Archive for the ‘Cameroon’ category

Cameroon Journal: Back in Dschang

November 19, 2009

16 June 2006

Men Loading up the Diamond Bus to set out for Dschang

Men Loading up the Diamond Bus to set out for Dschang

At Lindsay’s again in Dschang. We left Fontem yesterday at 6:45 in the morning to take the early bus here. Although there were four remaining real seats available on the bus, whenever we picked up more travelers on the road, they piled into the row in which we were sitting, squeezing our buttocks into the numbingly small space. It later became apparent that the reason these new passengers did not venture into the rows of seats behind us was that none of them were traveling very far.

The Diamond bus, preparing to set out for Dschang.

The soundtrack for the journey was a cassette of nothing but Nigerian praise music. Catchy for a few seconds, and then annoyingly repetitive for eight songs, we listened to the tape two and a half times through during the two hour (40 mile) trip. (author’s note: I think I should give an example of the Nigerian praise music so that readers have some idea what it’s like):

(Now, maybe you’re thinking, hey, that music is catchy and not so bad. But imagine that it’s 8 o’clock in the morning; a rooster woke you up at 5, and you’re listening to the same 10 songs for the second time in a row. All that being said, much of the dancing in the video is pretty sweet.)

Of course, the music was played at full blast so that all the passengers could hear every bit of the infectious rhythms and tunes, sung in English, French, and Bangwa with some lyrics drawn from the psalms and gospels. Other lyrics thanked God for choosing to save the people of ‘this nation’, ‘this tribe’, and ‘this village.’ Beth slept for about two thirds of the ride in order to avoid carsickness. I, however, could not sleep, and was able to hear the praise music even through my AirFrance™ headphones.

Rickety bridges across the gutter in Dschang

In Dschang we went to the post office and the bank. Beth had a lot of mail, including a letter and a package from me! On the way from the bank to Lindsay’s house, we met Lindsay and Meghan (another PCV) on the street. They’d just been running and pagna (printed Cameroonian fabric) shopping and were headed to lunch. We accompanied them to a café housed in a small curtained booth. There were four tables, each of which had four stools. The proprietor told us our options: spaghetti and bean omellete, mashed avocado, or rice and beans. Lindsay and Meghan decided to partager (share) an omelette and the avocado. Beth got a bean/spaghetti omelet of her own, and ordered the rice and beans. The food arrived very quickly along with two generous bowls of chewy french bread slices. Dschang is in a francophone region, while Beth’s village of Fontem is in an anglophone region; the francophone region definitely has far superior bread, and baked goods of all kinds (perhaps not surprisingly).

Meghan and I asked for petit coca-colas, which were brought to us. The man told us to “arrêt” (hold the bottles) while he opened them. The opener was a piece of dark wood, carved into the shape of a crocodile. Two wood screws projected out of the bottom of the croc’s jaw to grip the bottle cap. Bottles here must be opened in the presence of the drinker due to a widespread Cameroonian fear of being poisoned. If you’ve gone to the restroom when your drink arrives, it will not be opened until you come back, even if three of your friends assure the waiter that it is fine to open the bottle in your absense and that you will be quite thirsty when you return. Beth told me about this because I wanted to step out to use the rest room. She explained that it would be better to wait because if i missed the drink opening, it might be quite some time before the waiter returned with his crocodile to unseal the bottle. Odilia would just do it with her teeth, but she was not with us. I think that this fear of being poisoned must come from watching too many Nigerian gangster movies on VCD

Following lunch, we picked up Meghan’s motorcycle helmet from an office in town. Then we got caught in the rain on the way to Lindsay’s. So we sat under an overhang and Beth and Meghan read their mail while we waited for it to stop downpouring. Meghan had received a care package, and shared some dried cranberries with everyone.

I read a book: “English grammar in Common Usage.” I learned about some differences between British and American English:

American: Last week we visited a woman in the hospital.

British: Last week we visited a woman in hospital.

American: You don’t need to wait for me to open the coca-cola.

British: You needn’t wait for me to open the coca-cola.

American: Yes, I have one brother.

British: Yes, I have got one brother.

Meghan is a agriculture volunteer. I asked her about terracing, crop rotation, and some other farming related topics. The Peace Corps in Cameroon is encouraging the planting of rows of trees along hillsides in order to develop natural terraces and to prevent erosion. Meghan told me that the villagers claim that their grandfathers used terracing, but they don’t say why they were no longer doing it.

After the rain we went to the market, and I bought a mancala board from a wood carver for 3000 CFA. Beth got a fabric painting of very tall, thin women carrying jugs of water on their heads. (That is the only way to carry a heavy object here; I don’t know why people don’t use that method in the states).

We looked at pagna. Beth got enough of 4 different prints to have an outfit made out of each one. I was tempted to get suits made out of several of them. But I spent the morning telling myself that the two pagna suits I already had were probably all the African clothing I would need for my last two weeks in Cameroon.

Beth negotiates a good price for some fruit on the street in Dschang.

After the pagna shopping, we went to a dimly-lit, airplane-hangar-shaped building full of curious dark wood carvings–boxes, chess sets, statues, last supper scenes, chests, drinking horns, bottle openers, and mancala sets. The work was all very nice, and four men working in the building occasionally offered explanatory or purchase-encouraging comments whenever we showed even a little interest in any of the pieces. Beth negotiated a price and bought an ornamental box. After we left she observed that when negotiating goes too smoothly, she is pretty sure she has payed too much for whatever she bought. I guess if buyer and seller both think they’re getting a good deal when they settle on a price, then it’s an ideal exchange.

We went to an internet café and checked email for 20 minutes until the power went out. We learned in an email that our friend Sarah is leaving in August for a year in China.

Homemade English Muffins

November 12, 2009

I enjoy English muffins from the store (after they’ve been split, toasted and buttered), but homemade English muffins are in a whole different ballpark. Straight off the griddle, they taste delicious with or without butter, but if you know me,you know I’ll always go with the butter if it’s an option.


English muffins on the griddle

These are one of those foods that for some reason we tend to think cannot be made at home. (Pita is another one). However, they can be made at home; they are very easy to make, and they taste much better than the storebought ones, (which do taste fine; don’t get me wrong). They don’t even require an oven, just a griddle. The first time Beth and I made these (and the second and third times as well) was in Cameroon with a propane burner and a non-stick pan. The recipe (from the “Chop Fayner”):

The Ingredients:

  • 1 c.  hot water
  • 1/2 c. scalded milk
  • 2t sugar
  • 1t salt
  • cornmeal for dusting
  • 1T yeast
  • 4 c. flour
  • 3T softened butter or margarine

The Method:

Combine the warm water, milk, sugar, and yeast. Wait 10 minutes to see that the yeast froths up. Beat in 2 c of the flour & wait 1 hour. Add softened butter, salt, and the rest of the flour. Let rise until doubled. Roll to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into 3″ circles on a surface generously covered in cornmeal. (We used the lid of an Ovaltine™ jar to cut them out).  Let rise until doubled in height. Grill on a lightly oiled, hot frying pan until puffed and lightly browned. Flip and brown the other side. Split with a fork and enjoy!

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Cameroon Journal: Going to Market; Going to Church

November 4, 2009

11 June 2006

Two days ago was market day, but Beth got sick. She felt ill all morning and was not up for going to the market. Market days here happen on the fourth and eighth days of the traditional eight day week. I’ve seen calendars here that have a dial with a pointer to indicate the day of the traditional week in addition to the day of the seven day western week.
Since Beth was not up for going, she showed me the denominations of coins and bills, and I set out for the market by myself. I had a list of supplies to get: powdered milk, eggs, pasta, tomatoes, and flour. We had used up the last of the flour in the house making grilled pizzas.


grilling a pizza at Beth's house, and wearing my bamilike garb

Yeast can only be purchased in half kilo vacuum packed bricks. So while we have yeast in the house, we need to do a bit of baking to use up the yeast before it goes bad. We are going to make donuts and english muffins (which I will feature in an upcoming post). There are recipes for both of those foods in the “Chop Finer,” which is a Cameroonian-Peace-Corps cookbook. The book has both American-style comfort foods and African foods in it.

In West African pidgin, “chop” means to eat. So to “chop finer” is to eat better. Some other pidgin phrases:
“Ah be done chop” means “I have already eaten.”
“Ah done chop plenty plenty” means “I have eaten enough.”
“oo sah you day” means “where are you?” and  “Ah day for here” means “I am here.”

*                  *                  *

We’re at the presbyterian church. It is the church closest to Beth’s house. Church here is interesting. They don’t sing as well at the presbyterian church as they do at mass, but the singing is still good. It is popular to dress as a group when going to church. (Actually matching clothes in general are popular here). So, a family might all have clothes made from the same matching print of fabric. The screen printed fabric that everyone wears here is called pagna (sounds like “panya”). Alternatively the church women’s group, or any church committee might all decide to wear their matching clothes on a particular sunday. It’s fun to see all these factions of dress in the congregation, showing pride for whatever group they are representing.

At the time when a collection plate would be passed around in an American protestant church service, things are done a little bit differently here. Everyone claps, and there is some chanting. I don’t know how they decide who is next, but they chant out individual names like so: “Brother Brian. Yah Yah Yo!” Then I jump up and run down the center aisle with some coins or bills or whatever, and I place it in a little basket. In exchange for doing this, I am given a “piece of cake.” In actuality this “piece of cake” has been either a hard boiled egg wrapped in paper, or a bag of popcorn with a fried fish head in it, depending which Sunday it is. However, it is still called cake.


The preacher

Another method of fund raising is to have an auction. Common auctionables appeared to be: whole live chickens, 35 gallon bags of corn on the cob, and quart bags full of incredibly hot pépé (scotch bonnet type peppers, which they add to basically everything they cook here).


door to the Presbyterian church

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Cameroon Journal: Ernest

October 31, 2009

8 June 2006

Ernest stopped by yesterday. He works at the cab stand in town. He began explaining  (after a while of sitting there and staring at me) that he’d had some kind of weird head injury. The injury had been scanned, he told me, and could only be treated in the U.S. He started asking me if I could help him to get a visa. I explained that I had no personal connections in the government. Beth told him he’d have to get an application from the embassy.

Ernest told us that he had an uncle in the U.S. who would pay for his plane ticket and give him a place to stay in the states if he could get himself a visa. Beth explained later that often immigrants in the U.S. will tell their relatives here that they will buy them a plane ticket if they can get a visa, banking on them not being able to get the visa. Ernest asked what kinds of foods I like. I told him that I like chin chin, which are 1cm cubes of sugar cookie dough that has been deep fried.

It occurred to me later that Ernest was asking about my food preferences because he wanted to bring me some foods that I would like. It’s easy to think cynically that he would plan to bring me a gift in order to make me feel obligated to help him with his immigration plans. But these sorts of relations, and issues of obligation in general are more complicated here.  I’ll admit that I am unable to determine the truth or seriousness of his medical condition.

Cameroon Journal: More fun in Fontem

October 28, 2009

In which we visit the SDO, and Ña Ngep devours a rat

7 June 2006

Last night we went to the SDO’s house (the Senior Divisional Officer, a sort of regional mayor). We climbed up a winding road to the top of the hill that lifted his house above the surrounding  area. His house is the highest point in the village. We watched satellite TV there: tennis, soccer, Afghani conflict, shin kicking (a British sport), a boy with three arms now has two arms. Yesterday’s date was 6/6/06, the sign of the beast. The TV informed us about superstitious people who induced labor in order to have their son a day early so that his birthday would not fall on 6/6/06.


The SDO's Hill

There were lots of kids at the SDO’s house. I had a coke. It was good. Then I had a glass of wine. It was not good. The SDO usually drinks wine in his coke. Interesting. It probably would have made the wine more drinkable. I thought we would get dinner at the SDO’s house, but we did not. This is probably just as well. I think the richer a Cameroonian family is, the more likely they may be to serve us some weird mysterious meat that could be tricky to refuse, but I am not going to eat any monkeys.

As I mentioned earlier, when you get a drink in a Cameroonian household, the host will send a child out to a bar to get the refrigerated drink. This usually takes ten or fifteen minutes. I feel bad for the kid who had to descend from the SDO’s compound and back up with a drink.  Providing guests with a drink usually costs more than it would to feed them a whole meal. So, usually when you’re a guest in someone’s home here, they’ll offer food or drink, but not both, unless they happen to be eating at the time themselves, or it’s a special occasion, like the first time you have visited. When we got home I was hungry. We cooked delicious mac and cheese with Laughing Cow™ cheese and chopped tomato.


Ña Ngep roosts on a napping Beth. Mosquito net in the background.


Not long after going to bed, we heard Ña Ngep, Beth’s cat, killing someting under the desk. A flashlight revealed the victim as some sort of rodent. I think “kangaroo rat” would be an appropriate name for this poor creature. We tucked the mosquito net in all the way around the bed so that Ña Ngep would not bring her prey into the bed as a gift for us. She took the dead animal under the bed and we heard awful bone crunching, organ squeaking, skin tearing and sinew popping sounds for 10 or fifteen minutes. Then the cat began meowing because she wanted to come visit. So loves sleeping on Beth or me or in between us. But Beth said, “No, your jaws are bloody. You can’t come visit.”

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Cameroon Journal: Dschang and Fontem

October 27, 2009

More on Cameroonian food, and my first encounter with Malaria


A nationwide view: The locations of places mentioned in the first 3 journal entries. The "A" pin marks the location of Fontem, Beth's post village. Click for larger version.





5 June 2006

People here shake hands—a lot! The same person will shake your hand 3 times in a five minute conversation.  Today one woman on the street shook my hand and then transferred it to her other hand so that she could hold onto it while we talked.  We are in Beth’s village, Fontem, now. We stayed here last night.  The previous night we stayed with a woman named Lindsay, an independent (self-funded, non-Peace Corps.) American volunteer in Dschang, a moderate sized Francophone city, about two hours by bus from Fontem. Staying at Lindsay’s was fun. She had coffee and tea and a generally well stocked kitchen.


Lindsay's Kitchen. Note there's a faucet on the left wall, but no sink.


Yaoundé: Cameroon Journal Continued

October 23, 2009

Yaoundé, Cameroon

Yaoundé, Cameroon

2 June 2006

We’re in Yaoundé. Yesterday morning I slept in, but I feel adapted to the time zone now. Beth and at least a dozen other Peace Corps voluteers (PCVs) are in Yaoundé right now to prepare a training session for the upcoming year’s batch of new PCVs. I stayed in the hotel during the morning session. During her coffee break, Beth came back and brought me a banana and a pain au chocolat. When PCV’s of Cameroon are in the capital, they generally stay in a compound called “the case” (pronounced like ’cause’ because it’s French). But the Peace Corps has a firm policy of only allowing PCVs to stay in the case. So I am in a hotel just next door. (more…)

From the Vault: Cameroon Journal

October 22, 2009

(in which I bribe a customs official)


1 June 2006

I arrived in Douala the day before yesterday. The heat of Cameroon struck me as soon as I stepped off the plane. The air didn’t just feel hot, it smelled hot. The official who stamped my passport did not say anything to me or even look at me. He just took my passport and forms and stamped them four or five times. After having my passport stamped, some men said something to me in French. One of them was gesturing at the plastic bag of broken chocolate chip cookies that I was holding. (more…)

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