And so it begins

The problem with having waited so long between blog posts is that I hardly know where to start. Which is actually a great problem to have. Let me explain.

But first, let me set the scene:

I’ve been in Lomié a little over three weeks now, and it is quite a place. The town itself has about 3,000–5,000 people, give or take. It is situated in the Congo basin, and its topography is mostly steep rolling hills. The landscape is thick jungle interspersed with the occasional dirt road and footpath. Lomié is actually more of a cluster, as ‘town’ seems to imply a level of physical infrastructure that doesn’t really exist. There are cell phone and internet networks here, however, which makes it seem like a veritable metropolis compared to the surrounding 120 km. There is also a daily market, two hospitals (equipped with one doctor, a few nurses, and very basic meds), a number of churches (Catholic, Presbyterian, Muslim, Adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostal, and some others), a handful of small restaurants and bars, and a few shops where one can buy everything from eggs to soap to second-hand clothing to machetes. There is no running water, so people get their general use water from wells (to wash clothes and dishes) and their drinking water from one source I have yet to see. There is electricity, but it goes out about every 3-4 days for periods of an hour to a day. The voltage also fluctuates regularly, so the more equipped among us use voltage regulators to avoid mechanical meltdowns and explosions. There is little in the way of refrigeration, so getting a cold drink is next to impossible, and the food variety offers next to nothing in the way of dairy or ‘ready-to-eat’ cuisine. Restaurants don’t have menus, because they never know what they’re going to have from one day to the next. Of the three times I’ve eaten at a restaurant here, I’ve only seen other diners once – a group of three local men who drank their meal in the form of ‘33’, sort of the Budweiser of Cameroon. [Once when I ordered a 33 with my fried plantains and fish (which always comes whole, skin on and head attached), I watched the waitress hand some money to a local girl, who ran over to buy it from a nearby stand and then brought it back to the waitress, who then handed it to me, dusty and warm.] The daily food market offers a wide selection of starches (manioc/cassava, cocoyams, corn), spices (garlic, black pepper, ginger), some limited fruits and veggies, and protein (both dried and fresh fish, as well as a wide array of bushmeat – which is exactly what it sounds like). What the market lacks in the way of food variety they make up for in locality and freshness, since besides drying there are no other preservation methods. As is customary with expats, I’ve lost about 20 lbs since arriving in Cameroon three months ago, but this is due more to the lack of saturated fats, sugar, and cheese in my grad school diet than malnutrition. I eat less frequently because I have to prepare all my food, but my diet is actually fairly well rounded. I am currently staying at the compound owned by my host institution, GeoAid. As of last week my house was ready to move into, but I don’t yet have a number of the things necessary to live there. I’ve already contracted a local carpenter to build a bed long enough to fit my 6’4 frame, but I still have to get a mattress (which comes in the form or a large foam pad, anywhere from 4-8 inches thick) and a gas tank for my stove, neither of which are available here. But this will all happen in due time.

In any case, those are the broad strokes of my life here.

A common frustration among PCVs is that we aren’t as busy as we’d like to be. Work – and by extension, purpose – can be hard to find. It takes time to acculturate, to get to know the needs of the community, and for the community to get to know and trust us. But if the whirlwind of these first few weeks is any indication of what my life will be like for the next two years, I’m in for an exciting time.

So far I have introduced myself to a fair number of local leaders and townspeople, traveled to villages and dwellings outside of Lomié, and seen most of the projects on which my host institution is working. I have helped build plantain tree greenhouses, shown a farming co-op how to more effectively dry corn, and met with a tiny community on the border of the DRC about their development needs. I have met Baka pygmies, farmers, wildlife preservationists, shopkeepers, local dignitaries, a drunken near-blind riverboat captain, and a stuttering bushmeat hunter. I have eaten plants and animals I didn’t know existed, and I have seen jungle flora that resembles the set of Jurassic Park. And as of these past few days, I have some pretty good ideas for how to be effective within my host institution.

GeoAid International is an NGO that was set up about ten years ago by a mining company in this area in order to mitigate some of the negative side effects that go along with extractive industries. They are now independent, but see themselves as a liason between these industries and the communities in which they work. For the past couple of days, we have been traveling around southeastern Cameroon talking to mining companies about the work that GeoAid does and pitching them on potential collaboration. [The pitch: give us funding and we’ll spearhead development programs in the communities in which you work. The community gets participatory health, agricultural, small enterprise and education programs, and you get community goodwill, good press, and can be in the leading pack on the corporate social responsibility front. That and we’ll make sure you’re up to code on all the regulatory UNDP / World Bank / investment treaty stuff.]

After talking to the GeoAid Int’l staff, we’ve come up with a plan for me: my job in the next 3-6 months will be to build a community needs assessment pilot, train the GeoAid Cameroon staff on it, attend community health events in Lomié, Ngoyla, Messok, Mbalam, Ntam and Djoum, and provide feedback on how to improve such events going forward. There’s some useful overlap here too, as I was planning to conduct an informal assessment in Lomié anyway (a PACA or Participatory Analysis for Community Action for you PCVs, anthropologists, or development people out there). My hope is that this assessment will reveal some entry points for how I (either independently or with GeoAid) could be of best use to the local community, and that the lessons learned from a Lomié-based pilot study will help refine the assessment that GeoAid or its partners roll out in other communities. I have a lot of other ideas too, but I’m pretty psyched about this starting point.

But enough chatter. Here are some photos:

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3 thoughts on “And so it begins

  1. I’m planning a PACA here, I’ll be curious to hear how yours goes. Glad to hear things are going well, can’t wait to hear how it goes! Sounds like you have a lot of interesting irons in the fire.

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