Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Time has a different feel in Cameroon, a different rhythm.  Its position just north of the equator offers little variation in the length of the days; the sun brightens the clouded sky around 6 each morning and closes the day around 6 each evening.  One of the few markers of time progression is the change from the dusty brown dry season to the brilliantly green rainy season and the accompanying slight fluctuation in temperatures.  The bright mornings and afternoon thunderstorms the rainy season reminds me of Colorado summers and the harmattan winds and higher temperatures the dry season reminds me of California summers so to me it feels like it is perpetually summer.
“In Africa there is always plenty of time and fufu corn” is one of my favorite quotes from Barbara Kinsgolver’s novel, Poisonwood Bible.  Cameroonians often joke that they follow BMT (Black Man Time) meaning that they will show up for a meeting or appointment whenever they get there since there is never any rush.  There is always tomorrow.  I know that my sense of time is different from many Cameroonians for a variety of reasons.  One of them because traditionally Cameroonians follow an eight-day calendar with specific days for going to the farm, the market, and rest days called “Country Sunday”, but some of these days seem to vary by the week.  The other day my friend Emmanuela was at my house and I asked her when she was going to the farm to harvest beans and potatoes and she said, “Today and tomorrow and after that I don’t know because I think it will be Country Sunday.”  After she said this I felt better knowing that I’m not the only one who can’t keep track of the Cameroonian calendar.  It also reminded that few Cameroonians think about a future that is beyond tomorrow.  Not that I blame them.  When most of life seems to be lived in reaction to what happens around them-- an unexpected illness, death, or visit of a family member that detracts from saving money for the future; rain that disturbs planting and harvesting of food; and unreliable electricity and transportation that disrupts work; there is little use in planning more then a day, or at most, a week, in advance.
This past week we started recruiting for our control group.  We need to find 200 people to listen to an audio program about malaria.  After we have finished with the control group, we will recruit 200 people for our audio-only intervention group and then 200 people for our audio and discussion intervention group.  Every group will be divided into 20 subgroups consisting of 10 people each and are to come four separate times to listen to a different audio segment.  This arrangement makes sense to me, but I know it is based on my concept of time, schedules, and routine.  It will be interesting to see how it intersects with the Cameroonian concept.
All of this thinking about Cameroonian and American concepts of time reminded me that this week marks six months since I’ve left America.  I remember when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer the sixth month seemed like a huge milestone and to a lesser degree it feels the same this time around. I think this is partly because of what I’ve read about health behavior change and that it usually takes six months to adjust behavior patterns. I do think it is generally true as these past week I’ve felt more acceptance of how I spend my days and finally feel like I have settled into a rhythm of life here.  Without a laundry machine, microwave, reliable electricity, mop, microwave, a car, peanut butter, fitted sheets, I feel like I spend half my day just cleaning and preparing food.  I often resented doing these other chores because it felt like it took away from my real work of writing and analyzing data for my research. However, recently I have been reminded of a quote from one of my professors in college, “What removes us from our labor, removes us from our lives.”   I’m realizing that although household chores take longer then they do in America, they provide a much-needed rhythm for my daily life.  I am forced to let go of my American mindset that productivity is determined by working eight hours a day, five days a week.  I remind myself that I’m not in America and don’t need to follow the American rhythm of life.  I’m in Cameroon and following the Cameroon rhythm of life.  It’s a different rhythm, a slower, more mechanical, less predictable rhythm, but it’s a good rhythm.

To strive or strain for results, or to feel that by now you should be getting somewhere, achieving something, is the wrong approach.  It is important to be relaxed about what is happening.  Time is not important.
Esther de Waal

The mark of a new day--view of the rising sun from my loft window

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I No Know Me

 “I no know me.”  This has always been one of my favorite Pidgin English phrases meaning, I don’t know.  Recently I have said that phrase often.  For the past five weeks I have been hosting visitors in Cameroon.  My dad was here for one week, my mom for three weeks, and my professor and her daughter for two weeks.  Whenever I host visitors I realize how much I don’t know about Cameroon and its culture and perhaps have given up trying to understand. Cameroon is so different from America that it evokes all kinds of questions and ponderings.  Many questions for which I cannot provide answers and simply respond, “I don’t know.”   A popular phrase amongst Peace Corps Volunteers and one I adopted long ago is “Why ask why?”  This means sometimes there is little use in asking why things are the way they are because either host country nationals don’t know or even if they do know, you won’t be able to understand.  One of my favorite examples of the former is when I was hiking Mt Cameroon and came to the campsite the second evening.  The place was swarming with bees and one of my friends asked a Cameroonian why there were so many bees.  His answer was, “Yes, there are many bees here.”  So to prevent receiving answers that only restate my question, I have stopped asking many questions and prefer to live life in a state of ambiguity and relying on my observations.
The questions have reminded me of the complexity of culture and how it shapes our values and behaviors without necessarily logical reasons.  My mom had many questions in particular about the ju-jus (people wearing traditional masks who appear for important events in the community) and when she asked some of my Cameroonian friends what the masks symbolized, who was wearing the masks, and what they did at the ceremonies the Cameroonians couldn’t answer.  They just see ju-jus as a part of their life who randomly appear, scare children, and then disappear. 
Similarly, while my professor was here we talked about the cultural beliefs that influence breastfeeding.  When we asked Cameroonians were the beliefs that women can’t have sex while breastfeeding or that babies need to eat cricket and weaver bird in order to develop their voice came from, they too couldn’t answer our questions.  As a result of these discussions and analyzing our qualitative data we have developed a conceptual model to describe what factors we believe influence exclusive breastfeeding in the health district.  Unlike other health behavior models at the center of this model is culture for we believe that the cultural beliefs greatly influence breastfeeding behavior.  Exactly how, “I no know” but we hope to determine this in the next phase of our research project.  Of course this will require asking lots of questions, but hopefully we can ask the questions in a way that are answers simply don't restate the question.  
Here are some pictures from the recent visits:

My American and Kumbo Families

Cameroon and American Project Staff

Papa Jerry and Baby Kate

Mom and I on a motorbike in Kumbo