Thursday, July 31, 2008

new home at Cabtal

We moved to the Cabtal apartment complex on Sunday night. The Kapteyns were due back on Wednesday, last night, to reclaim their house after seven months of furlough in the US, but have been delayed a week or more in Paris by an African air-traffic-controller strike. So we're stopping by their house regularly to say hello to the people who work there and check on the dog, and generally keep an eye on things. The SIL community watches out for its own; I received a couple of emails today just checking with me that I had heard about their flight delay.

Cabtal is a Cameroonian Bible-translation organization, a sister organization to SIL. In addition to its offices, Cabtal rents a block of apartments, mostly to ex-pat teachers at nearby Rain Forest International School. Here, the building at right is the apartments, and at left is the offices:

Here's a closer view of the apartments:

We had actually planned to spend the last two months of our stay in the Kapteyns' dependence (in-law unit) at their house, attached to their garage, but our friend Karen had to go home for knee surgery, and sublet us her place. She returns to Cameroon a couple of days before we leave. We were sorry to see her go, and glad she's coming back before we leave, but we're happy to have a chance to live at Cabtal. It's just up the road from the Kapteyn house, and we've become friends with several of the teachers who live here. It's a sociable building; we played cards with some friends and made ice cream last night, for example.

The apartment is a better size for us, too. The house we were in is usually home to a family of five, and often felt cavernous, although it was fun for entertaining. The apartment is a one-bedroom, but open and airy. Here's the kitchen end of the main space:

Here's the living-room end of it, facing the other way:

(Just for the record, the fact that Ann is doing something useful in the kitchen area while I am planted in the papasan chair is pure coincidence. I made the quesadillas tonight.)

There's a lanai just outside that window; the door is just to the right out of frame. The cat likes to sleep out there during the day:

Here's the view off the deck, towards our previous house, which you can't quite see from here. We're pretty high up now:

The bedroom is separated from the rest of the place by a door. It's roomy enough that we just left Karen's twin bed set up for her return, and installed our borrowed double on the other end of the room. Of course, we sleep under a net, although some of our friends don't bother:

(Karen's curtains were gauzy, so for now we've clipped up a couple of towels, til we can get some darker curtains. The sun is up everyday at 6, and we're usually not.)

I have mentioned a few times that I volunteer over at the reading room at CTC, the same location that houses Rain Forest School. We wandered over there today, so here's a picture of the place:

CTC is up a hill, so you can get a nice view north towards most of Yaounde:

We brought a few acquisitions back to Cabtal. Ann's are the top row, mine the bottom:

Since Karen is coming back to Yaounde in a couple of months, she left some of her things here, including a stained-glass window her mother made. It's officially a dragonfly, but it looks more like a river of pinballs to me:

This is our water filter. A few people have something more fancy, but we inherited this from Karen, and it works well. Just a dish tub, a filter, some surgical tubing, and a jug:

That red and white box to the right of the filter tub is a voltage regulator, something you want for any appliances here because of the uneven level of the electrical current.

So that's the new place. We'll live here until we leave Cameroon at the end of September. We've grown steadily less socially isolated the longer we've lived here. When we arrived last October, we lived near the office and didn't know anyone in the neighborhood. Sternly warned about the dangers of Yaounde after dark, we locked the door and spent 14 hours at home every night. When we moved across town into the Kapteyn house in January, we met neighbors, discovered that it was safe to walk around this neighborhood a bit at night, did more entertaining and visiting, and walked up to CTC to use the reading room and the computer lab. Now we live in an apartment complex with some of our friends, with generators, wireless internet, and a social life. We continue to settle in.

Valery at REFLUA, Julia at the Kapteyns, our neighbor Shirley and others have started to tease us about staying longer, whether to volunteer at Rain Forest (their IT department is shorthanded), to continue at RELUFA, or just to spend more time in Cameroon. We're still leaving at the end of September, but it's great to be appreciated. We'll miss our friends here when we leave.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

dinner at Isaac and Julia's

We moved out of the Kapteyns' home over the past week, and they return to Cameroon on Wednesday after a seven-month furlough in the US. We've enjoyed living there, and one of the best parts of that has been getting to know Julia and Isaac, an anglophone Cameroonian couple. Julia works for the Kapteyns, and thus for us for seven months, as what is known here as "house-help," cooking and cleaning and helping to run the household. Isaac, her husband, has another job but does yardwork for the house on occasional weekends, and once hired on to a RELUFA work trip as our driver. We also hosted their nephew Paul's engagement dinner, and had them over for dinner a few times, and Ann goes to the market with Julia every chance she gets, where Julia has introduced her to the vendors she buys from regularly.

They invited us to their home for dinner tonight, for a joint birthday celebration for Julia and Ann. It was great to finally see where they live. Two of the sisters of Paul's fiancee came too, with a friend.

The two sisters, their friend, Ann and Julia, at Julia and Isaac's house.

Isaac, Julia, Ann, Paul and me. I can't believe we caught Isaac smiling in this one; lots of people here are serious for pictures, and this is one of the only times that I have ever seen Julia not smiling or laughing.

Friday, July 25, 2008


I've been wondering what it will be like to return to life in the US after living in Cameroon for a year, so when a friend here offered me a book on the subject, I took her up on it. The book is actually for missionaries, not NGO volunteers like us, but it was interesting and helpful.

Some of the advice didn't have much to do with us, or why we're here. For example, I doubt we'll go back to our church with a sense of Christian superiority, or that we'll fail to submit to the authority of our male pastor (especially because her name is Sheri), both of which the book warns returning missionaries to beware of. But the warnings about "reverse culture shock" seem apt. Living in a much poorer country can change your perspective (how could it not?) on life in a rich one like the US, and make it difficult to pick your former life back up again:

What are some of the signs of reverse culture shock? One is feeling "out of place," as thought you are a spectator watching from afar. You don't really fit in with what is going on around you. While everyone else seems to be sure of their social position, you seem to hang out at the edges, wanting to participate fully, but not being quite able to.

Another sign is feeling lonely. You feel isolated from your closest friends and family members. They have changed, and you don't always understand exactly where they're coming from. Thus you feel like the "odd man out."

You may also find yourself reacting in odd ways; weeping at a children's television program or being completely overwhelmed by the number of television movies from which to choose on a typical Saturday night.

However, one of the biggest aspects of reverse culture shock is the reaction to western materialism.

...[it] takes time, but if you don't adjust in some measure to the "wasteful West," you will become critical of and alienated from others around you. You will find yourself becoming judgmental of your family and friends for doing exactly the same things you used to do. And as time goes by, you will find yourself falling back into those old habit patterns, and you will become angry and frustrated with yourself because of it.

(from Re-Entry: Making the transition from missions to a life at home, by Peter Jordan, 1992; liberal italics from the original)

Again, as with my experience of culture shock, I can't help finding this all strongly reminiscent of life in junior high. Culture shock, reverse culture shock, it's all really just time travel. Go figure.

(As you might expect, the earlier post about culture shock generated a lot of email and comments, more than anything else we've posted. One friend said he was pretty depressed after reading it. It was certainly a shock at first (it is "culture shock," after all), but like a lot of painful things, it's a chance to grow. Nobody seems to talk about the negative aspects of our kind of travel, at least not in any detail, so I wanted to share it. We have a pretty good time here most of the time, and have seen things most people in the US never get to see. I have no complaints, only occasional difficulties. I won't speak for Ann, but once or twice we discussed coming home early when things were difficult, and always decided against it.

All that said, thank you to everyone who sent us expressions of support, well-meant advice, or just checked in with a few comments.)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Happy Birthday Ann!

Ann's birthday was Monday. It's been a week of on and off birthday celebration, because the actual birthday on Monday was a doctor visit for a minor skin complaint, which is why she has this great hat:

The nice French doctor didn't want to stick tape in her hair for the bandage. Apparently little French babies get a gauze chapeau like this too.

Christy and Liz, our friends and neighbors, stopped by that night. Christy (center) composed a rap for Ann's birthday, which she and Liz performed. Then we all sang Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, we invited the Boyds for dinner. Christi was in the US, but Jeff and the kids came over. We made quesadillas, and Naomi (center) brought over a chocolate pudding cake she made that we're still finishing off. We finally got to meet Matthias (in the black t-shirt) a few days before this, because he just got back from his first year of university in the Netherlands.

Last night we made some pizza, and invited our next-door-neighbors the DuBois family over to join us. In the flurry of excitement entailed by their two small children, I neglected to take a picture. I did get one of the pizzas, though. The DuBois had given us some American pepperoni, unavailable here, on a previous visit to their house, so we decided to serve it up.

And there is more to come. I went with Ann to the doctor on Monday, so I never got to the other side of town to get her present. I hope to pick that up next Monday.

Happy Birthday Ann!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Yaoundé walkin' blues

I seem to provoke a lot of hostility when I walk the streets here in Yaounde. I had an appointment to give someone some technical training today, and walked the mile home. Along the way, people made rude remarks I was intended to overhear, started talking loudly and aggressively all of a sudden when I walked by, looked at me and laughed and made mocking remarks to their friends for my to overhear, and stared, stared, stared without smiling. It's usually young guys who actually say things, sometimes a woman, and it's only a brief something every minute or two, but everyone stares without smiling, and the streets are full of people. I've tried saying hello to people in the past, but after being mocked for this, I just walk in silence now. It's much more pronounced on a busy street like I was on today than it is right around home, where maybe a hundred other ex-pats live.

I don't want this ignorance and hostility to bother me. It's not personal. I feel petty to care about it. The people who actually say things are a tiny minority of everyone on the street. And I'm not interested in isolating myself and hiding at home. So I continue to expose myself to it in small doses, like my walk home today, to try to learn how to let it just roll through me without getting angry. I've come a long way in staying calm, although I'm still far from not noticing or caring. But frankly, even though it's probably valuable, the experience always makes me look forward to leaving. I've learned to avoid really strong exposures to all this negativity, like trips to the market, or prolonged time downtown. And every time we travel this disappears; nobody acts this way anywhere we've ever been outside of Yaounde, although I heard from an ex-pat friend that Bamenda, which is another large city, is similar.

It persistently reminds me of being a junior high student, this sense of constant scrutiny and random hostility, and the occasional impulse to cower as if avoiding a blow. I adopt some of the same coping mechanisms as I did then, and stare at the ground in front of me while walking sometimes, or wear a low cap and sunglasses to avoid eye contact. Oddly, I even find myself with that junior high requisite, a large backpack, most of the time when I'm in public, since we carry them to and from work every day. And junior high was the last time people seemed to feel free to mess with me like this. Back home, if you treat adult men like this, they can get violent.

But it's all just talk. There has never been any threat of violence in it. People just don't like how I look; a lot of the comments have "blanc" in them, which means white person. I heard from another ex-pat that people of Asian descent get a lot more negative attention yet, walking around.

"Yew've come to a haahd paaht of the wuld," a frustrated middle-aged Australian traveler assured me several months ago, when we met him on the Cameroonian leg of his drive across Africa. Sometimes it feels that way. And yet, this only happens on long walks out in public, which are pretty rare for us. We cab to work, and we don't get much of this on the side roads around home or the office where we do most of our walking. It was a shock at first, but it's manageable now, perhaps even a useful exercise. And of course, nobody we have any kind of relationship with is like this.

Sometimes I wonder how much of it is just me. I often suspect that if I were to stay here for two straight years, almost everything would seem normal. But this, I think, might take me a little longer.

We leave in ten weeks.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


My major official project as a volunteer this year is creating a database system for RELUFA's micro-finance program, CAP, or Credit Against Poverty. I got the first draft of it (the "beta") done around Christmas, and we've been adding features and reports ever since. We plan to put it on the Internet soon, so we can continue to collaborate on it easily when we leave. I've wanted a solid pro-bono side project like this for years.

The CAP program makes small loans to individuals and groups who would not otherwise have access to credit. They use this money for a variety of small businesses, everything from running a food stall to raising small animals for sale to fruit drying to brickmaking. Micro-finance is a popular idea now, and you'll see signs and billboard for micro-finance programs if you drive around Yaounde, interspersed with signs for all kinds of other NGOs. Micro-finance in its modern form got its start in the seventies, when a Bengali economics professor named Muhammand Yunus decided to start loaning small amounts of money to the poor. This grew into Grameen (from the Bengali for "village") Bank, the institutional pioneer of micro-finance.

I just finished reading Yunus' book, Banker to the Poor, where he describes the history and philosophy of his work and Grameen. It's a fascinating read, and a positive and encouraging take on the difficult problem of world poverty.

Grameen has loaned billions of dollars to poor Bengalis in tiny increments to pull themselves out of poverty, and boasts a loan payback rate of 98%. This number is surprising because micro-loans work differently than other bank loans. The reason poor people cannot typically get loans from banks is that they have no collateral and need only small amounts. Micro-loan programs require no collateral and deal in small amounts. So why would anyone pay the loans back? The borrowers are in groups, so there is peer pressure to pay it back. The bankers build relationships with the borrowers, often over a long period of time. And the borrowers, initially anyway, are genuinely poor people, the bottom layer of society, and thus have no other option if they don't make this work.

Yunus' concept of poverty is an arresting one. He argues that the poor are creative and able to solve their own problems; they don't need training or handouts, just access to credit. He has found this idea to be a hard sell, even in the face of his own success in Bangladesh:

Almost everyone I spoke with dismissed what I said, arguing that the Bengali experience could not be relevant to poverty eradication in the United States. They claimed that Chicagoans needed jobs, training, health care, and protection from drugs and violence, not micro-loans, and that self-employment was a primitive concept lingering only in the Third World. Low-income people in Chicago needed money for rent and food, not for investment. They had no skills anyway.

I advanced the same arguments I had made to bankers in Bangladesh. "The poor," I said, "are very creative. They know how to earn a living and how to change their lives. All they need is opportunity. Credit brings that opportunity. Perhaps our two societies are different and thousands of miles apart, but I don't see any difference between the poor of Bangladesh and the poor of Chicago. The problems and consequences of poverty are the same."

His vision is to use micro-finance and other such empowering tools to wipe out world poverty. And he is no fan of most international aid or the welfare state.

I have always believed that the elimination of poverty from the world is a matter of will. Even today we don't pay serious attention to the issue of poverty, because the powerful remain relatively untouched by it. Most people distance themselves from the issue by saying that if the poor worked harder, they wouldn't be poor.

When we want to help the poor, we usually offer them charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognizing the problem and finding a solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor. Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor. Charity appeases our conscience.

World poverty, says Yunus, is a soluble problem, and not as complicated as we make it out to be.

...things are never as complicated as they seem. It is only our arrogance that prompts us to find unnecessarily complicated answers to simple problems.

The book is not just a clear description of an innovative approach to world poverty, but Yunus' argument for respecting the experience and abilities of the poor people he serves with a cheerful sense of possibility. Start small, think big, and never say die.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cute Pets

Our friends the Boyds have some new animal friends at their place, a puppy and a kitten. What can I say -- they're extremely cute. Puppy was the first arrival, and she was just a tiny thing with a high little voice. She has already grown a lot, and is in almost constant motion, frisking around the yard, trying to dart indoors, and nipping at people's feet.
I caught her here in a rare moment of stillness, sitting next to her cage. She's a beautiful little dog with large scruffy ears.
Here's a more typical pose, with her gnawing on my arm as I take the picture. Albert the day guard looks on in amusement. She is really discovering her teeth, and enjoys playfully nipping at any body part that comes close enough for her to reach. Fortunately, she's quite good about nipping softly, not trying to hurt anyone.
The other new addition to the Boyd family is this adorable tiny kitten. She lives in the house, and is much less spastic than the puppy, although the two of them have met and she can definitely hold her own. The day I was photographing her, she was very sleepy and barely opened her eyes as I scooped her onto my lap.Here she is again, occupying one of her favorite spots: on Chris's lap as he types. This gives you a better idea of her size. Such a cute little handful!

On a more somber note, Kibibi, the Boyds' grown-up guard dog who lived in the yard while we stayed at their house, died about a month ago. She fell sick all of a sudden, and was gone within a couple of days. We've heard this does happen to pets here, what with all the interesting diseases available in Cameroon. Still, it's sad for the pets' owners. Fortunately these new little ones are here to help fill the void, although it will be some time before they'll be much use in guarding the house.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

in Mbingo with Ann's parents

Ann's folks are visiting from Grand Rapids, Michigan. We are running them around Yaounde today and tomorrow, and they leave tomorrow night. We spent the past several days in a place called Mbingo, in Cameroon's mountainous, lush, English-speaking Northwest Province. It was our first time there, and we had a great time. Here are a few pictures from the Mbingo trip.

Ann's ma, Ann, and Julia, who just happened to be taking a bus up to Bamenda in Northwest Province that day and wanted some company.

The major river we crossed on our way from Yaounde to Bamenda.

We did lots of hiking. We scaled that green mountain behind Ann right after we took this picture.

This is the view from the guesthouse where we stayed, which was just behind me when I took this.

The entire place was encircled by mountains, which you could see when you hiked up a bit from where we stayed, which was already at the head of a mountain valley.

View from the top of that green mountain a few pictures back.

Ladies at church, taken by Ann's folks. The guesthouse is part of a Baptist mission hospital, which also has a church, hostel, daily chapel, and a school.

Ann's folks, in front of the school. They spent some time volunteering there; Ann's mom in the library, and Ann's pa sanding tables.

Ann and her ma removing her African braids.

Another hiking picture: Ann's ma and Ann.

The hospital reception area. That was our cab, which we took the 40 minutes or so from Bamenda.

We had a fair amount of rain, especially at night, but not enough to seriously interfere with hiking.

Rain rain. This is the view from the guesthouse again.

The guesthouse, at right, and the cottage next to it.

The view over the valley looks south from the guesthouse. This was the sky around sunset.

The resthouse had tupsicles (tupperware + popsicles). My mom used to make these.

Us outside the guesthouse.

More hiking. There is a small waterfall to the right, just out of frame, that we had hiked up to see. This rock hung over a serious drop.

View from the rock in the previous picture. The buildings at right are the hospital compound; the big L-shaped one is the school.

With Ann's parents at the bus station in Bamenda, the city nearest Mbingo, coming home again.

The four of us bought out the back row, which otherwise would have had five people plus babes in arms, like this row just ahead of us. People here ride like this for seven hours straight and think nothing of it.

The bus ride home, at the halfway stop. Luggage on top.

We heard great things about Mbingo when we got here, and decided to save it for Ann's folks, when they visited. It was worth the wait, and one of the most beautiful places we've seen in Cameroon, in a very different way from Kribi on the sea, the semi-desert far north, or the hills of Yaounde. And everyone speaks English, which made it a perfect place to visit with Ann's parents, who don't know French.