Monday, July 20, 2009

Site Visit

Last week I found out where I was posted. Any ideas regarding tropical paradises and pristine beaches that I may have entertained myself with before coming to Cameroon are most definitely swept away. To give an impression of what I am talking about, I am currently writing this in the city of Maroua. It is 6:10pm and it is still 40 degrees C outside. I have taken 2 showers, I have seen a lot of slaughtered goats and herds of cows pick at the ground, raising the dust.

My post is a town called Kaélé. It is in the Extreme North region of Cameroon, about an hour and a half away from Maroua, the regional capital. The town itself is about 20km away from the Chadian border. At the height of the hot season the temperature gets to 45 degrees C in the shade. In other words, it is the Sahel. Peace Corps Cameroon encourages us trainees to visit our site during training and we get a week to do this. Considering that today is Wednesday, that our group left last Sunday and that tomorrow I am already starting the return journey, one can easily get an idea of how transportation works here.

The journey itself started with the Bangangté-Yaoundé bus ride on Sunday. We got into the Peace Corps office and relaxed somewhat, eating out at the ex-pat neighbourhood. In the evening we drank with other volunteers and got more and more tips on how to lead a successful and entertaining volunteer life. The following day we killed time at the same place while sorting out train tickets to head up north. We went to the train station around 5pm and the train departed around 6pm. We chose the “couchets” or bed cars on the train so as to be able to sleep though that was made difficult for the following reasons:

a) You cannot turn off the lights since that will encourage the mosquitoes to bite.
b) It is ridiculously loud
c) When the train starts and stops you are occasionally thrown about like a rag doll due to the force of the movement.

The last 2 reason have some extras. From what I understand the Germans did a stellar job of introducing the railway to Cameroon. Since they left, all has been downhill. They left after 1918, you can do the math. That means that though the engines and the carriages are fine, the rails are not and you get derailments constantly. Bear in mind that this is not the US or European concept of derailment, it just means that a carriage will go off the tracks at lower speeds than westerners are used to and take the schedule out of synch. So the strong movements and noise from the train comes from badly maintained 90 year old train tracks. Or not, I am not an engineer.

The train covers only one half of the trip, from Yaoundé to Ngaoundéré, in the Adamawa region. From there onwards you have to take a bus (read bush taxi) to Kaélé via Garoua in the North region. Compared to the 17 hours the train took, this is a breezy 8 hour journey if there are no burst tyres, gendarmes hassling drivers or stops to pray that go on for too long. From Ngaoundéré onwards you enter the Sahel. I suppose I was lucky to first see it in the rainy season since it was all a lush green. It is for that reason that the milder Adamawa region is the honey centre of Cameroon. But once you enter the North region you can tell that things in the dry (or hotter) season can turn parched since tree cover becomes sparser and the trees themselves are stunted. In that respect my first impression was “wow, this actually looks like southern Spain, despite moving across continents I have not really left”. But seeing how buildings are made, the crazy landscape consisting of tall cones of stone that jut out of nowhere and the signs warning drivers of local fauna crossing the road you are reminded very quickly that yes, you are in Africa, stop pinching your arm.

My counterpart travelled with me from Yaoundé to Kaélé and we both made it intact into town at the fall of night. The Volunteer that I will be replacing greeted me at the gare routière and a moto ride afterwards I saw my future home. By night it looks a lot like a Chinese pagoda. By day it looks like a corn silo that had the bottom two thirds accidentally removed. It is spacious, it has electricity (when the town has electricity), and it has indoor plumbing. Funnily enough though, there is no toilet despite this, there is a latrine. And to turn on the plumbing you have to go outside into the street. The volunteer said that the house is regarded highly, if not the second best house, amongst the best house volunteers get in Cameroon. I believe him when he says this, and I am looking forward to moving in next month.

Kaélé is a nice town. It is hot as hell though. The joke amongst volunteers is that there are only two seasons in the Extreme North: hot and hotter. Getting back to the present, I saw the microfinance institution I will be working with and it is the sharpest office building I have seen to date in all of Cameroon. I also saw a women´s centre that the previous volunteer in Garoua helped finance and it looks great too. The houses are built in compound fashion so each has its own wall and buildings within. Some of these walls are half built (or half torn down) so you can catch a glimpse of family life within. There are herds of goats all over the place and the occasional herd of cattle. My house is in the Christian side of town and it is pretty vivacious. I have been speaking French finely here, but the local level is simpler to the point that volunteers up here say that you are already doing a fine job if you are using the present, past and future tense. Using any other tense will just confuse the listener.

So it seems that I will learn some Fulfulde but in actuality I will probably learn more of the local dialect, mundong. The local culture also seems pretty funny though this may be because I heard a story about an “avenging angel” of the tribe that beats non-tribesmen during a local ceremony that occur every couple of years or every three. Since the last one was a few weeks ago, I may unfortunately miss the next one.

So I left Kaélé in the afternoon and got into Maroua a couple of hours later so I could open a bank account (again via bush taxi). The town is very green since there are trees planted everywhere. This could be to beautify the city, but I reckon it is to provide some extra shade. I am at the Peace Corps house and will be having dinner shortly, though the heat is certainly killing my appetite. The stars will be coming out and if they were anything like last nights, they will be a riot. All in all its been an extremely long journey up, so the trip down will probably be as bad or worse. But I am very happy to see where I will be living and working for the next couple of years, where I will sweat copiously, learn how to use a latrine stylishly, and speak a language that no one else I have known can.

I may or may not put up the second half of the journey since I may or may not want to reminisce it. But I will post something else next week or after.

A +


I got back to Bangangté yesterday evening. The trip back was no less eventful than the trip up. It does not mean I would want to reminisce, as the last paragraph above says though! The buses were packed with people (it turns you can fit 5 adults and 2 children in a row intended for 4 people), the roads in Garoua made it hard to stay on the moto and I got somewhat sunburnt along the way.

Nonetheless the scenery is hard to forget. The green is Sahel will be something I will pine for during these two years. Also the road between Garoua and Kaélé is funded by the EU and therefore resembles a European road which can throw things off a bit in one’s head. But at journey’s end it feels great to get home and take a bloody cold shower after the heat from the last few days.

In any case, back to stage and lessons. Will keep things up to date.

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