This blog is solely the responsibility of Rebecca Hartog and does not reflect the views of Peace Corps.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


It’s the anniversary of two years in Cameroon today! I should be thrilled, but I’m actually extremely upset. In fact, after my visit to the sawmill today, I went to Magloire’s house after and cried and threw a small fit. I’ve said it before (perhaps not to but I really many people in particular, but to myself, at least) and I’ll say it again: I feel like Cameroon has broken me – my hope, my spirit, my optimism for humanity. That may sound drastic, but perhaps it feels so much worse, because I don’t feel like even my best friend here can understand why I’m upset and comfort me properly. Magloire’s response to my being upset was “Becca, you know how things work here, so why are you letting it upset you?” This is so Cameroonian - ie when everything goes wrong, it’s your fault for being upset about it. Geez, I’m just looking for a little sympathy. I even tried to explain that to him before I became a blubbering mess, but once again, I don’t think he understood that all I really wanted to hear was comforting sounds - “I know, they suck, those bastards.”

I guess I should backup and explain what brought this on. While preparing breakfast this morning, Magloire surprised me by showing up at my house. He was supposed to be two days travel away at a training that was supposed to begin yesterday for a government-sponsored project he’s doing. Apparently, this training has been rescheduled for next week, for the same dates as those for our HIV Counselor Training. Now we’ve got to figure out a way to manage this problem, and he’s talking about skipping out on part of our project. I feel confident that I could lead the training alone, but 1) I think it will be more beneficial for participants if he’s there to act as a cultural liaison; 2) I think he will benefit from teaching, it will be a good experience for him; 3) He made this commitment months ago, and I feel like it’s unfair to drop that commitment a week beforehand because some jerk government organization finally got their shit together and planned their project for the same time as we did.

So that was problem number 1. Actually, that’s problem number 3. Problem 1 is the seeming impossibility of getting HIV tests for our HIV week project. I have about next to no faith that I’ll be able to get tests from the government agencies responsible for distributing them. I already know that the Cameroonian government is entirely inept, corrupt, inefficient, and basically incapable of doing anything but put on airs and bouffe money. Perhaps because I wasn’t expecting much from them, this is less disappointing, despite the fact that free testing was kind of the culmination of AIDS Week. I’ve approached other NGOs to try and get HIV tests, to no avail. I actually wonder whether there are any tests physically in the country right now.

Problem 2 is ACMS (Association Camerounaise pour le Marketing Social), a Cameroonian NGO that distributes a lot of HIV and malaria related materials as one approach to combating these two large health challenges. ACMS has long been a reliable partner for PCVs, providing sponsoring for PCV projects. I visited ACMS about a month ago with Magloire, and they gave us the runaround – making us re-write and re-deliver our demande d’aide, fill out additional forms, and then come back on a Friday, (but not the following Friday, when I would conveniently still be in Yaounde). When I thus went back last Friday, I was irritated when the receptionist said that they didn’t currently have anything to give out. Could I come back on Monday or Tuesday? “No!” I wanted to scream, “This is my third trip here! You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep. If you can’t give me anything, can you just say no, so I stop wasting my time?!” But I didn’t say that, I politely informed her that I could not come back the next week because I was traveling back to Ngambé Tikar the next day (Saturday). She said I could send someone in my place, so I enlisted a PCV friend, Ben.

When I called Ben yesterday to see if he had success, he said that the ACMS office was closed on Monday. I couldn’t believe the receptionist would tell me to come back when the office was closed! Was that her way of telling me to stuff it? Or was she actually that stupid and inconsiderate? Clearly, this has angered me. I thought ACMS was reliable – last year, during international AIDS day, it was almost absurd how easy it was to get HIV materials, such as condoms and posters. Many volunteers have successfully gotten sponsoring from ACMS. I now wonder if I did something wrong?

And now for problem 4, which basically triggered my emotional breakdown today. Before I went to Yaoundé last week, I asked Mirko at the sawmill if he had the money that he had promised us for this project – 150.000 CFA, or about 12% of the overall budget, no small contribution. He said he didn’t, but I should come back on Monday and he would have it then. I said I wouldn’t be in village, and he agreed that Magloire could pick up the money. When I called Magloire from Yaoundé so find out if he had gotten money from Mirko, he said no. I encouraged him to be persistent, thinking it was just a problem of reminding Mirko enough times (not unusual here).

When I went to talk to Mirko today, I was not expecting what he told me, which was that he had no money (how that’s even possible – the sawmill just built a brand new office… I don’t want to get into). So basically, he just made a promise, which he may or may not have intended to keep. I can’t believe it. I don’t think a company could get away with that in America – the media backlash would be awful for business. But not in Cameroon! I’m so disgusted with the way this country functions. Which is actually an oxymoron – this country doesn’t function.

In short, everything that could go wrong with the AIDS Week is… and all of it is out of my control, but yet reflects on me. I think this is why I’ve had such trouble with Cameroon, in general: maybe you’ll achieve something great which has little to nothing to do with your particular effort. And maybe you’ll try and try and try to do something meaningful and the end result will be pitiful. It makes you wonder why you should even try since results seem to be so unrelated to effort.

Actually this whole mess has brought me some peace on an issue that has been challenging for me to grope with. Namely, how much does the West owe to Cameroon and to Africa in monetary terms? Should the wealthy West be throwing more money at Africa’s enormous and seemingly insurmountable problems? Should we pity their poverty – their kids’ bellies swollen from malnutrition, their mud brick houses with leaky thatched roofing and dirt floors, their lack of clean drinking water, their endemic malaria? I think I have finally found an answer: no.

If there’s anything to pity here, it’s the overwhelming and stifling lack of hope and sense that people have no power to influence fate, embodied perfectly in that all too common phrase, “on va faire comment?” (“What are you gonna do?”) Because no matter how poor, sick, hungry, or suffering these people are in material concerns, they are far richer in closeness of family and generosity to fellow man (something America could certainly take notes on…). Moreover, if America teaches us anything, it’s that perseverance and hard work can achieve anything, but you must first believe in your ability to succeed. This is something kids are trained to believe since pre-school – who didn’t grow up hearing, “What do you want to be when you want to grow up? You can be anything you want, you just have to try!” All of Africa’s (okay, perhaps I shouldn’t generalize to a whole continent, but definitely Cameroon’s) problems, I firmly believe, could be resolved if people – forgive the cheesiness – had the audacity to hope. Hope, the belief in the very possibility of better, is truly powerful. It can lead people to do extraordinary things – just as it is bringing much-needed health reform to America’s ailing health care system right now. But Cameroonians don’t have this vision. Today, I felt the way they see the world, I understood that lack of hope, fundamentally and viscerally. Why do I care, why do I even try when everything is just as likely to fall apart as it is to work?

No. Don’t pity Africans their poverty. Pity them the colonialism, the traditions, and resulting clusterfuck of disorganization that many countries on the continent have suffered and which crushes hope of making a difference insidiously, beginning with early childhood, until the people become docile and incapable of getting angry in the face of injustice, chalking everything up to fate.

On va faire comment?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Agroforestry training with photos!

I recently helped organize a training in agroforestry techniques. Specifically, we learned about various types of plants that flower for 10 months out of the year (good for beekeeping!) and also feritilize the earth, how to make germoires, how to increase tenfold the production of banana and plantain trees over traditional methods, and how to obtain carbon copies of existing fruit trees. I decided to put a selection of photos from this project on my blog with explanations. I hope you find the following interesting and enjoy it!


This is Magloire and Dang Assebe, a member of CAPJ, helping build the hangar where the training took place.

The completed hangar. It just needed to be covered with palm leaves. Notice the huge sacks of sawdust and the wood planks – both materials readily available in Ngambe Tikar for free because of the sawmill. Also some of the main materials that are needed to build the nurseries and employ many of the techniques we learned.

Training begun, Blaise Komkom Magloire, the trainer, laying some groundwork, explaining what exactly agroforestry is and why people should practice it.

Here, we are building the “chassis géant” or Giant Chassis. Please forgive my translations. Since I’m not an agroforestry volunteer and the average French-english dictionary doesn’t have translations for random French agro vocabulary, I’ve done the best I could. The first step was to build the groundwork and lay it in place. We then had to assure that the ground was well-leveled before pouring insecticide on the ground.

Next, we needed to construct the framework which would support the clear plastic tarpaulin that would cover the chassis.

Here, it’s clear that the framework is almost complete. The only thing left is to do is saw off the excess length of the wood.

The clear tarp is already attached and we are filling the nursery bed with sawdust. Sawdust is used because it’s light and airy and doesn’t compact as much as soil, and thus provides a good environment for the banana and plantain rejets to sprout (again, rejet is the French word; I don’t even know how to explain it well without showing you a picture of how banana and plantain trees regenerate). Before placing the banana and plantain rejets into the sawdust, we sifted the sawdust and ensured there were no big clumps.

We had bought 200 rejets of banana and plantain trees and there was a huge pile of them (bottom left). Blaise showed us how to clean these rejets so they’d be ready to plant in the nursery. Here, the women (and men) are cleaning the rejets to prepare them for the nursery.

Cleaned and prepared rejets, pre-planting.

Another photo of the prepared rejets. Behind them, you can see how the pile of rejets has been reduced to nothing but scraps.

Blaise explaining how to kill the merystem of the banana rejet. The rejet is what’s used to propagate banana and plantain trees, rather than seeds. Banana and plantain trees naturally sprout 4-5 rejets, which will then become trees themselves when the mother tree dies. Killing the merystem of the rejet makes it impossible for the tree itself to grow. This is desired because then, instead of growing into a tree, the rejet will sprout 4-5 new rejets. When those rejets sprout, we will repeat the process – preparing these new rejets to be planted in the nursery and killing the merystem again so they can again sprout more banana or plantain rejets instead of growing into a fruit-producing tree. When the rejets sprout again from the second generation rejets, however, we will allow harvest the sprouts and let them grow into trees, ie not kill the merystem. Net gain: each rejet that we collected and prepared will eventually give up to 10 trees instead of only one, which is the standard practice.

Planting the prepared rejets into the sawdust nursery bed. After planting, we let them sit overnight so that they would dry out before watering them the next day. This was done to prevent rotting. The following day, we also covered the rejets with a light layer of sawdust.

The planted rejets. When we finished, the entire bed was full.

Building the framwork for the “chassis de reeducation.”

Filling the “chassis de reeducation” with sand.

The “chassis de reeducation,” now with the framework firmly attached and covered in clear tarp. The gap left was to build a door. Whereas the other nursery was not intended to be stepped on, this one is, and you enter the nursery/greenhouse-like space through the door.

Blaise explaining how to place a marcotte on an existing fruit tree. Marcotting is a technique that allows someone to clone an existing fruit tree. The advantages of marcotting over simply planting trees from seeds are: if you marcotte, you know if they tree will give good fruit, give fruit early, big fruits, juicy fruits, etc, because the resulting tree will have the exact same characteristics as the tree it came from. Another advantage is that the tree will begin producing more quickly than a tree grown from seed – in about 2 years, rather than 4 or 5. Finally, a marcotted tree will be of small stature, and won’t grow to huge sizes that take up space when land is limited.
A note about translation: marcotter translates to "layering." I don't love this translation, so I'll stick with the anglicization of the French.

Mama Veronique showing how to place the marcotte. Mama Veronique and her GIC were key hosts in inviting Blaise for his “prise de contacte” or first visit last October. At that time, Blaise showed those present how to place marcottes, so Mama Veronique had already seen the technique and Blaise wanted her to explain it to the others.

Mah Antoine finishing the marcotte that Veronique started, filling the marcotte sachet with sawdust. You can see how sawdust is needed for a lot of this work! Fortunately, Ngambé Tikar has a sawmill, and thus, an almost unending supply of free sawdust.

The first marcotte harvested in Ngambé Tikar, it came from a marcotte we placed last October, shortly before the dry season began. Marcotting can be used on almost any kind of fruit tree, including but not limited to: guava, avocado, all citrus (mandarin oranges, oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes), corossol (a fruit native to tropical zones), mango, and prune (again, a different kind of prune than we know in the US - this prune is small and cylindrical, about fist-sized, with a purple/blue exterior and a bright green interior and a large pit).
Albert preparing the marcotte, now with roots, in a sachet so the branch becomes a tree.

After harvesting the marcottes we had placed last October, we planted them in sachets and placed them in our “chassis de reeducation,” as shown here. In the chassis, the controlled environment will allow the branch to "re-learn" how to be a tree, instead of just a branch - and voila! Once it begins to sprout buds, it is officially a carbon copy of the tree you started with.
Blaise brought a small quantity of calliandra seeds with him, which are good for fertilizing that earth and are in bloom 10 months out of the year. Here, we’ve built a germoire or germinating nursery and are preparing to plant the calliandra seeds.

Everyone pitched in to help plants the seeds. In the foreground of the germoire (or germinator), you can see we’ve planted avocado pits. When the pits begin to grow into trees, they will be used as “porte-greffes” or graft carriers. The next technique that Blaise will teach us will be grafting. In preparation for this next training, he has asked everyone to grow as many port-greffes as possible during the next five months.

Family photo on the last day. Some people were missing from this photo – we had 27 people come to at least one day of the three-day training and 21 people participate in most or all of the training.

I took these photos of “La Station,” as we’ve named the training site on April 19, about 2 weeks post-training. In the foreground are germoires for the calliandra and for the porte-greffes. The two closest germoires were created after the training to sprout more porte-greffes.

The calliandra has sprouted and is growing fast!

Isn’t it beautiful?

I was pleased to find that the banana and plantain rejets are already sprouting after only two weeks! In the foreground, the blurry white blob is a sprout, as is the green and pink thing jutting out of the sawdust. Another blurry white blob set against the sawdust in the background is yet another sprout.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What is the price of integrity?

What does it mean when someone steals from you? What does the act of thievery say about a person, or even the community in which that act takes place? Recently, I’ve been the target of more theft than I’d like. Some petty, some more serious but each has affected me, surprisingly, almost inversely to the monetary value of the loss, which is why I’d like to address the theme.

Our story starts about a month ago while I was in Yaoundé doing some work in the Peace Corps office. Over the weekend, a couple volunteer friends and I went out to a nightclub. Absent-mindedly, I had left my 16 GB USB key (incidentally, containing all of my Peace Corps photos, work documents and other electronic valuables) in my purse. Not surprisingly, it was quietly removed from said purse without my noticing. Until the next morning.

I was a little upset, but mostly, I knew that I really only had myself to blame. Living in New York City for four years has taught me that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, especially in big, anonymous cities. If you want to keep your belongings, well, hold on tight. I came away from this incident relatively unscathed emotionally, feeling not anger at some anonymous thief, but rather irritation at myself for my carelessness. When a kind stranger came across my USB key and contacted me to return it, I was even happily surprised at the goodness that can and does exist in the world. I felt like justice exists. I know that any time I’ve come across someone else’s lost belonging, I’ve always made a real effort to return them and felt very good doing so. The world, I felt, was paying me back for my past good deeds.

Incident number two was yesterday. Every morning, I check on my plants in my garden. For whatever reason, I draw a small measure of joy from seeing the plants that I’ve nurtured and sweated over thrive and even produce fruit. Because of my daily checks, I know my plants’ progress like I would my own children. When I went to bed Thursday, I had four different eggplants growing at various stages of development. When I went to check my eggplants yesterday morning, the best one of the four had been neatly snipped off the plant. Not taking into account the fact that this is my food, my sustenance, or even the fact that eggplants are hardly even known au village (I get blank stares when I mention them… who would even know what to do with it?), I found this much more upsetting than the whole USB key incident.

Why? Because it means that someone left the road which abuts my house (already a rather isolated and not exactly busy thoroughfare), walked behind my house, up a hill, past my outhouse, into my garden, with something sharp in hand to cut the eggplant off (premeditation… the first time I tried to cut off an eggplant, I had to go back to my house and get scissors) and took my not-even-fully-grown eggplant right out of my backyard. Never mind that the market value of this eggplant was probably no more than 20 cents, its intangible value to me was much greater. It hurts to know that the guy who says hi everyday as I pass his boutique could be smiling to my face and stealing behind my back, right in my own backyard. Or my neighbors. Or one of the innumerable children who scream out “Re-beck-KAH!” any time I pass.

The last incident, also yesterday, has hurt the most, though. I don’t say so lightly. I went up to the sous-prefecture to talk to my parents on the phone yesterday afternoon. The sous-prefecture is up on a hill, and consequently has much better cell phone reception. Because it’s up on a hill, it’s also practically deserted save for the sous-préfét and his assistant who live up on the hill, next to the sous-prefecture. When I left at 4:30 PM, I was distracted, and I left my wallet there on accident. When I realized my mistake at around 8:15 PM, I went right back to retrieve it. Navigating the darkness with a flimsy flashlight, my heart fluttered lightly when the dim beam revealed that the wallet was exactly where I’d left it. However, my heart sank into my stomach when, upon examining its contents, I found all of my money and a small leather coin purse missing.

The monetary contents were about 8500 CFA – about $18.48 – and thankfully my identity cards and credit cards were still there (!). But. My identity cards were there. The thief knew that this wallet belonged to me. You know, me – “Re-beck-KAH!” After all, I’m one of three white people who live in this village – and the other two are a 40-something man and 70-something nun. Hard to go unnoticed or unknown. I’ve estimated before that probably 99 percent of this village knows my name, and I probably know about two percent’s name. Whoever rifled through my wallet came across my identity cards and, knowing exactly whom they were stealing from, went right ahead and took my money.

It bears comparing the eggplant theft with the wallet theft, because one could argue that the eggplant thief also know whom s/he was stealing from. However, the eggplants are a slightly different case – they’re outside and already vulnerable to ravenous animals and other nuisances simply by design. I’m not ignorant to the possibility that the thief was four-legged (though I am doubtful). Not much I can do to reduce that risk. With my wallet, it was a moment of weakness, of forgetfulness, clearly a mistake (who leaves money and valuables just sitting out for anyone to have a gander?), and most of all, a chance for someone to come knocking on my door and earn my undying and eternal gratitude. Indeed, in a small town where everyone knows everyone and everyone DEFINITELY knows the white girl, that’s the decent thing to do. Instead, our thief here said, “fuck that,” took the money, and ran. It not only feels like being kicked while you’re down, but the act feels intentionally directed at me. It sucks, and it hurt me a lot.

The real bummer here is not the mere loss of money but the loss of faith in my community. Before this incident, Ngambé Tikar was to me, a small village, comprised mainly of well-meaning, hard-working, honest folk who have been dealt a short stick in life in so many ways. I felt safe, welcomed and fully a member of this place, and I was happy to “suffer” with everyone else if my efforts could help right some of the wrongs caused by powers bigger than me and bigger than Ngambé Tikar itself. On était ensemble. For the mere price of $18.48, however, our thief has bought Ngambé Tikar a big fat question mark in my mind. Now, among Ngambé Tikar’s short list of good qualities, can I really count kindness, honesty, and goodwill? I don’t know anymore.
Was it worth $18.48? Just what is the value of a dollar? And how much does integrity cost?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

And SONEL said unto them “Let there be light!”

Recently, I’ve really felt more like I’ve been in a developing country than a third-world country. SONEL is the only (state-run) power company in Cameroon, and I didn’t really believe SONEL would ever bring electricity to my little village. I’d asked around and been told that SONEL said Ngambé Tikar was far too en brousse and it wouldn’t be profitable. Thus, when the generator that was powering my house every night broke in July, I thought I was going to be in the dark permanently. Fortunately, I was reassured that the deputy (kind of like the congressman for Ngambé Tikar) was going to bring a new generator to village in August.

Imagine my surprise when SONEL showed up in early August and began rapidly installing electricity poles and power lines. I stopped to ask the workers when they thought the power would be ready. They assured me “at the end of the month at latest.” Which could mean by the end of the month, but more likely meant I’d be lucky to see SONEL light up Ngambé Tikar before I leave in December 2009. So I was even further surprised when the power lines and poles were basically installed well before the end of the month.

It was fascinating to watch the process. Large electricity poles were laid on the ground, painted, holes dug, poles installed, power cords strung, electricity meter boxes installed on peoples’ homes, a concrete home for the generator built. Shockingly they were done before August was over. This might be the fastest progress of anything I’ve ever seen in Cameroon.

Meanwhile, on a quite unrelated note, the dirt roads in my village were being “arranged” all summer, which means that huge piles of dirt are dropped on the road and then flattened by a large tractor. This effectively smoothes out the huge grooves and holes carved out by the rain. So at the same time as I watched power lines get raised practically overnight, I also watched the roads become slowly flat and even driveable. Since the whole process has been really interesting to watch, I thought I’d post some photos:

old power lines

the old generator house
the new generator house being built
electricity poles freshly painted and still on the ground before being raised

One of the poles went up right in front of my work

One of the SONEL workers running the power lines through the poles
power lines to the hospital

the roads being flattened

Monday, July 28, 2008

Fall blues

It was super hot yesterday and super rainy and overcast today. Aside from the mud, the weather conditions were great for a run. Thus, I headed out for a run, despite being nearly dehydrated during yesterday’s run in excruciating heat. While running, my eye caught some dead leaves falling from a tree and I was immediately reminded me of autumn. Pangs of missing fall hit me with an intensity to be matched only by the stomachache that hit me at the end of said run. Not that the seasons don’t change here – there’s rainy and dry season. But it’s not quite the same. Today was just a perfect fall day – rainy, overcast, leaves were apparently falling, and it was brisk (or maybe not… I’m not sure I remember what brisk feels like, since temperatures in the 60s could arguably be classed as “brisk” here). It made me sad. I am excited to experience winter in the states again in January, though I’m sure my body will experience shock since I will have been living in summer-type conditions for over a year by then.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Peer educator training ceremony of completion: check

June 27 was the day we gave out the Peace Corps certificates of appreciation to our peer educators for finishing their training. It’s funny – people here go nuts for these certificates. They hang on to them for years, and if they lose them, they’re desperate to find a replacement or copy. So I was pretty happy that the celebratory ceremony we had planned went off well. We had invited about 50 elites to the ceremony and about half showed up, including the village chief. In my opinion, he’s probably the most important elite in village, so I was happy he came. In addition, many of the other elites who showed up are people who I’d consider friends. I was touched because I think many of them came simply as a show of friendship. Magloire and I gave short speeches and then the peer educators performed a sketch they had put together to show off what they had learned. The sketch was a bit rough around the edges since they only had about two weeks to throw it together, but I was proud of them nonetheless. Here are some photos:

Afterwards, we asked the village elites to present the certificates to the peer educators. Regardez:

On the left is Soeur Simone giving a certificate to one of my favorite peer educators, Yawe. Soeur Simone is French, 72 years old and has lived in my village for 40 years. The middle photo is my doctor giving a certificate to another of my favorite educators, George. The last is the commandant of the gendarmes giving a certificate to the only fmale peer educator we trained. Notably, you can see my village chief sitting behind them on the right - he went to college at the University of Minnesota. My village is full of oddities.
Finally, we took a picture in front of the foyer chefferie where we had held the ceremony with everyone who came. Of note is the village chief (in the brown suit front center), the doctor (in blue to the right of the chef), and Jean-Paul, my language tutor (to the right of Soeur Simone, the sole white person in the photo). Also, note how the grand majority of people are not smiling. This is pretty typical of Cameroonians posing for photos. I don’t know why they’d prefer to look unhappy in photos, but it’s pretty standard. Who knew that smiling for photos was an American thing?

After the ceremony, we hustled to get ready for the party that was to be held afterwards at the main bar in town. I had spent about seven hours that day preparing the snacks for the party with a gaggle of other women. We set up traditional wood-fires to fry plantain chips and croquettes, pop popcorn, and grilling peanuts. The peanuts were a particular pain in my ass. You wouldn’t believe how much work it takes just to produce a handful of grilled, salted peanuts – first you de-shell the peanuts, then you soak them overnight in salted water, then you have to dry them in the sun for several hours, and finally, then you build yourself a fire, and grill the suckers for about an hour while smoke from the fire fills your lungs and causes your eyes to tear up. When we were finished, we had reduced a 20L buckets worth of peanuts (with the shell on) to a salad bowl full of salted peanuts. I was so occupied preparing all the food that I didn’t really eat anything all day. By the time the party arrived, I was starving.

Unfortunately, all the food we had prepared was more snack food than something substantial, albeit delicious. Thus, between cooking for 7 hours and running around getting everything in order, and eating nothing substantial, by the time the party was over at 9 PM, I was ready to collapse. My peer educators wanted to party til the wee hours though, so Magloire volunteered to stay out with them. I clocked out at 10 PM; Magloire was out til 2 AM and then awake at 6 AM to train for two hours an upcoming soccer tournament. I see streaks of my former self in his insane energy, so I understand his need to workout for two hours at 6 AM after only 4 hours of sleep, but I also think it takes a certain brand of crazy to do that to oneself.

Anyway, the day was a success. Sylvie, the stand-in for my boss who’s on maternity leave right now, came to the ceremony as well. The next day, before heading out, she came over to do her official site visit. We talked about the work I’ve been doing and I really started to realize how many options for work I have. The talk was helpful, though it certainly made me feel almost overwhelmed with what needs to be done. I need to sit down and sort out what I want to do, what’s feasible, and what’s realistic in my time here.

Meanwhile, since then, I’ve been trying to relax and enjoy myself since the stress of the end of training. My adventures in cooking continue to enjoy success. The night after the ceremony, I made myself pizza (dough and sauce from scratch) that turned out really well. Here’s a picture:

Tonight, I made myself some unexpectedly delicious mushroom risotto. No photo, but it was extremely pleasing.

And, as if this entry didn’t have enough photos, here’s a few more of my neighbors being adorable:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rebecca, the HIV lady

Today, the preschool at the Catholic Mission had an end-of-the-year celebration, a “graduation” of sorts for the eldest pre-schoolers. This meant that the kids performed sketches, dances, and recitations for the assembled audience. The entire event was fantastic and hilarious. Some kids were all done up to the nines, some in miniature-people suits, others just wearing their normal preschool uniform (which is pink overalls for the boys and pink dresses for the girls, both with a white blouse beneath – absurdly cute). One of the sketches was titled “AIDS intervention.” I was surprised that they would address this subject, and further surprised (and flattered) when one of the six kids on stage turned to another and said “Voici Rebecca!” The “Rebecca” character proceeded to give advice about being prudent to avoid getting AIDS. It was a riot, and just another kick in the butt for me to actually accomplish something here before I leave. I guess I’m now known in the community as the white girl who talks ceaselessly about HIV and AIDS. But on the other hand, when I think about it, this is actually really positive. I don’t know if people really took notice of the HIV/AIDS issue before I arrived, but simply my being here and having HIV/AIDS as my primary focus is good advertising in the community to start trying to take the subject seriously.

I’m also excited because today was an exhausting day of work, but a good exhaustion. After the preschool graduation ceremony, Magloire and I went to meet with the Secretary General at the mayor’s office. Apparently, the mayor is very much a politician – a lot of lip service with no action. We were given the tip that if we wanted a real response, it’d be better to talk to the Secretary General. We met with him yesterday, and had a really interesting conversation.

Primarily, we have been wondering how we’re going to fund the small party we’re throwing to celebrate the end of the peer educator training. We thought of approaching the mayor’s office to ask for a small aid, and when we spoke to the Secretary General, he was extremely helpful, said to write a formal demand and he’d do what he could. We also then got talking about Magloire’s recent nightmare trip helping a friend get on ARVs. Apparently, they were just given the runaround completely at the provincial hospitals; our friend was really weak and sick already, and if Magloire hadn’t been there, she surely would have given up because she just kept getting sent here, there, everywhere without result. I’ve already had in my head that it would be a huge benefit for the community if CD4+ counts could be done in village and people could receive the (government-paid free) ARVs in village. So, with the SG, we got to talking about this problem. It was really encouraging to encounter a VIP in village who is actually concerned about this issue and has thoughtful ideas about how to resolve it.

Having this in my mind – that we’ve identified already somebody in a position of power who could really support this project – afterward, Magloire and I started talking about if it’d be possible to bring the CD4+ tests to Ngambe Tikar. I was not surprised that he knew about all the different kinds of tests and the costs. We began to lay out the steps we’d need to take in order to make it happen – what kind of information we’d need to search for, who’s support we’d need to solicit, etc etc. But it’s exciting for me to start to see a project like this begin to take form, to see that it could be possible, especially when the end result could have really positive results for the region.

But all that was yesterday, also an exhausting-but-exciting-day. After meeting with the SG again today, we had “ratrappage” with some of the peer educators. Our peer educator training is nine weeks with one hour-long session each week. Not surprisingly, a number of our peer educators have missed several of the sessions. We’ve said from the beginning that in order to receive a “diploma,” peer educators need to have attended at least 7 of the 9 sessions. So, I’ve offered to our trainees the chance to make-up some of the sessions they’ve missed. Some of our peer educators really have a lot of demands on their time – school, running the family boutique, taking care of siblings, and it gets hard to make it to the training sessions amidst all this. I understand this. In my mind, if someone is motivated enough to schedule and come to a make-up session, that motivation alone merits the very opportunity itself to make-up the session. It has been a pain for me though; I’ve re-done one session three times already.
But anyway, we did some make-up sessions with four of our peer educators today, and it was some of our peer educators who are still in school and often quiet during the regular sessions. It was kind of neat to work with them in a smaller group today, because I saw them come out of the their shells a little bit. The education system here does not encourage creative thinking, but rather rote memorization. Corporal punishment is still widespread and accepted. So getting kids to feel okay with just saying, “I don’t get it, explain it again” or, furthermore, ask a question about a related topic is a real challenge. Today these kids were just bursting with questions. It was so excellent. We even started talking about some material that is really specific – first line, second line, and third-line ARVs, viral resistance, different kinds of tests for HIV serology, how ARVs work, etc. Teaching can be so rewarding when the students are motivated.