It’s no secret: I haven’t been in Peace Corps for awhile now — but one of the cool things about Peace Corps is that you’re always a part of the larger Peace Corps network! Which is why, I’m happy to present you all with a guest post from a current PCV, Anne Nathanson, who is serving in West Africa; Cameroon specifically! She’s also an official candidate in the Peace Corps Blog it Home Competition — so if you like this post, be sure to like her Facebook photo as well and help her win a trip to come home for a bit! Now, on to 10 things you’ll only do as a PCV in Cameroon:
Cameroon is one of those forgotten-about countries. When I was told I was headed there as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I promptly Googled it. My best friend misreported my news to everyone we knew, telling them I was going to Cambodia. I went on to spend many conversations explaining that Cameroon is “geographically speaking, the armpit of Africa” before I realized what a terrible description that gave. Now, nearly a year after arriving, I’ve developed quite an affinity for the place. A Peace Corps friend was recently talking about what a hot tourist destination Senegal has become, and a bunch of us Cameroon Volunteers grew enraged. “What does Senegal have that we don’t?” we demanded to know.
And the truth is, there are lots of things you’ll do and see in Cameroon that I’m fairly confident you’ll never do anywhere else. Cameroon, nestled in the armpit of Africa (geographically speaking, of course) and distinctly not Cambodia, has a lot going for it on its own merits. Let me take you there. Here’s ten things you’ll only do in Cameroon:
1. Take the Backseat to a Sequined Moto Driver
When I first got to post, my postmate Ben, who by then had been living in Tombel for four months, introduced me to moto-taxi driver after moto-taxi driver. When I asked him when we would meet the VIPs – the village chief, the mayor, the head of police – he sheepishly explained that he had acquired lots of friends…in low places.
Now, nine months later, I can proudly claim the same. Moto-taxi drivers (known as okatas in Pidgin) make wonderful friends for us: a lot of them are also foreigners here, since driving tends to be a transient job; they love partying and dancing and are our perfect ambassadors to the sometimes-intimidating club scene here; and, most important of all, they have impeccable fashion and are excited to share.
After Ben complained that he had nothing to wear to the bar one weekend, our friend Olivier showed up with a cute striped cotton polo with rhinestones down the collar. I saw it and did a double take because I am almost positive that I bought the same thing at Kohl’s in 2002 and gave it to the Salvation Army when I graduated from middle school. Or at least, it was definitely the style – and size – that my pre-teen self would have embraced. Did Ben wear it out that weekend? Why yes, yes he did. Was he the envy of every okata and the object of every local girl’s affection? Do you even have to ask?
2. Shake Skin to Chop My Money
You say weti? Even though Cameroon is mostly francophone, the part of Cameroon where I live is English-speaking. Us Peace Corps Volunteers in Anglophone regions never tire of conversing in Cameroonian Pidgin English – the language is at once familiar and unfamiliar, rhythmic and sort of silly. On a Sunday night, you’re likely to find half the town shaking skin (dancing) to “Chop My Money” (the biggest hit by Nigerian duo P. Square; the lyrics go, “She can chop my money, chop my money, chop my money, and I don’t mind…I got plenty dollars in my name”; translation: my girlfriend can spend my money and I don’t care because I’m so rich.)
3. Haggle for Fresh Snail Meat
My first weekend in my new home, my host family eagerly served me a dish called eru that is wildly popular in the region. (I once ate lunch in town alongside a man who told me he wanted to go to America, but if he got there and there was no eru, he planned to promptly start World War III.)
Just as I shoveled in my first bite, they asked, “Do you like snail meat? That’s what the small bits are.” They then somehow convinced me that it was still a vegetarian dish because snails don’t have blood. Do snails not have blood? It’s a moot point anyway, because I’ve long since converted from near-lifelong vegetarianism to flexitarianism. And snails, as it turns out, are everywhere – in large part because of efforts by the World Wildlife Fund a decade and a half ago.
In a country that’s being defauna-ed faster than it’s being deforested thanks to the bush meat trade, small animal husbandry is a great answer to the call for a sustainable protein source. I totally support it. Does that mean I’m voting with my fork? Er…can’t say it does.
4. Be Called a Fat White Man…and Accept it Like the Compliment it Is
Westerners who travel to all parts of the developing world hear endless versions of the “white man” chant in countless local languages, but there’s something especially jarring about being in an Anglophone region and actually hearing…“white man.” Tack on the fact that being pleasantly plump is considered attractive, and strangers announcing me as a “fat white man” is basically a good thing. Bring on the manioc and palm oil!
5. Pull in the Day’s Catch
My site mate is always looking for, uh, creative workouts, so he was ecstatic when we were lounging beachside on a recent trip to the coast and he spotted a group of men pulling in nets from the ocean. He joined them for a few hours, moving up and down along the shore pulling at the long ropes that brought in the nets. Pay for a morning’s work? A good sized-fish, which we sneaked back into the hotel kitchen and had grilled for lunch.
6. Lounge on Volcanic Sands
Did I mention that Mount Cameroon is an active volcano just beside the ocean? Driving down Limbe’s roads, you come across a road block that dates back to an eruption that wreaked havoc on the coast years ago. Today, there’s no danger of a surprise eruption (or so they say). And the volcano and its spewing lava isn’t all bad news: it’s credited for the uber-fertile soils in the South West region and the beautiful chocolate colored black sands that help to make Limbe such a sublime beach town. (The palm trees and relative calm don’t hurt either.)
7. Run Up and Down the Tallest Mountain in West Africa…in an Afternoon
Each year in February, Guinness sponsors the Race of Hope, a twenty-six mile race up and down…the tallest mountain in West Africa. The winners do it in four or five hours, with limited water and support (there ain’t no one handing out little Dixie cups of Gatorade every mile) and generally in jelly sandals which are, as they should be, wildly popular here. Impressive Peace Corps Volunteers also take on the challenge. Those who succeed end up on BBC Sports. Those who don’t fare quite as well end up walking down the mountain and searching for their supporters after sundown. All are superhuman and deserve respect accordingly.
8. Kick it with a Village Chief with a PhD in Latin and Thirteen Armchairs
The chief of my town is kind of awesome. In other parts of Cameroon, meeting the chief is quite the big deal, but when I tried to stumble through the series of gestures and greetings I’d learned during training, Chief Salle just laughed and explained that here in the South West, things are much more relaxed.
In his free time, he reads great British literature – Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is his all-time fave – and jets off to England, where he works for a university, determining if the students who want to study Roman law are proficient in Latin. “How did this year’s students do?” I asked him when he explained his special position. “Oh, I’ve never failed anyone,” he said and laughed his big bellied laugh. “It’s like a tea party. ‘You pass, you pass, you pass – now let’s celebrate!’”
9. Sew a Muumuu
Some Peace Corps Volunteers deal with an abundance of free time by reading more, or journaling, or teaching themselves to play the guitar. I became a seamstress’s apprentice. I spent three months on baby pink beaded pillows and alphabet needlepoint tablecloths before insisting that I move on to something more stimulating…and graduated to kabas. Kabas are West African muumuus, and they are every bit as glorious as the muumuus we know and love back home and then some because: you can wear them in public.
10. Read About a Prostitute Turning into a Snake in Your Local Newspaper
Extra, extra, read all about it! The Town Crier, the premier news source around these parts, is laughably bad. Kidney transplants, local governmental corruption, people bringing body parts to the market in plastic bags, lots of sudden deaths – no piece of crucial news is left unreported. Interestingly, a huge amount of high schoolers, when asked their dream job, answer journalist. Jury’s still out on whether that’s a good sign or a bad one.
Anna Nathanson is a New Jersey native and McGill University grad with a severe case of wanderlust. She studied development in college and then joined the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Agribusiness consultant. She blogs about her adventures at Anna Does Pangea, where she tries to takes you to Cameroon by avoiding stereotypes and generalizations and painting you a picture of life as it is.
From now until August 10, she’s competing as a finalist in the Peace Corps worldwide Blog It Home Competition. Vote for her by “liking” the picture on her photo on the official competition Facebook page.