen recently that I hardly know what’s noteworthy anymore. A year in, what once made me scramble for my camera I now hardly notice. And what I was once offended by often just makes me sigh roll my eyes.

When I first arrived in Bafia, I remember being awed by so many things: the pagne, the things people carry on their heads, the chicken/goat/cattle traffic jams, the mud huts, the motos on every corner, motos in pirogues, motos on top of other motos, the bushmeat, Baka pygmies, the massive trees… And I was alarmed by things too: people drinking sachets (tiny bags of booze) in any setting and at any time of day, infants hanging by one arm on speeding motos, nine other people crammed into my four-seat row for a ten-hour voyage, people pooping in the middle of the street, people screaming my skin color at me everywhere I go, people asking for handouts almost every day, corrupt cops, corrupt NGOs, corrupt government officials…

It’s so different than life in the States that it sometimes offends our sensibilities. The in-your-face nature of things can be overwhelming. The boundaries and standards that we are used to are different (ie customer service), and sometimes just plain non-existent (ie personal space and privacy).

About a month ago I hit a low point in dealing with this part of life in Cameroon. For the previous few months I had been growing more outwardly hostile. I was becoming more and more impatient, irritable, argumentative, suspicious, and judgmental. The lowest point was probably this day: I was first jolted awake by a woman screaming outside my door at 5:30am, then had my landlord ask me for the second time to front him six months of rent, then had a man I had never met or even seen before insist that I give him money because he knew someone that I knew, and then had the young woman who does my laundry tell me that her brothers had stolen my clothes – all before 8am. Deciding I needed some time alone, I tried to cut the outside world off by closing all my doors and windows but had four more persistent visitors over the course of the day – three neighborhood boys who wanted to borrow my bike, make them some food, or give them one of my USB keys, and one man I had met only once before who asked me to give him a pair of pants.

Cameroon just does not stop being Cameroon. It is relentless.

Which is why that day also helped me realize what I was most frustrated about: my lack of control over these external things. I was never going to get greedy people to stop stealing from their sisters or their community members. I was never going to make every Cameroonian realize that I resent being asked for material donations. I was never going to get everybody who schedules a meeting for noon to show up at noon. Never. If I didn’t shift my attitude about these things they were going to drive me crazy. And so I decided to give up on the idea of changing them. And I just let go.

Remarkably, this has allowed me to appreciate some things I hadn’t before, and the negative things even seem to have dwindled – partly because I’m just not so alarmed by them anymore, but partly because I have consciously tried to turn their volume down. The not-so-perfect parts of Cameroon are easy to spot and often easier to pay more attention to, but attempting to look past them has freed up some energy to appreciate things I took for granted. The girl who does my laundry has bad brothers but she also had the impressively disciplined idea to ask me to guard the money I owe her so she can save and pay for her daughter’s school fees. Kids still come by my house every day, but they do so because they like hanging out and playing sports with me. The people who reach through the window and shove peanuts in my face do so because they are trying to make a living in a hard environment – and more often than not if I just smile at them they will return it with a much bigger smile.

So much of the attention we see as harassment is just an attempt to interact with us. Some of it is definitely harassment, but some of it is simply a crude way of engaging with people they never get the chance to directly. Sometimes its too much: the groping of female volunteers is never fun, and the SONEL employees who cut power a few hours every other day to steal and sell the fuel elsewhere will never stop making me mad. But there’s no reason I should make the kid yelling ‘Le Blanc!’ pay for my anger at the SONEL employee. There’s no reason to assume that the price I’m quoted is always 5x higher than the real price. It may be, but it can also be a good entry point for cajoling and joking with the vendeur and making him your friend. Most of the time that’s all people want anyway.

Make no mistake, the ‘letting go’ is still a work in progress. But the goal is to have more energy to give to the people who will make Cameroon a better place.

Savings and Loan Association project

There are no banks in Lomié. There are no microfinance institutes (MFIs) either. In fact, the history of banking here – and microfinance in particular – is not good here. Without going into more detail or personal asides (or any more than the previous post), large-scale financial services have not worked here.

But for decades, Cameroonian friends and neighbors have belonged to small savings and loan groups called tontines. Each week, people pool their money and choose one recipient to pay back the loan at their convenience, interest free. This same model was introduced in Lomié about 15 or 20 years ago. It works because the groups are self-selected and self-regulated, resulting in loan repayment rates of nearly 100%. Mohammed Yunus’ Grameen Bank model is similar, in that it uses social solidarity (or pressure, perhaps) to ensure loan repayment. And because it circumvents more rigid social hierarchies (such as India’s caste system or the elevated role of men in patriarchal societies like Cameroon’s), they are not typically targets for corrupt public officials and/or bank managers.

Generally speaking, tontine meetings (which usually take place weekly) are uncomplicated. Everyone saves a minimum designated amount and the group chooses one person to receive the loan. Often, though, they don’t work as well as they could; book-keeping methods are poor or non-existent, the president has too much influence over the group, loan recipients are not disclosed to the rest of the members…

To provide an alternative to these challenges, a savings and loan experiment called a VSLA (village savings and loan association) was created by a mix of local residents and development workers from CARE, Oxfam, Plan International and others. It works similarly to a tontine, but has built in systems to encourage transparency, equality, and sound financial management practices among its members. I recently started one of these groups with 11 vendors in Lomié’s daily market.

The nuts and bolts of our group work like this:

  • Members choose one another based on requirements agreed to in a constitution, written by the members (with some guidance by the VSLA model and me).
  • Each week the members meet to save money. Every fourth meeting (monthly) people can take out loans.
  • Savings are composed of shares, equal to an amount designated by the group (in the case of my group, 2,500 fCFA – about $5). Each week a member can purchase anywhere from one to five shares, saving anywhere from 2,500 to 12,500 fCFA.
  • After an initial period of five weeks to save up capital, the first people can begin taking out loans equal to no more than three times their total savings (if they’ve saved 10,000CFA, for example, they can take out 30,000CFA). This combination of savings and lending both encourages savings (in that they can’t take out a loan without saving at least a third of the loan’s value) and ensures higher repayment rates as the loans are all taken from within the group.
  • A monthly service fee of 10% is charged on all outstanding loans. It is essentially the interest rate but we don’t call it that for two reasons: 1) Technically ‘interest’ is something charged by an outside lender. Since loan funds come from inside the group we call it a ‘service fee’. 2) “Interest” is specifically forbidden in the Koran, and about 20-25% of Lomié (as in Cameroon) is Muslim.
  • Meetings are managed by a committee (Comité de Gestion) which includes the following roles:
    • President – calls meetings to order, manages flow, keeps things on track, and ensures that the Constitution is followed by all members.
    • Secretary – keeps written track of all of the members’ savings, loans, repayments, and fees.
    • Treasurer – keeps the money box and brings it to each meeting (see pic of box below)
    • Two (2) Money-counters – count the money saved, loans disbursed, fees gained, and social solidarity money being contributed each week
    • Three (3) Key-keepers – responsible for bringing the keys to open the box to each meeting.

My group has been saving for four weeks now, and their fifth meeting will be Saturday. This Saturday will be the first loan distribution meeting. I haven’t actually been there for the last two savings meetings since I have been in Yaoundé helping to design the training for the next group of Community Economic Development and Education volunteers. I was ecstatic to hear that not only have the meetings been taking place regularly and smoothly in my absence, but the group has already saved 117,000 CFA (about $240)!

Here’s a pic of the meeting where we finalized the Constitution and elected the Management Committee:

Estelle

I’ve written before about the severity of corruption here. It infects every aspect of life. From govt to businesses to non-profits to members of your own family. Take the case of Estelle:

Estelle is actually an example of everything that’s right with hardworking people in Cameroon. She’s 21 years old, has little education, multiple informal jobs, and one daughter. She is unmarried and lives in the same house as her extended family – her mother, daughter, at least one sister, and many cousins. She also works extremely hard. I originally hired her to wash my clothes, but she has picked up more and more responsibilities recently. She is also reliable, honest, and wants to work for her income – all refreshing and inspiring traits.

At first I was paying her the same amount I had been advised was a fair price – 200 CFA per item washed (about 40 cents, excluding socks and underwear which are free). One day a few months ago she came by with the usual sack of clean clothes and proposed something:

First, she said, I was paying too much. I like my clothes washed more frequently than most people here, which is fine, she said, but that meant I was paying too much for a clean wardrobe. She proposed that instead of paying per item I just pay a flat monthly fee and she would come by every few days to wash whatever was dirty. It’s also tough to save money, she said, and she needed savings to pay things like her daughter’s school fees. Instead of just exchanging clean clothes for money, she asked that I pay her a flat fee of 10,000 CFA/month (about $20) and guard it for her at my house. Then whenever she needed it for her daughter’s school fees or other investments she would come and get it. After having been frustrated by people’s inability or lack of desire to save for anything, I was highly impressed by her proposal.

She came by regularly, taking and returning clothes and reminding me every two or three weeks that it was time to have my floors washed. I kept track of monthly payments on a sheet of paper and had her look it over and sign it each month. At one point I gave her an old cell phone. That way, I told her, she could be in contact not only with me but with all of her clients. Everything was working great.

From time to time I noticed that she seemed frustrated. She’d take my bag of dirty clothes and leave quickly without saying goodbye, or I’d ask her how she’s doing and she’d reply “Ca va en peu” (It’s going a little) or sometimes “Ca ne va pas” (It’s not going).

A couple weeks ago she came to my house in frustration. She had taken my clothes almost a week before but I hadn’t seen or heard from her since then. The reason she was so late with my clothes, she said, was that her brothers (45 and 28, both of whom live in nearby houses) had stolen them – and not only my clothes, but a foam mattress she had recently bought for her and her daughter. She had spent the last week trying to track down the clothes and mattress before finally resorting to getting the local gendarmes (police) involved. Upon handing over the stolen items, her brothers claimed that since Estelle was unmarried and they were the men in the family they were entitled to her possessions.

This kind of petty theft and subjugation of women is not uncommon here. Theft is common not just from those perceived to have money (ie Peace Corps volunteers or white tourists), but from anyone that has something someone else wants – whether it be govt officials, NGO directors, bank managers, or anyone else. Traditional gender roles and strict hierarchies are often exploited as a justification to line one’s own pockets. In the case of my stolen clothes and Estelle’s mattress, her brothers justified their own greed and laziness by claiming familial male entitlement.

I don’t feel threatened in this country, as the level of violence is fairly low, but I am extremely bothered by the pervasiveness of corruption, greed, and petty crime. My sympathetic self might suggest that anyone who lives day-to-day does such things partly out of necessity, but it’s not that simple. People who have plenty steal anyway. One public official in my town insists on charging money to show up at events he is invited to. The director of one prominent NGO in my town is the former manager of an MFI here, and he is commonly understood to have stolen money from that MFI. That MFI, in fact, is the last of four in Lomié – all four of which have failed because the managers and/or board of directors created ghost loans and stole all the savers’ money. I have never felt physically threatened, but I have been pick-pocketed. My house has never been broken into (though I know many volunteers who haven’t been so lucky), but I am asked constantly for money and gifts by neighbors, community members, and people I have never met. I have never been held up but by gun or knifepoint but I have given a loan to someone I thought was a friend only to have him promise to pay me back a tiny portion of the loan and simply blow me off time and time again.

The experience of Estelle is the perfect example of how this kind of attitude cuts development efforts off at the knees. When greed prevents people from allowing their neighbor, community member, or own sister from working toward their own advancement everyone loses. People dismiss, pacify or make excuses for this mentality by saying “T.I.A.” (This Is Africa), or suggesting that it’s a cultural fact of life that Westerners or ignorant/arrogant development agents have no right to criticize or try to change.

But that’s nonsense. Just ask Estelle.

Dutch group visit

Between March 16 and 22, I hosted a group of seventeen Dutch students (including two professors/chaperones) from a group called Green Experience. They actually found me through this blog, where they told me of their plans to come to the area. They came to the East region to do agriculture, health/sanitation and ecotourism projects in Batouri and Lomié. In Batouri they did a sanitation project, helped teach tomato-growing techniques, and participated in a number of cultural activities. Their time in Lomié helped them to experience a more rural side of Cameroon. With the help of my host institution, GeoAid Cameroon, and its agriculture program coordinator Octave Ondoua, we built the following program of activities: (excerpted from a report given to GeoAid International)

Friday, March 16: After the group’s evening arrival, they were accompanied to a local hotel that I had arranged for them, and then plans were made for the week’s activities.  

Saturday, March 17: After the long journey to Lomié, many of the students were much in need of some rest and recovery. Heeding the necessary protocol, however, Octave took the delegation to meet local authorities, and then led an impromptu visit of GeoAid’s offices and other sites in town.

Sunday, March 18: Eager to see the variety of products (and particularly the selection of rare meats), the group went to the market early in the morning. Later, Octave and I took them to view a GeoAid-funded project, a local farm run by a Baka group, where the students asked many questions. They seemed most charmed and engrossed, however, by their Baka hosts.

Monday, March 19: Naturally, the group was eager to see what made the Lomié zone unique, and so a two-day hike around the Dja Reserve was arranged to take place the following two days. Later, the group visited a local pig farm and chicken farm (another GeoAid project), and then enjoyed a lunch of rice, beans, plantains, a dish of manioc leaves, and a local meat-based soup prepared by a friend and collaborator of mine. The meal was accompanied by a lively discussion of the challenges and opportunities for development in Cameroon. In the afternoon, the delegation toured the local technical high school, Lycée Technique, where they were impressed by the woodshop and computer lab facilities. The Dutch delegation then set up a microscope that they had brought, and many of the Cameroonian students eagerly (and a bit nervously) looked through it at some water that had been collected from a nearby garbage can. Communicating the importance of using a clean water supply for cooking and washing your hands had the desired effect, as the tiny microorganisms seemed to make their impression. 

Tuesday, March 20: For the group’s final two days, Octave and a local representative from ECOFAC (a multi-national agency that manages the Dja Reserve and other protected areas in Cameroon and Congo) accompanied them on a trek through the nearby Reserve, where they stayed overnight with a small group of Baka. A musical performance that night gave the Dutch students the opportunity to see firsthand an important part of the culture of one of Africa’s most marginalized groups.    

Wednesday, March 21: After they returned from the trek through the Dja, I and a Canadian volunteer organized a party and exchange for the Dutch group and a group of students from Quebec. They happened to be in Lomié at the same time studying the potential for ecotourism in the area.

Thursday, March 22: The group departed Lomié for Yaoundé, accompanied by me.

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Neighbor kids photo shoot

People often stop by my house to see what I’m up to. Mostly kids. If the door is open someone will inevitably poke their head inside. There’s also a dirt lot in front of my house, which makes for a great playground for throwing the baseball and (American) football around. A couple of weeks ago a group of kids gathered outside of my house to play. Shortly afterward my colleague returned a camera he had borrowed, and one of the kids quickly began snapping photos. Here are some of what he took. Boy do these kids love being on camera.

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Mt. Cameroon

I spent about a month traveling around the Western part of Cameroon starting the beginning of December. What an amazing trip. What an amazing country. And I haven’t even seen most of it.

A big highlight was climbing Mt. Cameroon, West Africa’s highest mountain at 4,040 metres (13,255 ft). My friend Renee, who was one of the team of six American volunteers that climbed it with me, wrote a good blog post about the climb so I’ll just direct you there for the story (http://useitforgood.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/climbing-mt-cameroon/). We spent three days on the mountain and saw about four different kinds of terrain – from alpine grassland to dense jungle to massive lava flows to summit rockpiles. Simply beautiful. See for yourself:

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