Angry in Africa

Justine's white person travel blog, of which the contents are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Jul 21

Cameroonian wedding crashers

As it happens, the title of this post refers to me, my host mother and a random group of her friends. Predictably enough, we crashed a wedding last night.

I had expected the major event of the evening to be the joint birthday party for two of the other PCTs. We all got permission from the homestay coordinator to stay out last our 7 PM curfew for the event (until 9!), and when it was time the Peace Corps and drove us home so that we wouldn’t have to walk in the dark.

When I arrived home we had guests: three random men drinking beer in the living room, which is pretty standard. After maybe thirty minutes my mother turned to me and seemed to ask in French if I could stay in the house with the 12 year old girl who is currently living with us while she and the guys went out. I obviously said yes, and next thing I knew she was calling the homestay coordinator and asking for permission to take me somewhere that involved beer.

"It’ll be okay," I thought to myself, "it’s late and last minute so she’ll definitely say no and then I can go to bed."

Everything went perfectly with that plan until my mother hung up the phone and told me that permission had been granted and to get dressed because we were going to a wedding.

Horribly underdressed in bright green skinny jeans, I left with them around 10:30 to drive to a village slightly out of the city for the reception. It wasn’t until we arrived, parked and walked into the building that I was informed we weren’t actually invited to this wedding. I was pushed into the reception room first, and then one of the men we were with argued a bit with the bouncer and everyone else in the group with the token white person was allowed into the party.

Once inside we were seated and silenced, as the music was cranked up so loud that even if French was my first language I would never have been able to communicate with anyone. It also quickly became apparent that we hadn’t been invited because my family doesn’t actually know either of the individuals participating in the marriage.

Just before the happy couple entered the reception around midnight, cheap boxes of red wine and small plastic cups were distributed to all of the tables, and I managed to choke down two horrible servings of it in total. The food was served at about 12:30, and I was boarding the “I’m so tired and still a little drunk from the party I went to earlier and I just want to fall asleep at this table” struggle bus. The next hour of my life was spent walking the line between being openly tired enough to get my companions to take me home and actually passing out.

Finally at 1:30 they put me out of my misery and announced that we were leaving the wedding. Never in my life have I been so relieved to leave a party at such an early hour. The last thing standing between me and my bed was the groom, who was literally in my path to the door.

Lucky for me, he didn’t seem to question the presence of a strange white girl at his wedding, and after a quick, ‘felicitación!’ I was free.

Lessons learned: when someone announces on a whim that you’re going to a wedding, don’t assume that an actual invite was issued. Also, avoid cheap boxed wine if possible. But when under conditions of hardship, do what you must.


Jul 18
We made a friend during our site visit to Dimako, a village in the East not far from Bertoua, a few weeks back. He came to visit the house of the volunteer we stayed with one morning and we almost brought him back to Ebolowa.

We made a friend during our site visit to Dimako, a village in the East not far from Bertoua, a few weeks back. He came to visit the house of the volunteer we stayed with one morning and we almost brought him back to Ebolowa.


How to get through your Sub Saharan African homestay

Before we go any further, I’d like to issue a couple disclaimers. I in no way mean to imply that a Sub Saharan African homestay is a bad thing or that I haven’t valued or enjoyed my experiences. I’m writing this post because certain aspects of homestay life start to wear on you, and because as a not at all family oriented person the homestays I’ve experienced have proven quite challenging at times. The various homestay family members I’ve collected are all wonderful people who have been exceedingly accommodating and  I greatly appreciate having been welcomed into their homes.

It’s also worth noting that I am not an authority on all Sub Saharan African homestays ever. I’m drawing on experiences of (mostly) my own in Rwanda and Cameroon, and homestay family of a friend with whom I stayed briefly in Tanzania. Every country and every family is different, so things that went well for me or my friends might turn out differently for others.

So, without further delay: I’m about to start a homestay in Sub Saharan Africa, what the hell is going to happen?

The first thing I will tell you is this: go to bed early! I go to be usually at least an hour before I actually plan to go to sleep because it’s the only alone time I get all day. Not to knock family time, but when you’ve been at school/work all day and you then have to come home and interact with a bunch of family members (and often times neighbors who drop by) in a language that you’re not used to speaking, that last hour or two of the day spent with a book/computer/iPod becomes vital.  I’ve been informed by various Cameroonian and Rwandan program coordinators that alone time is a very American concept, and if you tell your homestay family that you want to be alone they will think you’re insane. Going to bed at 8 PM, however, is perfectly reasonable. Even the the one year old in the house outlasts you every night.

The first thing a lot of other people will tell you is to keep your electronics/valuables/things you don’t want to share locked away in your suitcase, because in a lot of families individual possessions tend to be treated as community property. While my families have been incredibly respectful of my belongings, I would definitely advise others to feel out the situation before revealing laptops/iPods/iPhones etc. I’ve agreed to loan an iPod to siblings who have been extremely careful and respectful about it, but I’ve heard horror stories from my peers. The one thing I use in front of my family on a fairly regular basis is my kindle. At first they were intrigued, but once I explained that it’s just full of English language books and that it can’t get on Facebook they completely lost interest.

Sharing possessions that aren’t as difficult or expensive to replace can definitely won you some additionally brownie points. I tend to travel with a bunch of brightly colored nail polish which I’m usually happy to share and various sisters of mine have definitely seemed to enjoy it.

Food is the next big thing. As a vegan, I’ve been extremely lucky to stay with wonderful families who are very understanding. If you have any sort of dietary restriction that you plan to maintain, I would recommend being very upfront with your family about it as soon as possible. Also, never rely on the word vegetarian to relay all of the information you hope to get across. Explicitly list all of the things you can’t eat, and no matter how horrible it is, try not to turn down the things you can have if your family is accommodating a diet very different from their normal habits.

(Tonight, for example, I ate a food called couscous du manioc which in no way resembles actual couscous. It tastes like nothing and has the consistency of congealed mucus - think ugali. It was awful, but since the whole family has resolved to be vegan while I’m staying with them, I eat what they put in front of me.)

Further, if you tell your family that you like/love/really enjoy a particular food, you need to be prepared to love the shit out of it for a very long time because it will be served to you with alarming frequency until you leave. I told my Cameroonian family that I love avocado on my first night here and we have it at least three times a week, and I’m expected to eat a bigger portion than everyone else. After my Rwandan family found out that I like cappati they started sending my younger brother out to the alimentation to get it for me for breakfast every morning. When a 15 year old is getting dragged out of bed to go buy your breakfast before he has to go to school every day, you’re kind of obligated to eat it. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your family questions. On time in Rwanda my host father disappeared for three days and I had no idea where he was but I didn’t want to ask because I was afraid that they had told me and I had forgotten and I didn’t want them to know I had forgotten. I was extremely confused for several days, and finally on the last night my family asked if I hadn’t noticed where my father was, and explained to me that he was on a brief trip to another part of the country.

Moral of the story: ask questions. Frequently.


Jul 8
I miraculously got an intermediate high in French which means I now get to learn Fulfulde… From French. 

God help me.

I miraculously got an intermediate high in French which means I now get to learn Fulfulde… From French.

God help me.


Jul 4

Langue

For those of you who may not know, language training is a rather important part of Peace Corps Pre-Service Training (PST). In Cameroon everyone learns French, whether they like it or not. To swear in (aka graduate from PST), one needs to score intermediate high (or intermediate mid if going to one of the two Anglophone regions) on an ACTFL, which is basically a fancy language test of your speaking abilities.

When I arrived my language score was just about a 0, so I’ve definitely improved since then however it has been rough. Our midpoint ACTFL will be tomorrow morning, so to honor the occasion, here is my blog about my French learning experience with the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps uses a competency-based training method. There isn’t a huge focus on reading/writing and the finer points of the grammar because they would rather you get more practice speaking. This works really well for some people, but I am definitely not one of them. A more traditional approach with a much larger emphasis on the grammar would be infinitely preferable for me, because…

Perhaps I could figure out which letters you are and aren’t supposed to say! This language as SO MANY letters that you apparently just ignore (but not always!) and I cannot for the life of me figure out what they’re doing there if you’re not supposed to say them.

Similarly, half of the words don’t even sound like words to me - all I hear are a series of pretentious sounding grunts half the time.

The false cognates from Spanish, in addition to the temptation to fall back into Spanish phrases/structures are a problem not only for me, but for many of the other PCTs with various Spanish language levels. That can’t really be helped, but you know. Apparently Spanish is taught as an elective language in a lot of Cameroonian schools so a lot of our language instructions know a bit - just enough to call us on our shit when we try to pass off weirdly accented Spanish as French.

I currently have a class with two other PCTs, and every day our class devolves into a debate between us and our instructor about whether or not beer is helpful for various aspects of life (ie foreign language, serious conversations, dancing, fun). You can imagine who takes which side. It’s good practice, right?


Jul 3

It’s getting real

Today, after a really horrible week for me, we have received our post assignments and the verdict is in.

After saying to my program manager during every single interaction we’ve had “I want you to put me in the middle of your biggest city. And I need vegetables,” my efforts have payed off.

I’m moving to Bertoua next month!!! It is, in fact, the biggest city they had and I’m told I will be in the middle. And I verified when I was there last week that they do have vegetables. I already know some of my region mates and I’m pretty happy with the way things are looking. Apparently I’ll have really solid internet in my house as well, so now I just have to fix my broken computer. Donations can be sent to the mailing address I keep posting on Facebook.

Also, postcards. Send me your address if you want one.


Jul 1

For real though

The person who downloads the new Tessanne Chin album, burns it to a cd and mails it to me in Cameroon will be kissed in 26 months when I get back to the US.


Jun 28

Photos from Bertoua, the regional capital of Cameroon’s East region: avocado salad for breakfast, the view from our table, a random car full of watermelons, the shoe section of the market, a kitten in the shoe section of the market (whom the vendors tried to put in my bag after I took that photo) and a lizard at a bar.


Jun 21
Purchased some new notebooks at the market today. I think I’ll be building up this collection over the next two years…

Purchased some new notebooks at the market today. I think I’ll be building up this collection over the next two years…


Jun 18

Things I forgot, lost, or otherwise failed to bring

Bobby pins: I have been kicking myself for this pretty much ever since the plane took off 3 weeks ago. My bobby pin supply had dwindled to about 5 before I left the US and I never managed to buy new ones to bring. Naturally, the few that I had are long gone and I have 1 tiny hairclip to work with. Ebolowa, while boasting some surprising finds, seems not to be the place to purchase haircare products that I usually use. Hopefully I’ll have some luck the next time I’m in Yaoundé. It should be noted that I’ll happily owe a drink to the person who mails me a pack.

Hairbrush: My hairbrush went missing somewhere between Chelsea and Philadelphia, and because I was an optimistic FOOL I didn’t buy a new one before leaving the US, thinking I’d maybe find it in the bottom of my suitcase once I had unpacked. At the moment I’m doing alright without - the haircut I got before leaving has really paid off - but I’m not sure what the situation will be in a few months.

Citronella Oil: Citronella oil is my method of choice for fending off mosquitos, so naturally I forgot to put it on my packing list for a country full of malaria-carrying insects. The Peace Corps does provide us with bug spray, but it happens to be 30% DEET, and I’m just not into that. I’ve been going without bug spray altogether since arriving here, and I haven’t been bitten that much.

Peanut Butter: Based on my study abroad experience in Rwanda I decided not to bring any food, because I’ll just have to stop eating it when I run out anyway. This was fucking stupid. I want peanut butter.

Extra Earbuds: The pair I have is still working perfectly (knock on computer) but I happen to be cursed, so they’ll definitely break before I’ve been here for a year. I snatched 2 pairs of plane earbuds, but the situation is not ideal.

Homestay Gifts: In my defense, I ran around JFK for over an hour (nonconsecutive) trying to find something, and all they had was overpriced crap. I learned during my last homestay that I suck at picking out homestay gifts, and this trend has continued: while I had nothing for adults, I had some dollar store coloring books and crayons for the kids, and of course I’m in a family with no children. So I got on the plane thinking I would get something while in Yaoundé, but as it turns out, being locked in a hotel for a week is not the optimal gift buying strategy. I was, however, reassured by a volunteer that it’s okay to wait and get an end of homestay gift instead after you actually know your family members.

Leggings: I have some leggings to sleep in but not the kind that I would wear around, and as it turns out a couple pairs of black size medium American Apparel leggings would have certainly been useful.

Modest Shorts: Modest shorts are totally okay to wear in informal settings, judging from what I’ve seen thus far. I brought a couple pairs of immodest shorts to sleep in and a pair for the beach that’s not quite long enough to hang out in, and it’s a total bummer that my legs get needlessly sweaty so often.

Nail Polish Remover: I never really bring this anywhere though. Even at home I usually wait for it to chip and scratch the rest off when I want a new color, so I’m doing okay on the nail color front.

Airport Snacks: When you’re not expecting to be trapped in airports for extended periods of time, these can be easy to forget. But when, for some reason, you arrive at your place of departure 6 hours ahead of time and then are stranded in airport #2 for 7 hours and you happen to be vegan, airport snacks become extremely important. I found some Turkish bread-spinach concoction in JFK, where I also purchased a bag of popcorn that became my breakfast in Belgium. Had I known the situation I would have handled things very differently.


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