Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Le Monde du Cameroun

It has been a long while since my last post. Since then I have traveled to Mombasa in Kenya, The Netherlands, Tanzania and back to Uganda which I will provide highlights in another post. There has been a whirlwind of activity in my life from finding myself unemployed to finding myself self-employed. We shall see what the horizon holds for me but I am confident that it will be as blessed and enriching as what has thus occurred.

While visiting my aunt in Philadelphia, we discussed the present state of affairs and a few of desired aims of mine. As many of you may know, my path has had quite an international bias, but sadly I am unilingual only dappling in a little Portuguese and having forgotten the collegial classes in French and Spanish. Given this unfortunate fact and on the advice of my sage aunt, I decided to embark on a self-arranged immersion program for one month to jump-start me into becoming a bilinguist. My latest work and venture is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa which is primarily Anglophone and Francophone. Given that I would be hosted by a family, the trip would be more cost-effective in Africa, and I would be significantly immersed in French, I decided to that my program would be in Cameroun. Just a note, Cameroun is one of the only bilingual countries. It is the policy in the country that everyone learns both English and French; although there are definite and distinct French-speaking parts and English-speaking parts within the country. Where I would stay would be French-speaking.

My month long journey has come to an end but was worth the detour. I will try and present the highlights so this won’t become a small book and you will find a sprinkling of French so I can show off a little of my skills (although I have a long way to go).

French in Action

Before I arrived in Cameroun, I wanted to refresh my understanding of French and build some vocabulary, so I went through the BBC French Language lessons, bought some second hand French books, and downloaded free French software and podcasts. At this point after a month of butchering the language, I can read with understanding about 70%, can throw enough nouns, verbs and adjectives to be understood, and can really only understand about 30-40% of what I hear. I must admit that the hardest aspect grasp in this entire affair is hearing the language and conjugating those darn verbs. Other than this, I would be an expert French linguist.

My fellow French speakers have been quite understanding and also amused at my undertaking. What I have found is quite an appreciation for my attempts—I get about a 5 % boost just for trying. It is a shame that the majority of Americans only know one language which is increasingly becoming a handicap in the age of global commerce and collaboration. Once I feel more comfortable with French, I would like to see what I can do with Spanish and possibly Chinese (which seems the language of the business in the near future). Being able to communicate in a common language produces such comfort and opens the door for fruitful interaction and exchange. It is one of the most frustrating things in this world—that is to be misunderstood or not understood. I imagine it is the same frustration that causes a infant to cry to say that there is a need or a desire that they wish to communicate. There is great freedom with effective communication.

The People

Over the course of my stay, I travelled between Douala (the largest city) and Yaoundé (capital city) with my main host family residing in Douala which was the hottest place I’ve encountered. The family had 3 to 4 generations in one house which was a more of a small compound with the main house, a smaller house, and a grand house that was being built to accommodate multiple families. Just a note—women that are elder to you in the family are called Ta-Ta so-and-so except if they are your mother (un mere) or grand-mother (un grand-mère), and elder men in the family are called Ton-Ton so-and-so unless un père or un grand-père. Residing in the main house was Grand-mère, Ta-Ta Ida, the son of Ta-Ta Ida, and two young girls who were staying at the house to go to school and to help around the house. Initially, there was a young man Rodrigue who helped me with getting to places in the beginning and speaking the language. He was at the house briefly during his vacation from the university. There was another younger aunt Coulette who I didn’t have to call her Ta-Ta since she was about my age who had a young son and baby girl. There were several amazing aspects of my time here, but one aspect I found especially lovely—Coulette had a salon on the premises. She was really good and her prices were dirt cheap (given the exchange rate) so I was able to take full advantage of her services. Some very interesting things about family life:

  • It is nothing and actually common to take in other people’s children to help raise them and allow them to go to school.
  • Raising a child is really a family affair, and I saw this in action with the baby girl of Coulette. With the salon being quite busy and every growing (they made several modifications and upgrades while I was there), Coulette was able to leave her daughter comfortably in the hands of any family member. There was always someone around to watch one’s children (les enfants).
  • You can become very spoiled in Africa because you can find someone to do whatever you need for very inexpensive. Because work can be hard to come by, people are will to do just about anything to be able to sustain themselves and their family. You can get someone to go run and get airtime credit, change a light bulb, perform minor handy work around the house, etc., for just a couple of dollars. Also, having a housekeeper who works daily is quite inexpensive (less than $100 a month) and you will find them in most middle income families to higher income families.

The Food

Meals were quite regular with breakfast (le petit dejeuner), lunch (le dejeuner), and dinner (le dîner) all served like clockwork. Petit dejeuner consists of bread (pain), cheese (frommage), possibly some type of sausage (saucisson), tea (thé) or coffee (café), and sometimes eggs (les oeufs) or sardines. Fish (le poisson) and meat (la viande—le boeuf ou le porc) are often a part of the main entrée in a type of sauce or grilled. There is also a type of starch whether potatoes (une pomme de terre), rice, yams (not what Americans know as yams). Vegetables generally consist of either bitter leaves (Ndolé) with palm oil or other oil based ingredient or a mix of carrots and green beans. Another characteristic food is a type of dough made from cassava which is fermented and wrapped in banana leaves to make a long roll—the small diameter is termed “miondo” is mainly a favorite in Douala. The larger diameter termed “bobolo” is a favorite in Yaoundé. It is a type of substitute for bread and has no real taste although a slight tangy flavor. I have come to eat it regularly as part of the main meals.

City Life

The two cities that I have experienced are quite different although there are common elements.

  • The taxi system is quite similar in both. There are several of these yellow cars that have a specific route. They are generally cars that are just happy to be running at all. The interior is not of greatest importance. In a regular five-seater 4-door sedan, one can fit two passengers (no matter the size) in the front (one has to sit sideways without blocking the driver’s ability to shift gears) and three in the back (four if small child or small adult). I had the privilege of being a part of a car with 6 passengers and the driver in a small sedan. It was one of the first times I traveled alone and the driver picked up a group of women that were obviously coming from an event. Taxi’s generally are very cheap costing about 50 cents per ride. You can get a taxi with you alone to a specific place for about $2 and is called “depot”. If you want a taxi by the hour, it is about $5 dollars per hour and you yell out “course”. There is also a even cheaper way and may even be required on some roads; the moto or motorcycle is an option that I try not to take although it is was required of me one time. It is quite dangerous given you have no helmet and I have a feeling they get in more accidents than the taxis.
  • Shopping is a very different experience than most places in the states. The majority of purchases made by the general public are in open markets which are bustling and lively. You can barter any price and you must because they try and sell you items that you know does not cost what they are trying to sell and often made of low material. The best way to acquire clothing is to have items made. This is much more cost-effective than purchasing clothing and you can really create unique styles all your own. Even the indoor stores (magasins) are not really indoors and feel open still. Boulangeries and supermarchés are mainly used for packaged goods such as milk, bottled water, cookies, frommage, etc.

As previously indicated, Douala is the hottest of the two cities. I would say this is the most urban and a little more rough and grungy although there nice areas. Yaoundé is the seat of power and reminds me of Kampala in Uganda. Hills surround the city and it is pretty structured and there is significant character to it. All the ministries including the congress and prime minister are housed in Yaoundé. It is a very professional city. Both cities have thousands of students and host several universities. The two cities are separated by about 230 kilometers and travel between the two is easy using a bus service. One can ride VIP (meaning with air condition) for about $12-$13 one-way.

One of the fun and interesting events that I participated in was International Women’s Day (la journée international de la femme). The holiday has been taken to a greater level than in many parts of the world. A special cloth is made especially for the event with symbols and words exemplifying women in different facets. A different one is made each year. The material is made into so many styles. It is a day for women to rest from their work, participate in positive events, and drink and eat into the night. The husbands are supposed to help around the house and to treat their wives and women in their lives extra special. I was treated to lunch along with the other women with me. There was a lot of controversy though with men being interviewed saying that women were behaving badly and that there was some type of sect behind the whole affair. This is quite sad indeed to think that so many men fight the advancement of women and do not like to see women succeed beyond what they would like. Even with continued accomplishments and destroyed barriers, we must fight still for our equal place in this world to pursue whatever we desire and not be typecast or treated as objects and property.

Fun in the Sun

I make these sections shorter, since I am running a little long. Part of the border of Cameroun is coastal and I received the opportunity to visit two coastal towns. The first was Kribi which is thought by some to be Cameroun’s Riviera. It may not be exactly that but it was beautiful with white sand and uncrowded beaches. One of the must-does in Kribi is to eat fresh fish on the beach. It goes straight from the water to the grill. An interesting story, there is a myth that the women of Kribi have mermaids as guardians so do not mess with these women in particular or there will be trouble.

Limbe was the second coastal town which is near Buea where Mont Cameroun is located. This is a volcanic mountain and maybe the source of the black sand on Limbe’s beaches. It is an active volcano which I believe they said erupted recently in this millennium. It was exquisite playing in the ocean and beachgoers were friendly allowing us to participate in a game of water ball.

Rhythm and Dance

Music and Dance are integral to Cameroonian culture. There is music everywhere and it lends a soundtrack to the entire experience. The dance of this country is hip focused for both men and women. The isolation involved is outstanding. The way the derrière moves, you would be amazed. I am still practicing to say the least. My hosts have taken me to various venues to listen to music and dance. One venue had various acts including a Michael Jackson performance with back up dancers, an albino as Michael Jackson, and intricate scary costumes for the Thriller scene. Beyond this, the singers are highly skilled and talented—one performer tackled Andrea Bochelli!

There is much more that my senses did not get a chance to experience but I hope to return if given the opportunity to I see the north and more of Cameroun’s natural resources. What I did see—C’est manifique! À la prochaine, mes amis.

Monday, May 25, 2009

African Safari Part 2: The Big Game

During my last trip, it became a wonderful animal adventure. I finally took the time to see some big game. It is usually the objective for the traveller to Africa to see the Big 5: Lion, African Elephant, African Buffalo, Black or White Rhinoceros, and Leopard. These Big 5 are not the biggest necessarily (although they are quite big), but are the most valuable game for hunters because they pose the greatest challenge to hunt. Many of the big 5 are endangered or protected species now so mostly shot by the cameras of the tourist. Unfortunately, senseless poaching and killing of these and other magnificent African fauna still occur. I was able to see 3 of the 5 during my month long safari: Elephant, Buffalo, and White (& Black) Rhino.

They didn't make the list, but two of my favorite animals were the hippos and giraffes. The hippos may seem cute, but they are ferocious causing many more deaths by unwary travellers then the members of the Big 5. The hippos I observed at Lake Naivasha in Kenya and in Swaziland. In addition, I tracked down the warthog and family, white rhino, zebra, impala, heron, and other birdies.
Now my excursion over the borders of Mozambique to Swaziland was quite an adventure into the wilderness. Swazi is so small that it would take about 45 min to cross the entire country, but it has great heart. It is a kingdom and more than 80% of the population is Swazi. They have wonderful game parks and the culture is rich in the area. Tragically, Swazi with all its natural beauty is being hard hit by HIV/AIDS with 40% of the population infected. This statistic is the highest in the world. But the statistic in reality means that when you look upon a Swazi, he or she probably has HIV. What I always find heartening, is that surrounded by hardship whether sickness or poverty, there is still survival and there is still laughter in their lives. Through African eyes I have felt the strength and tenacity of the human spirit. If one can smile in a place where only tears should be, I have no cause to cry in the face of my complaints.
My reason for visiting this new place on the map for me was to go to Mkhaya game reserve that was a private reserve that housed endangered animals. It was definitely a back to nature experience with a luxury edge. There were no cats but plenty of other beautiful wildlife to see. Once you entered the reserve, you were taken to the camp which was about 20-30 min ride into the bush. At the camp, I was ushered down dark paths to my cottage which could best be described as a stone gazebo with a thatched roof. Literally, there were no real walls or windows. When you sat on the toilet you saw Mother Nature staring back at you. Lovely. The beds did have nets to keep out the little buzzing critters and a gate to keep out warthogs. None of the dangerous animals came to the camp though, which was good. You were aroused from your sleep at 5 a.m. each morning by a Swazi with a tray of coffee, tea and a bit of morsel on her head. There were three rides during the day to see the animals: morning, midday walking tour, and just before dark. I met some other travellers including two pediatricians from Ohio who were doing a 2 month internship in Swazi. They were fun. The meals were delicious and quite decadent. This would definitely be a must do if you are in the area.

On one of these trips though, I must check out the cats. Until next time, remember that you are only limited by you.

Friday, April 3, 2009

African Safari Part 1: Naming Names

Finally, I am writing down my experiences. I do apologize for the delay, but I have not let you down. This will be the first in a two part series related to my month long journey to five African countries (Swaziland was added to my itinerary for a fun adventure). This was a lovely trip for which I must be thankful, for my good fortune was consistent throughout my trip with no lost luggage and no delays on any of my 11 flights. Just to follow-up on my mosquito repellent purchase--just stick with DEET.
My first stop was my beloved Kenya well known for the Maasai—a semi-nomadic tribe found in various parts of Africa--and the Masai Mara—the vast park reserve in the Great Rift Valley where lions, elephants, hippos, giraffe, zebra, impala, and many others can be found (I will show big game in African Safari Part 2). The Masai people have become the well known and easily recognizable face of Kenya for they are a tribe that has shunned the garments of Westernization and worked diligently to preserve its culture. It is said that a Maasai that does venture into the more western sector of society will remain quintessentially a Maasai—with the same customs, minds, and behaviors of their ancestors. The Masai are a remarkable people with many stories circulating about their abilities in the bush including one traveler’s account of the Masai passing near lions with no fear and the lions giving them the respect of not eating him alive.


One practice of the Maasai called polyandry I found quite interesting: A woman not only marries her husband but all the men in her husband’s generation or age group. If a Maasai man is away from his home, another Maasai of the same generation can place his spear in the ground, enter the house, and have sexual relations with the man’s wife. If the man returns and finds the spear in the ground he will find another bed to lay his head for the evening. In this modern age of HIV/AIDS, one can imagine how this practice has increased transmission of the virus among the tribe leading to many deaths.

Many tribes have suffered on this account where their customs involve a man having many wives or where there is a sharing of partners. We may think that polygamy is a black and white issue with no gray, but there is more to it then the sexual fantasy of a male mind. One of the driving forces behind polygamy is economic—a man is producing his own work force and since several tribes are agricultural in nature having more people to work the land meant more food and more wealth. I am not promoting nor do I agree with polygamy but the arguments and the origins and motivations behind the practice can be surprising.

I did not go to the Maasai Mara but did find some hippos at Lake Naivasha which is about 90km outside of Nairobi. It is located in the Rift Valley and is one of the few freshwater lakes and one of the largest. This will be a place well-known to you if you have ever seen the movie “Born Free” about the rearing of Elsa, the lioness, by George and Joy Adamson in the 1950s.
It has come to my attention that the cute and adorable hippos are considered the most dangerous of African animals (if you don’t count the mosquito who I would not term an animal). It seems more people die from the hippo than from other animals like the crocodile or rhino or elephant. The hippo doesn’t even eat you since it is an herbivore but its massive jaws and body for that manner just can do you in one quick motion.
Speaking of trauma, I did get a chance to visit my surgeon friend who specializes in trauma at the Kijabe Mission. The mission sits within the rift valley and provides health care to people that would not have access to healthcare otherwise. When you take the drive from the main road to get there, you really can appreciate the blessing the health facility must be for the people in the area. They would literally have to travel over and under and through the “woods” to get to any type of health provider.
In addition to serving the locals, people come across the country and borders to be treated by visiting physicians and obtain surgical intervention for some quite traumatic injuries (bike and auto accidents, hippo run-ins, farming accidents, etc). Check out my friend’s blog for the graphic details.
The reason for the title “naming names” relates to mini investigation I conducted in Kenya and Uganda related to how persons are named. In Kenya, there were names that I would see repeatedly and I first I wondered if persons were related. This was not the case. A common name is structured such that you have the first name, the middle name, and the surname/last name. The first name is usually a Christian name like John, Susan, Joseph, Amos, etc. The middle name can relate to the time one was born (morning, after lunch, evening, night), season of the year, or based on grandparents names. The surname comes from the father’s middle name and can be the full middle name or a part of the middle name. In the Luo culture (the tribe Obama descends from), the following names are used for girls and just add an “O” instead of an “A” for boys based on time or weather conditions at birth—what would your name be:

§ Atieno—night
§ Akoth—raining
§ Adhiambo—evening
§ Anyango—daytime
§ Akinyi—morning
§ Achieng—sunny
In Uganda, naming was done a little differently. The surname is written first and the surname is not the surname of your father or even your mother. The surname is based on region that the person is from whether northern, southern, central, western, or eastern part of Uganda. The first name as in Kenya is usually the Christian name. The grandparents play a large part in naming a child. I found it quite impossible to determine relationships by just peoples’ names.

Learning the nuances of another culture can be a wonderful endeavor. Opening your mind to another’s world and way of thinking give you multiple sides of vision like a fly’s perspective. Learning and embracing different outlooks on the world we live in enables more efficient and extensive ability to process and respond to various conditions and circumstances.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”
George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, February 22, 2009

African Safari 2009

Dear Readers, it has been some time since the last blog communication. Do not fear for I have not abandon you or finished with my travels. I have just flown into Nairobi, Kenya to begin my African Safari which will include return trips to Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, and South Africa. This will be done in about a month. It will be a "safari" in the sense that "safari" means "journey" in Swahili as my friend informed me. This trip should definitely be quite a journey; and with every trip, I anticipate learning and experiencing the new whether food, people, culture, adventure.

The trip is already starting on a lovely note. For this month long journey, I am carrying a 21" suitcase, book bag (carry and roll), and a small purse. It is a proud moment for me and I feel quite efficient. In addition, I received a complimentary upgrade to world traveller plus on British Airways for transit from D.C. to London. I love the Brits and their airline--it is one of my favorites although navigating through Heathrow airport can be a bear. On my flight from London to Nairobi on Kenya Airways, there were hardly any passengers so I had three chairs all to myself--and being the petite one that I am, it was quite easy to lay out. It was the morning flight, but I heard from the agent that the afternoon flight is much more crowded for those thinking of travelling in the future. Kenya Airways is another airline that is not too bad and does give you a little more room in economy than some of the others.

It is my belief that you learn gratitude when you experience great loss and when you experience bad travel. It is the little blessings and comforts that you acquire that can turn a mediocre trip into an extraordinary trip.

On this plane for the first time, I took advantage of the in-flight shopping. I brought some decadent chocolates, 8GB USB drive, and a solar mosquito repellent. The latter is what I would like to provide comment. The item was obviously made in a place where the primary language is not English given that the instructions are not really instructions and has some interesting phrasing. The devise is a "hook type" with a solar panel and compass. The insert is separated into section entitled "Introduction", "Specification", "Suitable Use", "Conclusion". There is no information on turning the unit on/off, how long it takes to charge, cautions, troubleshooting, etc. Under specifications, it states "No battery needed", "Compass--to assist people (or student) to identify the directions in outdoors", and "Hook--can be easily hooked on any coat, bag or anything that you are carrying with you". My favorite is the one liner under "Suitable Use": "Holiday makers, camping, hiking, outdoor sports or just sat on the table". I am not sure who made the device since it is not stated on either the insert or the casing. This all makes me somewhat skeptical of its abilities, but at the end of my safari I will let you know if it actually works.

I just wanted to give you an update and a taste of things to come. Have a wonderful month in whatever part of the world you reside.