Tuesday, October 30, 2007


(written 842 am, at kitchen table with coffee, Yaounde, Cameroon)

(Hey, it’s the 30th! It’s Halloween tomorrow. I wonder whether there’s a Castro Halloween party in SF this year? They talked last year about cancelling it.)

But about the food -- we’ve probably been eating better here than at home. There’s loads of fresh fruits and vegetables available, and less processed food and meat. Plus we hardly ever go to restaurants, and we’re not familiar with any of them here yet. Ann K and Ray took us to a really good one, but the good ones are of course expensive, and we’re unemployed, or at least unpaid this year. We aren’t big on processed food anyway, but even the kind we do buy at home (thanks, Trader Joe‘s!) is unavailable here. And we have lots of time at night, since we don’t go out much, at least not yet, and we’re still spinning up at work.

So we cook, which we love to do together and only had time for once or twice a week back home. Christi and Jeff, for whom we’re housesitting, left a big suitcase of cookbooks here in the pantry. Most of them are in Dutch, presumably because Christi is Dutch. In spite of our ancestry, we don’t speak any. But a few are in English and, as luck would have it, a couple are ones we know and like. The books actually Mennonite, although we both got to know them back in Michigan before we ever met a Mennonite or joined their church. They are the More-with-Less Cookbook (“suggestions by Mennonites on how to eat better and consume less of the world‘s limited food resources“), and Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook. Ann refers to them as missionary cookbooks, which is probably fair. They certainly have a social outlook, and are interspersed with quotes, introductions and stories about how we’re all in the same big boat. But, if you double or triple the seasonings (More-with-Less is from Midwest and the 70s), the food is hearty and tasty.

Both books, along with the newest one, which we have at home but not here, called Simply in Season, are connected with the Mennonite emphasis on voluntary simplicity, which is something that intrigues us, and part of why we now belong to a Mennonite church in San Francisco. There are a few more such books around the house; Ann is currently working on one called Living More Simply, which I plan to pick up when she’s done.

Back to the food. I won’t reproduce entire recipes here, since they’re great cookbooks and deserve to be purchased if you want to actually make any of this. But here’s what we’ve been making:

Two Meals For Four People From a Three-Pound Chicken (which, incidentally, costs about nine dollars US here, or 4500 CFCA): this is great. You boil up an entire cut-up chicken in a pot with bouillon, celery, onion, salt, pepper, cloves, peppercorns, a bay leaf, potatoes, carrots and greens. We threw in plenty of sautéed garlic too. This gets you four servings of excellent chicken stew. Then you bone what’s left of the chicken, reheat the broth, and add uncooked rice and more sautéed vegetables, for two more servings of chicken rice soup. It’s delicious.

Spaghetti sauce: I don’t think Ann used a recipe for this, although she did chat with Ann K about it. Tomato sauce, tomato paste (the secret, apparently), a few lackluster fresh tomatoes, and sautéed zucchini, onions and garlic, plus Italian seasoning mix found in the pantry (basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, marjoram, etc). Made the day before to marinate, then simmered and served over rotini pasta.

Everyday Lentils and Rice (India): Sautéed onions, peppers, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, rice and lentils, then simmered with potatoes, tomato, salt and (a substitution) carrots and green beans. You end up with lentil-rice stew. Mild but tasty. I’d double or triple the spices next time. And this one goes a long way; I think we got six servings out of it, or maybe more.

Middle Eastern Lentil Soup: lentils, cumin, garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Basic and delicious.

Asha’s Ginger Tea: boiled chopped ginger, honey (substituted for sugar), tea (we tried it with chai once to), and milk. Wow. This came about because we get some help with our shopping, since we’ll get completely overcharged if we go to the market ourselves, and we ended up with four times the ginger we needed. So we hunted around for ginger recipes, and it turns out that a lot of the world (according to these cookbooks) makes beverages out of ginger or grains. This is really, really good. Our friend Jeff tipped us off once about ginger tea; he’s a motorcyclist, and on long rides he’ll take a thermos with him that he fills up with boiling water and chopped ginger before he leaves. He says it warms you right up.

Finally, here’s something I got yesterday from a coworker. We explained to him that we’re planning to try a recipe for peanut sauce, since peanuts (aka groundnuts) are plentiful here. He told us how to make a good Cameroon-style peanut sauce:

- Chop the head off a dried or smoked fish.
- Sautée in “huile rouge”, which is palm oil. (Apparently this stuff is not nearly as bad for you fresh as after processing, which is how it shows up in American snack foods as the dreaded “tropical oils.”)
- Add some garlic, onion, tomatoes, other vegetables as desired.
- Add water? There was mention here of water. Not sure how much, thanks to the state of my French.
- After this is cooked, add ground peanuts (i.e., natural peanut butter) and some water.
- Serve over rice.

Not sure if the rest of the fish goes in there too, and I just missed it in the instructions, but that seems reasonable. He mentioned too, I think, that this doesn’t look too attractive after it cooks, because the oil solidifies (“like snow”), but that it tastes really good.

If anyone tries this, let me know how it goes.

Monday, October 29, 2007


If there were a competition for the most surreal and unexpected weekend activity in all of Yaounde, we might just have the winner. Yes indeed, this past Friday night we attended a barn dance and pie auction the likes of which one would never expect in Cameroon. Our friends Ann and Ray K. extended the invitation a couple weeks ago already, so we had some time to wonder exactly what the school fundraiser ‘barn dance’ might involve. By the time Ray picked us up Friday evening, we were more than ready to satisfy our curiosity once and for all.

The trip in itself was an adventure, as we were running a bit late and Ray decided to avoid a particularly nasty-looking traffic jam by taking the back roads. His large 4-wheel-drive vehicle was certainly a match for the deeply rutted dirt road we lurched down, but any lesser vehicle would surely have been swallowed in a ditch or stuck in some deep red mud. At last, well-shaken and duly impressed, we were back on a smoother road, and soon after we reached Rain Forest International School, the location of the night’s entertainment. (Also the place where their daughter attends school.)

Dinner was already in full swing on the large back patio of one of the school buildings. There was some sort of straw strewn on the floors, and bush lanterns lit every table. Friendly students clad in denim and cowgirl hats took our admission fees, served us each a few small morsels of chicken-fried steak and a baked potato, and directed us to the picnic table where Ann K. and the kids were already sitting. (We later learned that the salad was on its way, held up in a traffic jam.)

Although there were a few non-white persons in the mix, it was largely a crew of whiteys there at R.F.I.S., and those speaking North-American-accented English seemed to be in the majority. Everyone, particularly the R.F.I.S. students, was all turned out in their wild-west best and seemed to be in high spirits. Occasional microphone announcements interrupted the conversational din: the arrival of the salad, the explanation of the rules for a farming quiz competition, instructions for clearing the tables. The quiz on farming was particularly popular, since the prize for the winning table was a chocolate peanut butter pie. (Alas, our table tasted no victory, settling instead for a dessert of small churros distributed by yet another helpful student.)

At last, dancing time arrived. Everyone moved onto the basketball courts, also strewn with straw, and a woman in jeans and a cowgirl hat clipped on one of those preacher-style lapel mikes and began instructing us in the finer points of the boot-scootin’ boogie. (At this point, Ray and Chris beat a hasty retreat in the big 4x4 for some ‘guy time’ and errand-running.) As ‘Boot-Scootin’ Boogie’ blasted into the night and everyone began steppin’ in unison, I had a ‘pinch me’ moment – am I really in Cameroon right now? What is going on here?

Ann K. and I stayed for the next dance, one involving concentric circles and multiple partners, but when the following dance began with instructions to form groups of eight, we dove for the sidelines. I took a few photos, and by the time all the groups were sorted out, Ray and Chris were back. We all joined to watch the crowd of dancers, smiled at the little ones toddling around the edges, and attempted to talk over the square-dance tunes blaring over the P.A. system. Andre, the youngest of Ann and Ray’s children, located an amazing arachnid of some sort, and had it perched on his wrist. He has no fear of bugs, only great fascination, and is surely destined to be an entomologist when he grows up.

This is Andre's bug friend. If you watch the 4th Harry Potter movie (which we did later in the weekend), you'll see the very same kind of bug featured in a 'Defense against the Dark Arts' classroom demo. No lie!

We watched with special interest as students began bringing pies toward a table at one end of the court, and soon the barn-dance gave way to a full-fledged pie auction. There were several home-made pies at stake, and one of the R.F.I.S. teachers began auctioning them off in grand style. Chocolate cream, apple, raspberry, key lime, lemon…all went for prices of 12,000 cfa or more ($26 +), and the final pie, another magnificent-looking chocolate peanut butter creation, went for 22,000 cfa (over $47 at current exchange rates). Chris and Ray were determined to bring a pie home, and managed to land a chocolate cream for 16,000. Boy howdy, were they ever pleased. So were the rest of us when they shared it. Mmmmm, pie!

All in all, it was a most entertaining evening. Good times, good people, good cause. Also quite thought-provoking though, this microcosm of missionaries and other expats here in Yaounde. They certainly stick together, and their choice of entertainment was surely the most unabashedly ‘American’ thing I can remember doing in years. Although we never left the city limits Friday night, I felt very far from Cameroon. Here we all are, far from our countries of origin, making our lives in Yaounde for different reasons and varying lengths of time. Are people trying to pretend they never left home turf? Would I feel more inclined to do the same if I were here indefinitely, or if Chris and I were here with children? Yaounde is a city of lizards and papaya trees, bustling with people with espresso-colored skin who speak in many languages. During the year that we live here, I’d like to ‘dive in’ to the best of my whitey ability.

Friday, October 26, 2007


I took the two pictures above from our yard last night. The light here is different, more intense, due to Yaounde's equatorial location. I bumped up the saturation level on the pictures, but they remain just a hint of the colors and the towering size of the skies here at dusk. It reminds me, oddly, of motorcycling through Montana. It's dark at about 6pm, light at about 6am, and these were taken maybe 545pm.

We met with the Eglise Presbyterian Camerounais, or EPC, today. It's one of our two volunteer jobs this year. Specifically, we met with the moderator of the EPC, and several other leaders whom he asked to attend, including the treasurer, and people in charge of education and hospitals within the denomination, which extends across Cameroon. We discussed their information systems needs, which we're here to work on. They don't have much yet, so we'll put a plan together of the several possibilities we could work on, and see what they want. Computerizing all their hospital records, introducing computer education for grades K through 14, and automating the church's accounting and management of personnel and contacts would be the ideal. The space of the possible is, of course, a bit smaller. But they are happy to see us, aware that we won't be able to do everything, and even throwing us a welcome reception next Tuesday. I'll try to get a few pictures.

Tonight we're off to a Barn Dance and benefit pie sale with Ann K, Ray, and their kids. Mmm, pie.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Things to get used to

Ann reads this entry over.

The gate on the fully-barred front porch; note padlock, kept locked.
All houses here are completely barred. I wonder what the fire codes are?

Brand-new barbed wire going up at our place,
since we're the first people to live there for awhile.

(written Thursday, Oct 25, Yaounde, kitchen table)

Ann and I have both visited Africa before, for much briefer visits, so we had at least some idea what it was like to live here. But all the differences from life back in San Francisco still take some getting used to.

The biggest one is that you stick out here. There are a few ex-pats around Yaounde, since it’s the capital city after all, a city of maybe a million and a half, but there aren’t many. If they‘re in public, they‘re probably Peace Corps, NGO workers or missionaries; there are diplomats here but we haven‘t seen any yet. We might see an ex-pat or two if we walk half a mile to the grocery store and back, somewhere along the way or in the store itself, or maybe not. So if you’re a white westerner here, you look like almost nobody else. People wear both African and western-style clothes here, and tend to wear fancier clothes than at home, but affluent people here drive everywhere, so the people with less money are the people walking around the street. And people here stare at you. People don’t smile on the street in Yaounde if they don’t know each other, so as you walk down the street you get people staring at you directly without smiling, until you pass by and they go back to whatever they were doing. If you stare back, they just keep staring, and if you smile at them, they don’t smile, just keep staring. It’s disconcerting. I just wear sunglasses everywhere, and I’m starting to forget about it after being here a couple of weeks. Cameroonians we met back in San Francisco before we left warned us that Youande was not a friendly place, that they themselves like the rest of the country more.. And everyone, really everyone we work with or somehow know personally, whether ex-pat or Cameroonian, has been really welcoming and helpful, so this is not an general impression of Cameroon, just walking around in public in Yaounde. We may have a chance to travel to a village a few hours away with Ray and Ann K, so sooner or later we’ll see how different it is outside of a big city.

No, that’s not the biggest adjustment. The biggest adjustment is that we speak French all the time. But that one’s so obvious it hardly seems worth mentioning. And it’s one we saw coming from a mile away, so we were mentally prepared for it. It’s a mountain, so you climb it slowly, at a sustainable pace, and rest when you have to. But we both love hiking. And there must be a downhill slope coming eventually. Which is a lot less tiring, but worse for your knees (hmm, I don’t think I can work that into the language metaphor, so I’ll just let that go). Anyway, the French is a lot of work. But the fun thing is that if you spend all day in it every day, if you’re patient, you can catch yourself making progress. You can actually catch yourself learning things. It’s encouraging. Everyone’s willingness to put up with our halting French, and repeat themselves as necessary, is a huge help. We can’t understand much when 2 French speakers are chatting, yet.

Another big change is personal security. We’re night people back home; we’re lucky enough to have flexible hours at our jobs (no, make that the jobs we just quit to come here, and hope to pick up again next fall) back home. We’d go into the office a bit late, stay a bit late, and then stay up late at night. We went out a lot on weekend nights, to concerts or theatre or social events or whatever. That doesn’t happen here; not yet, anyway. (So Sean G, if you’re reading this, no, Ann and I are not spending our nights going clubbing.) Ray and Ann K have a vehicle, and so does Valery from RELUFA, so we’ve gone out at night with both of them, but they know their way around. Everyone, from our guide book to Ray & Ann K, to RELUFA people, to Christi and Jeff who we’re house-sitting for, has warned us in somber tones to avoid wandering around after dark. It’s not safe. If you’re an ex-pat, you live in a locked house with a wall around it topped with broken glass and/or barbed wire, and you have a big dog and a guard 24 hours a day, or maybe you live in an apartment building with similar arrangements. You only take taxis at night if you know the driver.

Not to panic, though. Just to put this in perspective, I rode a motorcycle for years, including a few cross-country trips of several thousand miles, one of them by myself without even a windshield. I’m sure that living here, like motorcycling, is probably a matter of taking proper precautions and paying attention, except that, statistically, living here is a whole lot safer. And we do get out occasionally, as I mentioned, with veteran residents. We’re headed to a Barn Dance with missionaries this Friday, which should be a hoot. Ann K and Ray invited us; it’s a benefit for Rainforest International School where their kids attend. Ray tells me that they have a benefit sale too, including homemade pies among other things. He and I are plotting to bid high for one and split it. Mmm, pie.

Hmm. Other differences, let’s see… Cost of living is about the same here, actually. A trip to the grocery store here costs about the same as in San Francisco, although the cost of individual items is very different (a whole pineapple, out of season right now, is about two dollars, a whole chicken is three dollars a pound, and a package of dried figs is nine dollars, and cheese is expensive, foreign and delicious). Fresh fruits and vegetables are far less expensive than either San Francisco or the grocery store here if you go to the public outdoor market, and although we are not yet Francophones enough to go and hold our own in the negotiations that this requires, there is a lady who works at the house where we live who goes to market, and can get these things for us if we ask. So ten dollars here gets you maybe ten pounds of oranges, papayas, bananas, cabbage, spinach, and other fruits and vegetables. You have to wash them in a diluted bleach solution, though, to make them safe for ex-pats to eat; Marie has worked for ex-pats a long time, and has the system down, and you can’t taste the bleach.

The big difference in cost of living here is rent. A big two-bedroom apartment in an upscale neighborhood near the office is about three hundred dollars. A whole house including salaries for a guard agency and a lady who cooks and cleans is maybe five hundred. The housing landscape looks very different too. Apparently it’s hard to save money securely here, between economic instability and social expectations around sharing, so people who have enough money will put what they get into their house, build as much as they can, and then live in a partly-constructed house, which they will work on some more when they get more money. The climate here allows this, since Yaounde is equatorial but at a couple thousand feet of altitude, and ranges from about 65 to 85 degrees. It doesn’t rain sideways here, either, as far as we’ve seen during our two weeks at the end of the rainy season, like it does in the Midwest, so you don’t particularly need windows either. I’ll see if I can maybe get a few pictures of the partly-built houses that are all over the place. There aren’t any in our immediate neighborhood here in Djongolo, however; the buildings here seem to have been here awhile. There is a big concrete shell of a three-story place with columns next to Ray and Ann K’s, which Ray said went up last month; I’ll try to grab a picture of that sometime this weekend if we’re over there.

Things in general are a little less convenient and more basic. Lighting is fluorescent bulbs. Furniture at the office is folding tables and plastic chairs. Televisions are smaller. The power and water go out intermittently every so often. Broadband internet runs at 56Kbps, maybe 20 times slower than our cable modem back home. The water’s not potable, so you need to get a filter, which we have. You can wash and do dishes and laundry in it, though you need to let dishes and clothing dry thoroughly afterwards. You chop back your bougainvillea and your banana trees severely so that you don’t get snakes. Snakes and dogs are both unpopular with the locals.

The biggest difference of all, of course, is that we are starting up a new life here for one year where we hardly know anyone, halfway around the world in another country, working at different jobs, with a couple suitcases each of stuff from back home. But that seems obvious. And all the Francophones we see regularly have been really welcoming, helpful and tolerant of our French. Between this and our Anglophone friends, and of course our friend the Internet, it’s not nearly as hard an adjustment as it could be.

So mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry too much :)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sociable Weekend

Written Sunday, 21 Oct 2007, 837am, kitchen table, Yaounde, Cameroon

Ahh, I’m listening to a little Neil Young as I write this. We found a little 2.5” external USB hard drive on sale at Best Buy right before we left. It’s tiny, and all our music fits on it, so we brought most of our CD collection with us.

It’s Sunday morning, and we’ve had a fun weekend of socializing already, even thought we haven’t been here even 2 weeks. On Friday night, the RELUFA coordinator Valery invited us over to meet his family. He also invited Gilles from RELUFA, French journalist Fanny, and his little brother Romeo, who is a grad student here in town, and another friend of his. Valery and his wife Terry both work for NGOs here, and they have a 10-month old baby who goes by Boo-Boo. They have a nice place, a townhouse about 10 minutes from the RELUFA office, and they declared it declared an English-only evening (or at least a mostly-English evening) since Terry is from Seattle. So our brains had a chance to cool off after a week of doggedly speaking French even as we continue to learn it. And, although around us Fanny always insists she doesn’t know any English, we heard her speaking English to Terry, so now we know the truth. It was nice to unwind with some of the people we’ll be working with for the next year. The food was great, and included a traditional dish of leaves stuffed with manioc. They looked like eight-inch wax beans, and the flavor and texture were a lot like the sesame balls made out of rice flour you get at Chinese restaurants back in San Francisco.

Terry made a half-hour film about the oil pipeline that three oil companies (2 American, 1 Indonesian) have just completed, which runs from Chad (Cameroon’s neighbor to the north) down to an Atlantic port in Cameroon. We have on the computer that a copy Fanny gave us. It’s in English, and it’s interesting, with lots of interviews with affected Cameroonians, NGO workers and journalists, and background on the project and the fallout from similar projects in Nigeria and elsewhere. I asked Terry about putting it up on YouTube or Google Video, but she’s more interested in creating a website for the film, and shooting a 5-minute update for it, bringing it up to the present-day situation. This is tied in to the work RELUFA does, although Terry actually works for a different NGO, because one of RELUFA’s initiatives is fair compensation for those displaced or affected by having the pipeline run through their lands. If she gets the film online, I’ll post a link here for the curious.

Yesterday, Saturday, Ray and Ann picked us up after lunch to hang out at their place and go out for dinner. Their junior-high daughter had a basketball game, so we ended up going to Rainforest International School here in Yaounde to watch the JV girls’ basketball team put up a good fight and lose to a local club team. Then out to a tasty dinner and conversation at La Plaza, without the kids, for whom Ann K made spaghetti before we left. Their kids are hilarious; before we left, they were chasing each other around the house and singing along with the digital piano’s built-in music.

I had a long talk with Ray about the possibility of living in their place; they have a nice house with all the amenities we’d have to find or install ourselves once we move out of Jeff and Christi’s place here: potable water, dishes, cooking utensils, pots and pans, furniture, security guard, plus hot water and possibly Internet as well. And the timing is perfect, since we’re done house-sitting when Jeff and Christi and their family get back at the end of December, and Ray and Ann K head out on furlough for 6 months in December. For the last 2 months our stay next year, we could live in their in-law unit (a studio apartment on the garage, called a dépendence in French here), or move to a nearby apartment complex where lots of SIL workers live. The only downside of their place is that it’s maybe 20 minutes by taxi from our offices over here in the Djongolo neighborhood, which seems to make our coworkers nervous. I’ll sound them out on this a little more; maybe they’re simply concerned that we just fell off the first-world turnip truck and don’t know the realities of big-city life in Cameroon yet.

Ann made French toast this morning (see pic above). Mmm. She wants to figure out how to buy phone cards today, since we have pay-as-you-go cel phones, and take a walk, and maybe figure out how to use the taxis here.. So maybe we’ll chat about all this with Fanny when she gets back from yet another apartment viewing. I’m content to spend a day holed up with a laptop and couple of good books, but I’m happy to go out with Ann too.

Home Sweet Home

This is my first blog entry EVER…if you’re trying new things, might as well go all-out. New continent, new language, and blogging, all at once. It’s great to have the option of keeping so many friends updated this way, although I’m still struggling with the mechanics of it. Because it’s taken me so long to get this piece posted, I don’t think any of the details are new; Chris has covered everything in his posts. But perhaps the pictures will amuse you. Not sure how typical these long posts will be once we get rolling with work, but for now they’re just the antidote for our French-saturated brains, so enjoy!
Let me tell you a bit about our place, or chez nous in French. We live in a neighborhood (quartier) called Djoungolo on a gentle hill, and depending on the weather, we can see much of Yaounde and/or a sea of clouds spreading out before us. Our house is situated beneath several large cement water towers, industrial-sized magic mushrooms that make it easy to find our way home.
A tall wall (a good 8 feet I’d say) covered by bougainvillea vines surrounds the place, and we enter through a gate under the watchful eye of a guardien, Albert during the day, Francois at night, and Amadou on Sundays. The dog, Kibibi, usually runs up to greet us, hoping for a pat on the head…we have to be careful, though, of her ears, the tips of which are wounded and usually seeping some blood. People dress very nicely here, and dog-blood stains are definitely not part of the dress code.
Once inside the surrounding wall, we’re in the yard. It’s rather large, grassy in some places and muddy in others, with various interesting trees, a defunct tetherball pole, a driveway of sorts, a small garden, and a separate dependence (guest room) where our co-worker Gilles lives. In the middle of the yard sits the house itself, locked and barred and screened at every opening to discourage thieves and mosquitoes. We enter through the veranda into the cool cement-floored sitting room with its jungle-themed prints. Yes, as Chris mentioned, the only light fixture when we arrived was our friend the boa. (We’ve since located another reading lamp and plugged it in by the couch.)
By popular demand: a boa-photo! This is only the part that's lit up; it continues a few more feet to the left.

We sleep in a four-poster bed overhung by a large mosquito net (moustiquaire), and it feels a bit like clambering into a small box-tent every night. At this point, we’re still adjusting to everything (time change, language, way of life), so we sleep quite a bit, generally a good 9 hours each night. The rain on the roof really is a lovely sound, as are the birds in the morning. One time, I awoke at what must have been about 5am, because I could hear Imams chanting from afar, calling the faithful to prayer.
So here's the thing about being a living in Cameroon: you’re expected to hire household help. Aside from the guardiens, there is also a woman named Marie who comes three times a week to help around the house. (The folks for whom we’re house sitting have hired her for some time, and they didn’t want to stop her salary while they were away.) She does dishes, cleans the place up, does laundry (by hand!), and would even cook if we wanted her to. It is a very, very strange feeling to have someone else do your housework. But she knows how best to do certain things (like how to wash a large amount of clothing without a machine, or how to soak fruits and vegetables from the market in bleach-water so that the bacteria on them will not upset our fragile whitey digestive tracts), so it’s a blessing to have her around.

For example, on Monday she washed some clothing for us and hung it on the line to dry. ‘Dry’ is an important state here, not easily achieved, but very important for clothing. Since it is often rainy and/or humid this time of year, clothes do not line-dry quickly, but less-than-dry clothing can contain eggs of unwelcome worm or insect visitors. (The eggs will not survive once the fabric is completely dry.) So when we returned to see clean clothes flapping on the line, we decided it would be wise to let it dry the rest of the way on the porch in case of rain. The next day, when we went to check the garments, I found a small visitor on my pant-leg.

On Wednesday, I asked Marie to get some fruits and vegetables for us from the market. We’ve been to a few fixed-price grocery stores, but have mostly held back from buying produce there, since it’s supposedly much cheaper at the open-air markets, where you have to bargain for the best price. Now, if I were to go to market moi-meme, the prices would be considerably higher (whiteys are assumed to have more resources and charged accordingly), plus I’m not confident that my French is up to par yet. So Chris and I prepared a small list for Marie (to which she added several of her own suggestions), and gave her the amount of money she requested (roughly $10) to cover the purchases plus taxi fare. When we returned home late in the afternoon, ohhhh joy, a cornucopia had sprung forth. On the counter, a large wooden tray of bananas, oranges, mandarines, and papaya. In the refrigerator drawers, more papaya, a pineapple, tomatoes, peppers, green beans, celery, parsley, lemons, ginger root (how I love thee!), carrots, lettuce, leeks, onions, and a couple of huge avocados. All of it had been soaked in the requisite bleach-water, then rinsed with fresh filtered water.

Chris and I certainly enjoy cooking together, but life in Cameroon seems to call us forth to new heights of culinary resourcefulness. Instead of frozen boneless skinless chicken breast (not-so-available here), Chris has purchased and cut up a whole chicken from the butcher counter (no head included, but the feet were there), and we made our own chicken soup, as well as using the meat in another sauté or two. To help heal my sore and scratchy throat, in lieu of my usual Throat Coat tea bags, I made a nice mixture of hot water, fresh lemon juice, ginger root, and molasses-colored Cameroonian honey. French toast is a dignified end for stale baguette remains. Virtually all milk here is powdered – I can’t wait to try making yogurt!

Currently, I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It’s highly enjoyable, full of good ways to view what you eat and where you live. A soothing and centering read during a time of so much transition. I hope you’re all feeling at home and eating food that nourishes you. There you have it: my first blog post ever.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday morning, kitchen table

(written Friday, 2007-10-19, 750am)
Yaounde, Cameroon
chez Jeff and Christi
kitchen table

Ann is fiddling with the cel phones. We just got them. Unfortunately, service is not good at the office, because of its location in the hilly Yaounde topography. Gilles, housemate and RELUFA staffer, is coming by to help with the phones, and then we're going for a walk through the neighborhood to look around a little, if the roads arent' too muddy. We'll probably swing by Select Bakery, since we're almost out of bread.

Hey, she got the phones working! We'll get to tell Gilles we figured them out on our own. It looks like maybe things were just down when I called; she dialled 155 like I did, per the setup instructions, but this time everything worked.

The phones here are smaller. Like most of the world, Cameroon is ahead of the US on phone technology. Ray actually bought a tri-band one while in Europe that he can use here or in the US. We went out with Gilles a couple of days ago and got the cheapest pay-as-you-go phones we could find, Chinese ones (of course) with service a South African company called MTN. The other service here is a French one called Orange. Neither work very well from the office, and just a bit better from the house.

We are headed back to RELUFA today to work. We haven't met a couple of our EPC contacts yet for our work there; we stopped by yesterday, and found out one of them has been delayed coming back to Yaounde after being out of the country, and the other has been very ill and is recovering in the hospital in Duala, the big industrial city on the coast. We left the number of the cel Ray and Ann K. loaned us, and they'll call us when we can come by to meet. So it's back to RELUFA. Taking the bull by the horns, I proposed to the microfinance administrator that we chat about the program today; his French is tough for us, so the sooner we can get more familiar with it, the better. But my brain sure tires out by the end of the day.

I'm sitting in the kitchen writing this on the laptop. The house is bigger than our apartment back home, and the stove is gas, which is a nice improvement. All the floors are tile or cement, perfect in this warm humid climate where a carpet would be, as Ray put it, disgusting. Fanny, a French journalist who works in the RELUFA offices, is living here for now, til she moves to the apartment she found. The food here is good, and comparable in price to San Francisco. Christi has lots of cookbooks, including Mennonite favorites "More with Less" and "Extending the Table". We made a great chicken vegetable soup out of the first of those a few days ago. We've always liked cooking together, so it's great to have our own kitchen. Next on the agenda: black bean and vegetable soup, substituting whichever dry beans they sell up the road at the Mahima grocery store.

The RELUFA offices where we work are about a ten-minute walk away. Again, all the floors are concrete or tile, which seems to be a constant here. There's lots of space; right now, Ann works in a conference room, and I'm next door in the kitchen, which has a sink, coffeemaker and water filter (another constant here; the tap water is not potable) but is otherwise empty. Each room has a network jack and an electrical outlet. The office has broadband, but it runs at about 56k. Christi, who works at the RELUFA offices, says she uses Skype, so we hope it works well enough at that speed to chat with our families back home. But it seems that brief cel phone calls to the US may be affordable too. Skype may be a little cumbersome for some family members.

Marie is here. She comes in three days a week, washes dishes, does laundry and cleans the house. She also does some shopping, and got us a pile of fresh fruits and vegetables from the market, which are great: avacadoes, oranges, mandarin oranges, bananas, lettuce, celery, papayas, etc. It's really odd to have someone working in our house; she is part of the household staff, along with the 24-hour guard service. Not used to that at home. Fanny (housemate for the moment, and AFP correspondent working at RELUFA offices) found an apartment she's moving to soon, which has one guard for the building; we'd be more comfortable with this arrangement, so maybe we'll get an apartment when we need to move. On the other hand, it's a contribution to the local economy to employ someone, since jobs are hard to come by here, so it's a complicated issue.

I've started doing some database design for RELUFA, based on their application forms. It's just preliminary work, pending some long conversations about their requirements, but I like having something to work on for part of the day that actually seems familiar. I did a lot of database work before getting into Java development. I have a lot of questions to ask, but if it meets their requirements I'd like to use java6 and its built-in Apache Derby database to build their system. One key question is whether they want to run it on a web server and share that, or run it on each separate computer in the office and maybe in the field; it might be interesting to combine the two approaches (centralized and local), perhaps via some mechanism to guarantee unique key generation on each machine, combined with a last-update-wins approach to edits and an automated merge. Will probably use HTML for the interface, but not sure which GUI library yet. (Sorry if this is gibberish to you; I wanted to throw in a few technical notes for a couple of coworkers and my brother Paul, also a software developer).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Week One, short version

We’re here in Cameroon's capital of Yaounde, housesitting til January, meeting friendly, helpful people at the 2 places we’ll be working, both of which are within walking distance. We have some college friends in town who have welcomed us and helped us out a lot already, and even took us on a picnic. We’re getting by with our French but it’s uphill for now, and lots of people speak some English. We just got cellphones. Ann lost her voice yesterday. It’s 65 to 85 degrees, intermittently rainy, and we listen to rain and thunderstorms at night and birds in the morning. The one light in the living room when we arrived was a fluorescent tube inside of a fat eight-foot boa constructor skin mounted on a 2x10, which casts a soft warm glow over the room. It’s raining, but we see lots of sun every day.

Week One, long version

(leaving SFO)

We’re here in Cameroon, in the capital city of Yaounde, for the next year. Specifically, I’m at the kitchen table drinking coffee and typing. The Vaio laptop I’m using comes with a trial version of MSWord, but MSWorks is on here too, so at least I can compose in something that does word wrap. It’s about 740am; we go to bed early, since we’re still adjusting to the time change (GMT +1), and it’s unusual to go out at night here. We have a meeting at 930 at the Secretariat of the Eglise Presbyterienne Camerounais (hmm, my spellchecker doesn’t speak French, have to see if I can fix that) to discuss our work for them. I have two positions here, one to do some computer instruction for them, the other to assemble a database of microloan beneficiaries for an NGO called RELUFA, which is just up the street. Ann will be interviewing RELUFA beneficiaries and writing articles to promote the microloan program, and probably working with me at the EPC. Since most of this is in French, it’s a full plate for the time being at least, and we’re just settling in. We went to RELUFA yesterday and had a long and fascinating talk with the coordinator, Valery, about RELUFA’s initiatives, what different staff members do, and how we might be able to help. RELUFA is a network of other organizations, and has a micro loan program (lending small amounts of money directly to individuals), a food sovereignty program for farmers, and a transparency initiative directed at multinationals, but of course this is the briefest of overviews.

We are housesitting through December for Jeff and Christi, who work with the EPC and RELUFA, respectively. Their place is in a neighborhood called Jongolo (not sure of the spelling), across the street from the EPC office and a few minutes’ walk from RELUFA, which saves us from communiting in Yaounde’s fearless anarchic taxicabs every morning. We need to find our own place starting in January, but the EPC may be able to help with that; we’d like to stay in the neighborhood. The house has a big yard with a 6’ wall around it and a 24-hour guard. It’s warm here, but we’re at a couple of thousand feet of altitude so it’s about 65 to 85 degrees with high humidity. The windows are louvres with screens and bars, and its pleasantly cool at night. We have a small stove and oven that run on propane, a big fridge, and bought ourselves a water filter on the second day that consists of two silver pots that stack, and filters the water through “candles” made of minerals. It looks like a big silver coffee urn. We’ve been doing our own cooking and it’s nice to have a gas stove again; the one in San Francisco is electric. They have some great bread and baked goods here -- baguettes, beignets, etc. It’s the rainy season here (you get 2 on the equator, rainy and dry, or maybe 3: dry, rainy, and extra rainy), and it’s great to lie in bed at night and listen to thunderstorms and rain, and wake up in the morning hearing all sorts of birds. I miss having real weather, living in San Francisco.

We flew out of SFO last week Tuesday, a week ago already. Brian (our friend who has our place while we’re gone) and Miriam (Ann’s sister) and all our luggage for a year, and us, all packed into our Scion XA and drove to the airport.

(sendoff committee)

We flew to Paris on Air France, which serves really good food, by the way, if you’re flying overseas. We booked our tickets within the past 2 months so we had a 24-hour layover in Paris, but this turned out to be a good thing, something I’d do on purpose next time. Our friends Joe and Morgen, writers who moved to Paris from SF three months ago, met us at the airport. Our luggage stayed checked through all the way to Africa, so we just took our carryons and wandered off with them to the train into town. No customs! We dropped our stuff off, went out to lunch, and meandered around Paris awhile.

(lunch with Morgen and Joe)

(walking by canal near Joe and Morgen's place)

They have an apartment in the 10th arrondissement, and have a panoramic view of Paris out their bathroom window. Paris felt like home, since we were going so far away. We later took the Metro to fin Boris, a friend of Ann’s volunteer days in SF, who put us up for the night.

(Ann and Boris on the Pont Mirabeau, Tour Eiffel behind them)

(Tour Eiffel, with lights on the hour)

In the morning we grabbed a ‘choco Suisse” from the local patisserie on Boris’s recommendation -- bread with chocolate and pudding. Then we found our way back to the airport via the Metro and RER trains, and boarded another Air France flight for Cameroon.

We overflew Algeria, which I never thought I’d see, so I took a couple of pictures.

Then over the Sahara, Chad, Nigeria and into Cameroon. More good Air France food. College friend Ann K. met us at the airport in Yaounde; her NGO has diplomatic status here, so she came right in and found us at the baggage carousel. Again, no customs. Getting back into the US next year probably won’t be so easy. Ann K. drove us to their place in Yaounde. She and husband Ray, both college friends of mine and Ann’s youth group leaders, work here for an NGO called SIL.

(Ray and Ann)

Ann’s a translator, and Ray is a pilot. They have three kids, and live in a beautiful house near other SIL folks on the other side of Yaounde from where we’re staying. They helped us get set up here, giving us all sorts of information, and driving us around in their enormous truck to buy groceries, a broom, a water filter, etc. Ray paid someone to solder what the Aussies call “roo bars” on the outside of the truck, due to the aforementioned taxis, and the bars already have some dents and spots of yellow paint. Apparently a new truck makes the taxis bolder, because they figure you don’t want to bang it up, so the bars buy a lot of respect.

We went with Ann K. and their kids on a picnic a couple of days later:

We spent our first night at Ann and Ray’s, and they brought us here to the house the next day. Jeff and Christi and their kids threw all their stuff into the house before leaving town, and had not actually lived in here, so we had some rearranging to do, but we’re settled in now. We also displaced a journalist when we arrived, who was staying at the house. She’s the Cameroon rep for AFP, France’s newswire agency (go to news.yahoo.com and look at the tabs under “World”, and you’ll see AFP listed alongside the AP, Reuters, etc.). She works at the RELUFA offices and is looking for an apartment in the area. Once we figured this out, we invited her to stay at the house with us until she finds something. It’s a three bedroom, so she’s in one, we’re in another, and all the extra furniture is in the third. We had a long talk with her last night about the history of this country, her work and our own. All in French, actually, and mostly me, since Ann has lost her voice at the moment.. My French is probably embarrassing, but most of the time I can make myself understood, and I understand more than I speak. It’s enough to get started. Ann knows more than me, but is still getting used to actually speaking it.

So today it’s activating the cellphones we bought yesterday with help from Valery and Gilles from RELUFA, meeting with the EPC in about 90 minutes, going to RELUFA to get some help obtaining certified copies of our passports (you need to carry ID, but it’s a really bad idea to carry your actual passport around), and trying to keep our heads above water speaking French. And installing Civilization 4 on my laptop and figuring out the play-by-email option. More soon.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


Cameroon is a bit bigger geographically than California:
Cameroon: 183,568 sq mi/475,442 sq km
California: 158,302 sq mi/410,000 sq km

People seemed surprised by this when they asked about the trip. I think this is due to Cameroon's appearance on the map of Africa (see first post, or the the page title above for map). For an African country, Cameroon is not particularly large. And traditional maps understate the size of Africa.

Africa is about 11.7 million square miles/30.2m sq km. The US, in contrast, is about 3.8 million square miles/9.8m sq km. But if you look at them on a traditional Mercator projection world map, they look much closer in size; Africa looks about twice as big as the US:

In fact, Africa is too small by an entire US in this projection (which also positions the equator well below the middle of the map). You can see this if you look at a globe, or at a different projection, such as Buckminster Fuller's dymaxion map, where the globe is projected onto a polyhedron and then unfolded into two dimensions:

(Fuller was a pretty interesting guy, by the way, if you haven't heard of him. His map deliberately had no right way up, and shows all the world's landmasses connected.)

This map shows the relative sizes of the US and Africa much more accurately. The Sahara by itself is just about as big as the US, over 3.5 million sq mi/9m sq km.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

globalization is overrated

Multinational corporations get a lot of press, but I have found out that the world is not the gobal village you might think. We're wondering how exactly to do things like pay rent while in Cameroon, and it turns out that moving money over there is not a trivial exercise, at least for one or two individuals. Credit cards are unwelcome in that part of the world because of fraud troubles. More surprising was the discovery that you'll have a hard time finding anyone interested in cashing traveler's checks (thanks to the Bradt travel guide for Cameroon for that tip). But what seemed strangest of all was the completely blank reaction from the banks here when asked how to do this. After all, these are themselves multinational corporations.

Apparently there's a Citigroup office in Yaounde, the capital, where we'll be living. (Like, next week; wow.) So Ann made a call to Citibank today to ask about this. She ended up talking to someone friendly at a desk somewhere in south Asia, who said that her information was that the African branch offices were all in Egypt. She had no further advice. I did even worse asking the friendly people at the neighborhood branch of my bank about this. They had no idea how you get money overseas. And when I called the international desk for my bank, I ended up on someone's voicemail.

Our friends in Yaounde tell us we can use ATMs over there, for a fee of course. The exchange rate you get is supposed to be pretty good, actually; better than a currency exchange. And one of the NGOs will let us open an account with a US check, but we have to cross town to their offices to get our money. So it's not impossible. Just inconvenient and/or expensive.

You'd think this would be a solved problem by now. But maybe there's no money in it.

opinions now welcome

OK, the comments are fixed. You can now add comments here without registering as a blogger.com user. Never actually requested that "feature", but apparently it's the default setting when you create a blog. Thanks to Bojil V. for pointing this out!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

one week out

We fly out in a week! We have most of the big items taken care of -- plane tickets, passport, vaccinations, visas -- but this of course leaves a thousand smaller things to do. I have to stop by the job I just quit (amicably) to pick up my final paycheck this morning. Then Ann and I are having a farewell lunch with her coworkers and students. Then a meeting with someone from Kiva.org, a microloan organization based here in San Francisco. That should be interesting. Kiva lets people make direct microloans to individuals overseas, so maybe we can connect them with the organization we'll be working with (RELUFA) in some useful way. Or maybe I can just grab a cup of coffee with someone who had the nerve to start a charitable organization, which wouldn't be all bad either.

No picture for this entry. We haven't left yet. Plus, if you're reading this, you probably have a good idea of what San Francisco looks like already.

Then there's the job of picking out a few books to bring, ripping more CDs to bring along to listen to (it is a whole year, after all), figuring out car and renter's insurance while we're gone, some last-minute acting work I couldn't resist, and lots of last-minute goodbye dinners and drinks. Ann's wondering what shoes to bring. I wonder about finding a hat that doesn't make me look like a frat boy, Southern Baptist or Travel Channel host. We continue to pack up things in the house to get them out of the way for our friend who will stay here while we're gone. I need to pick up some 240v adapter plugs for our laptops. It's all frantic but lots of fun.

Yesterday was my last day at work. Was that ever exhilarating. Nothing feels quite like quitting a job. It's that scary, walking-along-the-edge-of-a-cliff feeling, like getting away with something you're not supposed to do. I hope to go back there once the trip is finished, if they can use me, so it was friendly, but it's still an illicit thrill. I hope to do some coding on open-source projects while we're over there, though. I'd miss programming too much to give it up for a year.