one summary.

The following is an article I wrote for Hope’s annual French Department newsletter. It sums up four months in Cameroon as concisely as anyone with a maximum character count could, I think.

I recommend browsing the newsletter. Hope’s French program is small but mighty and there’s a lot of really worthwhile stuff packed in that little publication.

And now, some words:

 

HAPDOU AND HAKILA (COURAGE AND PATIENCE)

Upon getting off my plane in January, I met my program manager, let him help me with my bags, and promptly right walked past our car, having misunderstood his directions.

Rough start.

Cameroon is my fourth journey to the African continent, and it has been by far the hardest. While the duration of the trip is daunting, it’s not what exhausts me. A semester abroad for anyone is some combination of wild, inconvenient, exciting, and tiring at any given time. To be immersed in French is to never really leave class. When I buy beans and beignets from the street vendor down the road, our interaction is homework. Unlike at Hope, going home is not necessarily relaxing here. Host families mean little failures, regular requests for repetition, and improvisation.

But with the exhaustion comes a paradoxical exhilaration. One of the most miserable moments one can have here is to hear the English words, “you don’t speak French, do you?” from the person in line behind you in the grocery store. But no number of those moments matter when a university professor tells you that his first impression of your speech was fluency or when your host family points out a particular improvement. It is absolutely impossible to immerse yourself in a culture and language not your own and not experience failures. But the victories outweigh the discouragement of the failures tenfold. I have never been more proud of myself academically than I am here, because my every moment is unconventionally academic.

Being in Cameroon has been a melange of the unexpected, the inspired, the random, and the total unknown. In this country of over 250 ethnic groups (each with a dialect to match) I have picked up not only French, but have added a bit of Pidgin English, Fulfulde, Meta and Yemba to my repertoire. I have been blessed to live with not one, but three host families. Each could not be more different than the one before it, and each has given me a fresh perspective on the country and its extreme diversity.

And the diversity here extends beyond the language and the people. I have seen everything from the outer Sahel to palm trees on the Atlantic coast to dunes of volcanic ash on top of Mount Cameroon. The language nuances and cultural norms that I pick up in one place may be a help or a hinderence in the next, but I would never know that until I was in the thick of newness anyway. It’s astounding how lost and broken you can feel in one moment and how independent and capable you can feel in the next.

Four months is not enough time to explore Cameroon. It probably isn’t enough time to explore much of anywhere, and it certainly isn’t enough time to master a language. But the opportunity to get a four months’ head start on a place, to have a taste of long-term life overseas, is something I would not have gotten without studying abroad. This promised to be difficult from the moment I stepped off the plane and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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The Fear, or how I learned to plan escape routes.

I want to briefly explain what the mindset of a young American is like when she’s living in eastern Congo without the comfort of an international NGO’s team of security analysts. A story:

 

Around the end of June, Lora and Christian decided to take a boat up Lake Kivu to Goma for the weekend. I, having not had a house to myself in five months, was delighted at the prospect of my solitary weekend and happily wished them safe travels.

That first evening alone, I was walking home from the BYAC office, groceries in hand, thinking of all the reading I would get done that night. But as I cut through a gas station parking lot toward the house, all thoughts of the upcoming relaxation disappeared. I was staring at a giant black pick-up filling its tank with the biggest machine gun I have ever seen in my life (this qualification includes museums and documentaries but excludes fictional superhero and apocalyptic blockbusters) resting in the bed. It looked to be (and it probably was) an artifact of the Cold War.

The most unsettling part of this scene, however, was not the gun. It was the soldiers surrounding it, because I had never before seen their uniforms. Instead of green camouflage army fatigues, these men were wearing what my middle-American mind classified as khaki deer hunting camo plus burgundy berets. As quickly as my mind had emptied of the anticipation of rest, it refilled with worry. I kept calmly walking, but tried to take in every detail of the truck and its passengers as I went. In that moment, my illusion of peaceful stability in Bukavu was in pieces, because here’s what I had to assume: these new uniforms might be a different faction of the army, yes. But they might also be one of a number of militia groups that roam the South Kivu province, many not so far from Bukavu. My walk home consisted of a pounding in my chest and a torrent of possible scenarios dominating my thoughts. What of it’s Bosco Ntaganda’s rebels? What do I do if rebels invade? Do I hide out in the house and wait for Lora and Christian or do I go it alone to the border? Actual self-evacuation plans. That was suddenly my life.

And this wasn’t all new. The uniforms were a trigger, but I was realizing exactly how much subconscious worry I was building up simply by existing in this place. Lora’s told me of similar revelations- the many days that pass, unassuming and without incident, and then one little thing happens to shake the balance and you’re suddenly drowning in all the concern and uncertainty that’s been silently gaining momentum. This place could easily make you go grey early.

The good news is that when Christian and Lora got home, they were able to say with confidence that those uniforms were part of another branch of the Congolese National Army, one I just hadn’t seen before. I returned to feeling safe, but it couldn’t be quite the same. Since that weekend of always having an escape route in mind, of organizing my pack so that I could flee with my belongings at the drop of a hat, I can’t help but be aware of the fact that I don’t actually feel as secure as I might think I feel.

The point is not that I was actually in danger that day. I wasn’t. The point is that I had to assume that I was in danger- an entirely new feeling for someone who’s lived in a cushy “Mitten State” for ¾ of her life. This is one of several reasons that nine weeks in eastern Congo feels like nine months in eastern Congo. I really am safe, I promise. But I’m also checking the news almost daily and I ask questions about security of everyone I know because the reality of this region demands that I do so.

 

I can’t help but wonder if this constant stress and early aging is something like the feeling of being president. I can only hope that if I prove myself able to stomach it, I’ll have a shot at the 2016 bid*. Oh! to dream.

*At no point in my 22 years have I ever actually wanted to be president.

 

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I’m still here.

I regularly forget how to access the expansive English vocabulary that I’ve worked to build over the last 22 years (maybe to be fair it’s been more like 20 years) what with this constant back-and-forth with French, so that gets me all self-conscious about how my writing sounds.

 

A good friend here is named Godelive, but she mostly goes by Gode (pronounce Go-day.) I have tried several times now to make relevant “Waiting for Gode” jokes, but it turns out Beckett is not standard reading requirement for Congolese university students.

 

We have a five-year old neighbor boy, Frank. He’s completely adorable and comes over often either marching and saluting or yelling <<Donne-moi le travail!>> (“Give me work,” as in: let me help you with the dishes. Yes please, no problem, Frank.) His visits are always welcome, except in the mornings. This is because every morning, Frank has an extremely drippy nose. Every morning, Frank seems to have wet his pajamas. Every morning, Frank stands in our doorway still wearing said-pajamas. Every morning Frank asks if he can drink my coffee. Every morning I say no, absolutely not.

 

It’s always weird when landmark dates show up. Thursday was the last day for English classes at BYAC. For five weeks I’ve known that July 19 is the last day of teaching, and now that it’s happened, there’s no denying that those five weeks have passed. I’m now down to less than three weeks (fewer than three weeks?) until setting foot in the Entebbe, Dubai, Dallas and Grand Rapids airports. Another five weeks from now and I’ll be more than all awash in Michigan summer glory, patiently awaiting autumn, surrounded by my people. These are my people here too, of course, and I try not to get caught up in the differences. But when you’ve been away from those who have been your people for going on years now for nearly all of the calendar year, the differences between worlds grow more and more apparent.

But I have no idea, even though I’m eager, how that transition from one world to the other is going to feel. I’m sort of starting to think this could pan out like most other important things in that I’ll feel the effects in little things- in day to day and in appreciation’s fresh arrival. Honestly, for those of us consistently striving to push back the boundaries on our freedom, we can’t expect every new and insightful and adventurous experience to unbalance our world and shatter our foundations. If we did, we’d be broken and re-broken on a monthly basis. It wouldn’t be (to use a word usually inappropriate for the subject of adventure) practical.

(Not that I don’t revel in the hope of being broken in some sense. I’d just prefer to have little fractures than to be in a full body cast. I want the first 7 months of 2012 to break me for years to come, but steadily and in smallish ways. Do I even get a say in this?)

 

What I’m saying with this talk of impending adjustment is that I’ve not been everywhere, but I can say with certainty that in all the land between northern Cameroon and southern Rwanda, there is no place like Michigan. I am ready to be home.

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There’s a stick in my mandazi.

I’m engaged in a constant struggle to find descriptive words that match what I’m seeing. It’s weird how hard the human brain tries to find commonalities between situations that are, quite possibly, polar opposites. UN helicopters here are like the trains in Holland, except I understand where the trains are going and where the trains are coming from. I have no idea who’s in these helicopters, nor do I understand what they’re doing, but they roar overhead at least twice a day. It’s almost laughable to think that a little over a year ago I took a semester-long class dedicated to the structure and function of the UN, but still nobody can tell me what these iron birds are doing. Occasionally I think my tertiary education was a joke.

But then we come back to the universal things that lend such a rest and a hope. Tuesday and Thursday mornings start with a short run to Ibanda, an old Belgian school built right on Lake Kivu. The weird covered path down to the grounds feels like Harry Potter, except that it leads to an outdoor basketball court and not the Great Hall. Ignore that.

Anyway, Lora, Christian and I join the five or so guys who are usually already on the court and we all get a 3-on-3 mini-tournament going. Playing pick-up basketball with strangers is another one of those universal things that I love so much, like canoeing on Lake Bureli last summer or hiking Mount Cameroon. It’s necessary. The playing field is so even. I’m not trying to pretend that I can empathize with a post-war Congolese existence, and they’re not trying to convince me that they know what it’s like in the West. Our relationship is determined by teams and skill and nothing else, not even language. Scoring and ball handling and risky passes are neither part of a white savior complex, nor do they call for white guilt. We all get the same work out and we could be anywhere in the world doing exactly that.

 

Other Congo notables:

Ravens landing on a corrugated metal roof don’t actually sound like ravens. It sounds like a stampede of baby elephants wearing combat boots is jogging across the top of our house.

Che Guevera paraphernalia is everywhere here. T-shirts, decals on car windows, even the occasional painting on the side of a building. While nominally this may seem no stranger than wandering down a locker hall full of high school sophomores in American suburbia, keep in mind that Che never operated in the States. He was here, and he actually gave up on Congo. He said that Congo’s revolution lacked “revolutionary seriousness, an ideology that can guide action, a spirit of sacrifice that accompanies one’s actions.” He said Congo didn’t have a real leader. Because I know that, I don’t completely understand why his face is everywhere, but this is not a place where I can just pull strangers to the side of the road and start asking questions. 

Like Che, Celine Dion is also to be experienced, on average, once daily. “New Day” is especially popular.

Lora and I being strangers here (though she obviously less-so than I), there are a lot of things that can be patiently explained by three little words: Welp, that’s Congo.

The government systematically cutting our electricity for 45 seconds every night at 9:30: welp, that’s Congo.

Finding a twig in my street beignet: welp, that’s Congo. (I’m still searching for a better explanation for that one, but I’m not optimistic.)

Waking up one morning to find a live turkey tethered to the stairs of our balcony: welp, that’s Congo.

I have now had conversations with people in Cameroon, Rwanda, AND Congo who are under the impression that Americans sign marriage contracts before the ceremony that read some variation on, “We will be married for [arbitrary amount of time] and then we will get divorced.” It’s a really great global reputation we’re fostering for ourselves.

We successfully made masala French toast on Sunday morning. Two things were great about this: electricity before 6:30 at night, and French toast.

The other day I was walking with Christian’s sister, Live, to her high school. As we went by the market, I passed a kid- just a normal, adolescent boy- wearing a black Springhill sweatshirt. I WISH I could’ve seen my face because I’m fairly sure my eyes leapt out of my head. I looked away as soon as I read the word, conscious of how surprised I looked, and in that instant nearly convinced myself that it must be a different place. But I couldn’t resist, HAD to know before he got lost in the crowd and when I looked back again, there was the logo, oh so faintly worked into the graphic behind the letters. I couldn’t breathe; something about that was so utterly bizarre. It sort of made me sad, but I can’t put my finger on why. I keep wondering if I know the counselor of the kid who donated that sweatshirt to such-and-such NGO that somehow managed to bring it to Bukavu of all places.

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This won’t do.

I’m reading Moby Dick. By now all of you probably know this because I’ve been, shall we say, vocal about it. And why shouldn’t I be? Even the chapters that read like they’ve been pulled directly out of a cetology textbook hold pieces of philosophical genius. Melville 4 Lyf is quickly becoming my mantra.

 I recently reached the point in the book where the crew of the Pequod has actually begun to hunt whales. Never mind that it took Ishmael 216 pages to get there. Say it with me: Philosophical. Genius.

During the hunts, each shipmate commands a boat and each has his own style of motivating his rowers. Stubb, the Pequod’s second mate, is particularly chatty. During one hunt that I recently read through, Stubb is pushing his men to row harder, to push themselves past the point of exhaustion in order to overtake the fleeing whale. The efforts just aren’t enough. Though I have no doubt that the boat was, in fact, in motion at the time, in Stubb’s eyes a task incomplete might as well have never been attempted. So he urges the oars to go faster, because without the speed they won’t catch the whale and they might as well never have rowed at all. He cries,

“This won’t do, boys… the short and long of it is, men, will ye spit fire or not?”

There’s no such thing as a day without difficult conversations because so much of Congo is complicated and multi-dimensional. One such conversation ensued on Monday night over dinner. Recently, Christian has had reason to be interacting with businessman who works in a neighborhood not too far from ours. This man has taken a liking to Christian the few times the two have met and Christian has likewise spoken highly of this man and the successful life he’s made for himself.

During their Monday meeting, the man again expressed his esteem and informed Christian that he shouldn’t be wasting his time with proposal reviews and other petty NGO workforce tasks. Instead he should start helping to traffic minerals.

[Anyone who’s met Christian in his eternal good humor and optimism is probably laughing out loud at this point.]

This man continued by explaining to Christian the exorbitant amounts of money to be had in this business. He bragged that he is able to get his hands on quality shipments because of his connections with the right higher-ups in the mining sector. Seemingly as proof, this man pulled out his phone and showed off a contact list including undeniably impressive military names.

Christian laughed as he told the story, and, when I asked if he found the offer tempting, said that he has enough to live honestly for (Lora, a good job, his Christian faith) to be unconvinced by the prospect of life as a comptoir. But the appeal is understandable; figures as high as $5,000,000 were being thrown out.

From Christian’s story (quickly becoming legend in my mind) the conversation continued on the subject of Congolese minerals. The exploitation of minerals by armed groups has been happening in full since the early 1990’s and was exacerbated by the mélange of conflicts that is typically collectively referred to as the Congo Wars. Much of Congo’s mining happens in the east and, because of the region’s almost predictable instability, large-scale firms have stayed away and mining has remained small-scale and artisanal.

But recently, a company called Banro has struck a deal with the Congolese government for full control of all mineral deposits, discovered and yet-undiscovered, for the next 30 years. Understand? They’ve finagled their way into a monopoly on minerals in what is arguably the most mineral-rich country in the world.

While the company’s website (www.banro.com) does an excellent job of outlining all of the grand community development projects they’ve been so graciously implementing, it does not inform casual readers of the Congolese career miners who are now out of a job as Banro’s excavations dismantle entire established mining communities. It does not inform readers that the artisanal mining that continues despite Banro’s presence has become even more dangerous now that it is in contest with a multi-national corporation. Congolese employees at the Twangiza oxide mine know that to be caught with any amount of gold is grounds for immediate dismissal and potential legal action through the Congolese state (with some of the worst prisons in the world, processing through the Congolese legal system is not something to be taken lightly.)

It’s hard to know what the intentions of the company are, whether the whole of DRC will actually benefit from this deal or if this is simply another political move to get money flowing in the government and nowhere else. But what it comes down to, it seems, is that Banro will stay here and so will the now-clandestine, small-scale mines that are still owned by militia and corrupt businessmen. Processors in places like China, Germany and the U.S. will continue to benefit from exploitation of the DRC and there will be no real pressure put on the Congolese government to implement its own standards for reform in the mining sector.

As we gradually grew exhausted of the topic (though arguably further from a satisfying conclusion than we would have been if the conversation had never started at all) Christian introduced Lora and me to the French word chantier. It has both a literal and a figurative meaning- construction site and shambles or mess, respectively. It’s a word, he says, used by the political elite to describe certain development policies. It’s also the word to describe the endless number of unfinished shells of houses that are beginning to define the landscape of Bukavu for me. And, in one giant metaphor, it is DRC. The disturbing part about the actual construction sites is that these not-houses are never really going to be finished. They are built without retaining walls, built too closely together, built several stories too tall. The first day I arrived, Lora pointed out over our view of the city and said to me, “Someday you’ll watch these houses collapse.” Same with the country they’re built in. It’s a mess of a construction site and everyone in power, whether Congolese politician or Canadian jeweler, benefits from the disorder, so why would they ever want to see the building project through?

And so, shortly after inspiring me to wonder how on earth fire swallowers at the circus (I’m just speculating; I’ve never actually been to a circus) don’t burn their lips, Stubb’s words took on a much more relevant application.

Our conversation about minerals had lasted a couple hours and had me so frustrated by the end of it that I was on the verge of tears and had to take a considerable amount of time silently breathing in night air by myself before calming down. (Were I just a tiny bit less rational, I’d have found myself punching the concrete balcony to let the aggravation; as it happened, I entertained the idea of doing so for only a few minutes.) But the point is this: the discussion of this topic, of the injustice, of the lies and the apathy resting in most of the world over the issue of conflict in this sad, volatile place, had me spitting fire. I wanted so badly to see the trouble through to its end, to find a way to put a stop to the incompletion, the half-hearted efforts of a half-asleep world to understand what is actually going on in places like the eastern DRC, and the acceptance of infinite chantiers as progress.

I love the image of it. I often wonder, what with being a recent graduate with little to no life plan and a few too many passions to make choosing a career (“career”) easy, what on earth I’m going to do with myself. I don’t know that I’m much closer to knowing, but I do know that I want to be able to say that I’m spitting fire; that I’m putting all of myself into whatever is in front of me. It’s a simple choice, anyway: a) will ye or b) not?

After all of this, we sat back and watched an episode of “Brothers and Sisters.” That’s Congo.

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“This is their logic and they’re rich people for it.”

After Morocco, Cameroon and Rwanda, I’m finally in the DR Congo. I’m having a little bit of trouble grasping my own life’s context at the moment. 

Getting here has been more than a little bit rough. Because the visa holder has to enter the country in question within three months of having a visa issued, it was impossible for me to request a Congolese visa while I was still in the U.S. I first applied for a visa at the consular office in Yaounde and was denied within 24 hours. At that point I already had a plane ticket to Rwanda, so I decided to hold that reservation and try my luck at the DRC’s Kigali embassy. After nearly two weeks in Kigali and a lot of little problems with the application process that aren’t worth listing, the embassy receptionist- with what I thought in that moment were the kindest, gentlest, most beautiful eyes in the entire world- handed me my passport, DRC visa stamped and signed. 

I left Kigali at 6:30 a.m. on May 30. The bus ride to the Cyangugu/Bukavu border is about six hours, but it cuts through Nyungwe National Forest (three black and white colobus monkeys hanging out on the side of the road. Nature Kid was absolutely beside herself.), hills and tea plantations, so I certainly didn’t hate the drive.

Getting through the Rwandan side of the border was a piece of cake. Exit stamp achieved, I walked myself and my luggage (which I’m proud to say I got all into one hiking pack) across the little bridge that transitions Rwandan soil to Congolese. I was optimistic. I had my visa. I knew Lora was waiting on the other side of immigration. When I walked into the office, the two officers who greeted me seemed friendly and we laughed together. If my life were a cartoon, I would have had fair warning at the dollar signs springing from their eyes.

I walked into the chef’s office, presumably to get my passport stamped and nothing more. I never know anything. In almost no time, this man looked me in the eye and told that that my visa is invalid and I’ll have to go back to Kigali for a signature from the ambassador lui-même. Let the argument ensue.

I refused to leave the office immediately and asked to see the order the chef was referencing that stated non-Rwandan nationals who get their visas at Kigali’s embassy must have the ambassador’s signature (mine boasts only a mere consular officer.) He just kept telling me that it would be easy for me to spend the night in a hotel across the border, take the morning bus back to Kigali and come back once I have my signature. I considered offering money, but instead just used every possible relevant word in my French vocabulary to tell him that I would not be going back to Kigali.

Amidst the tête-à-tête, I was texting Lora who, when I still hadn’t emerged after twenty minutes, called her Congolese fiancé, Christian, who dropped what he was doing and got in a taxi. If I have anything to say it, Christian will soon be eligible for sainthood.

While I waited for Christian, I moved out into the main room to guard my bags. One of the guards had been handed my passport and refused to give it back. I almost wish he’d been combative about it but he didn’t grace me with more than a stupid grin, trying to make me feel absurd for wanting to hang onto the most important document in my little world. This same smiling jerk sweetly offered me a chair, which I stoically declined. It could be easily argued that I am sometimes too stubborn for my own good, because this refusal (having decided that ‘to sit or not to sit’ would be a power play) led me to stand for a full hour following. At least I was winning. Oh pride, my pride.

Already feeling like I was winning, I asked the temporary passport thief if I could look at my visa for the embassy phone number, since the chef had said that he would call the embassy to appease me if someone found the number (failed state communication error #742: no one at the Rwanda/DRC border has access to the Rwandan embassy’s phone number.) So he gave it to me, I checked, and when he held out his hand to get it back, I simply ignored him and tucked it safely under my arm alongside my wallet. Thief looked confused and kept his hand out for a few seconds, but didn’t push it when I simply stared back at him. I couldn’t help myself, and as he lowered his hand I told him, “Me: two. You: zero.” The look he gave me indicated that he probably just thought I only ever learned caveman English.

Shortly after that exchange, Blessed Christian of Bukavu arrived. The first thing he said was, “Poor girl. How are you?” A caring question from a familiar face was the thing that nearly put me in tears. Instead of crying, I took a breath and explained what had happened up to that point. As soon as the chef’s office cleared, Christian went in.

[That evening, Christian told Lora and me the full story of what happened in the office. It’s pretty hilarious, but it’s a story better told in person. If it interests you, ask me in August.]

Christian reappeared after around 15 minutes and pulled me outside to talk. I initially took this as a bad sign but really we were just avoiding being overheard. The chef, upon hearing the charismatic description of my relationship to Christian’s American fiancé, the undeniable unimportance of one little volunteer who is only going to be in Bukavu for two months anyway, and, of course, reflecting on Christian’s own Congolese citizenship, sat back and explained the “system.” This is essentially what was said after the establishment of brotherhood: “I’ve technically already canceled her visa and should send her back to Kigali. But I don’t want to put you all through that trouble, and it seems that she really won’t be doing much in Bukavu, as you say she’s only here to volunteer and help with the wedding. So since you’re a brother, I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to be flexible. Do you have one hundred dollars?”

Christian talked him down to fifty. I paid. Any plans I had to cross into Rwanda and back into Congo during the next few months have been canceled and he called it a favor. 

So I’ll be here until early August, doing general intern-y/volunteer things for my friends Lora and Christian who started Bukavu Youth Action Center (www.bukavuyouth.org) in January. Most of my duties will fall within the Arts for Transformation program. I’m happy for the opportunity to bring what I know I have on most days: an eye for aesthetic and a creative mind. I believe in the importance of art and I want that to spread, especially in a place where a new opportunity for industry- aka creating a product- can make an enormous impact. 

That’s why the first project I’m planning is papermaking. I spent Friday evening (pre-cookout on the porch/life is good) sifting through the processes that I know and trying to “Congo-fy” them. Adjusting for a culture without blenders and hairdryers is surprisingly easy. We’ll use mortar and pestle and sunlight. If I continue to feel innovative, I’m hoping to extract dyes from fruit peels or other natural sources. The most important element to retain in this project is recycling. There’s no money to be buying new (and really, where’s the fun in that?). 

Despite the fun of the work, Congo’s absolutely going to be a long two and a half months in its own way. Something I’m quickly learning is that my actions have consequences. I don’t mean this in the threatening way that most parents communicate the same words before junior prom. What I mean is that I will never again NOT have been to Congo. Even if I leave tomorrow, that doesn’t undo the days I spent walking Bukavu streets knowing that every step I take is on soil, road, stone staircase that has seen war. We constantly wonder if the conflict in North Kivu province will begin to spread south, and where we will go if it does. There are UN Peacekeeping troops everywhere (despite the fact that the war is to the north of us. Someone do that math for me) and this is the first time I’ve seen the International Rescue Committee logo outside of their website. One of the first things Lora told me is that we have a shower but we don’t use it because a lot of the running water here carries an electric current- crossed lines and all. Bring it, month 5 of bucket showers. The exchange rate here is 900 francs to $1. The biggest bill in circulation is 500 francs. If you’re paying for anything worth more than a few dollars, you’re going to be paying in U.S. dollars. Did you get that? I said that I’m in Central Africa and I paid to put credit on my SIM card with a five dollar bill. 

I’m grateful for my time here and I’ll be making the most of it for these first months of summer, but when it’s time to come home in early August, I will be ready. A good friend of mine loves to say, “all I care about is money and the city that I’m from.” Like Drake, I can’t wait to be back in Toronto. Or something like that. 

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transit

I’m currently in Kigali, Rwanda. I’ve been here since the 17th and will be here until I’m either issued a visa to go to the DR Congo or until I’m flat out denied. Fingers are crossed for the visa, but I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high because I was already denied once while I was still in Cameroon. That was a low point: silently crying on the steps of the Congolese embassy with my summer plans lying in figurative pieces at my feet. But I already had a flight scheduled to Kigali, so I got on it and here I am. It’s good to be back.

So for the next week I’ll be here learning how to wait. It’s a good way to transition away from being a student (also, what the heck am I supposed to write in the ‘occupation’ space now? ‘Wayward traveler?’ ‘Vagabond?’) So while I sit around (in between chapters of Moby Dick. Did you get that? I’m reading Moby Dick. Does this make me an intellectual?), I’ll try to get this sadly neglected thing up-to-date.

I spent my April research studying apiculture. Yes, bees. No, I am not a biology major. I had a beekeeping apprenticeship that took place for four weeks in the city of Ngaoundere, and one week in the village of Lougga, 75 km outside of Ndere. Some lil things:
Sleeping arrangements in Lougga: mud hut. A beautiful reality because here’s the thing. Mud bricks and grass roofs keep a home pleasantly cool sans air conditioning/a fan that squirts water mist/ running water/ electricity. It’s a smart set up they’ve got going.
Neighbors in Lougga: Most notable was a beautifully ancient woman who knew perfectly well that the only Fulfulde I speak goes something like, “Hello, my name is Gretchen. I have one brother. My parents have two children. Our names are Sue, J.D., Jay and Gretchen. How much does that cost?” Despite this, she wanted to speak to me, so she would send a barrage of the unfamiliar language at me until somebody nearby translated to French. She gifted me a broom on my first day in Lougga.
As for the apprenticeship itself, I learned: how to weave a traditional hive, how to mount said hive in a tree (a big shout out to my childhood for earning me the climbing experience necessary to quickly scale the highest branches and impress my Cameroonian weaving tutor. If only six year old Gretchen could see me now!), how to harvest honey in the wilderness in the dead of night, how to get stung by bees, and how to collect wax from harvested combs.
At the end of that week, I rode back to Ngaoundere in the back of a truck transporting 8 other people, 14 goats, countless chickens, many bags of maize, 1 duck, firewood and some bamboo poles. I spent the majority of the drive sitting up on the metal railings, cool wind and the Adamaoua valleys covering me.
We were stopped at a police checkpoint for 30 minutes as we neared Ngaoundere because the officers claimed that the forest products we were transporting lacked “papers of origin.” There’s no such thing as papers of origin. There IS such a thing as police officers making up papers of origin so that they can get a bribe out of the truck driver. They had guns and we didn’t. Corruption in action.
The final result of the research was 51 pages of “Money, Honey: A Call for Modernity Among Adamawa Apiculteurs.” If you ever decide that you want to read it, I’m flattered, but I’d recommend you quickly rethink your decision. Nevertheless, I’m proud of the thing.

The Adamaoua region has a fascinating culture. Tattooing and scarring of women’s faces was really common. I’m conflicted about it because I think it’s beautiful- especially on smiling, elderly, wrinkled faces- but I see a good number of girls as young as five with simple, scarred lines (inked blue) on their cheeks. I can’t imagine the fear and the pain for those little beans. My 3-year old host niece crieds like French-dubbed “Hannah Montana” has been taken off the air when she’s just getting her hair braided. Someone approaching her face with a razor blade? No.
But I can’t really ever fully understand the practice either. I will never tattoo or scar my face (unless I commit a murder in the Bronx). What looks devastatingly beautiful and cultural embedded in brown skin would make me look like a pasty courtroom sketch artist whose pen has just exploded in one perfectly straight line down her forehead (even I don’t know why that’s the example I chose. Just go with it, please.) Here it’s a rite of passage, something to be proud of in an embrace of culture and tradition. I will continue to find it beautiful, but I will also continue to feel squeamish when I think about babies (by my broad definition) having their faces cut and inked.

Within the first three weeks of living in Ngaoundere, I ate 34 oranges. Yes, I kept a tally in my journal. For those of you who didn’t graduate 5th grade (I imagine that to be this blog’s majority demographic. If you’ve completed higher education aka survived middle school, what are you still doing here?) that adds up to more than 10 oranges a week. After the 3rd week I took a break from street oranges and moved on to street insta-coffee. Street food 4 lyf.

Laundry is starting to wear on me. I’ve hand-washed for four months now. There is perma-dirt in several of my shirts. Unscented, leave-no-trace, backpacking detergent inspires almost zero confidence in cleanliness and is, in my mind, one of the stupidest inventions of all time. The worst of it is my yoga pants. They so badly needed a dryer that when I wore them out* I was regularly having to hoist my waistline back up to where it belonged, attracting even more attention from pedestrians and small children in house windows who already think I look like a freak.
*Yes I, who (despite sporting the joufit twice a week all of fall semester) have snobbishly claimed to be anti-sweatpants-in-public since age 16, wore yoga pants out. This has since been remedied since I left the hopelessly stretched out things in Yaounde. But none of this really matters, and I’ve transitioned from writing about my time in Cameroon to my failed attempts at being fashion saavy. Sorry. Back to it then.

Operation Get to Equatorial Guinea failed. I’ll make this brief. After three and a half months- are you getting me? A QUARTER OF A YEAR- of asking anyone and everyone about this African North Korea, we didn’t get the crucial detail until it was too late. So for all of you who want to someday make it to Equatorial Guinea, know this and only this: the ferry from Limbe (Cameroon) to Malabo (EGA) only leaves twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). Cuss.

And finally, Mount Cameroon. On May 6, the day I was supposed to be walking in Hope College’s 2012 commencement ceremony, I was starting up a 13,000+ foot mountain with Margie, Elma, Elma’s mom Annie, one guide and three porters. What follows is the account from my journal. If you don’t want to read it all, I don’t blame you. But it’s here if you find yourself with some free time.

5/7/12
It’s entirely too possible that my fingers will fail me- any minute now- from the exertion of the wimple act of writing. But it’s so worth it; this mountain is like another world.
We started yesterday at 3:30 p.m. having been informed that, for the three day hike, we should expect to spend 6 or 7 hours getting to Hut 2, which meant that part of our journey would be in the dark. We took the challenge. Day 1 held excruciating physical demands, but the hike was scattered with moments that were a complete separation from the pain and apprehension.

One such separation happened fairly early on. When we got above treeline Samuel, our guide, pulled out the ferns he had collected along the way, giving out two per person. He told us about the god of the mountain. The autochtones who live on the mountain make sacrifices here. It used to be albinos (I hope we can believe him when he says it’s not practice anymore) but now a white goat, rooster or sheep is killed. For visitors it’s different. On an indescribably green slope with plantations, cities, gardens and ocean below us, the five of us beat the ferns in time- twice on our thighs, twice on our chests, twice on our heads- with Samuel’s song. When he finished, he yelled “TOO!” and we responded, “HOY!” and threw the branches behind our heads, arms completely outstretched, ethereal in our moment of blessing.

Another separation came at nightfall. Already exhausted with altitude getting to us, the idea of headlamps guiding us up a steep face covered in loose rock was still exciting, but more unwelcome, certainly, than it had been that afternoon. Luckily, thankfully, we were granted a relatively clear night and got to watch an enormous, red, full moon rise over the tiny lights of Douala so far below us.

And oh! the feeling of relief when we did finally make it to Hut 2. I struggled HARD in the last few hundred meters (Annie guessed altitude, Samuel suggested too much water, I say I made the mistake of starting the day dehydrated) and my pride was effortlessly broken in half when Samuel insisted on taking my pack, in addition to his own, for the last 300 meters. I am regularly brought to my knees.

The wind was frigid and I bundled immediately upon arriving at the hut. Despite an undeniable misery in the moment of pain, frustration and cold itself, there was also excitement over the experience and a nostalgia at being so cold you’re shivering.

After an hour and a half or so of insta-sleep, hot spaghetti fixed all physical ailments. I assumed, post-10:30 p.m. meal, that we would immediately put heads to pillows and be out until morning. But no, it was my graduation day and I have wonderful, irreplaceable friends here. Before I was allowed to go to sleep, Margie and Elma informed me that they had each written a speech. That alone was a thousand times more than what I deserved, but no. They, with the help of Emma, had collected ten letters from dear home friends. Margie started by reading Kelly’s aloud as we sat in our sleeping bags protected by our scrap metal Mount Cameroon hut and I cried into my scarf. Marg and Elma took turns reading each letter, all rendered on notebook paper in Margie’s handwriting, and I just sat and listened, laughing or nodding in understanding, gratitude silently pouring out of me.

AND THEN TODAY. Summit time. Woke up with nerves and a little dread: took a Cipro. We were woken at 6:00 and were on the trail by 7:30. The first hour, we have all agreed, was horrible because each of us was lethargic and self-doubting. But after a while, we fell into a rhythm. It was still difficult (for Annie, Elma and me it’s likely taken the title of most physically demanding thing we’ve ever done. Machu Picchu still wins out for Margie) but it was a rhythmic and bearable difficulty. At Annie’s suggestion of __ steps walked = ___ seconds of rest, we found ourselves steadily rising for long lengths of time without a seated break. Though the pattern alternated depending on the incline, an average of 30 steps with 8-10 counts of rest got me through the morning.

Eventually we got into flatter terrain, but that was somehow worse- I don’t know why. The whole paysage looks like Lord of the Rings though, and with the exception of an exhausting amount of wind, the weather could not have been better. We stood over huge, white clouds with puzzle pieces of city poking through, and under a bold, strong sun, nothing but whisps of clouds to contest it.

The summit came out of nowhere. I don’t know how else we expected it to happen. Samuel pointed it out to us as we approached, but as we climbed and fought the horrible wind, we lost our sense of height and the sign just sort of materialized. Even after first seeing it for myself, even after gauging the approximate number of steps it would take me to get there, I still feel like I apparated; I simply found myself sitting against my pack next to this carved piece of wood, no memory of how I got there. We can’t have been at the top more than five minutes. It was impossible not to wonder at the view, at the cloud shadows and shades of green, but the wind was violent and the descent steep on all sides. So we snapped our pictures, hauled the packs back on, and started down. That was noon.

The slopes that followed were wild and a little nervy and the joints. Loose rocks followed us down and hills and savannah and expanse greeted us and them. We tumbled for a while, noting how fun it would be to have a sled in this particular hiccup of world geography (I was thinking that. The rest of the group, all being more hardcore than I am, was probably thinking skis.)

We stopped for lunch around an hour after summitting, happy for a short respite from the wind (hidden behind rocks and trees, but hidden nonetheless.) Every time we sit down now it’s an immense relief. All of us flop to the ground with our packs forming a convenient back rest. On this particular stop, I was informed that a graduation gift had been forgotten as a jar of blueberry preserves emerged from someone’s pack.

They’re good, these people I’m with.

After lunch, things got really hard on the feet. We spent another two or so hours crossing a lava field. It was largely flat, and our cardio loved the break, but it’s just thousands of sharp, black rocks, the lose ones waiting to send our bare hands down onto painful brothers. Ankles were turned, knees locked, palms scraped and it’s sort of a wonder no one broke anything. The treacherous nature of the hike made it impossible to admire the scenery at the same time, but our occasional stops made it clear that, if we were to wander too far in the direction of the sky, we would certainly be staring over the edge of the earth.

Black rock gradually gave way to grass, and we hugged the edge of a soft hill until the path laid us out in a green valley. Our porters were asleep beneath a small group of trees, but les blanches preferred to warm our faces in the sun and discuss baby names for half an hour.

And, for a time, that was the end of the rocks. We enjoyed the luxury of a beaten grass path through the savannah that we had quickly opened into. I led this portion and walked a touch fast in order to, however briefly, feel alone in the vastness. It was at this point that Mount Cameroon began to feel less like one grand mountain and more like a path through a range of many small ones (though this sensation lasted only as long as I could forget the hellish ascent that had completed just hours earlier).

We saw an old, French-founded radio station (presumably to communicate with ships? But I missed that portion of the history lesson) and at that point the ocean began to rise into the sky, our sense of dimension completely thrown off. Malabo looked more like a floating space station at one point than it did an island.

Out of the grassy hills came two black craters, the site of another resting point. Samuel explained that in 1999 the volcano erupted once in April and again in May and that these two craters were part of a series of twelve. (When Mount Cameroon erupts, it is slow-moving, posing very little threat to Limbe and Buea, and even hikers if they happen to be on the mountain at the time.) We walked up to the edge of one crater, which was a little unnerving given that the walk was on loose rock and ash.

Once we were continuing, we rounded the corner past the craters and saw that the sides of the things we had just been looking down into contributed to great dunes of volcanic ash. DUNES ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN. Black ash dunes. Beautiful. It was like a desert.

And like so much on this mountain, the dunes just stopped, an invisible line marking the switch in environ. They gave way to more scraggly savannah, then that to grass slopes. We could see the perfectly outlined treeline getting closer and closer, and when we reached it, we were at Mann Spring Camp and allowed to collapse. Ten hours of hiking in one day.

5/8/12
Waking up this morning (after a night spent in a claustrophobic two-person tent) was rough but exciting. We set out by 7:00 and had a couple hours more across grassy savannah (also crossing over 1999 lava flow- a path of black rock that abruptly runs through the green here and continues all the way across a road in Limbe) before we entered the rainforest.

The rainforest was a struggle for a while. The trail was extremely overgrown, roots were wet, ants with enormous jaws that don’t unlock once they’ve bitten someone occasionally swarmed the ground at our feet. But we began to distract ourselves by relating the plots of the last two Hunger Games books to Margie [things I should maybe keep to myself] and by the end of it we were walking wider paths without having noticed the switch. Conversation continued as a tool of distraction and at 1:30 we were getting into a taxi, totally in awe of what we’d just done.

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