Monday, October 20, 2008

Busy! Busy!

I've been at post for almost 2 months now.. and have been surprisingly busy for a newbie. At first I wasn't busy. I painted my house, read 6 books, went to the bank where I "work" every morning but I was really just supposed to observe the bank for a few months and then start making recommendations and improvements, etc. This meant I was doing ALOT of french grammar exercises.

But things picked up. The accountant of the bank is going for a few months of training, which is great for him and the bank, so I’ve been doing a little accounting. Accounting or French grammar? Tough choice.. they're both so thrilling. However my counterpart at the bank and I are working on starting up a new project, a mutuelle health association, outside of the bank.

Brief description of health insurance here. Health care "systems" are another subject. Very few people have insurance, something in the single digit percentage. Its mainly private and very expensive. What happens when you don't have insurance and have to pay the complete hospital fee up front? A. Use up all of your savings B. Take out a loan from a family member or from a bank, like the one I work at, which is difficult to repay since you're not generating any income. C. Go to a traditional healer that may or may not be curative or don't see a doctor at all. Or option D. Die on the doorstep of the hospital. However, like mutual savings banks, mutual health associations are growing significantly in West Africa. In Cameroon they are a big success, particularly everywhere else except the East Province. Heard that one before..

So what we've been doing is building the structural part of the association, searching for qualified people (especially women) to be on the board of directors, on the surveillance committee etc. The large part of the work has been going to village meetings every Saturday and Sunday to present the mutual health association project and to have people sign up for it. Once there are enough members, the general assembly/ all of the members will convene, hopefully in November, and together they will make decisions about the association together with some guidelines and strong recommendations on specific things like monthly premiums. However it will be their decision to decide if premiums are best paid every month, quarterly, or annually. That’s the wonderful thing about associations and meetings here. People have the ability to decide and they'll trust putting they're money where they can see it. Insurance is not easily accepted here either. Simply put, you pay money every month to use incase you get sick. but when you're not sick, you don't get it back. That’s an idea not everyone grasps. Another good part about this being a community project, like the MC2 bank, after overhead costs, the profit goes back to the community. The money will be used to start preventative health programs, a pharmacy and finally it will fund the construction of a clinic.

Yours truly is one of these board advisors for the association. I'll let you sit with that thought for a moment because it certainly took me a while to grasp. (How did I get here and who thinks I really can handle this position!????) After meeting with a couple ngo's in the capital on how these Mutual Health Associations are run, I am now trying to catch up on all the work that needs to be done BEFORE it is formed like feasibility studies and cost analysis. It's good that it's taking off so quickly however there is some serious work that needs to be done to make sure it's going to succeed... and I'm really really nervous about that.

How to promote insurance: I go to village meetings, usually about 5 or 6 of them each weekend with my counterpart, a retired doctor, the president of all of the village meetings all across town and speak about the importance of this health mutual. Thankfully, they do most of the talking about the association. I present myself, explain my role as a peace corps volunteer how I’m available to work on individual projects outside the bank and the mutual health, explain how I oversee the management of this project, etc. These meetings are separated by gender and village. So sometimes I'm speaking in front of a room full of chatty women, probably talking about my choice of pagne (they're always really dressed nicely), but usually very receptive and interested in the idea of health insurance. Other times I’m at a larger village meeting, 50 people or so and I am the ONLY female in the room, and I imagine, as I have heard before, males taking about their opinion on women making decisions and running things. The white American girl standing up and speaking is enough commotion, and then I start speaking French.... Its nerve wrecking. For some reason, having an American overseeing this project installs a lot of confidence in people that no one is going to take they're money and run. A frequent problem here of promising new projects or village banks that turn out to be scams. So since I'm American, this development project is legit? Not sure where that conclusion is from.

You never know what’s going to happen from one meeting to the next. I now know how to share the kola nut, properly, when the chief of the village hands me the largest nut. Last weekend in between meetings I had 2 beers (equivalent of 4 in the states) with the sweetest chief. I've become an expert at mimicking what my other colleges do when cultural custom questions pop up... Power goes out, monkey is served, everyone else is drinking beer, pick up a new hand shake, and that’s how it goes.

From these meetings I know a huge part of this city including several neighborhoods that I would have never known they were there. I've also introduced myself to about 700 plus people. From this I am going to work with a GIC (pronounced jeek) a business association that in turns gives huge benefits to individual members. Kind of like a Coop in the states, and this one specifically is an agricultural GIC. I'm going to see how I can advise a group that assists with elderly care, like hospice, so I’m really excited.

The first project I worked on is with an owner of an ice cream production and sales business, which has only been running for a couple months now. He also happens to be the son of a gentleman I work with on the mutual health project. He's only a couple years older than me and thankfully speaks English. Although sometimes I talk too fast. This is an excellent first project to advise because he was a great contact and was already very well organized, so the basic stuff was out of the way. But I had a huge period of self doubt about this all. Who put me in charge or advising a business???! Who am I to be recommendations in the Cameroonian context? I haven't even been here a half a year! He's lived here his own life and has a master’s degree. Looking over his accounting books, I was thinking how much I hate numbers. When have you ever heard me say "I like math". Umm never. So I freaked out a bit, made some excel sheets and recommendations. And since the business is expanding, it’s going to be a continuous project.

Oh and in November, my postmates are going to do a girl's empowerment camp. More like a long weekend packed full of activities... in French. I don't mean to stress that most things I do are in a foreign language, lol it's more like a reminder to myself followed by a brief panic. TIA: This Is Africa. This is Peace Corps.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cat, Dog

A family photo

The new puppy, so adorable. Wearing a team east pagne colar and a pink leash, i love it

I mentioned before that I was going to get a kitten, and I was so excited. Kittens are so cute right? Everyone loves kittens right? Wrong. I've had this damn thing for about 4 weeks now, and she's neither. The kitten was born on the 4th of july so it's 3 months old, and growing. When I first got it, she was tiny and then she started eating through a box of cat food a week. Cat food isn't common here, I bet cats as food are more common than finding a box of meowmix. Kitty litter doesn't exist, so a box full of dirt is a cheap substitution.

The cat's name is Benny. She's named after Benson, a dog my family used to have that, like my kitten is completely black except for white paws and a white haired belly. Benson used to pass horrible smelling gas all the time and so does Benny. Our dog was so much better than this thing. Even then I keep thinking how many animals my sister and I had that my parents had to put up with. I had no idea what a pain in the ass it would be.

Benny meows all the time. She's attention deficit, meaning she runs around the house uncontrollably, without direction and she is always wanting attention. ALWAYS. It's so annoying. Meow, meow, meow, meow.. annoying. The other day my neighbor anne marie called me to say that she went over to get Benny because it had been meowing for hours. It also pees. It peed on my bed, on some of my clothes, in my bike helmet... I was pissed the last time it peed and dunked the cat in a bucket of water. It's not like I'm just going to throw those things in the washer, ca va, that's taken care of. No. Don't even get me started about laundry here. I keep telling myself that I hate mice, and cats are so much better than mice. But the other day there was a huge centipede in the living room, so I picked up that cat and put it in front of the bug where it just proceeded to sit there and watch it.

Benny has also inspired my 6 year old neighbor. We'll call him Christian, a little 6 year old boy who is always half dressed, mostly not wearing pants. As far as I've seen, Christians favorite past times include kicking around a water bottle or a plastic bag, rolling around on the porch of his house, and apparently playing with my cat. I came to realize this when the cat saw christian, hissed like crazy and ran off. Hmmm. So we asked Christian if he likes the cat and plays nicely with it, and his answers are mostly a few "oui's" and blank stares. Clearly guilty. I'm surprised the cat hasn't been put down the well yet.

Again, another day, Anne Marie thought something was wrong with my cat, meowing more than usual and scratching or something like that. Turns out it was christian. I walked in through the compound door, and Christian was hiding right behind it, squatting down, half naked, meowing. Kids are weird.

I think I should have got a dog instead. Luckily for me, my other postmate kate just got a puppy today and she's adorable. She doesn't have a name yet, but I want to call it Biya. Also happens to be name of the president of cameroon who has been in office for a few decades. I promised to help take care of it, which I don't think should be a problem since I love dogs and since I'm going to train it to be a good guard dog I now have someone to go running with. I'm pretty happy about it.

Next blog I'll write a little more about what I've been actually doing as a volunteer. I've not been so great about emails and updating this blog. I got my first miserably sick experience here last week. That sucked. I was kind of waiting for it anyway, it's just a matter of time for that to happen here. We've also been without power for several days at a time. Not a fan of living without electricity, because when it gets dark at 6:30 what do you do to pass the time with your canteen lantern and meowing cat?

Trevor was also visiting for a weekend, always a good time when other volunteers come through the capital. I think it's hard to escape the life here because very few things are familiar. But it's possible to find comfort in something familiar like people, movies, a good dream, a box of macaroni and cheese. Times like that its amazing how easy it is to forget where you are, it's disorientating. Like watching a great movie set in the states, it's great at that moment, but when the movie ends or volunteers travel back to their posts, reality hits. Not as fun. And not the reason I'm here, I know.

Besides that, I've been busy working, helping someone open their own business and launching a new health project. Nope not a health volunteer but that's how peace corps works. Just got to go with it... "I'm not an expert in french but I am an expert in _______" Fill in the blank, and sometimes that'll change with the day.

P.S. I totally mastered riding side saddle on a moto! The other day I was about to hop on a moto in a fited skirt that had double side slits a little to long. Too late to run back and change, I braved the side saddle ride all the way from tigaza to my house. Which doesn't mean anything to most of you, but it was a pretty long ride on some back dirt roads.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Smells of Cameroon

I described the sounds of cameroon.. now I think its only appropriate to talk about the smells of Cameroon. I read in a book recently, because I do alot of that here, about a family that went back the the states and realized it doesn't smell. Things smell in the states when you put your nose right up in it, but there are hardly ever general smells. I think this might be true, other volunteers say so too. Cameroon however has tons of smells. The ones I'm about to write about, are my oppionion, not of everyone and not of everything.

The smells started on the flight over here from Paris to Yaounde. Just circulating the same air and same smells of people who probably had been traveling just as much as we had. Put it this way.. my post mates sister came to visit a couple weeks ago, and when she was leaving they confiscated her deoderant at the airport because securitydidn't know what it was. Point made? That probably goes for toothpaste too.

However I think the most dominating smell is of wood fires. Most families do their cooking over a traditional wood fire outside in a 3 walled kitchen. I like the smell of it, I don't actually like smelling of it so thats why I don't use my traditional kitchen in the back of my house. And it's ALOT of work. Along the sides of the street, mommies cook over grills made out of metal barrows or tire rims that they fill with coals. They grill corn, prunes, fish, plantains and other stuff. The fish always smells the most amazing. Men are more likely to be grilling the soya or brochette, strips of meat on sqwere, grilled over a similar homemade barrel grill kept hot by logs of wood sticking out one cut out side of the grill. Cameroon smells of delicious food.

Side note: The selection of meat is a bit different than what I was used to in the West Province. There is beef and if I'm lucky, goat. But the East is famous for it's bush meat. Cane rats- rats larger than cats, porcupine, some armadillo like animal I forget the name of that has scales and climbes trees, viper, and monkey. As you've heard me complain about before, there are pigs and ducks all over the place, but I've never had either since I've been here. I'm determined to find out why.

Pigs smell too, obviously. But they particularly smell because they are behind my house. Chickens kind of have their own smell too, and they walk around all over the place or wait in cages along the side of the road to be sold. If they didn't have a scent of their own, I bet they picked up another smell hanging out in garbage piles or in the fields. It's a new meaning of "free range meat" here.

There are no regulatory systems on pollution, specifically from car exhausts. There are tons of motos around here that add to that smell in the air, but worse are the huge logging trucks and agence busses that go from city to city. Thick black exhaust.

walking outside through the fish market, well that smells, and so does the meat market, also outside perfuming the air. The fruit and veggie stands are not that far away to its a nice balancing smell.When you walk into hannafords or price copper is the first thing is the veggatables and fruit, but can you smell them? Maybe its the pesticide, or the shiny wax coating or the blowing air conditioner that prevents the smell. Same with meat behind the cases or the fish on ice in the back of the store. Thinking about it I bet you can't even smell the lobsters in the tank unless you put your nose close enough. Not the case here.

There are very minimal sewage systems. Example: my well where I get water is right next to my dranage system for my house, hence problems with water contaimination. Anyway, most people use latrines/outdoor bathrooms or just go to the bathroom outside. I have no problem with this, I didn't think one could actually be an expert at squating outside.. I think I'm getting there. I think that private latrines are very clean, like if I was to have my own latrine in the back yard, it would be clean. Otherwise.. if the world is your bathroom, it will probably smell like it too. And sometimes it does.

Laundry.. doesn't smell like lavender snuggle spring breeze fabric softener that's for sure.

Finally, I think that Cameroon smells like earth. Sounds strange, I know. It smells like earth especially when it rains or when its really sunny and all the vegetation is growing. There is a huge lack of pavement here, the provincial city I think it the only one in the province that is paved, other than the road to the capital which is currently under pavement construction. I can also count how many buildings there are above 1 story. Maybe these are some of the reasons that it smells like I actually with nature and earth. Sounds a bit hippy-ish, but it's true and it smells nice. Don't worry i'm not turning into that crunchy granola peace corps volunteer some of you have pictured in your immagination or in my nightmares... I still wear mascara everyday.