Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Mbamti Katarko!
Find a comfy chair and get a cup of tea because this letter is a little long! I am writing this from the living room floor of the house I moved into two weeks ago in my new village where I will be living for the next two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Adamoua region of Cameroon.
Mbamti Katarko is in the southern part of the Adamoua region and is in a valley surrounded by hills. There is a river that runs through the southern edge of town that is wide enough for kids to go swimming in the hot afternoons when school is done while women wash clothes and dishes from the banks. The vegetation would be called “savannah” which means not too many big trees but lots of grass that grows almost as tall as me before it is burned down for planting in the wet season. Mbambti sits between the larger towns of Tibati and Banyo, where it takes about three or four hours on bumpy unpaved roads to travel between the two. Only 10% of the roads in Cameroon are paved and Mbamti is the exception in the country. While entering and leaving Mbamti Katarko means carefully trying to avoid huge ruts that threaten to take out a car wheel or some bottom part of the chasis, the main road that runs through Mbamti is paved with solar streetlights dotting the path and five zebra crosswalks. The solar streetlights mostly don’t work and the crosswalks are especially comedic because everyone walks down the middle of the road, including the herds of goats and sheep that roam free around the village and skitter out of the way of motorcycles and cars. The region is known for its vast cattle and goat herding, a reflection of the tribal majority who make up the Mbamti Katarko’s population as well as the Adamoua majority in general. The Fulani people are found all across this latitude of the continent and are traditionally nomadic Muslim herders who have settled down into smaller villages in the region and move less frequently now but many of them still live in the very rural sections of the Adamoua.
My new home is made of mud bricks and cinder blocks plastered over and painted light pink and light blue with dark pink accents that make me think of rainbow sherbet every time I come home. I have a small front porch with a woven fence around the entrance for some privacy and insid there is a living room, two bedrooms and an attached indoor pit latrine. A tin roof overhead keeps everything dry during wet season and provides a wonderful soundtrack to fall asleep to with it starts raining. As my house was completed just a month or so before my arrival, there is currently no furniture in it. The village carpenter, Julius, is working hard to complete my order of a bed frame, a table, a chair, and some bookshelves and assures me they will be done by the end of this week. Until then, I have a woven multi-colored mat in the center of my living room that serves as yoga studio, food prep area, dinner table, and sofa.
My new house does not have electricity or running water, though it does have plugs and light switches in the walls that aren’t connected to anything just as a tease. My water gets pumped from a few different local wells and I’ve learned that three buckets of water lasts me two or three days of washing, dishes, and filtering to drink, less if I decide to wash my laundry (by hand). The kids in the area are eager and willing to go fill up my empty buckets for me. While pumping water is seen here as an expectation for children and part of their daily chores, I give the kids who fetch water for me some coins in return for the full buckets so they have some change for beignets or other treats. Most Cameroonians cook over a fire in an outdoor kitchen area but I’ve set myself up with a gas tank and a two burner camping stove. It’s is enough to make hot water for tea and scrambled eggs at the same time in the morning so it works for me. Most of my cooking for the next two years will be stovetop preparation and since I have no fridge to store leftovers, I cook new food basically everyday.
While I don’t have electricity and rely on solar lights at night to cook and read and brush
my teeth, my health center has a solar panel grid that keeps them connected all the time. After struggling through my first night with one solar light I was very surprised to walk into my health center the next morning for the first time and see Kung Fu Panda playing on the TV in the main waiting room area. The entire village uses the health center’s solar grid to power their phones and people often come to the health center for no medical reason except that their phone battery is dead. It is an ingenious way to keep the village constantly coming back to the health center—they can read the numerous health posters and socialize with the health staff while waiting for a full charge.
I’m not working on many projects currently as it is my job right now to just integrate into
my village, however, one thing that I am looking forward to doing soon is making health posters for the center that are more picture based. Primary school in Cameroon (which goes until about age 14) is free and Mbamti has a three school building primary school for its 3,000 inhabitants that are regularly filled to capacity. That being said, this village still commonly sees girls as young as 13 pulled out of school to be married and start a family. As a result, many girls and women in my village speak limited French and all Cameroonian health posters printed by the government are mostly text written in French and English. The local language spoken here, Fulfulde, is usually used as spoke language more than a written one, so I am going to work with my health center over the next few months to make more health information posters that rely on pictures rather than French/English text to convey health messages.
Other than that, my time here in Mbamti for my first three months (December, January, and February) is mainly focused on learning Fulfulde, meeting my community, and beginning to learn the needs of the community at the health and general level. A lot of my time is spent observing at the health center where I am partnered and going through their records to get an idea of the health history of the village. Peace Corps has worked with the Cameroonian government to identify four main areas of health work that volunteers focus on—malaria, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, and malnutrition. Part of the first few months in village is learning about the context for each of those health problems for that village and what the challenges are associated with each one. The Mbamti Katarko Health Center serves 11 different villages and a population of almost 14,000 people total. My job right now is to try to understand how people in my village of Mbamti and also the surrounding villages who rely on our health center view these health problems and learn what the community’s goals are for improving the health and wellbeing of the community. The chief of my health center, an enthusiastic man named Mahamat, has told me that home births not assisted by any medical professional are quite common in the area and a big concern to him. Andre, the chief nurse who does most of the diagnostics at the health center, has talked to me in great depth about the need for more education on family planning for women here and also about how they’ve started testing patients for HIV when they come in for almost any complaint as a way to increase testing numbers in this conservative village. Each village member has different ideas about the health challenges the community faces and one of my challenges in these first few months is synthesizing those ideas and turning those concerns into actionable items for the upcoming two years.
But I arrived in Mbamti Katarko two weeks ago, so what have I been doing since I left the US in mid-September? Our flight out of the States took us to Yaoundé where all 47 new volunteers spent the first week getting medically and legally processed in the capital. After that, we were divided into our sectors for 10 weeks of training. The 27 health
volunteers (at that time trainees) traveled to the town of Foumbot in the Western region of Cameroon and moved in with host families to start the process of learning about Cameroonian life. I lived with a family of the Bamuon tribe, the predominant group in the area with a complex and interesting history dating back to around 1300 AD and their own written language that is entirely independent of any other alphabet in existence (seriously, Google them). My host father, Nsangou, was an imam and my host mother did
the housework and occasionally worked in the fields. I found out who my host father’s second wife was in my last week of the homestay—the woman who showed up a few times a week on her way to and from Douala where she traded avocados and other produce. Polygamy is legal in Cameroon and widely practiced as having multiple wives and many children brings a man higher social status. Although Islam restricts a man to only four wives, village chiefs and other men in positions of greater power in the Foumbot area were known to have seven or even twelve wives.
Moving in with Nsangou’s family meant I went from being an only child to living with 6 boys ages 4 to 13 overnight. It was explained to me a week into me staying there that all the sons and grandsons lived with Nsangou in the main house where I lived as well and all the daughters and granddaughters lived in a different house in the compound. The family compound had about 8 houses total in it where Nsangou and his brother both had their families, along with various aunts and cousins and people who lived there. During the day the kids were free to roam the compound and the family fields nearby, being directed to help with chores by whoever was around and eating dinner at whoever’s house they happened to be at. Once night fell they would return to their houses to fall asleep, rising at 5am for the call to prayer and to do more chores like sweeping and cleaning the floor before leaving for school at 7am.
I also left for training around 7am Monday through Saturday where we had French lessons almost every day as well as lessons on Cameroon’s health system and the four areas of health that we would be focusing on. We divided our time between lectures and in person experiences, working with a local health clinic and a local primary school to teach various aspects of disease prevention while refining our French skills and technical presentation skills. Something as simple as a classroom presentation on leadership meant a whole host of new things to learn for us—like how the school system here relies mostly on rote memorization so discussion questions about what makes a good leader left kids trying to figure out what the correct and incorrect answers were so they would not be punished.
Even after training had finished around 4:30pm each day, the learning did not stop as we ventured into the market to figure out where to buy things like toilet paper and how to haggle prices for pagne, local fabric to have clothes made. Our first few weeks we would go into the market in huge groups of 7 or 8 Peace Corps trainees, squeezing single file though the twists and turns of the crowded market stalls selling everything from spices in huge bags to tables full of flip flops. This had the obvious disadvantage of too many people to be able to crowd around one stall and give input into what someone was selling and also meant that prices were generally very inflated for the large group of foreigners. As we became more confident in knowing the different parts of the market and what normal prices were for items, we would break off and venture in pairs of groups of three, meeting up at various well known landmarks like “the boulangerie” after everyone had found what they were looking for.
We had a 7pm Peace Corps trainee curfew to abide by but because the sun sets around 6pm here, if you were out past 6 or 6:30pm your host family would not be pleased when you got home. Getting back home early in the day meant time to socialize with the family, play games with the kids, and watch or help your host mom cook dinner. Every night when I walked down the dirt slope into my compound’s front area, I was greeted with a gaggle of children yelling “Daisy!” and coming to hug my legs, making movement impossible for the first few minutes while I said hello to each one. One of my
host brothers, a plucky 5-year-old named Njimbot, would always confidently tell me what I was going to be eating for dinner that night. He was right about half the time. My host father held Koran class in the front yard with about 12 kids sitting on benches reciting verses each afternoon and then he would retire for evening prayer before dinner. My host mother could always be found preparing food in the front yard of the compound or in the outdoor kitchen area, pounding garlic, peppers, and other spices for a sauce or using a large stick to beat the fufu (corn or manioc four cooked with water
until it has the consistency of play dough and then eaten by hand and used to scoop sauce with). My host family knew ahead of me arriving that I was pescatarian, which they interpreted to mean I ate fish for every meal. I spent the first two weeks there trying to explain to them that I liked fish once or twice a week but not every day, and was greeted each morning with a sardine omelet and more fish for lunch and dinner. Two weeks in I was physically sick from all the fish and was able to tell them them, “The doctor in Yaoundé says no more fish” which got them to stop feeding it to me, although they would still offer it every night.
It was interesting to see how these host families treated illness compared to how we did. If my stomach was upset, my inclination was to eat bland foods like rice and bananas while my host family thought that papaya and spicy beans would help fix my stomach much faster. Any illness at all was referred to as malaria, with my host father telling me one night that he had a little malaria that day but was feeling better after resting during the afternoon. Both my host mother and at least one of my host brothers actually did have malaria in the 10 weeks that I lived with them and it was eye opening to see actually how common and how difficult it can be for a family beyond just the statistics we learned in training.
Dinner was always a reminder about the similarities and differences I was exposed to in my first months in Cameroon. I sat at the table with my host father for dinner and was always served first as the guest before him. My host siblings were served after us in the kitchen area and sat on the floor of the living room off to the side of where we ate at the table. My host mother always ate last and would sometimes sit near to us on the couch and wait until we had both finished eating before taking whatever was left over as her dinner. My host father and I would have long conversations at dinner about cultural, economic, and political differences between Cameroon and the United States where I would struggle to explain concepts like the homelessness or the domestic violence in French to a man who thought everyone in America is rich and regularly disciplined my host siblings by hitting them with a stick. I would discuss the things that America does well but also the areas where there is still progress to be made and then turn the conversation around to Cameroon to highlight how perhaps they had approached a similar issue with more success. Most evenings we would end the conversation with deciding that things are different between Cameroon and America and he would go to bed and spend the night formulating his next set of questions for me the following dinner. As the first Peace Corps volunteer to stay with the Abubakar family, even basic questions like “How many chickens does your family own?” and “How big are your family’s fields?” meant long answers about differences between here and there.
I found I had truly gained my family’s respect and trust after about month into living with them when I came home from a trip to find that my host brothers had found three kittens in family’s fields. The kittens were young enough that they didn’t know how to eat solid food and my host brothers couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t eat the fish and fufu that was given to them each evening. With each day that they refused food, the boys became more concerned until I came home and the situation was explained to me. Within a day or so, I had figured out how to get the kittens eating bread softened with water and was teaching my host brothers how to feed it to the kitten off their fingers. As the kittens learned to eat more food, the boys helped me feed them and learned to keep the smaller host siblings away from the kittens so they wouldn’t hit or scare them. Though I was always called a daughter, I never fully gave up my position of guest with my host family but I saw through our weeks of taking care of the kittens together that my host family began to see me as a member of the team instead of a separate entity. When I left at the end of 10 weeks, my host family gave me the white and orange kitten that liked to sleep in my room and was my favorite, which was also explained to me as “the white kitten for the white girl.”
The kitten now sleeps on my mattress on the floor here in Mbamti Katarko and keeps me company while I slowly meet people and stumble through conversations in Fulfulde. As the first Peace Corps volunteer in Mbamti, it can be challenging at times because most people don’t know who I am or why I am here. I have spent the past two weeks working on introductions and explanations of what my purpose is here for the village chief, the schools, the health center and other important community members. My most recent victory has been people learning my name instead of calling me “nasara” (Fulfulde for “white” and deriving from the word Nazareth to mean Christians and then more generally, whites). When I walk into the center of my village to buy eggs or onions (the only vegetable available here now that it is dry season) I am greeted with a chorus of “ Sannu Daisy!” or “Bonsoir Madame Daisy” from men, women, and children alike. It is the successful result of an unrelenting campaign on my part to respond to every call of “nasara” with “My name is not nasara, my name is Daisy!” And for now it is working. The victories are small and slow for now but as they say here—slow slow catch monkey.
I realize this letter is long but it feels challenging to capture and do justice to everything that I have been up to in fewer words. I will try to send out emails maybe a little more frequently about how life in Mbamti Katarko is and what projects I am working on in my community. I’ve attached some pictures to this email as well as a few links to some of the music blasting all the time on Cameroonian radio stations to give you a taste of that.
Until the next email, cheers to a new year and I’m excited to see what’s ahead both for Mbamti and for all of you! Much love and warmest holiday wishes,