Six weeks in a rural village in Cameroon

The electric power in Cameroon can go off at any time for seconds, minutes, hours or even days. During my first week in Fundong the power was off over 50% of the time. Adjusting to village life in the dark tested my fortitude. The week I moved into my new and improved accommodations, my landlord, a very pleasant school principal, brought over someone to fix the leaky bathroom plumbing. He was dressed to go out not to fix the plumbing. As he started to take the toilet apart, the lights went out. With a small flashlight and without any gaskets or washers, he improvised using an old rubber tire and repaired the toilet and sink. As a gift to me when they left I received a torch(flashlight) that has lightened up my dark nights. My living accommodations are considered luxurious by most people in the village who come to visit. By western standards, its like a weekend cabin retreat. I have a bathroom with only cold water. My kitchen has a propane cooker and a rusted dented stainless sink. The mattress I sleep on is a 5 piece of foam that I bought for $62. Within a few days of use, there was a sinkhole in the middle where I had slept. I would probably have curveture of the spin if I stayed another month in this house. I boil water every night in my stew pot, pour it into a plastic bucket which I carry into the bathroom, add cold water and start pouring it over my head with a cup.
The climate here is hot and beyond dusty during the dry season which has lasted a lot longer than normal so I usually return home after sitting on the back of a motorcycle, extremely dirty. The red dust sticks to my clothes, my shoes and my skin. My only consulation is that the dirt roads and donkey paths are much safer riding on a motorcycle in the dry season. I was secretly
hoping that the rains would be late in coming, feeling a bit guilty as I knew that the farmers needed rain and the poor villagers who took their water from the streams were desperate. Over the past few weeks we have had sporadic heavy rain but not often enough to begin the planting season. A byproduct of the rain is a deluge of crawling and flying insects on the floor of my house that seem to materialize out of nowhere. So I am relieved that the real rainy season has not begun. Most of my neighbors are living on less than a dollar a day in basic stone houses with tin roofs and dirt floors. Vivian, the niece of my landlord, is thrilled when I have her wash my floors and dirty clothes and pay her 2000 cf.($4) The minimum wage is roughly 25,000cf ($50) a month for a twelve hour day. Many women will sit on the road all day and sell a few bananas or pear (avocado here) and earn less than a dollar. Some days the landscape is so dismal and depressing, always so many little children running around in dirty clothes and running noses. As the village is poor, there is little packaged food of any kind to buy in the tiny tin roofed cubicles. There is also no way of knowing how long anything has been sitting on the dusty shelves. There is no refrigeration in any of the shops, or tacky shack like bars. Everyone drinks warm beer. Most houses, including mine, dont have refrigerators so I havent had a cold drink since I got off the plane in Doula six weeks ago. I have to travel two hours to find something that qualifies as a grocery store where I can buy basic stuff like oil, vinegar, liquid soap, and pasta. I was so excited the day I found the French equivalent of saltines that I was rationing them out five a day. I have learned to read labels and buy nothing produced in Cameroon except toilet paper and bottled water.
I accidently bought a package of local pasta which turned to glue after it was cooked. This area is the agricultural center but everyone grows the same thing so there are twenty people selling tomatoes, onions, avocado and tons of bananas and plantains. Green peppers, potatoes, green pepper and pineapple are available sometimes. The staple diet for Cameroon is starch and more starch. Besides rice, various kinds of potatoes and a few seasonal fruits, one of the staple dishes in west Africa is fufu. In Ghana it is made from plantains and cassava and looks like raw dough; here in Cameroon it is made from ground corn. Served in a dough like ball wrapped in plastic, it is eaten with a thin watery tomato sauce. Most of the people here eat with one hand, washing before and after. The other popular dish in the northwest is njama njama, a bunch of small green leaves that are boiled and then served with red palm oil and a maggi bouillion cube that melts when it is mixed with the cooked greens. I remember the last experience I had with red palm oil. I was in Cape Coast, Ghana last year as a volunteer, photographing one of the seamstresses who worked for Global Mamas when I began to cough and gag.The mysterious fumes were from someone cooking with red palm oil. Eggs are sold in the little stalls and sit for weeks before anyone buys them. I was surprised to find them edible without refrigeration. My diet here is limited because of choice, the Cameroonian diet because of poverty. The most difficult adjustment living here has been the monotony of what I have to eat and no refrigeration to preserve anything.
Keeping busy and entertaining myself have been easier than feeding myself. My laptop is my constant companion, providing me with the opportunity to write, work on my photos, hook up to the internet in the village and take me to the movies at night. I can not imagine what my six week sojourn here would have been like without it. During the day I have traveled to surrounding villages, and lecturing on clean water habits, garbage recycling and smaller families. I spent several days in the bi-lingual high school, talking with the environmental club. I demanded that everyone boil all their drinking water, even if they take it from the street tap. One of the boys in the class did an experiment. He collected water from the stream and from the public tap and boiled each of them. He found that both of the waters were dirty, especially the stream water. After sharing this information with the class, the next day we met almost the entire class had boiled their water the night before. Since there is no access to recycling in underdeveloped countries, I suggested we separate food waste and turn it into compost since almost every family has a small farm. Instead of paper littering the town, it will be thrown in a special bin at school and later burned. I agreed to buy four dumpsters for the market area so they can recycle food waste and have less garbage. One of my most vehement pleas was for small families. Less children mean less mouths to feed, cloth and take care of. Less children mean the woman is healthier and they can have the possibility to send two children to school instead of eight. Most of the women I spoke with already had many children or had not been educated or could not speak up to their spouses. I visited the Catholic school and talked with several classes of kindergarten children, teaching them basic habits that we learned from our parents. Cover your mouth when you cough and use a toilet tissue to clean your nose. After speaking with many different groups of Christian and Muslim women, a few educated men and many school classes, I can see that new ideas and changes will be most easily accepted and tried by the younger generation.

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