Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Di Go

Getting from Point A to Point B in Cameroon is always an experience.  More aptly it is an experience in prayer and trust.  I think probably some of my best stories about living in Cameroon involve travel.  Since I don’t have a car I rely on my own two feet; public transportation such as motorcycles, shared taxis, and buses; or people who have a vehicle and happen to be going the same place as me. In every large city throughout Cameroon there is a designated gas station where I can wait in hopes of finding a private vehicle going to the same place as me.  These private vehicles are usually driven by government or business employees who are already paid to make the trip and pick up passengers to make extra money.  It is the Cameroon form of hitch-hiking.  Finding the aforementioned gas station in different cities throughout Cameroon and a willing driver can be an elusive goal, but well worth it if achieved.  It usually means air conditioning and more space in what can be an otherwise hot, sticky, smelly, smooched experience.  

It amazes me that after living here for over three years and traveling the same roads from my house to Bamenda or Bamenda to Douala multiple times, the experiences are never the same.  As one young Cameroonian male told me the first time I went from Kumbo to Bamenda,  “I have learned that on this road anything can happen.  I just set aside the whole day and hope to make it there eventually.”  How true.  A couple of hours after he said that our minivan broke down and we waited on the side of the road for over an hour until a new mini van arrived.       

Unpacking and repacking after our van broke down
Cameroonians rarely travel lightly.  Oh its not clothes and cosmetics that take up space, but goats, chickens, bedding, water jugs, furniture, tomatoes, yams, potatoes, corn, onions, and anything else that can be sold in the market, that takes up space. It is amazing how with the aid of rubber tubing so many things can be packed in the hatchback of a mid-90's Toyota Corolla.  I once heard someone say that rubbing tubing is what is holding this country together.  

Notice the rubber tubing on the back
I have learned much about how to travel in this country: never packing more then you can carry, always wearing sensible footwear in case you have to get out and start walking, bladder control, how to politely ignore the person whose hip is on top of my thigh and wants to know everything about America, and more practically how to transport livestock.  Pigs in the trunk of the car eventually stop squealing after the car starts moving; goats can be be tied to the roof of the bus, but if it falls off be prepared to stop quickly to prevent it from strangling; and tie a chicken around its legs and put it in a basket to keep it from running off.  

Packing everything on top of the bus
Many times though its not livestock that you travel with, but the livestock that you encounter alongside the road that provide the most surprises.  You turn a corner and bam! here is a herd of cattle on the way to market.

Sometimes the livestock you encounter while traveling, isn't exactly alive, but dead and on a stick. Whenever the bus has to stop to pay a toll or gendarme stops (of which there are many) women and children swirl the bus with all kinds of food.  The most popular is soya which is grilled beef on a stick as shown in the picture below: 

Most cars undergo maintenance in vacant lots as shown below.  I give Cameroonians a lot of credit for their ability to keep their cars running.  Its a good demonstration of their ingenuity and perseverance.  If there is money to be had in being a taxi driver, you can be sure the taxi man will keep his car running in whatever shape possible.

But since the idea of preventive maintenance doesn't really exist and car parts are welded and restitched together like a worn quilt, accidents happen.  A lot.  Just last week a beer truck tipped over on a blind corner just past my house.

All of that glass is broken beer bottles.  Thankfully no one was hurt and I think that made the neighbors feel less guilty about quickly helping themselves to the beer that did not break.

In addition to the practical lessons, traveling in Cameroon has also taught me important life lessons.  Letting go of my time schedule or how I think things should go.  Sharing space and resources with my neighbor.   And praying and trusting that I will make it from point A to point B.  Eventually.  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I Talk Say...

I thoroughly enjoy the rhythm of Cameroonians’ speech patterns.  Their usage of the English language seems more vivid, apt, and descriptive then American English.  The British colonial influence is still evident in the spelling and usage of different words.  It is not a truck, but a lorry; it is not the trunk of a car, but the boot; it is not pants, but trousers. 

Sometimes I forget the different word uses, especially with pants.  To Cameroonians pants refers to under pants or as they sometimes call it, underwears.  One time I went to my tailor and was describing to him the style I wanted for my new pants.  He was quite surprised when I told him that I wanted them to start at my hip and reach all the way to my ankles.  After a few questioning looks I realized my mistake and said, “Oh no, I mean for my trousers!”

Some of my other favorite phrases I don’t think originate from the British but simply are an expression of how Cameroonians view things and their function.   You don’t roll down the window, but wind down the glass.  You don’t move over, but shift small.  You don’t have change, but small money.  You haven’t forgotten something, but it has slipped your mind. You don’t have scratches, but brushes.  You don’t do laundry, but wash your dresses.  You aren’t too busy, but your program is too choked (this is one of my all time favorites).  You aren’t running out of time, but you are against time.  You don’t say pretty please, but please, I beg.  You don’t wear flip-flops, but slippers or sans confidance meaning you can’t trust the shoes because they can easily fall off your feet.  You don’t take a shower, but bathe.  You don’t have a plastic bag, but a wrapper.  You can’t find something, but the thing is missing.  You are not very angry, but over-vexed.  You don’t have a computer, but a machine.  You don’t take a photograph, but a snap.  Something does not concern you, but worries you.  You don’t run, but you make sport.  You don’t cut your hair, but reduce your hairs.  You are not hairy, but bushy. You don’t kill a chicken, but a fowl.  You don’t have a daughter, but a girl-child.  You don’t finish work, but close from work.  You don’t walk, but trek. You don’t live far away, but in the bush.  You don’t have anything, but you get everything.  You aren’t in a hurry, but you are rushing.  And of course, I am not an American woman, but white man. 

A couple of weeks ago our scriptwriter for the audio program sent out the first draft of the audio program.  She did an excellent job of combining education and humor and creating realistic characters.  Here are a few of my favorite lines from the scripts:

They say a toad does not run around in the daytime for nothing. Something must be after it or it must be after something!

Wonders will never end!  (One woman’s response when told that breastmilk contains 88% water so she doesn’t need to give her baby water before six months of age.)

True, so that you will not be producing children like rats. (Another woman’s response when told that one of the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding your menses will delay in coming.) 

To add to my enjoyment of Cameroonians’ speech patterns are some great Pidgin words and phrases like pallava for problem, ashia for I’m sorry/I share with you, my belly done flop for I am full, and Big Day Maria.  Big Day Maria has been a favorite since I found out what it meant years ago.  It’s the Pidgin phrase to describe Assumption Day.  The day that the angel appeared to Mary to tell her she was pregnant with Jesus.  If you think about it, indeed it had to be a big day in the life of a young virgin girl to be told by an angel she was to give birth to the Son of God.   This morning I found out that tomorrow is a public holiday to celebrate Big Day Maria.  In honor of the day I think it is appropriate to conclude with a few words Mary said on that big day:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1: 51-52

Monday, August 1, 2011

You Will Do Wonders This Country Has Never Seen

The Race of Hope is a marathon-distance race up and down the tallest mountain in West Africa.  It takes place at the end of February each year and attracts runners throughout Cameroon and neighboring African countries.  It begins at a soccer stadium in the Southwest Regional Capital of Buea.  Runners have five hours to make it to the top of the mountain following a steep, rocky, somewhat marked path.  Many don’t make the cut-off time and I have heard that no one has finished the race under three hours, which is unusual for a high-caliber race such as this one. I learned about the race when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer but never considered myself strong enough to run the race.  Now that I am back and physically stronger, I am seriously thinking of participating.  However, after returning from my three-day hike up Mt. Cameroon in March I realized that if I was serious about doing the race I would need to find local training partners who knew the course and the requisite training.

A few weeks after I came back from hiking Mt. Cameroon I was walking back from helping Emmanuela weed her family farm.  In a providential meeting that seems to define my experiences in Cameroon, I met a man on the road who was wearing a yellow t-shirt that said Batibo Mountain Race.  If his physique hadn’t indicated that he was a runner I would have thought he was wearing another cast-off t-shirt from a race the person had no idea even existed.  Unlike some t-shirts I see people here wearing from Germany, France, Holland, and who else knows where, this one was written in English with a name of a Cameroonian village, another clue to me that this man was a serious runner.  I stopped him and asked about the race.  After much questioning I found out his name was Kasimo, has participated in the Race of Hope as well as many other races, and runs in the morning a couple to times each week.  I asked him if I could join him for his next morning run. 

A couple of days later I joined him for our first run together.  It was one of the most painful running experiences I have had.  This man is fast.  Kenyan Olympic Runner fast.  Disappears over the hills two minutes after leaving me fast.  Finished second in the Race of Hope fast.  Despite the pain of feverishly trying to keep up with Kasimo there are some great advantages.  Perhaps the best one is I no longer have to greet everyone I pass on the road.  And when you are struggling for your next breath up another steep, muddy hill, this is a cherished benefit. Everyone in Kumbo knows that Kasimo is a serious runner and there seems to be an understanding of the onlookers that he and his training partners are exempt from greeting every child, goat, chicken, mommy, old pa they pass along the way.

 After a couple of weeks of forcing my body to go farther and faster since my collegiate race days, I met one of his female training partners Carine.  I like Carine because she doesn’t run as fast up the hills as Kasimo, but I love her because of her encouraging words and statements about running in Kumbo.  She tells me, “You are a great hill climber and if you continue to run with us you will do wonders this country has never seen.  But you need to learn to open your legs so you can fly down the hills faster.” When I run with Carine and Kasimo we barely talk.  Partly because we have little in common and partly because I don’t have enough extra breath to say more then one word answers.  But when they do talk it always makes me laugh to myself.  Two of my favorite phrases so far are, “We cannot go that direction because the mud will worry us,” and “You need to get a track down suit (meaning running pants) so that the grasses will not be beating your legs.”  Such a true, vivid description of what running is like on the small dirt paths around Kumbo.

When I run with Kasimo and Carine I am struck at how runners are the same all over the world.  We swap stories of our best times, longest races, and aspirations.  We start every run with a dread of what is to come, but a determination to finish.  Yet I am also struck at how different racing is in Cameroon.  I have been warned that when I do the Race of Hope I have to be sure of who is giving me water because people will spike competitors’ water with pepe (the local very strong spice).  Kasimo recently told me about a marathon in September and asked me if was planning on participating.  I asked him when in September it would be and he said they haven’t announced it yet.  To that response my thought was how can you train for a race when you don’t even know exactly when it is?  If the race is at the beginning of September that makes a big difference for training then if it as the end of September.  Also, for Kasimo and Carine they are training to win.  Unlike me who is doing the race to have something to train for and to say I did it, they are doing it to make money.  Kasimo is a farmer and Carine is a mother of four and winning races is a much-needed source of income for them.   

Although we only have three out and back routes, every run is always different.  This is usually due the weather or the people and animals I see along the way.  Sometimes it is due to feelings about life in Cameroon or my own clumsiness, like today.  I was running with Kasimo and after 35 minutes of running up some very steep, rocky, slick hills I was ready to turn around.  He decided to go a bit further and then catch up to me.  About one minute after we separated, I tripped over a rock and fell hard.  I scraped up my knee and hand pretty badly and just sat on the ground for a few minutes fighting back tears, tears from the pain and tears from the realization that my running partner was gone and I didn’t know how I would make the five mile trek back home when I couldn’t even stand.  But in a way of things working out just like they always do here, a motorcycle came up the slippery hill a few minutes later.  Some of the women, who saw me fall while working in their farms, explained to him what happened.  The motorcycle driver dropped off his passenger and told me to get on.  He would take me back to my house.  As we were going up the last steep, slippery hill, the driver told me to get off because there was no way he could carry me up the hill.  As I slowly meandered my way up the hill, there came Kasimo running up the hill.  He had turned around and came back as fast as we did on the motorcycle.  Granted the motorcycle was going slow because of the slick mud, but it still was a machine with a motor!  Kasimo checked to make sure I was ok and I said yes, it is mostly just scrapes and the motorcycle driver will bring me home. We agreed that if I was feeling better we would meet Wednesday morning for another run.  I suppose if I want to do wonders this country has never seen at the Race of Hope, I will meet him for another training run.  

Kasimo and Carine in front of my house.  Check out their track down suits that prevent the grasses from beating their legs and their well-washed shoes to be rid of the mud that worries us.