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I know I said in my last post that it would probably be my last post for awhile, which it probably should be, since my U.S. life is a little lacking in adventure to keep updating this. But, lest you worry I accidentally boarded a plane to Kyrgyzstan, or dropped off the side of the planet, or some equally severe and unlikely and terrifying scenario, rest assured, I MADE IT HOME TO AMERICA AND IT IS WONDERFUL AND GREAT AND EVEN GREATER THAN I REMEMBER IT BEING.

It’s odd. I was never the most gigantic fan of America; I never would have adorned my car (if I had a car) with one of those “God Bless America” bumper stickers, or my lawn (if I had a lawn) with an American flag, or anything super-patriotic like that. I still would never do those things. Buuut, going away for awhile did make me appreciate some really great aspects about being home. Like being able to see/text/talk to my best friends and family at any time of the day, without having to calculate an 8-or-9-hour time difference and catch a moto taxi to the cyber café that may or may not have working internet, or make sure I have enough credit in my phone and justify a super expensive text that may or may not actually arrive, or send a letter from the post office that may or may not make it there in a few weeks. At the same time, I miss things and people from my life back in Cameroon – I called my neighbors the morning (evening, their time) of the end-of-Ramadan feast, and my 9 year-old friend Ilou had been crying all day because I wasn’t there to celebrate with them.

I think the weirdest part of all about being back is how un-weird it is to be back. Even with technology that connects me, in some ways, to people and life in Cameroon, it still feels a billion miles away. It’s like I’ve resurfaced from some strange two-year time warp, and now I’m back in my normal, everyday American life, and nothing’s changed, except for the fact that now OH MY GOD I’LL BE 25 IN TWO DAYS HOW DID THAT HAPPEN I WAS JUST 22.

Which is not to say, either, that being back is totally normal. After only a few days of having been back, I went to the Walgreens down the street from my parents’ house. I wandered around the store for probably 30 minutes in dazed amazement at the variety of items at my disposal to purchase, before, finally, making my way to the cash register. The cashier convinced me to sign up for a Walgreens card, and then talked me through, step-by-step, how to enter my phone number on the little credit-card-reader-machine-thing on the checkstand. As I paid for my items, she casually inquired: “So… Is this your first time, ever, in a Walgreens?”

Another thing that is strange, since being back, is witnessing the smartphone explosion that seems to have happened while I was gone. Before I left, a lot of people had smartphones… But not EVERYBODY. That was the first thing I noticed at the airport in DC: EVERYBODY has smartphones. Okay, obviously not everybody. But a lot of people seem to. I even have a smartphone! For the first time, ever.  A pretty big step up from my faithful little Tecno… Though I did download a flashlight app, reminiscent of the “torch” characteristic of every single cell phone sold in Cameroon. (No dual SIM, however…)

Fittingly, I used my new fancy phone to take a picture of the following picture, to catch one funny aspect of subtle, awkward readjustment to life back in the U.S. Maybe I’ll add some more later… Maybe I won’t. See what a mysterious note I’m ending this on?!?!?!

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Goodbye, Garoua.

This is the last blog entry I’ll be writing from Cameroon, and, consequently, probably the last entry in general that I’ll be writing for awhile – as much as I would personally find a detailed recounting of shopping for shampoo at Target, or consuming organic muffins at a Portlandy café, to be a delightful read right about now, I’m guessing most other human beings that I know from most other places other than Cameroon wouldn’t share my enthusiastic embrace of such mundanity. Which is mostly to say, of course, that my life will be way too boring to blog about when I go back to the U.S.

I’m currently in Yaoundé, where my week has consisted and consists and will consist of completing various medical appointments, meeting with various staff members to get their signatures on various checklists, and doing other various close-of-service type things in anticipation of flying out of the country on Friday. Another thing this week consists of is saying goodbyes – something I’m terrible at, in that doing so never quite seems real until a few days or a week or a month after the fact, when I’m somewhere new, doing something else… In this case, sitting at my parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, torn between the immediate and overwhelming joy of reunion with friends and family and Target and muffins, and the simultaneous tempering of said joy with imagined scenarios of what my closest friends for the past two years are doing thousands of miles away, where life still continues, hard as it is to personally believe, without me.

Unfortunately, some of my face-to-face goodbyes were made slightly more abrupt than anticipated, because my house was broken into—for the second time in three months, even after I changed my locks following the first robbery—four days before I was supposed to leave Nassarao. I had gone to my neighbors’ house one evening for dinner, and when I came home later that night, I found that my Kindle, mp3 player, camera, and about 30 000 CFA had been taken from inside my locked bedroom, inside my locked house, inside my locked compound. The lucky thing is that I had coincidentally taken my computer to my neighbors’ house to sort through pictures to print as souvenirs, so it wasn’t stolen. The other lucky thing is that I’d already sold or given away most of the things in my house, and was keeping money and valuables like my external hard drive at the Peace Corps office. The unlucky—or, I guess, just unfortunate—thing is that I’m 99% certain I know who did it, and it was someone I thought was a friend. I didn’t bother reporting the incident to the authorities, since I didn’t want my last moments in Garoua to be spent inside a police station and interrogating my neighbors; but I did send an angry text to the thief-in-question that concluded with “Dieu va te juger” (“God will judge you”). Such empty, uncharacteristically God-wielding words on my part probably hold little weight compared to the obvious and tangible benefits of stolen money and mp3 players and cameras, but, at least, he knows that I know.

When I discovered my stuff was missing, I ran back to my neighbors’ house, where their family nicely set up a mattress and mosquito net and let me sleep—or rather, lie sleeplessly atop the mattress—for the night. The next morning, I went back to my place to assess the damage, and upon entering my compound, found a set of four stolen keys—to my gate, front door, padlock, and bedroom—tossed onto the ground inside the gate, wrapped in a crumpled piece of notebook paper. Peace Corps drove a vehicle over to pick up the few remaining things at my house, and I moved into our office in town for my remaining few nights in Garoua. Since Nassarao is only about ten minutes away from the office, I was still able to go back during the day to say better goodbyes, which was nice, but also sort of weird, after having already moved out; the biggest weirdness probably stemmed from the fact that shortly after I had moved out and returned my keys to my landlord, the landlord sent over some people to clean out the weeds and garbage I’d left behind in my haste to vacate the premises. The result of this cleaning-out was that the entire road leading to and away from my house was littered with my old papers and photos (at least I’d had the forethought to tear them into lots of tiny pieces) and other articles of trash, which children were digging through and playing with. An awkward sight to stumble upon.

After spending my last few nights in Garoua—and sharing a final meal of folleré sauce and bouille with my neighbors—I left on Saturday morning to catch a 6:30am bus to Ngaoundéré. It was a typical Cameroonian bus ride: smushed uncomfortably between a family who positioned themselves along aisle and row seats and proceeded to loudly interact across me as though there was not a human body sitting between them; and sweating profusely due to lack of open windows, since Cameroonian passengers generally subscribe to the belief that contact with fresh air in moving vehicles will cause people—particularly infants and small children, who are preventatively wrapped in multiple layers of snow-storm-appropriate clothing for this very reason—to fall immediately and profoundly ill.

Following arrival in Ngaoundéré, I caught the evening train, as usual, to Yaoundé. We took off at 7pm—about 40 minutes later than usual, to accommodate for Ramadan—and things were going smoothly until around 1am, when we stopped due to a derailing of some kind. Not unusual. Said derailing continued until 6:30am, when we finally continued, until 9am, when we stopped again. Still not unusual. Things became more unusual, however, when we were told that the train coming from Yaoundé had blocked our path, and that we wouldn’t be able to continue until 7:30pm – 10 hours later. Some people left the train to search for buses; others, either unable or unwilling to spring for a bus ticket, or holding onto hope that things would be resolved sooner rather than 10 hours later, stayed in the train. I was among the latter people, for an hour or so, until I finally accepted the reality of the situation and gathered all of my luggage—a hiking backpack, a suitcase, a duffle bag, a handbag, and my moto helmet; way more stuff than I would normally have—and stumbled my way out of the train and up a hill to a sketchy-looking van (which is to say, a typical Cameroonian travel van). The driver threw my luggage up top, we waited for the car to fill to its typical five-to-a-row capacity, and we made our way to Yaoundé, stopping periodically for our license-less driver to bribe various authority figures. I had the fortune of sitting next to a nice Malian man who came to Cameroon a year ago to pursue a music career, and who helped me load my luggage into a taxi when we finally arrived in Yaoundé, at around 2:30pm. Far from a seamless final-train-trip… But, then again, it was probably the most fitting final-train-trip I could have imagined.

In honor of fitting endings, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of my counterpart’s language center, which I posted a couple of pictures of in my last post. Unfortunately, these pictures were taken when the center had just opened and enrollment was still pretty low; I would have taken pictures of some English and computer classes from later on, but the whole stolen-camera-situation prevented that from happening. In any case, a final GIGANTIC THANK YOU to all of my wonderful and amazing friends and family who helped to make this center a reality; really, I can never sufficiently express how grateful I am for what you did. Neither can my counterpart, or these really happy Cameroonian children learning computers and English:

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Also, just to bring things full circle, some before-and-after pictures with my neighbors, from my first month to my last month of service:

Then…

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ImageAnd now…

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(He was SHORTER than me, in that first picture…)

A popular Cameroonian phrase that people often like to say, usually in parting, is the expression “On est ensemble” (“We are together”). As this is a parting post, I can think of no better words to employ; after all, physical proximity is only one measure of togetherness, and Cameroon and I will always be ensemble - even when I’m back in the land of Target and muffins, missing simple times like this, and the people I miss so much already:

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Two years ago today, I wrote a blog post announcing the fact that I’d just been assigned to the North region. I was so excited; the North was the part of the country I had been hoping for, for no particular reason other than the fact that my romanticized image of Africa involved things like mud huts and sun and women in vibrantly-colored headscarves. I referred to the area as “stereotypical Savanna-with-safari-animals-and-hundred-degree-weather,” which turned out to be kind-of-partly-accurate, at least in the hundred degree weather sense of things – though safari animals aren’t exactly roaming around my backyard. (I didn’t even manage to glimpse a lion when I visited Waza Park, Cameroon’s biggest wildlife tourist attraction, during spring break last year… The chances of running into one in the midst of the regional capital, where I live, are, as one may imagine, measurably slimmer.)

In the same post, I also gawked at the novelty of some mostly un-gawking-worthy experiences, like eating a fish head for dinner and watching dubbed Latin American soap operas on national TV. I was looking forward to my upcoming “site visit”—during which I would see the North for the first time—although I had little idea what the trip actually entailed beyond “multiple forms of transportation, including a night train.”

Now, my service has come full circle. A few days ago, I returned from Bafia, where I helped out with training for the new volunteers who just arrived in country. On the way back from Bafia, instead of taking the train from Yaoundé as I usually do, I took a bus through the East (the only of the ten regions I hadn’t yet visited) to see a Cameroonian friend whose family is from Bertoua (the regional capital), and to be super touristy by visiting a nearby Pygmy village:

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I’m now, once again, back in Garoua. My house is in disarray as I attempt to sort through all of the objects and stuff and possessions I’ve accumulated over the past two years, to sell and throw away and give to neighbors and kids and other volunteers since I’m not being replaced. All that’s left, afterward, is closing my bank account, saying goodbyes, and boarding the train one last time.

In honor of all of this melodramatic finality, and since I haven’t updated my Shutterfly for over a year—and since I clearly won’t be updating it, at this point—some pictures to capture the last half-a-year-or-so of my service:

Peer educators from my HIV project, proudly displaying their Peace Corps certificates.

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Monthly “amicale” dinner with other teachers and staff from my school.

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At a couple of pedagogic seminars for English teachers in the North region. (Despite how it may appear in these pictures, I don’t actually wear the exact same purple v-neck every single day… Only when I’m being photographed, apparently.)

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Another end-of-the-year pic with students.

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My counterpart’s linguistic/IT center, getting ready to open up for classes with the donated computers my amazing friends and family helped pay for.

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Filling report cards, Cameroon-style, by headlamp in the dark, because power was out.

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Funny drawing I confiscated from one of my 6ème students. (In case you can’t read the words at the top… “Michelle Obama.”)

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Punishment: Write 500 times, “I will not throw shoes in class.”

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End-of-the-year bracelet one of my 6ème students gave me.

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You haven’t eaten a mango until you’ve eaten a giant Cameroonian mango.

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I transported this on a motorcycle… By far, the most unpleasant ride of my Peace Corps service (minus, I guess, the time the driver hit a pedestrian, and we all toppled over).

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Typical dinner chez les voisins.

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My good friend Ilou, being Ilou.

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My good friend Ilou, when he broke his leg last year… In the U.S., if you break your leg, you go to school and have your friends sign your shiny new cast. In Cameroon, you’re immobile for a month, you can’t go to school, and your mom has to stay with you all day and night to take you to the bathroom and help you dress yourself.

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Friends are fun.

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More friends are more fun.

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With less than two months left in my Peace Corps service, time has taken on a different shape; while omelet sandwiches fried in carts on the sides of the road, moto taxi rides through sun-stained streets, and phone credit sold from umbrella-clad wooden tables have become features of the everyday life that I’ve loved and will continue to love and miss, the anticipation of things like grocery store aisles stocked with millions of varieties of prepackaged foods, public buses that run on posted schedules and leave at set times, and monthly phone plans that refill automatically, without even leaving the house, take me more and more outside of the moment.

It’s a strange contradiction. On the one hand, whenever Cameroonians idealize life in the U.S., making outrageous statements like “Poverty doesn’t exist over there,” I find myself irritated and defensive, trying to prove that things aren’t perfect where I come from; that people suffer everywhere. I often overcompensate by emphasizing all of the problems that do exist in the U.S. Yesterday, as I was getting on the back of a moto taxi, the driver said to me, referring to the difficulties of his work as a taxi driver: “We struggle here in Cameroon… People don’t struggle like this in America.” I asked him if he had ever been to the U.S. He replied that he hadn’t. I responded, “I’m an American… I’ve lived in both the U.S. and Cameroon, and as an American, I can assure you that what you believe about my country isn’t true. People struggle there, too.” He laughed and conceded, good-naturedly, “Okay, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.” I laughed, too, got on the moto, and that was that.

This “west is best” idea is unfair and insulting not only to the countless westerners who do struggle to make ends meet each day, who don’t live the paradisiacal life others may imagine it to be, but also to the countless non-westerners who live productive, self-sustaining, happy lives and are constantly bombarded by western ideals of what developed society should look like. And yet, at the same time, while I become frustrated by these crazy and unrealistic notions about my country, I find myself doing, to an extent, the very same thing I criticize others for – mentally building up aspects of the U.S. in ways I never would have done when I actually lived there. It’s not even as though I live in a remote village, without running water or electricity or cell phone service, as some volunteers and many Cameroonians do; but it’s still easy to focus, especially in these last couple of months, on the superficial degrees to which my life will be different when I return home – no more scrubbing clothes by hand in a bucket on my porch, or moto-ing into town to send a single email attachment, or bracing myself for an imminent power outage at the first signs of rain. Of course, these very differences are exactly why I chose Peace Corps service in the first place – to experience and live a different way of life than what I know and is familiar and comfortable.

But that’s just it: the fact that I can enjoy minor inconveniences, knowing that there’s a life-back-home to go back to, is a reminder of the biggest difference that will always separate me from the majority of my Cameroonian friends, that prevents me from ever truly integrating into Cameroonian society. It’s easy to dabble in life in a developing country when there’s an obvious endpoint in sight. As long as two years may feel, it’s not that long. Difficulties I encounter may be frustrating at the moment, but they’re fleeting. They’ll one day be those life-changing things I look back on as favorite memories, captured in folders of pictures on my laptop or smart phone, souvenirs of “life in Africa.”

Cameroonians who deal with these things every day don’t have that “out.” I’m not even talking about material stuff, lack of washing machines and wi-fi (technology that exists in Cameroon, but only amongst the extremely wealthy, and not nearly on the scale that it does in the U.S.). I mean it in a more general sense. I sometimes wonder: If I was born in Cameroon, would I have finished high school? Would I have started high school? Would I have a job? Would I be married, with kids right now? These are all questions I’ve never had to consider the implications of in the U.S. But in all likelihood, they are questions I wouldn’t like the answers to, had I been born a different nationality.

Yesterday and today, I spent my mornings at a health center, acting as go-between for a friend of mine and her husband. My friend, Anna (that’s not her real name, but I’ll call her that for the purposes of this story) was a student in 3ème—the equivalent of 9th grade—when her parents forced her to marry a man old enough to be her father (literally; he actually has children older than she is). Shortly after getting married, she became pregnant, but a couple of months into the pregnancy she fell ill; the illness continued for about a year, during which time she was forced to leave school and sent to stay with her parents. She finally recovered, but lost both the baby and her hearing in the process.

That was about five years ago. Now, at 19, she’s still married to a man she not only doesn’t love, but resents and dislikes; her husband spends most of his time at work, and rarely sleeps at home. When he is home, he openly berates Anna in front of everyone who comes to visit, profiting from the fact that she can’t hear what he’s saying. He claims she doesn’t behave as a good wife should – keeping the house clean, cooking, attending to his needs, etc. They argue constantly, and when they argue, he often refuses to give her money to buy food. If she’s not with friends or at the market, Anna spends her days alone in her house, watching TV and writing lyrics to American pop songs in a collection of notebooks – before she was forced to leave school, English used to be one of her favorite subjects, and she liked to perform skits and songs for English Club. While deaf schools exist in Cameroon, Anna does not have access to them, and has never learned to sign. With her extremely limited hearing, she communicates by reading lips—to the extent that she can—and relying on others to write down things for her to read.

The day before yesterday, I was at another neighbor’s house and learned that Anna was sick. My friend had accompanied Anna to a health center in town to do some tests, but neither of them understood what the doctor was saying – Anna couldn’t hear, and my other friend couldn’t follow the complicated French medical vocabulary the health worker was employing. To make matters worse, the document that the health staff printed out from the computer, explaining the test results, was in English, and even the nurse couldn’t read it very well. My friend asked me if I would accompany Anna to the health center again yesterday, and I agreed.

Yesterday morning, I waited for Anna to beep me (a short phone call where you hang up before the person answers so it doesn’t consume phone credit, and the other person calls you back using his or her own credit) to say she was ready to go. Instead, she sent me a text message, asking me to come to her house because her husband wanted to be sure she wasn’t lying about whom she was going to the heath center with. When I arrived, my friend and several other neighbors, as well as Anna and her husband, were sitting outside, heatedly discussing something. Anna’s husband abruptly declared that she wasn’t allowed to go with me, and that he would only give her money to go to the health center if she went with him; Anna refused. Her husband proceeded to insult her while the other neighbors blamed her for being unreasonable. Her husband was angry because when Anna had gone to the health center the day before, she’d asked her father for the money to do so, and didn’t tell her husband that she was going. The question of what was best for Anna’s health never once entered the scope of the discussion.

After a lot of confusion and awkwardness, it was finally settled that the three of us—me, Anna, and Anna’s husband—would go to the health center together. Once we were there, a nurse explained to us Anna’s medical problems – of which there were many. Throughout the visit, Anna’s husband loudly and repeatedly ordered me and all of the health staff to “tell Anna that she doesn’t behave like a good wife,” blaming her for things like “wearing jeans” and “spending time with unmarried, ‘free’ girls in the neighborhood.” The health workers politely listened to his rantings, tactfully suggesting—as I also tried to do—that he broach the subject, in a less accusatory way, with Anna herself. He wasn’t very receptive to this idea.

The results of one of Anna’s tests were inconclusive, so we had to come back today to redo it. Anna and I took advantage of the situation to arrive at the health center early, before her husband got there; her husband, for as long as they’d been married, had been taking daily pills for an unknown condition, but refused to tell Anna what they were or why he was taking them. Anna had previously tried stealing one of the pills and going to another health center to identify it, but health center staff refused to tell her unless she came back with a parent, which she could never ask her parents to do. When we explained what the pills looked like to this doctor, he reflected for a minute, and then informed us that they were most likely some form of illicit drug. As far as the rest of the visit, for the sake of Anna’s privacy, I won’t get into the details; but suffice to say, things didn’t get better.

These are the kinds of situations that make me feel ridiculous and spoiled for my excitement over grocery store food and unlimited texting. I’m five years older than Anna, and I have my entire future ahead of me. She’s stuck in a marriage with a man twice—possibly three times—her age, who doesn’t love or even respect her, because her family put her in that position. It’s horrible and unjust and unfair, and I don’t know what to do about it… So I write long, rambly blog posts.

I usually try to balance out these depressing entries by posting cute pictures of my cat at the end, but I have sad news… Citta died earlier this week. I found her outside my house, and while I’m not certain what happened, my best guess is she was bitten by a snake.

R.I.P. Citta. You will be missed. :0(

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As opposed to last entry’s rambling, :0( — :0| — :0) scale of sad-normal-happy, this post will stay on the short, :0) side of things.

I’m in Yaoundé right now for two weeks of training, to prepare to train the new volunteers that will be arriving in June. Which means: Teaching is done! Exam proctoring is done! Report-card-filling is done! Done. Done. Done.  I can add one more “done” to the list because on Friday, we finally finished up the HIV/AIDS project I’d mentioned in my last post. Our twelve peer educators had already been trained, so all that was left was the sensitization/free testing event at the high school. I was worried not a lot of people would show up since it was the end of the year and students had mostly stopped coming to school, but the peer educators that we worked with did an amazing job of telling other students about the event and getting people excited to attend. A hundred and eighty-eight people got tested – the majority of them students between 15 and 24 years old, but even a few teachers got tested, too. The day was filled with lots of fun things, like:

HIV-AIDS-counselling-life-skills-themed skits:

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Dancing:

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Q&A quizzes about HIV/AIDS/STIs:

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Games:

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Condom demonstrations:

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And, of course, the testing itself:

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All-in-all, a success. A great way to conclude the school year, with lots more photo memories to take home with me when I leave… 2 months and 14 days from now.

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I wrote this post and then realized how scattered-and-all-over-the-place it seemed, even more so than my usual scattered-and-all-over-the-place blog post nature. So, I’ve broken it into parts, and labelled it using a scale of :0( to :0| to :0) for your organizational reading pleasure.

I. :0(

The Boston Marathon bombing. Elementary school shootings. An AmeriCorps member being shot in the middle of the street while working on a volunteer project in New Orleans. An eight year-old being stabbed to death in her own neighborhood. It seems like every time I go on the internet or turn on a television, these are the only things I keep hearing about back home. Death, death, and more death. Of course, it’s understandable that we keep hearing and talking and debating about them. They are senseless acts of violence and they are tragic and scary, and they force us to realize things that we don’t want to realize about the people and world around us. That there is that capacity for evil and sadness and destruction; that sometimes, there is little or nothing we can do to prevent or stop it.

Around the same time all of these events were transpiring in the U.S., I found out one of my Terminale students had died from complications during her pregnancy. More death – though of the markedly less sensational kind. She was actually in my class, taking an exam, when she fell ill; I called some other students and the discipline master to escort her out of the classroom, and the principal drove up to the classroom in her car to take her to the hospital. That was right before spring break. I didn’t get a chance to follow up on how she was or what had happened until later, while passing through Ngaoundere during break and visiting a friend of hers, when I learned she had passed away. She’d been married eight months, and was pregnant with her first child. She would have been 21 this month. Out of a class of 70, she wasn’t a student I knew well or even particularly remarked—it’s sad to say, but before this happened, it probably would have taken me a few tries to even match her face to her name—but it was shocking. I had graded her exams. I had filled her report cards. I had taught her English. And just like that, she was gone. Her seat was empty. I would no longer grade her exams or fill her report cards or teach her English. Just like that.

A week or so later, the wife of a teacher at my school died from an asthma attack. Another week after that, the husband of the secretary at my school was killed by an aggressor, while driving his new motorcycle in town. In response to the latter two deaths, a list was circulated amongst the teachers and we each donated a dollar or two to show our support. Almost immediately thereafter, they were back at school, working and teaching, like nothing had ever happened. Maybe a “mes condoléances” was uttered, but otherwise, things were back to normal. Life moved on.

It’s true that somebody passing away from an asthma attack is many gradations and worlds and miles away from an eighteen year-old kid being shot by a stranger in the middle of a city street. To some extent, we can make sense of someone dying of a natural illness—even if it’s an illness that should be preventable or treatable, that shouldn’t kill someone out of the blue—but it’s harder to wrap our minds around murder. Even within the realm of murder, it’s easier to make sense of it in the context of motorcycle theft, than in the context of some guy opening fire on a classroom full of first graders for no apparent reason. While both constitute deplorable acts of violence, the former is fueled by poverty and greed and desperation. It’s something we can clearly see the motives behind; it’s something, at least, we can take certain precautions to try to avoid. It doesn’t make it okay, but it makes it understandable. Nobody set off a bomb at a public sporting event, or entered an elementary school with a gun and went on a violent shooting rampage. It’s reprehensible. It’s tragic and horrible. It’s not unfathomable.

I know this is my second blog post on the topic of death, and I also know I’m not really saying anything new that I haven’t said or that hasn’t been said before. But living in Cameroon, thousands of miles away from home—yet still being connected, in countless respects, to “home” through phones and email and television and Facebook and radio—has a way of putting things in strange perspective. All of the differences aside—between the deaths I’ve seen and heard about on the TV and on the internet, and those I’ve seen and heard about in my immediate proximity—what I’ve taken away from it all, once again, is the incredible resiliency of Cameroonian culture when it comes to death. I remember when I was in elementary school, and an older kid in my school died during break while visiting the beach with his family. He was playing on a log in the ocean, and a wave came and washed him under. A field was named after him at the school: “Jacob’s Field.” When students die in Africa, fields aren’t named after them. People grieve, they mourn, they move on. I can’t imagine somebody in the U.S. returning to work a week after his or her spouse was killed, and functioning with any reasonable level of sanity or professionalism. Here, it’s just part of life.

I recently read a blog post about how American media coverage tends to only focus on stories like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Sandy Hook shooting – both unthinkable events; both, incidentally, impacting primarily white victims. The blogger makes the observation that as a black woman, she felt numb seeing images of blond Sandy Hook children plastered across TV screens, imagining all of the countless black youth who have been murdered in the U.S., and the hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan kids killed by American forces, neither of which the world hears anything about. Not being a person of color myself, I’m clearly in no place to speak to what she is experiencing. But it’s something to think about. I don’t believe one tragedy can void or invalidate another; a young Cameroonian woman dying from lack of access to adequate prenatal care doesn’t make a young white kid whose last moments were spent hugging his dad at the finish line to a marathon any less significant or awful, and vice versa. They’re both horrible, and they both deserve talking about – but not just talking about. Of course, what exactly that entails, beyond the talking about, brings up a lot of other questions… None of which I have even the beginnings of answers to.

II. :0|

Enough talk about death. Some updates on life in Cameroon since my last post:

After returning from my short stay in Lara in my neighbors’ village, in the Extreme North, I continued south to Yaoundé, where I met up with the rest of the volunteers from my training group for our COS (“close of service”) conference, which always takes place a few months before volunteers actually COS. We stayed in a fancy hotel and attended sessions on resumé writing and careers in foreign service and adjusting to life-after-Peace-Corps and other end-of-Peace-Corps-life things like that. Most importantly, I learned my “official” (I put it in quotes because it hasn’t been confirmed in writing or anything like that, but it’s mostly certain) COS date: July 26th. Meaning: LESS THAN THREE MONTHS until I’m back in the U.S.! It’s exciting and unbelievable and crazy and sad and scary and terrible and great, all at the same time. While some volunteers have taken vacations to Europe or gone home to visit family during their service, I’ve gone the full two years without having left the country. Partly because I didn’t have the money to do otherwise, but also because I wanted to fully profit from the 27 months I was given to experience Cameroonian life. (Now that I’ve done so—having fully experienced going-on 23 months of Cameroonian life—a few non-Cameroonian-life things I’m really looking forward to upon my return: wearing hoodies and jeans every day, having zero daily interactions with strangers revolving around the color of my skin, consuming endless quantities of fancy overpriced blended coffee drinks and vegetarian cuisine.)

After returning from COS conference, I resumed teaching, which is nearly over for the year (I joked about school being over in my last post, but now it’s actually true. Sixième finished taking their final exams yesterday, so I just have report-card-filling; and Terminale starts their exams tomorrow, while preparing for national exams in about a month or so). Despite the fact that school is basically over, I’m also working with a few staff members to wrap up an HIV/AIDS project at the high school (it was supposed to have been finished in mid-February, but the funding got seriously delayed and we had make a decision: either abandon the project completely, or try to do it in the time we have left. The administration still wanted to go forward, so we chose the latter option). So far, we’ve trained twelve peer educators at the high school, who will in turn train their classmates about safe sex, HIV/AIDS, STIs, and other life skills. Since it’s the end of the year, we won’t have much time for them to actually put their peer educating skills into practice, but they’re going to continue what they started next year. I was having my doubts about trying to do everything we’d planned in the limited time we have left, but seeing the positive reactions so far from students, staff and community members has made me glad for the decision we made. The final stage of the project will be a testing event at the school in mid-May, so here’s to hoping that’s a success!

Of course, with every positive experience, there’s usually something less positive you have to surmount in the process. In this case… petty theft. Some back story: For our project, we give a 500 CFA ($1) per diem to the peer educators and staff for travel to-and-from meetings. Because change is always a huge pain to acquire, I’d asked a friend of mine who works at the Total station by my house to change out about 10,000 CFA for 500 CFA bills, and was keeping the money in my house until I would need it. When I went to get the money one day, I realized it was missing. I searched everywhere, believing I had to be going crazy, and finally accepted, for the sake of my own sanity, that I must have misplaced it – I knew the few people who had been in my house recently, and was certain they couldn’t have taken it. Besides, nothing else was missing, including a larger sum of money kept in another drawer right next to the 500 CFAs. I replaced the money and wrote it off as negligence on my part.

Fast forward about a week. I went to the bank and withdrew about 200,000 CFA (~$400). I usually don’t keep such large amounts of money around my house, but I needed funds on hand for various project expenses, and the bank isn’t always open when I need them (plus, the ATM machine is far-from-reliable enough to count on at such times). So, one Friday morning, I divided the money into two envelopes—500 CFA bills in one, and everything else in the other—put them in a drawer in my bedside table underneath some books and papers and other things, and left for school. This was around 7am. I came back from school at 12pm, and everything seemed normal: gate locked, door locked, my stuff untouched (including my computer, camera, and other money sitting in my living room right when you walk in). Then, about an hour later, I went into my room to get some money to go into town and buy project supplies. And… Both envelopes were gone. Vanished. In their place, I found the following note:

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I immediately called Peace Corps, who took me to the gendarmes to explain what happened, and gave me the option of filing a formal complaint. After some consideration, I decided not to. The only person I’ve ever given a key to was Ila (Ismaila, the “other person like a spirit” from the note), who lives in my compound; whenever I travel, I leave a key with him so he can feed my cat. I’m 99.99% certain he wasn’t the one behind the break-in, even though he’s the most obvious suspect; my guess is one of his friends must have stolen the key from him and made a copy. Whoever it was, it was clearly someone who knew me, and who felt at least moderately bad about what they’d done. I didn’t really want to spend the last three months of my service subjecting people around me to gendarme interrogations, when nothing would most likely come of it, anyway. Plus, in a weird way, I’d almost rather not know what friend of mine has been breaking into my house and stealing my money; I’d prefer to leave Cameroon in a state of ignorance, as stupid as that seems. I changed the locks to my house and added a padlock, so it shouldn’t happen again. The worst part of it all is just knowing that somebody had been in my house, going through my things, on at least two (and probably more) occasions, and I had no idea. The night after it happened, I slept with all of the lights on in my house, just so I’d know right away if somebody entered… Fortunately, the paranoia has worn off a little by now. At least enough to sleep with the lights off.

III. :0)

As I mentioned in the sort-of-happy-sort-of-sad-face section, it’s the end of the school year! For the last day with 6eme, I brought my camera and at the end of class took pictures of my students to take home as a souvenir:

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After class, knowing I still had my camera with me, a few students approached me asking to take some pictures of us together. I told them I didn’t mind taking the pictures, but they would have to give me 100 CFA (20 cents) for each one they wanted printed. They quickly agreed. As other 6eme students caught wind of what was happening, I soon had a mass of excited picture-takers around me. I ended up giving my camera to the class prefect and lining everybody up, to avoid the disorderly chaos that was already on the verge of developing, then going down the line and snapping photos one-by-one in an oddly celebrity-style photo shoot, like this:

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At one point, some thoughtful students decided I’d been standing in the sun too long and helped me out by providing a bit of shade:

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Over forty students ended up giving me money to print their photos, which I was surprised by. We got some funny group shots, too:

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A final parting thought to ponder: I’ve mentioned before that in my 6eme class, I teach students as young as 11 and as old as 17, sitting side-by-side on benches together. Just to illustrate the ridiculousness of that point:

Who would believe these two kids…

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…are in the same grade as this kid?

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Since I’d posted a pointless drawing of life in Cameroon. :0)

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