Monday, May 23, 2011


Katie, Maureen, Mayor Larry, me, Kathie
Connections happen differently in Cameroon then they do in America.  Perhaps it is from the combination of being an expatriate living in Cameroon and the open hospitality of Cameroonians.  In the middle of February I was at a yoga class and met Chris and Katie.  That morning I was equally surprised to find a place in Kumbo that offers yoga classes and to meet two white people from America.  After asking the usual questions of how long they were here and what they were doing here, I invited them to my house for pizza.  That evening I learned that Katie is from Minnesota, Chris from Wisconsin, they met while attending the University of Wisconsin and quickly understood why they enjoyed the cheese on my pizza so much.  They explained that they do not have a refrigerator at their house and were missing dairy products.  Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when they told me they met the Mayor of Jakiri, a nearby city, who also owns one of the few operating dairies in the country. 

Mborro's deworming their cattle
This past week they invited me to meet the Mayor and visit his dairy.  Mayor Larry, as we call him, picked us up in his Toyota 4Runner and during the 45-minute car ride explained that he went to the University of Minnesota and lived in the Twin Cities for ten years learning about the American dairy industry.  I made the connection that this is the same industry that my mother’s family has been a part of since they immigrated to Minnesota from Holland.  In his American accent, he told us that he worked with Land O’Lakes to start a dairy in Cameroon.  The dairy operates like a co-op and works the Mborro farmers to produce yogurt and cheese.  This concept is revolutionary in Cameroon because the Mborro farmers do not tend to settle in one location with their cows, but move around with them to greener pastures. However, the Mborros who are a part of the Tadu Dairy Co-Op stay close the dairy during the wet season and then migrate during the dry season.  This explanation led to a good discussion between Katie, Mayor Larry, and I as we made connections between Tadu dairy and how to bring development from the West that is flexible and culturally sensitive

Processing yogurt
  During the tour of the dairy, we were shown how they produce yogurt, a desired product among wealthy Cameroonians, cheese, an even more desired product among the expatriates in Cameroon, and the equipment for processing milk.  Our tour guide explained that they aren’t producing milk yet because there is not much of a market for the product among Cameroonians.  I knew this, but was particularly relevant as this past week I have als been researching nutritional rickets in Cameroon and making the connection that the cause of the disease is most likely not because of deficiency in vitamin D, as it is typically classified, but because of a calcium deficiency.  I was doing the research in preparation for a health talk I gave for the physical therapists at the nearby Banso Baptist Hospital.  Because yogurt and powdered milk are too expensive for a typical Cameroonian the best local source for calcium is eating chicken and fish bones (which is normal).   Below are some more pictures of the dairy.

Cheese to sell to the white men

Containers for milk collection

View of the Dairy

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Monday, May 16, 2011

One Year

Friday, May 7, 2010. For weeks this date loomed in the back of my mind. It was the day all of the paperwork had to be ready to submit to the Nestle Foundation for our research grant. I spent that morning finalizing the necessary documents and came home exhausted and wondering if we really had everything together. Not long after I arrived home, my phone rang. “Sister Kate, this is Mr. Peter. I’m calling to tell you that Eunice died today.” Silence. I knew the phone call from Cameroon was expensive and there was no time to ask questions and even if there was, I didn't know what to say. I simply said thank you and hung up the phone. Thus began the long, slow process of grieving the loss of a good friend. 

Eunice was my closest friend when I lived here before in Bafut. She realized that a young female Peace Corps Volunteer would have trouble living in a small village in Cameroon. She made my problems of growing food and taking care of my health and home her problem. She taught me the meaning of my favorite Pidgin English word, ashia. In American English, ashia means, “I see your problem, I share with you.” It is a very useful word and used to show respect, to greet others, or to demonstrate concern and care for another. One day when I was running, fell, and hurt my knee, the first word Eunice said to me was “Ashia.” When I found her hauling water to keep my garden growing in the dry season I would tell her, “Ashia.” During my two years in Bafut, Eunice and I bonded through many joys and challenges. She stayed with me the night after thieves attempted to break into my house. She encouraged me and affirmed my work when often I felt like I was failing as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She confided in me when her husband was unfaithful. She cried on my shoulder when her uncle died. It is common in Cameroon for people to call each other “Brother”, “Sister”, “Aunt” and “Uncle” when they really aren’t related. We called each other Sister Eunice and Sister Kate not just out of respect, but to demonstrate the depth of our relationship.
Working in garden.  I insisted that we planted groudnuts in addition to the corn and beans.
Shortly after I left Cameroon in 2007, Eunice gave birth to her third child. The baby girl was given the name Kate because according to Eunice, “The baby's coming to my life is a surprise just as Kate who came to as a surprise and very loving to me.” I knew that Eunice didn't want to have anymore children, but after I met Baby Kate in March 2009 it was obvious that Baby Kate was her joy.

Eunice and Baby Kate in 2009

Eunice with her sons Lord and Babila and Baby Kate
After I returned from that visit to Cameroon, Eunice emailed me to tell me that she was diagnosed with gastric cancer. She received chemotherapy treatment in Yaoundé and for a few months, she was better. I will never forget the phone call when she told me, "Sister Kate, I'm better! They told me I wouldn't live, but God is in control and I'm alive!" Then in January of 2010, she got worse. She went to a hospital not far from where I live now and had a hysterectomy. She was in the hospital for over a month and each time I would call she would tell me that Baby Kate was with her. Occasionally she would put the phone next to Baby Kate and she would just giggle. Over time the phone calls became more somber as her cancer progressed and she contracted hepatitis B and C. Each time she would ask me to come and take care of her children. In April of 2010 she begged that I would come see her before she died. My mom and I booked flights to visit in June, but we arrived a month and half after she died.
Eunice's grave
Part of the reason that I chose to do my doctoral research in Cameroon was so I could come back to Cameroon and be close to Eunice’s family, to keep my promise to her that I would look after her children. It has been joyful to visit them for Youth Day, Kate’s birthday, and Easter, but also very difficult. I see Eunice’s tenacity in Kate, her broad smile in Babila, and dependability in Lord and wish she were here. I wish she were here to listen to Kate laugh and see how Babila and Lord take care of their sister and other household chores. I wish she were here to see that I did come back to Cameroon and am building on what she taught me about solidarity with others and how to survive in Cameroon. When Peter, Eunice’s husband invited me to attend a small memorial service last week to commemorate the year anniversary of Eunice’s death, I knew I had to be there, but also knew that it would be hard. I knew that it would conjure up everything I learned and experienced this past year in grieving the loss of a good friend—the questions, the guilt, the sorrow, the anger, the disbelief. But I went. I went and cried with Babila and reminded him that it is okay to cry and miss his mother. I held Kate as she cried herself to sleep in my arms. Lord and Babila drew pictures to remember their mother. Babila drew a picture of a tree because, “Trees make places to be nice and my mama made places to be nice.” Lord drew a picture of him helping his mother making frozen ice cream. Kate just copied her brothers and enjoyed the new colored pencils.
Babila and his picture of a tree
But we also laughed and ate good food.  Lord and Babila love to play with my camera and we took a lot of "snaps".  Their reiliency never ceases to amaze me and am honored that they call me, "Sister Kate".

Those who have died live on in me and inspire me with their example and the rich legacy of love from their earthly lives. Their lives touch mine. Their lives make a difference in mine. As part of a family or community we make the dead part of our members so as to receive the gift of their spirits. Loved ones who have died are remembered in worship and prayers, in conversations, with photographs, and by visiting their graves. Life goes on, but with their rememberance enriching our lives.

Henri Nouwen, Finding My Way Home

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


In an effort to balance some recent serious postings I think now is a good time to write about what makes me laugh in Cameroon. 

People’s perceptions of me: I do not think a week goes by that someone doesn’t ask me where I am from.  I usually respond by saying, “Guess”.  Sometimes the person will say the US right away, but other times they will say Germany, Canada, the UK, or the Netherlands, and just today someone guessed Tokyo.  I still am proud of the day when someone said Morocco because of the way I was dressed that day.  Of course, he also thought I was a refugee from that country looking for a job in Cameroon, so I don’t know what that really says about my African style and composure.  However, the funniest so far was when I played the game with a half-drunk man in a taxi in Bamenda.  After he asked me and I said, “Guess” he said, “I haven’t heard of that country, I’ll have to look at my atlas.”

Children:  It is always hard not to smile and laugh when children are around.  Sometimes I laugh at their hats like in the picture below:

More commonly, I laugh at their greetings.  There is a group of children that I pass on my runs.  Without fail they yell out, “Good morning, white man!” but lately they have change their greeting to, “Good morning my friend!”  After I pass by, they resolutely shout out, “Good Bye!”

Awkward situations: Sometimes these situations are just embarrassing like people starring at me when I forgot to greet the Fon (the Northwest version of a tribal chief) properly, or forgetting that pants refers to undergarments instead trousers, but sometimes they are just funny.  For example, last week tile was installed in my house and it is beautiful, but slippery.  A couple of nights ago, right before I went to bed, I climbed the ladder to get something from my loft.  Just as I place my foot on the top rung, I felt the ladder slip from underneath me.  I quickly scrabbled onto the loft floor, but then realized I had no way to get back downstairs.   I called out the window and a guard heard my pleas for help. The next problem was that my house was locked from the inside and no spare keys.  Thankfully, he found an open window and climbed through, “like a pussy cat,” as he said and held the ladder while I climbed back down in my pajamas.  Ever since that night I feel a special bond with Joe.   

Names: Some Cameroon names (and the people, for that matter) are so inspirational you feel like you’ve had your daily devotion after meeting them.  Hope, Faith, Godlove, Blessing, Promise, Favor, to name just a few.  But sometimes it is hard not to laugh out loud when someone introduces himself as Mystery, Danger, Maxim, Spy, or Ma Boy.  I have recently been given a Banso name, Fomonyuy.  It means God’s gift.  I find that having a traditional name is handy when men are proposing marriage and I don’t want to give them my real name.     

Pagne: The market is full of colorful fabrics just waiting for someone to buy and make dresses in all sorts of styles.  Usually these fabrics are just colorful designs, but sometimes I laugh when I see objects on them like lampshades and tea kettles, the President Paul Biya, or food like beans and groundnuts. I’m still searching for the right groundnut pagne.

Lampshade Pagne. 

Traveling salesmen: This is often the best source of humor in Cameroon.  Whenever I travel between Bamenda to Douala or Yaoundé, it is common to have a man on the bus who is trying to sell his magic potion that cures every kind of sickness and disease.  My favorite traveling salesman is a renaissance man.  He first comes on board the bus, gives us traveling advice about where to buy food along the road, and warns us not to put our hands outside the bus. Then he leads us in corporate prayers, songs, and dances.  He gets us moving around on the bus shaking people’s hands and singing.  After that, he gets out his black stone to cure snake bites and his magic potion to cure hemorrhoids, diabetes, cough, and reproductive problems and shows us exactly how to use it on different body orifices.  I have never bought anything from him, but I have bought sesame seeds in the market that promised the same miraculous treatment.  I ate some granola with the sesame seeds. I don’t feel any different.       
Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God
Teilhard de Chardin