An Emily Abroad

Tales of my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.

1 note &

The Female of the Species

The presentation we recently saw on malaria was really great! One of
the details we learned made me think that a poem I’d recently read was
incomplete—so I took it upon myself to make it a bit more
comprehensive. Without further ado, I present:

Missing Stanzas from “The Female of the Species”

(With mixed feelings towards Rudyard Kipling.)

If the male mosquito senses that it’s time to eat a meal
he will find some juicy fruit and drink nectar with great zeal,
but the female, when with “child”, hungers for a different snack,
and her nascent, sanguine cravings lead her to attack, attack!

Though she only hunts her prey from the dusk until the dawn
she may carry deadly weapons such as P. falciparum.
Picked up from a former victim, it’s transmitted to the next,
causing fever, chills, and aching—you don’t want to know the rest.

So guard well against the vixen who will kill you as she feeds!
Each one of us has in us just the type of food she needs.
Use your bed net, take your meds, and remember lest you fail:
The Anophele female is more deadly than the male.

1 note &

Kids’ Songs

My host siblings have gotten really excited about teaching me
Cameroonian children’s songs, which are about as intellectually
stimulating as American children’s songs, except they’re in French, so
they do present a bit of a challenge. I’ll record some of my
favorites (their favorites; they’ve decided for me) here.

Le matin je me leve tot,
je fais ma petite toilette
et je mange quelque chose
et je m’envers pour l’ecole.
Ah! Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
Ee! Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee.
Oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.
Et je m’envers pour l’ecole.
Ah! Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
Ee! Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee.
Oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.
Et je m’envers pour l’ecole.
(Minga, my host sister who was most active in teaching me these songs,
was adamant that the “Ah”s and “Ee”s and “Oh”s must be repeated,
although by that point everyone else was usually ready to move on. It
was cute. :) )
In the morning I wake up early,
I perform my toilette
and I eat something
and I head out towards school.
Ah! Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
Ee! Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee.
Oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.
And I head out towards school.
Ah! Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
Ee! Ee-ee-ee-ee-ee.
Oh! Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.
And I head out towards school.

La tete, les epaules, les genoux, pieds,
Genoux, pieds, genoux, pieds,
la tete, les epaules, les genous, pieds,
nous dansons comme ca.
Ca! Ca! Nous dansons comme ca!
Ca! Ca! Nous dansons comme ca!
La tete, les epaules, les genoux, pieds,
nous dansons comme ca.
(After I shared the American version of this song, they began singing
all the English songs they’d learned at school, but it took me a while
to realize that they were singing in English. Minga was actually
halfway through teaching me “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” before I
figured out that she wasn’t singing a version composed of really
obscure French words I’d somehow never heard before. The Anglophone
Cameroonians I’ve encountered are very intelligible by Americans, but
those who’ve only studied English with Francophone teachers are—less
Head, shoulders, knees, feet,
knees, feet, knees, feet,
head, shoulders, knees, feet,
we dance like this.
This! This! We dance like this!
This! This! We dance like this!
Head, shoulders, knees, feet,
we dance like this.

Jolie et son amie traverser le fleuve.
Arriver au courant, Jolie tombe dans l’eau.
Le courant l’apporte, et son ami l’appelle,
“Jolie! Jolie! Jolie!
Jolie! Jolie! Jolie!”
(These last “Jolie”s must be sung at very specific pitches, and no one
could agree what those pitches were, so that was predictably chaotic.)
Jolie and her friend are crossing the river.
Arriving at the current, Jolie falls in the water.
The current carries her, and her friend calls to her,
“Jolie! Jolie! Jolie!
Jolie! Jolie! Jolie!”

Quand on est bebe, on n’a pas de soucis,
tous va tres bien, tous va tres bien,
il suffit de manger et de jouer,
tous va tres bien, tous va tres bien.
(Not very sure about some of the words in here; I didn’t recognize
them and was basically just sounding them out.)
When you’re a baby, you don’t have any cares,
all goes very well, all goes very well,
it suffices to eat and to play,
all goes very well, all goes very well.

After my host siblings sang the last song for me, my host mother
started singing it herself about older ages of kids, while sort of
frowning at them like, “You kids don’t know how good you have it!”
But she was nice about it, and completely adorable when she was
dancing to the Cameroonian version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and
Toes”. We also had some performances of the Cameroonian and the
American national anthems, which were nice, but decidedly less fun
than the kids’ songs.

1 note &

La Boue

The mud here is:
- Bright red. I tried to tell my host father about how the Rouge
River back home got its name, and he was entirely unimpressed—maybe
because I didn’t get my point across, or maybe because a river that
looks red because of the color of the soil is consummately
unremarkable here. As I told a fellow trainee, the dirt here is the
color a painter might pretend it was in order to have a perfect
contrast with the lush green of everything else.
- Sticky. If you step on mud with the right level of moisture at the
right angle with the right amount of pressure, you will have to stop
and tug to get your foot back up. This mud grabs and holds right on.
It’s almost caused me to fall half a dozen times.
- Slippery. If you step on mud with the right level of moisture at
the right angle with the right amount of pressure, your foot will
slide and keep sliding. It’s like an ice skating rink. The
slipperiness of the mud, as well as never knowing whether to expect
sticky or slippery, has almost caused me to fall a dozen times, and
actually caused me to fall twice.
- Ever-present. It’s the rainy season here, which means that even
when it hasn’t rained for a couple days—rare, at least in my limited
experience—there are a few muddy patches on the road. When it’s
rained recently (which is almost always), the dry patches are more
remarkable. I like the rain, especially the dramatic, pounding rain
they get here, so I guess I’ll learn to like the mud. If nothing
else, it’s pretty.

0 notes &

The Spider in the Bathroom

I’ll admit, the second time that I saw that gigantic spider in my
bathroom and almost-maybe squashed the fucker, I sort of hoped he’d
return. That would have made a great trilogy—a first encounter for
which I was ill-prepared but during which I held my own, a second
meeting that ended with uncertain victory, and a final, dramatic
battle where I’d once and for all vanquish him and wash him down the
drain. But today we had our third meeting, and it ended in stalemate.
He agreed to hide—after a bit of prodding with the toilet brush—and I
agreed not to waste my time trying to find him.

I’ve heard the same thing from all sides, but it evidently hasn’t sunk
in yet: Peace Corps service will change you more than you will change
anything. Your environment will change you more than you will change
your environment. I thought I was going to de-humongous-spider the
bathroom, but instead the humongous-spider-ed bathroom made me into
the kind of person who, knowing a four-inch monstrosity is hiding
behind a board three feet away, will just shrug and bathe anyway.
(There’s also a frog hiding under my bed right now, and my plan is to
let her leave on her own and just tuck in my mosquito net really tight
until she does.)

Which brings me to my point: to the extent that this blog will ever
have a plot or a story or a beginning, middle, end, it’s not going to
be about me doing something super awesome in my community—it’s going
to be about how my community affects me. That’s not to say that I’m
not going to try to do great things, because of course I am, but
ultimately the central conflict in this story will not be man vs. man
or man vs. environment but man vs. self. Having met a few Peace Corps
volunteers and read the blogs of many (way too many) more, I think I’m
okay with that.

1 note &

On Culture Shock

Today one of my fellow trainees said that, during a previous
experience abroad, a facilitator had told her that there was no such
thing as culture shock, just “differences”. I think that on some
level that’s true, but on another level it’s like saying that there’s
no such thing as the flu, just germs. Yes, what we perceive as the
flu is our bodies’ response to the presence of particular
microorganisms, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not also its own
separate phenomenon worth studying and understanding. Similarly, one
can focus only on observing the differences between two cultures, or
one can acknowledge and try to understand the effect those differences
have on us as we acclimatize to a new culture, and can respect the
process of acclimatization as important in its own right.

So I think that culture shock exists, and if anyone wants to quibble
about nomenclature, they can do it without me. I fully expect to
experience culture shock as I really start to adjust. Although it
feels like it’s been forever, as I write this I’ve only been living
with my host family for nine days, and in terms of psychological
readjustment, that’s nothing. To give you a sense of what I’ve got
coming, I here summarize the important bits of the fantastic
description of culture shock from the Peace Corps Cameroon medical

First of all, culture shock is generally understood to occur in four
stages, which are:
1. “Initial euphoria” - “Everything new is intriguing and exciting.
The recent arrivee is impressed with how people everywhere are so much
alike.” - “An unrealistic attidude … inevitable let down.”
2. “Irritation and hostility” - “One stops looking at the
similarities and turns to the differences.” - “Insignificant
difficulties become major problems.”
3. “Gradual adjustment” - “One begins to orient to the culture through
improved language ability. Subtle cultural clues become evident.” -
“Insignificant situations, which previously had been major problems
are now seen in a humorous light.”
4. “Bi-culturalism” - “Function in comfort with the host culture and
your own.” - “You will discover customs and attitudes, which you
enjoy and have indirectly adopted.”
In the Peace Corps in particular, low points tend to occur at four to
six and twelve to eighteen months.

So what is the treatment? I’ve heard lots of good suggestions, but
the general consensus seems to be that one should learn as much as
possible about the host culture, to speed the process of adjustment.
Rather than letting oneself focus on one frustrating aspect of the
culture, one should (apparently) do what one can to learn about other
aspects that might provide more context or make up for minor

My host mother told me the other day that I was adapting very easily,
and while I really appreciate her saying so, I’ve clearly still got a
long road ahead of me. Being able to function effectively in
Cameroon—both as a temporary resident and as a community health
educator—is a worthy, exciting goal, and will hopefully make the
rough patches to come worthwhile.

1 note &

A Safari

Let’s kick the in-country blogging off with a list-style post! To start with, let me say that my host mother’s house is really unreasonably lovely, and the bathroom is actually super nice. It’s clean, well-lit, and has a toilet! But it’s outside, and that means that the outside comes in. So without further ado, here are the five most interesting animals I’ve found in the bathroom.

6. A Lizard

They’re just kind of everywhere, climbing up the sides of buildings and less formal structures with no respect for the laws of gravity. This lizard in particular was perched near the ceiling of the bathroom and just kind of hung out there, watching me shower. I didn’t mind him and I don’t mind his ilk—they’re generally uninterested in getting involved in the affairs of humans—but it was a little disconcerting to have such an attentive audience as I bathed.

5. A Worm? I think?

Or a small eel of some sort? Maybe a really long, skinny leech? The story is this: the toilet doesn’t flush on its own, so there are buckets of water that one can pour down the bowl to make it flush. In one of these buckets of water is a long, black, skinny entity, moving haphazardly but definitely intentionally across the bottom.

4. A Toad or a Frog (I might be a health volunteer, but I didn’t study biology enough to tell the difference.)

Just kind of hanging out along one wall. It’s two or three inches long, and fairly active, at least when I’m in there making a ruckus. We’re cool, though, I might even give it a name if I see it a few more times.

3. Huge Effing Spider

THREE. INCHES. LONG. I saw it and thought I was looking at a strange clump of wire, because no spider could possibly be that big, but no, three inches long. It was hiding behind one of the boards in the wall at about head height, but I saw it fairly clearly. At first when I tossed some water on it it barely moved, but when I tried to crush it with the toilet brush it finally ran away. It was so huge that its run had a visible cadence to it. It was more of a gallop. AND IT’S STILL OUT THERE SOMEWHERE. (Keep in mind that I was naked throughout this sequence of events. Not pleasant.) (UPDATE: Since writing this we have done battle a second time. I may have vanquished my foe? But he fell where I could not see.)

2. A Menagerie

So flying insects don’t like to be in the rain. And flying insects are attracted to the light. So when it’s dark out and it’s the rainy season in Cameroon and poor, innocent, mild-mannered Emily goes out to use the restroom, the relative dry-ness and bright-ness of the bathroom has already attracted her many companions when she arrives. No two looked the same, so it would actually probably fascinate a biologist to study the biodiversity in such a small space, but I was just hoping that none of them would decide to study my nether-regions as I did my business.

1. A Fish

Yes. A fish. Like the worm, this creature resides in one of the buckets of water used for flushing the toilet. It’s small and could probably sit comfortably on a quarter, but it’s definitely a fish.

I know everyone’s reading this thinking, “Hey, Emily, take a look at number four, it’s probably just a—” No. It’s not a tadpole. I know what tadpoles look like; do not insult my intelligence. This is a fish. How did it get there? I don’t know. I thought that all that water was from the rainwater collection system, but perhaps some of it is from the stream. Regardless: fish.

Now I have nothing against fish. And water used to move human waste from one place to another need not be free of microscopic or macroscopic life. But there’s something utterly unnerving about looking at a sea creature while you’re taking a shit. I’ve yet to decide whether I’m going to flush him down the toilet or introduce him to the worm/eel thing, but I’ll be sure to keep you posted.