Thursday, March 24, 2011

On that midnight train to...Ngaoundéré?

March 19-20
Spent the morning and early afternoon packing and twiddling my thumbs.
As I headed towards school I stopped by the tailor and picked up a super cute skirt. Love it. Unfortunately, I also broke out in sobs for the first time since I got here. In short: she doesn’t remember me paying, but I did. In the end she was nice about it and gave a very sweet speech about how of course we’ll let it go, because people are much more important than money. I, meanwhile, started bawling at this point. I just hate the thought that she would think I’m trying to trick her; it’s frustrating.
Anyhoo, after that we headed to the train station. I’m not really sure why SIT felt the need for us to get on that still, un-air-conditioned train 2 hours before departure, but at least we did defy Cameroonian standards and leave at 6:10 on the dot.
I must admit, I was quite excited to be on a sleeper train for the first time, and though I’m sure it was 100 times bumpier than the Hogwarts Express, I couldn’t help but think of Harry Potter as we sat surrounded by friends in our individual cabins.
We had heard the ride “could take days if there’s a derailment” and had braced ourselves for the worst, but we made it in record time and got to Ngaoundere by 8am. Peeked out our windows and could see that Bastos (our quarter in Yaounde) was long gone….we were surrounded by the savannah!
Settled in at the Protestant boarding school where we’re spending the night, and then a group of us decided to walk towards centreville to take a stroll around town.
Unfortunately we got a poor first impression of Ngaoundere. There were seven of us girls, all walking in a group, when all of a sudden, out of NO WHERE, I:
-heard “WHACK!”
-felt someone’s hand SMACKING the back of my head
-and felt my glasses go flying
What??? We all kind of freak out, and I spin around to try to figure out what had just happened. I had literally not even noticed anyone come up behind me. I was sort of shook up and mainly confused as to what had just happened. We pretty quickly decided it was just a crazy woman…who knows what had set her off. We saw her yelling at some other people, and so we (still in shock) stood there and I thought “I’ll go confirm with those other people that she’s just crazy” as soon as she’s out of sight. However, she saw us still watching her and did a 180 and started to come back towards us. Now, this is when I started getting upset. We were trying to figure out whether to cross the street (I tried, too many motorcycles) or just flee straight, meanwhile some of the group was lagging, dealing with the situation. The surrounding crowd was a bit slow to step in on our behalf, but eventually made efforts to protect us as we fled to a gas station ahead.
We then sorted through our thoughts on the whole thing over some softserve; luckily my girls are great. It was just very very odd. Luckily I wasn’t hurt at all, and I know that this sort of thing could happen anywhere (don’t worry Grandma, Cameroon’s very safe!!). Anyhoo, bummer of a beginning in a new town, but I’m still very excited to get to know the people and culture here! Plus, we all agreed “it will make a good story tomorrow!”
In fact, it already made a good story by dinner, where we recounted it to the half of the group that had missed out on our little adventure.
Also at dinner, we voted on whether or not we want to take the trek to Waza Park for a sweet Safari. Now, it sounds really sweet, but…it will take four days, which is just too stressful since it wasn’t built into the schedule. It really detracts from bonding time here in Ngaoundere and will hurt the quality of our IDI papers/presentations, so after quite a bit of reflection, we voted it down.
After dinner with the group we came back and found kiddos playing soccer at the Protestant school. We joined in, playing until the seeping dark made it impossible to tell the deflated ball from the dust. I apparently not only made two goals, but a few friends! Afterwards some of the girls came and found me in my room and we played cards together. It’s simple interactions like those that simply make my day.

March 21
After a morning class on homestay living here in Ngaoundéré and free time for lunch (sad realization: I need to stop eating soft serve—it’s made with water), we were dropped off at our homestays.
The first day’s always a bit awkward (it’s not them, its’ me), and seeing as it’s round three, I’m running out of steam a bit, BUT, I like my family, and that’s what counts. We’ve got: Dad (very chill), Mom (very pregnant!), 14 year old niece, 6 year old daughter, 4 year old son, 15 month old son. [Fun fact: USED to be a polygamous family, but apparently the first wife left…] Plus we live in a cokpoud and have several neighbors. My family’s Muslim, the neighbors are Christian—goes to show they can get along just fine. [Fun fact: one of the neighbors told me she married at FIFTEEN]
So I was pretty taken aback and on the verge of mental panic when I found out…I don’t have a room here. Lack of personal space and lack of place to do homework and living out of my suitcase might be a bit trying, but of course I’ll manage—it’s only 2 weeks. And hey, what screams “bonding time!” more than sharing a room and bed with your host mom and baby bro??
House wise, I’d say mine here is a tad nicer than mine in Dschang…I mean, the hole-in-the-ground-toilet/shower is inside, which is a real plus. Also, there’s just a sense of peace here, and I value calm a lot. Communication is difficult; the family speaks Fulfulde among themselves, and the three youngest children don’t understand anything I say…luckily the language of “play” is universal! Tickling, piggy back rides, and ring around the rosy don’t take much talk.
Dinner (rice mixed with spaghetti) was like a picnic! We spread the tablecloth on the living room rug and all sat around—precious.

March 22
Used a well for my first time! Quite fitting since it’s international water day.
Fulfulde classes today to learn the basics…learning’s hard!
I talked to Christiane today and found out that ‘crazy woman’, is in fact, just that: Crazy. She went back to the scene and talked to people there; they all knew her very well, but were surprised by her sudden outburst. So, nothing to worry about!
Came home and learned Maman was already at the hospital! A couple of hours later news arrived that she gave birth to a healthy baby boy!
The house may be “calm’, but the kids aren’t necessarily! Wasn’t long before I had six or seven of them tumbling on top of me. Whew! Maria definitely wears out before they do!
TERRIFIC NEWS! I have an Independent Study Project topic!!
I came to Cameroon planning on studying microfinance, but I started to get cold feet a bit when I realized that here, microfinance is a business. A very big one in fact. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t a good method of development—it probably is; however, in my mind I wanted to work specifically with a nonprofit. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of a new topic I could study pretty much every day (prison conditions? Philanthropy among the middle class? Mixing of traditional and imported religious practices? Fair trade? Human trafficking?)
Suddenly a little sign came to me in the form of Ellen when she mentioned that HEIFER INTERNATIONAL has projects here in Cameroon. Within two seconds I was sold. Hunting them down and getting the internship approved took a bit longer, but I’ve officially been accepted as their intern, and will spend my 4 weeks during ISP working with them in projects near Yaoundé.
I’m so incredibly excited!
(don’t know what Heifer is? Google it!)

March 23
Class today on Islam tradition, plus a visit to a traditional doctor who described his work a bit and showed us some of the plants they use as medicine. Some of the kiddos even got their fortunes told…
Went to a cyber café for a bit, and they had AIR CONDITIONNING. Whoa. Must say, actually, I don’t think it’s hotter here than in Yaoundé.
Also decided to scope out Laking, and even though I had told myself I was done buying pagne, I found some cloth with the Virgin Mary and basically decided it would be sinful NOT to get it…
Back at home I got to see and hold the baby! He’s pretty precious.
Was quite proud of myself for spending several hours chatting in French with the neighbor ladies (fun fact: one of them has 39 brothers and sisters!) and my host dad’s high school brother and his friends.