Friday, November 30, 2007

Our Baby Friend

One thing we're missing while in Cameroon is a whole year in the lives of some of our smallest San Francisco friends: Dahlia, Gabriel, Ivan, Sahara, and Samuel, all of them no more than one, some only a few months old. We'll have to wait 'til our return to meet Calla and baby Bratt Porter and our new niece Anna Marie, all born while we're away. And of course there's our fine nephew Calvin, by far the eldest at nearly three, learning new tricks and words and songs every day. A year in the lives of any of these little people is HUGE: the amount of life they've lived will double, or more than double, while we're away. They'll grow, they'll change, sprout teeth and perhaps learn to walk.

Fortunately, we have a baby friend here, the child of one of our co-workers. He's about 11 months old, named Imaan, but his friends call him Boo-boo. I took a few pictures the other night at his house, early in the evening when he was still shy and serious. Believe me, as the night wore on he was delighting us all with his smiles and crows and near attempts at walking.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

flying with Ray

Our friend Ray works for SIL, an American linguistic organization, as a pilot. He and his wife Ann connected us with our volunteer opportunities here in Cameroon in the first place, and we'll be living in their place for 6 months while they're in the US on furlough. Last weekend he offered to take us flying over Yaounde, to transfer a plane from one airport to another. We helped him refuel the plane, and then took a 20-minute ride over the outskirts of Yaounde and the surrounding hills; you can't overfly the city itself.

We saw a little red motorcycle at the hangar that is actually two-wheel drive; one of the pics above shows the additional drive chain on the front wheel. The wheels are fuel reservoirs. SIL is experimenting with this vehicle for use in the field; Ray told us it's narrow enough to ride down a footpath in the jungle, can climb anything, and is buoyant enough to float across rivers.

Hopefully some of the natural beauty of the area comes through in these little 400-pixel-wide pictures. The city soon gave way to farms, paths and thick jungle. We flew low through the hills visible in some of our other pictures, which turn out up close to be gigantic boulders. Lush tropical forest and hills stretched off to the horizon.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thanksgiving Abroad

Last week Thursday was just another day for us. While our friends and families back in the States enjoyed time off, turkey, and pie, we went to work and had hardly any dinner. But we still found some ways to indulge our celebratory instincts, albeit somewhat non-traditionally.

WEDNESDAY: We had our co-workers from RELUFA over for homemade Chinese food. Rice, chicken (cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and wine), sautéed veggies, and baguette. It was a lot of fun to host everyone, especially when Gilles showed us how to turn our electricity back on. (It was not a power outage as we’d thought; heavy rains earlier in the day had tripped an outdoor circuit breaker that we didn’t even know about.) We’d prepared everything by the light of our kerosene bush-lamps and our headlamps, thinking our power was cut…fortunately it still turned out edible. Our colleagues are wonderful, and it was a joy to spend time with them.

THURSDAY: Busted out a jar of Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter at breakfast. Yum! (We’d brought it with us from the US.) Since we had no Thanksgiving meal plans, I decided to brave our oven and make some cookies after work. It’s a gas oven that you have to light by poking a match through a tiny slit in the oven floor. The temperature gauge used to be marked (in degrees Celsius) but after an over-enthusiastic cleaning by the guardien a few months before we arrived, only the highest marking remains (265), and the rest of the dial is completely blank. So it’s one big Celsius guessing game. Also, the glass front and heat-proof handle of the oven door have vanished somewhere along the way, so you can’t open it with your bare hands. The cookies turned out really tasty though – peanut butter and chocolate. I had six of them for dinner.

FRIDAY: We ate Thanksgiving leftovers for lunch! Late Thursday evening Ann and Ray K. and their kids had stopped by on their way home from a fancy Thanksgiving feast at the Peace Corps area director’s home. They had been invited to this dinner since April and hardly knew the hosts, so they couldn’t very well invite us. But they dropped off a huge tray of leftovers, including some apple pie. We enjoyed turkey, rice, corn, green beans, carrots, and mac & cheese. It was delicious!

So all in all, we experienced the elements of Thanksgiving over several installments: lots of food preparation, a big meal with friends, yummy dessert, and Thanksgiving food. We managed to make the cookies last ‘til Monday night, and only just polished off our pie on Sunday…ohhhh it was good!


Well, Google is slow from Africa today, so I'll just send this along to
the blog by email. Email is a lot older than the fancy-pants slick
interfaces at,, and such. It was
created back when all anyone had was a slow connection, by today's
standards. And it's pretty old. The internet itself was born the same
year I was, the year of the moon landing, and the release of Abbey
Road. Man, are we ever old, the internet and me. At least I work a lot
better in Yaounde than the internet does. And email is even older than
the internet; it dates back to sometime in the mid-sixties, and started
out on timesharing computer systems as a way for users to communicate
with each other. But the "@" symbol for addresses was added only in 1971.

We're having a particular problem here at the office with email.
RELUFA's domain is, and it's hosted at a US company that
outsources their email to some vast impersonal email company somewhere.
Christi, whose house we live in right now, is in the US and can send
email fine from her address. But Valery and the other users
here in the office in Yaounde cannot. After some email exchanges with
our US hosting company, it turns out that our email here at the office
is blocked because lots of spam comes from this part of the world. So email accounts are fine, but they won't let work from here.
I can't imagine trying to set up a business in Yaounde; the fees to do
so are apparently prohibitively high, the internet runs at a trickle
(unless, presumably, you have enough money to buy a satellite connection
like our friends at SIL), and your email is verboten. RELUFA's
microloan program encourages small-scale entrepreneurs, but they are so
small they escape all these impediments.

The following is the email exchange between me and some guy somewhere in the US about this email problem, captured here for the technically
curious and for posterity, when I print this whole blog off as a book.
(Which I would pay blogger for, if I could do it automatically, the way
Apple lets you do with pictures. Maybe someone will invent that while
we're away. or similar. Update: OK, I just alt-tabbed
over to my Firefox browser and tried, and sure
enough, someone has that name registered, proof that if you can think of
something, someone out there on the internet has probably given it a try.)


[Here's my initial request for help]

I am a volunteer helping, and I'm trying to resolve an error sending email via the account The user, Valery, showed me his error message using your webmail interface. It says "The address was rejected for the following reason: Sorry, you cannot send mail from your ISP due to a high abuse complaint rate." This error occurred when Valery logged into his account to send mail via your webmail interface. He was trying to send mail to my gmail account. We are located in Yaounde, Cameroon. One user is in the USA and does not have this problem. Please advise.


[Their first response. I don't think they read my note very carefully.]

I'm not certain that I understand the issue. There are two ways to interface with the email system: (1) software such as Outlook or (b) I believe you're saying you use I logged into the account and was able to send email. I am located in the United States.

Are you saying that because you're outside of the US, you think that's the problem? Are you blocked from sending email to everyone or just to a Gmail account? Did this error appear at or was it a bounce message from Gmail?

Chris, since this isn't your account I certainly cannot provide you with access to the account but I'd like to understand the problem.


[Here's my second attempt to explain the problem, with exciting details on how to reproduce it.]

To produce the problem, does the following:

1. log into webmail account at (NOT using Outlook)

2. attempt to send mail to anyone (we tried, other accounts, others)

3. webmail interface returns an error after send that says "The address [or whatever] was rejected for the following reason: Sorry, you cannot send mail from your ISP due to a high abuse complaint rate."

We are also unsuccessful using Outlook. We used webmail in order to establish that Outlook configuration is not the issue.

We are located in Yaounde, Cameroon. Another user is successfully sending mail from the United States, so the problem may be our location. The problem is not rejection from the email recipient, since we get the same error sending to several different domains.

Please advise.


[The bad news begins -- here's their response.]

>From everything you describe, and from the testing we are doing, the problem seems to be somehow related to the ISP you are using in Camaroon and it appears that your ISP has a high rate of spam and is being blocked. We outsource our email to a very large email service. It's a national Holiday in the United States today and I may need to wait until Monday to contact them to see if they know of a solution to the problem.


[Now, this morning, after the weekend, more bad news. Our internet service provider here in Yaounde is indeed blocked by the anonymous people our email service is outsourced to. Here's their followup message.]


I just got off the telephone with the email service to whom we outsource our email. They are 100% positive that the error message isn't coming from their service. They way that many IP addresses in Camaroon and certain other countries are blacklisted because of high levels of SPAM. He said that your only recourse was to contact the ISP in Camaroon and see if they can get the blacklist removed for your IP address. He also told me that doing that was going to be a long process at best. I'm sorry that I don't have a better answer for you.


[It just gets worse after this. Here's the last one from them.]

I was given more information about your attempting to send the email from Cameroon. I was informed that your IP address closely matched one Nigeria which is a hot-spot for SPAM email and that's why there's a block on the IP address. As I said before, there's nothing we can do.

I'm sure these people were told where we were when we set up the account. Tant pis.

Monday, November 26, 2007

other things

written Saturday, Nov 24, 2007, 8:46 pm, kitchen table, Yaoundé

We went on a site visit today with our coworker, Guy, the coordinator of RELUFA's micro loan program. It has its own name; there are many names here, of RELUFA member organizations, of their programs, of other organizations somehow connected with RELUFA, of the many other NGOs and government agencies, national and foreign, whose signs are all along the road. The micro loan program is called CAP. It stands for Credit Against Poverty, which is interesting, since RELUFA is a French acronym, but CAP doesn't work in French. It would be CCP, for Credit Contre le Pauverte, or similar.

I didn't find out too much about this place before we came, other than the essentials. It took long enough to get those worked out -- where to volunteer, where to live, how to get visas, how to get here, who to talk to, what to bring -- that there wasn't room for much more information. I also held off asking our contacts here too many questions before we came because I wanted to get here with a minimum of expectations. But now that we've been here for over a month and a half, there are some things I would have brought with me had I known more about what our life would be like here. A lot of them have to do with how we spend our spare time. Our time was pretty full back in San Francisco, but we have a lot of quiet evenings at home here, a combination of the realities of personal security in Yaoundé , and the time it takes to get established in any new town.

What I would have brought, had I known more:

1. Travel Scrabble. We both enjoy it. Fortunately, there is a Boggle game at the house we are living in til January. Boggle is a good time; it's a word search game on a 4x4 grid of dice covered with letters. I am curious to write down the letters on each die and see whether they actually correspond to the frequencies of letter usage in English, but haven't bothered yet. I suspect they do. The more French we learn, though, the more French words I see in there, when I'm looking for English. We should probably play a round of French word searches.

2. Netflix. They don't have it here, and in fact the houses don't have street addresses. Our micro loan applications at RELUFA include a "plan de localisation," which is a map to the place the project will take place, usually someone's house. People use a PO Box for their mail and go pick it up periodically. I love movies, but we usually had something more urgent or more interesting to do back in San Francisco. I regret not systematically backing up my Netflix movies onto a hard drive and bringing them with me. I had a queue of a couple of hundred movies I wanted to see, usually something I'd read about online and then pop onto the Netflix queue for later. My queue disappeared when I cancelled my account. It would be fun to watch those movies now. We have worked our way through most of the DVDs here at the house, and are down to watching the family TV drama "7th Heaven," of which we have the first three seasons on DVD. Happily, you can play the audio in French, which improves it immeasurably.

3. More bug repellent. We get bit a lot. There isn't much malaria in Yaoundé, but what there is can kill you dead. We itch and remain in excellent health.

4. A good French textbook. Ann and I both accumulate vocabulary lists related to work and to articles we read, and we have some good French resources with us -- a few dictionaries, and a great book of grammar essentials. But I should have sprung the eighty bucks for Tresors du Temps, the high-school text my mom the French teacher recommended. I had a look at her copy the last time I was in Michigan, and it was great, and loaded with French history too. We do plan to join the Centre Culturel Francois Villion de Yaoundé (French cultural center) downtown, where we can pay a little less than twenty dollars a year to check out French-language books. I hope to find a good history of Cameroon in French, and maybe one of France too.

6. I would have taken the time to find a Windows XP laptop. We decided to get a second laptop before the trip, so we'd each have one for work. I found a dual-core Sony Vaio with 1GB of RAM and a 120 GB hard drive on sale for about six hundred bucks. It has Windows Vista on it, but I got it anyway because time was short, and Sony laptops are beautiful. Plus I planned to put Linux on it for work, and just use Vista for gaming. I run Ubuntu Linux on it for work and it indeed runs great. But I brought a few games with me, and managed to get Civilization 4 (a fantastic game) running after downloading some drivers, but the other game I
brought doesn't run. Bummer. They sell software here, so maybe I'll break down and buy a copy of XP on the street. It would be French XP, too, which would be fun.

7. Maybe a little more underwear.

8. My copy of African Friends and Money Matters, a book I found and ordered online but ran out of time to read. Ann read it before the trip and said it's great, and was written by people with experience in Cameroon. Culture here, and in many parts of Africa, is very different around money than it is at home. Someone in the missionary community we occasionally come into contact with here through Ann and Ray might have a copy, but we haven't run across one yet.

9. Those two big novels I thought I'd save to read when I got home, but could have squeezed into my duffel: Europe Central, by William T. Vollman; and Against the Day, by Thomas Pynchon. Started both, finished neither, and found each of them utterly engrossing. They do weigh a ton in hardcover though, so it's probably just as well. We have access to a lot of English-language books here, because of all the Anglophones (English-speakers) we know. I had not planned to do much English-language reading on this trip, but find it's a nice way to unwind after a busy day at work that has already included lots of French. Who wants to lie in bed and read a book with a dictionary on their lap? You need some downtime too.

10. A backup pair of sunglasses, since mine have disappeared. They sell them here, but I have a few pair at home I could have brought along.

Ann says her list of would-have-broughts includes:

1. CD's. We have a stereo here at the house, and only brought our music
on a portable hard drive.

2. Some DVDs.

3. Some nice vanilla extract.

4. Her $3 red running dress from Salvation Army, for bumming around the house.

5. Agree on the "more insect repellent."

We're fine without all this, of course, but it's interesting to compare our assumptions with how things have worked out.

Friday, November 23, 2007


I came outside today after a quick trip home to run an errand, and saw
that Albert, who works at the house as the day guard, had some corn
("maïs" in French, with two dots over the i) spread out in the sun to
dry. He explained that he was going to grind it up to make flour. I
think the picture is after cleaning or soaking it, which is why it's
mostly white. You can't see it too well in the picture, but there are
yellow kernels in there too.

I also got a picture of the little birds, about the size of a small
child's hand, that eat the grass by the side of the road. They'll land
on a stalk that's six or eight feet high, and it will bend under their
weight but hold them. Then they curve their head around and eat the
seeds. There is usually a flock of five or ten of them by the side of
the road when we walk to work, in the high grass. They are easily
disturbed, and will fly off if a car drives by or if you walk too close,
so this was the best I could get with our camera's 3x zoom. We have
more colorful birds around too, but we see these every day. You can
hear birds here all the time, especially in the morning. It starts
really early, and none of the windows in the house have glass, just
louvers and screens, so if you wake up before dawn you can lie there and
listen to them while it slowly gets light.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Grapefruit in French is "pamplemousse". The local grapefruit soda is
"Topamplemousse", or "Top" for short. It actually tastes like
grapefruit, much more so than, for example, Squirt. It's really good.
We have some friends who read this blog whose last name is Top (hi!), so
I thought I'd pass this on.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


(pictures, from top: a termite queen, a guard, and Hamadou indicating
where he dug the queen out of the excavated nest).

A couple of weeks ago, Hamadou, who works on the yard at the house where
we lived, excavated a termite mount in the back yard. This was because,
he explained, otherwise you get snakes, which won't dig but which like
to live in the tunnels the termites construct. The termite mound was
about the size and shape of a week's worth of dirty laundry, maybe a
foot high. He dug it out to a depth of about eighteen inches below
ground level, and left the dirt in a pile by the hole. There was more
to come.

Today he came to the door and showed us the queen. It was a grub two
inches long. He explained that he had dug her out of the dirt left by
the hole, where the termites will busily reconstruct their home. If you
don't wait to find the queen this way, you'll never find it at all, and
the termites will just build another mound a few feet away from the
original location.

The notches on the back of the queen, apparently, are like rings in a
tree, each indicating a year of growth. So this queen was a few years
old. He said they get bigger.

Whatever they do to the ground makes it very hard, he said, and poked at
it where he had broken in again. I poked at it too, and it felt like
concrete. The dog came by and stole a piece the size of a tennis ball
and ate it. Hamadou chased her and laughed. He indicated the larger
termites he had uncovered in the process of digging out the queen, and
said they guard her.

I was pretty pleased with my French, getting this whole explanation with
relative ease. Hamadou is from the northern part of the country, as are
a lot of the people who work as guards apparently, so French may not be
his first language. This seems to make it easier; the much more fluid
and idiomatic French of our coworkers is sometimes difficult to understand.

We have termites in the house too, or something similar. Some of the
wooden furniture has tiny holes with little mounds of sawdust next to them.

Monday, November 19, 2007

culture shock

(written Sat Nov 17, 2007, 10:53 am, Yaounde)

The topic of culture shock has come up a lot lately. My folks asked
about it on our weekly Skype call this week, and Ann and I have been
discussing it. I won't presume to speak for her, but I find that I
finally hit the point last weekend when we've been here long enough that
it's not new anymore, but not nearly long enough to settle in. There is
a lot to get used to here. We can't go out at night unless we're with
someone who has a car and knows what they're doing, and night starts a
little after 6pm. We have to speak French, for the most part, and we
don't feel very confident about it yet. And it's dangerous here in ways
it's not at home, which is something that I get hung up on (there's a
reason every window in Yaounde is barred); I feel responsible for Ann in
ways that neither of us are entirely comfortable with, and I get
stressed out about the security situation sometimes. Foreigners get
targeted here because they stand out, and there were three incidents
involving foreigners walking alone at night in a neighborhood near ours
called Bastos, where lots of diplomats live, a couple of weeks before we
arrived. That kind of knowledge gets lodged in the back of your head
and stays there, at least in my case. Ann notes that Bastos is full of
extremely wealthy people and may be more of a target. For my part, I
remember lots of warnings not to walk around at night, and to keep the
doors locked as a precaution when we're at home, even during the day.

We'll just have to ride it out. We discuss all this, and whether to go
out late at night with friends we trust (we will), and how things are
going. The dangers here, so far, are abstractions; we have met a lot of
friendly, helpful people, and we haven't had any trouble. Ann worries
less than I do, which is good.

There's plenty of urban violence at home in the US, of course. The
difference is that we know how to deal with it, where to go and what to
avoid, so barring something entirely random, we feel unlikely to be
bothered by it. And here we don't know which way is up yet. We just
have to trust that the people we're with know what they're doing, as
well as our own instincts about them and about whatever situation we
find ourselves in. The alternative is for us to be stuck in our house
at night for a year. There are plenty of places in the world where that
would be the only reasonable response, but things aren't that bad here.
I checked up with a few people, and got mixed opinions about it, but the
people we know the best said we should be cautious, but that they know
lots of ex-pats who go out at night regularly and have never had any
trouble. Going out with a friend who has a car and knows the local
situation is key.

I wonder about writing this publicly, but it's a big part of living
here, so it seems worth writing down and sharing. And I really wonder
how different things will seem to us in six months, or in a year. You
can't spend your life being afraid; eventually the familiarity of
things, and the sight of other foreigners out having fun at night, will
probably make all this seem normal.

We hope to get better at French by then, too.

Day of the Dead

Last weekend (11/11/07), we were invited to attend a traditional funeral ceremony. The man who invited us, Andre, is the director of one of RELUFA’s member organizations, and his family was gathering to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a relative’s death. Apparently, it’s traditional in Cameroon to wait one year (or more, if you need time to save money) from the date of someone’s death, then hold a large gathering wherein the deceased officially joins the ranks of ‘the ancestors.’ It’s a time to eat and talk with loved ones, to dance, and to remember those who have left this life.

Our colleague Guy came to fetch us and we took first one taxi, then another (on impressively bumpy dirt roads!) to a quartier on the outskirts of Yaounde. As we walked down the road toward the area where friends and family gathered, we saw drums and an balafon (big ‘ol xylophone) ready beneath some trees.

We were ushered into a house and seated in a room that soon filled with various male friends or family members. The occasional woman popped in too, including the widow of the deceased man whose ceremony this was, but only to give brief greetings or help with preparing the meal.

The small table in the room was soon filled with food and crates of beer, and we were invited to eat with the men. There was some delicious braised fish, pork, chicken, something wrapped in banana leaves (did not investigate), and some steamed plantain and yam. Then a bit later, hard-boiled eggs and slices of cake. While we ate, everyone else was doing the same in other houses nearby, on porches, standing beneath the eaves…there were easily a few hundred people packed into this small neighborhood for the event, many wearing matching outfits that had been specially made, either for this occasion or for the initial funeral a year ago.

The men in our house ate and discussed spiritedly, and Andre explained to us how in the villages, this ceremony can often involve disinterring the body of the deceased and taking the skull to be the center of a small shrine or altar, where people can come into the presence of the deceased to ask advice or favors. I thought of the decorated sugar skulls that serve as the centerpieces of Dia de los Muertos altars…definitely prefer the candy to the real thing.

After the meal, the widow of the deceased and a few other folks entered the room with framed photos of the dead man and of another ancestor (the woman’s aunt) being acknowledged. There were a few speeches (we didn’t catch much) then everyone processed outside and began lining up in the street behind the widow and a small boy (one of her children?), bearing the photos of the deceased.
Down the road, people began to play the drums, and everyone walked solemnly and rhythmically toward them. As the procession reached the drummers, it curved around ‘til everyone shuffled in a multi-layered circle. Counterclockwise they stepped, sometimes singing, changing their steps slightly as the rhythm changed. Most people looked rather solemn, although there were smiles as well, and the group playing drums and shakers in the middle of it all certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves. Someone began playing the balafon too, drawing some dancers toward the side.

We stood with some small children and some chickens on the front ledge of a nearby house, taking it all in, grateful that our colleague was snapping pictures with our camera so we didn’t have to worry about being all disrespectful and tourist-y. Night would fall soon, and I began to feel the occasional small raindrop hit my cheek or hand, so we eventually made our way back to the main road with Guy and another friend Michel. As we caught a taxi, the drums were still going strong, and the dancers still went ‘round, showing no signs of stopping. A circle of the living, joined to celebrate the circle of life and death.

I’ll Drink to That

Last week, I decided it was time to clean our water filter. Perhaps you’ve noticed it in past photos of our kitchen, and wondered ‘Why do Ann and Chris have one of those large coffee percolators commonly found in church basements?’ But no, that lovely silver-sided freestanding beauty is our water filter. We pour Yaounde’s tap water, reputedly some of the worst in the world, into the top chamber, and it filters slowly through five thick ‘candles’ made of a chalky substance. By the time it drips through to the bottom chamber, it is supposedly free from creatures and impurities that would harm us, and ready to drink. We dispense it through a small spigot at the bottom, trying not to think too much about church basement coffee.

Because the filter had slowed down noticeably after four weeks of work, I figured it deserved a good cleaning, so once evening after dinner, I set about emptying and taking it apart. To my disgust (and fascination too), each of the five candles was pretty well coated with a layer of brown slime! And that’s just the stuff visible to the naked eye! Fortunately it came off easily with a good scrubbing, as you can see by the ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture. The next morning, everything appeared clean, dry, and ready to re-assemble, and not surprisingly, water filtered through MUCH more quickly without the slime-layer to impede its progress.

So we continue drinking our well-filtered water, grateful that neither of us has gotten sick yet, supplementing with other beverages such as beer (see article below) and the magnificent local Top Pamplemousse, the best grapefruit soda ever. And it gives me heightened concern for our sisters and brothers here and elsewhere in the world who have no choice but to drink diseased water, and renewed appreciation for places where potable water comes right out of the tap. Drink up, friends!

Friday, November 16, 2007


Beer is popular in Cameroon. It's also popular with me. I've been trying the local brews, and my favorite is called "33" (see image above). Beer here mostly comes in large bottles, like the double-sized beers they serve back home in Chinese restaurants, and only in small bottles or cans occasionally. If you see people in small cafes or bars at the side of the road, they usually have a big beer bottle and a glass in front of them. They're usually at a table, and usually with someone else.

We saw the brewery too, which is here in Yaounde and responsible for bottling "33", Tuborg, Mutzig, Isenbeck (all Cameroonian beers), as well as sodas and other beverages.

That bottle on the right? If you see one, avoid it. I saw it at the store, and decided to give it a try. It has "genuine whisky taste" which should have been warning enough. It's a sort of whisky-flavored Zima, a heavily sweetened whisky and soda. I liked the name, since I like most black beverages -- Death and Taxes Black Ale (served on tap with pizza slices at Lanesplitters in Oakland, CA), black coffee, kahlua. But one Whisky Black is plenty for this trip, although I did drink it all just to make sure I wasn't missing anything.


This is a little technical for our travel blog, but I can't resist
sharing it. One of the ways to check how far it is between two points
on the internet is using a tool called "traceroute", which shows the
address of each piece of intervening equipment, and the connection delay
between them in milliseconds. I ran a traceroute between my machine
here at the RELUFA office in Yaounde and the homepage of the San
Francisco Chronicle, at

We are seventeen "hops" away. Our connection into the US travels via London, then directly to San

Here, for the curious and the idle, are the details:

1 ( 48 bytes to 0.769 ms 1.051
ms 0.742 ms

2 ( 36 bytes to 602.509
ms 834.113 ms 901.717 ms

3 * ( 36 bytes to 431.651 ms
264.352 ms

4 ( 36 bytes to 297.849 ms 26.456 ms
21.996 ms

5 ( 36 bytes to 18.995 ms
422.565 ms 405.994 ms

6 ( 36 bytes to 432.556 ms
195.717 ms 207.761 ms

7 ( 36 bytes to 206.719 ms 65.955 ms 59.107 ms

8 ( 36 bytes to 172.710 ms 414.449 ms 297.375 ms

9 ( 36 bytes to 604.295 ms 1009.808 ms 695.434 ms

10 ( 36 bytes to 828.730 ms 362.685 ms 406.018 ms

11 ( 36 bytes to 306.025 ms
( 36 bytes to 261.333 ms ( 36 bytes to 405.917 ms

12 ( 36 bytes to 268.341 ms
( 36 bytes to 274.809 ms *

13 ( 36 bytes to 346.593 ms 426.430 ms *

14 ( 36 bytes to 345.132 ms 366.359 ms 352.968 ms

15 ( 36 bytes to 334.539 ms 392.888 ms 350.002 ms

16 ( 36 bytes to 341.045 ms
!A * *

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Une Très Bonne Soirée

Written Thursday evening, 1 November – now mind you, this all happened TWO WEEKS ago, well before our weekend in Kribi, the internet outage, and all the other posts Chris has put up since then. I’m not a very eager poster, but bear with me, hop into my time machine, and travel back to last month…

Last week toward the end of our meeting with them, the officials of the Église Presbyterienne Camerounaise (E.P.C.) proposed a fête for this Tuesday afternoon, to officially welcome us, they said. So on Tuesday (30 Oct.) we dressed in our best (Chris in a suit and tie, me in a dress and lipstick) and stepped across the road to the main office right around 4:00pm. First the secretary of education drove us to his home (all of 200 yards away) where we chatted with him in his sitting room for a while. Then another good reverend came by and drove us back to the church office from whence we came, where we waited for everyone to sort out into their various vehicles. From there, we caravanned through the raging sea of taxis to the relatively posh quartier called Bastos, coming to a stop at L’Orient Rouge.

Yes indeed, the honorable E.P.C. moderator, was treating us to dinner at a Chinese restaurant! (To our friends Minke and Frank, with whom we shared our ‘last’ Chinese meal before leaving the U.S. – we were wrong! There must be a Chinese restaurant in every major city in the world! We should have gone for Mexican instead…) We were seated by the polite staff at a large round table in one corner, complete with a large ‘lazy susan’ in the middle for easier passing of plates. We ordered drinks as we waited for everyone – guava juice, avocado juice (more of a smoothie, really), and the ubiquitous ‘33’ beer – and chatted with the moderator while others filtered in, eventually standing for a grand toast of welcome with everyone.

Once all the church men had arrived (eight or nine in all), it was time to order; first entrées (literally ‘first course,’ or starters), then the plat principal, or plat de resistance (main dish), and of course a couple bottles of wine to share. It was all à la carte, so I chose ravioli frites (fried potstickers) and boeuf au gingembre (beef with ginger), and Chris opted for pâté Chinois (dumplings) and poulet (chicken) with a soy-based sauce. We all stood again for a prayer, then began to eat. The food was delicious!

While we busied ourselves with our chopsticks (a feat nobody else attempted), our companions dove into a spirited discussion of all things church-related. Really one could expect nothing less of the top E.P.C. officials in the whole of Cameroon. Every now and then someone would toss a few kind words our way, and my fellow lefty (the assistant secretary of education) and I would share some southpaw pride from across the table, but for the most part Chris and I just grinned and ate, understanding hardly a word that was said. Chris said it reminded him of when he was young and his various preacher uncles gathered to engage in intense theological discussions. Though he didn’t understand what they were talking about, it was perfectly alright and he felt very comfortable being a presence but not a participant. So it was with us and our E.P.C. welcoming committee, and they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

After the plates were cleared away, everyone received a tiny ornate cup of rose-scented rice liqueur as an aperitif. After another toast with everyone, the moderator presented Chris and me with white baseball caps emblazoned with the logo for the upcoming 50-year jubilee celebration of the E.P.C. Wow! Of course we put them on right away, much to the delight of all assembled. The baseball caps were made specially for the festivities which would occur the coming weekend in Kribi, and they hoped we could join them. Sure we’ll go to Kribi this weekend! (Kribi is the best-loved beach town in Cameroon.) At this point everyone was noticing that if they peered into the depths of their tiny ornate cups of rose-scented rice liqueur, they could see an image of a young Chinese woman who did not appear to be wearing any clothes. Once you drained the liquid, the woman disappeared. Wow again! As the only woman at the table, I got a refill so that I could see the small woman in the cup again…naturally, I was enthralled.

At Last, we all rose again for a closing prayer. All the men's voices rose in harmony, singing to the tune of 'Beautiful Saviour.' Words something like "Dieu qui depose/de toute chose..." It was lovely. Then back out to the the cars and home again, our secretary of education neighbor dropping us off at our gate. Still proudly wearing our fine new church baseball caps, we went inside for the night.

where we work

We're spending our year in Cameroon working as volunteers for an NGO
called RELUFA (a French acronym for "Network in the Fight against Hunger
in Cameroon"). Ann is doing interviews with clients and assisting with
REFLUA's CAP microfinance program, for which I'm creating a database and
information system. RELUFA's coordinator Valery (who works here in the
office in Yaounde) and a couple of people from U.S. partner
organizations recently did a U.S. tour and met with people in Congress
and got media interviews with WBEZ in Chicago (see picture above) and
others to promote some of their efforts. Valery even addressed a U.N.
expert group in New York.

RELUFA has a few different projects. Their CAP program extends small
loans to people without other access to credit, to enable them to start
or augment a small business, such as selling tshirts or fruit juice,
running a food stall, raising small animals, and many other projects.
Candidates are interviewed and screened to help prevent loan defaults.
This summer they also ran an extension program for students over the
holiday break, which was an unusual step here since there is no culture
of summer jobs here, or of working while you study.

Another project is transparency of extractive industries, also known as
PWYP: Publish What You Pay. The history of where the money from foreign
oil and mining operations in this part of the world actually goes is not
a happy one. So the idea is to get these companies to publish what they
pay, and to whom, in order to shine a little sunlight into the payment
process and get some of the benefits to local people.

RELUFA also has a food bank program for farmers up north, who sell their
crops at harvest time, and then end up buying some of them back at a
several hundred percent markup from speculators when things get tight.
Providing the community with crop storage in the form of a "food bank"
will give them something to fall back on instead of having to buy back
their own crops.

RELUFA also has a gender justice program, which has been pretty quiet lately. We may help generate some new activity there, once Christi gets back here from the states in January. Women, especially widows, can have a rough lot here. For more information on that, check out

There's a lot more to it than this, of course. If you're curious to see
some pictures of all this, and read more details on RELUFA, including
links to the WBEZ radio interview, check out the September 2007 Joining
Hands newsletter on Cameroon at

Monday, November 12, 2007

Kribi, weekend of Nov. 3

We spent a busy 36 hours taking a trip to the coastal town of Kribi the weekend of November 3, for the start of the Eglise Presbyterian Camerounaise 50-year Golden Jubilee. This celebrates the handover in 1957 of church organization from the American Presbyterian Mission which originally evangalized Cameroon to the EPC. The jubilee commenced in Kribi to mark the landing of the first American missionaries there in the 1880s. It was an endless round of greetings, services, speeches and songs, a visit to the first American Presbyterian mission nearby, and a short night of sleep, bookended by two long busrides. The EPC Moderator invited us a couple of days before, and said they would put us up, and take care of our transportation and meals, so we were literally just along for the ride, and often unclear about exactly what was happing next, when it might start, and how exactly we were getting home. Getting into situations like this is part of the point of our trip.

Kribi is a beach town. We saw people swimming, and during the day saw people fishing out of dugout canoes. The beaches are white sand lined with palm trees. The air is clear out at sea, so the horizon is sharp, unlike the fuzzy one on the Pacific back home. It was a relief to get home to Yaounde and cool off, but we'd like to get back to Kribi and spend some time on the beach.

Kribi is hot, far hotter than Yaounde where we live. There's a pleasant cool sea breeze at night if you're on the shore, but it amazed me to see all the Cameroonian church officials wear formal dark suits and ties right through the day, some mopping the sweat off their foreheads. People's standards are a little different though, living here; we were at a restaurant next to the beach at night, with a breeze blowing and a storm coming in. It felt to me like it was finally cooling off, deliciously, as the wind dried out my sweat-soaked linen shirt, but a Cameroonian we were talking to told us that he was cold, and he was wearing a shirt and a jacket.

We saw several of the partly-constructed houses I mentioned earlier on our way out of Yaounde.

Ann made a friend in Kribi. This little guy came around to say hello when we were in the guesthouse next to the church with the other Americans, waiting for the welcome celebration to start. We think he was about three. He was shy at first, but by our second or third visit to the church he came right up to Ann to talk with her.

There were two choirs in the after-dinner welcoming festivities the night we arrived. This one was from the EPC Moderator's home church in Yaounde. It was all women, fronted by a male soloist. They were amazing, and sang a mix of familiar Protestant hymns with French lyrics, and music of African origin. They've recorded at least one CD, which they presented to the PC-USA delegation.

Here's the soloist. One of the two additional local choirs that sang that weekend also featured male soloist with a mic, but this time fronting a mixed-gender choir. The fourth, which performed first the night we arrived, was student-aged girls.

These guys were visiting from a Presbyterian church in Minneapolis. They were great, and were also professionals like the EPC choir. They sang Bobby McFerrin, Biebl's Ave Maria, spirituals and hymns. They were off right away to sing somewhere else in Cameroon, so we didn't get a chance to talk with them.

Eventually, the moderators of the Cameroonian and US Presbyterian Churches ended up on their feet, dancing along with the African choir, much of the EPC and PC-USA delegations, and us. The man in the white track suit is the EPC Moderator. The white lady in the background is the PC-USA Moderator, and the tall man in the blue shirt the PC-USA Vice-Moderator. The man in the black suit and clerical collar is Rev. Marcel, who speaks French, English, and doubtless several Cameroonian languages as well, and who did lots of translating during ceremonies. He studied in Memphis, traveled the US widely in the sixties, and has been back several times since. He is a history professor at the theological college in Yaounde, a pastor, and, he told us this weekend, a traditional chief as well. He spoke of inviting us to his farm outside Yaounde.

This is part of the band that accompanied all official events over the weekend. They played in the parade we had over the last kilometer to the church when we arrived, played at ceremonies, and during services. These guys were hanging out in the parking lot when we emerged after the first welcome ceremonies, and when we came out, starting playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It was a mild shock to hear it, and although we're not really flag-waving types, it was an unexpected pleasure to hear it so far from home, a reminder of Fourth of July picnics and fireworks and concerts in the park.

This is both delegations, Cameroonian (EPC) and American (PC-USA). Front and center are Simon-Pierre, the EPC Moderator (blue shirt with clerical collar), and Joan, the PC-USA Moderator (with flowers). The tall man in the blazer next to her is Bob, the PC-USA Vice-Moderator. To his left, with the beard, is Doug from PC-USA Missions. Joan's husband William is just above the EPC Moderator in the picture. On his left, the tall bearded man with the tie is Jeff, whose place we're currently housesitting.

The PC-USA Moderator with women of the EPC.

Us with the PC-USA group. From left: Jeff, me, Ann, Joan, William, Bob and Doug. Given the climate in Kribi, I was glad it had not occurred to me to bring my suit, since I would have felt obligated to wear it if I had. Everyone in the American delegation peeled down to shirtsleeves when thing got a little less formal.

Dinner that night was at a seaside restaurant in Kribi. We could hear the waves and feel the breeze as we ate on the verandah. The food was delicious: small shrimp on skewers, four or five different kinds of fish, fiery hot sauce we were carefully warned about, chicken and beef, two or three varieties of plantain, rice, stewed greens with smoked fish, and an excellent Chilean Cabernet whose label recommended it with tuna. One dish in particular was something the original American missionaries were probably served, a traditional preparation of small fish cooked with salt, pepper and lemon in banana leaves:

The filmmakers were friendly younger guys, and we spent some time chatting with them at the church, and again at dinner. Here they are with Ann on the verandah of the restaurant. The guy in the white shirt was encouraging us to see all the provinces of Cameroon before we left. People here tend to have a serious expression when posing for pictures, so the pictures can be a little misleading. With us, these guys were usually all smiles. Ann tells me that they were journalists, and actually worked for CRTV, the government media company here, but were also hired to produce a DVD about the event for the EPC.

There was a ceremonial laying of a wreath of flowers on the grave of the first American missionary to Cameroon, who lived to a ripe old age and asked to be buried here, not far from his mission, now a twenty-minute drive from the church we were at in Kribi. Others in that mission met a grimmer end, however; as we wandered through the century-old graveyard, which had apparently just been cleared of brush, we saw several other graves of younger adults and even children, one of whom died at three days old in 1901.

The view from the door of our hotel room, facing the ocean.

Cameroon and Chad recently completed an oil pipeline ("oleduc" in French). It carries oil from landlocked Chad to the Cameroonian terminus in Kribi. The harbor there is too shallow for oil tankers, so the connection point is 25km out to sea. You can see it from shore, though, lit up at night like a faraway town. (I shot this from the restaurant at lunch with the 3x zoom on our little camera. This 400-pixel-wide image is actual-size, incidentally, cut from a 7MB original).

RELUFA, the NGO we work with, is involved in efforts to assess and mitigate the environmental and social fallout from the pipeline project, and we've been reading some articles in French about it by Fanny, the AFP reporter who works at our office.

The lizards we see in Yaounde are also in Kribi, but bigger. This one was at the restaurant, and was about eight inches long. Ray tells me these are geckos.

The EPC women's group presented the PC-USA Moderator with an African outfit. It was made from cloth commemorating the EPC jubilee. In addition to being made into several outfits for men and women, this cloth also covered the tables at the church and the restaurant. The African lady in these pictures is the president of the EPC women's organization. The video camera was a constant presence throughout the weekend.