Africa Report Cameroon – Peace Corps

by Christine Swanson

It’s October 2nd and I’ve been here in Cameroon now almost four months. The first three months were training in a town called Bandjoun (West Province), which is near the large city of Bafoussam. We lived with local host families. The father in my family is the principal of the Catholic Secondary School. He and his wife have five children at home, plus their 20-something nephew and three of the school kids whose parents live too far from Bandjoun to commute daily. Bernadette, the mother, is an extremely competent household executive. With nine kids, a big garden and a flock of chickens, she has to be. I’m amazed at how well the parents take care of this group without hot water, washing machine, and a lot of other things we take for granted. They came from Kinshasa about eight years ago to escape the political trouble brewing there. I’m sure the adjustment has been difficult.

Our group of trainees turned out to be 28 who flew over from Washington in June, plus four who were evacuated from Chad, plus 10 who were supposed to go to Eritrea or Ethiopia. Their departure from the US came just about the time Ethiopia started bombing Eritrea. It was a large group, about twice what the trainers had expected. Almost everyone was either fresh out of college or within a year or two of graduating.

The first six weeks of training included methods for teaching English as a foreign language, French, and health. During the month of August, we taught a Model School in Bafoussam. That month was grueling. The Peace Corps van picked us up at 6:30 a.m., classes at the school in Bafoussam started at 7:30, and ended at 12:15. We usually taught two of the five periods, observed a colleague during one, and used the remaining two to prepare for the following day. In the afternoon we had methods training, French, and health. We usually went home about 6 p.m. Evenings were taken up with finishing lesson plans and doing personal chores like laundry, showering, writing letters, and so on. By the end of it we were all exhausted and maybe a little angry. On Friday nights we usually gathered–almost 28 of us–in the nicest bar in Bandjoun to celebrate the end of another week with a beer or two.

I have to tell you about one day that was particularly difficult. We went to school for the 7:30 classes as usual. At lunchtime, we headed back to Bandjoun because we needed a room with a VCR and the school doesn’t have one. We had a two-and-one-half hour medical session on harassment, assault, and rape. The rape video showed former Peace Corps volunteers talking about having been raped at their posts. Then two of the women in our group shared the fact that they had been raped before coming to Africa. It was all very powerful. At 5 p.m. it was still raining and emotions were running high. The host father of one of our group died unexpectedly two days earlier, so the van took most of us to his house. The family had brought the body home for the vigil. Eighteen tired trainees sat in silence on chairs set against the walls of the family’s salon, the body was in the middle of the room. The widow wept quietly, the oldest son said a few words about his father and our trainee colleague translated from French. We got home at 7 p.m., making it a 13-hour day.

We didn’t have a lot of time for fun or traveling, but I did enjoy two weddings and a very special Mass with my host family. The Mass was in honor of two young Bandjoun men who had just been ordained into the priesthood. It was an amazing melange of main-stream Catholic and local Bandjoun culture. The church was decorated with tall cornstalks ( it was harvest time) and pastel streamers. The two young priests moved slowly down the aisle accompanied by incense and quiet singing. When they were seated, a group of women dancers arrived in traditional dress. Some of them carried what looked like large torches made with corn silk or horsehair. The lead dancer had a vest with sleigh bells on it. They shook the horsehair torches and the ringing vest in a totally wild dance down the aisle. It became quiet again for prayers and homilies from the new priests. Then the choir shouted out an energetic African hymn, accompanied by drums. I’m told the Vatican doesn’t approve, but the local bishop and priests think it’s fine to combine traditions like this.

Even with the stress of Model School, there were always things that cracked me up. One day, toward the end, I was doing a review session of all the grammar points we had studied for three weeks with my class of 16-year-olds. I knew it was boring, but it had to be done. About halfway through, one of the girls raised her hand and shouted, “Stop! We have to sing!” I wrote the words to “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” on the board and we sang it several times until they sounded pretty good with two-part harmony. We then finished our drills. The two Cameroonian teachers observing the class thought it was fine to take a 10-minute song break.

I found out that Bafoussam has an espresso bar a lot like Starbuck’s. The difference, though, is that every time I went there it was I and 10 or 12 men. About 10 a.m. I mentioned this to my French tutor and asked what the men thought I was doing there. “Oh,” he said, “Cameroonians are difficult. They think you’re a tourist, a spy or a loose woman.” The tourist idea I could understand, but why a spy with blond hair, so conspicuous in Africa. And why a loose woman in filthy jeans and bulky sweater at mid-morning? I still can’t figure it out.

Another time, the Peace Corp Director for Cameroon came to visit our school with the new medical officer, fresh from six grueling months in Rwanda. He’s now in charge of medical services for the Peace Corps in five Central African countries. He looks a little like Max von Sydow. I was talking with them and mentioned in passing that I had translated some of Jan Myrdal’s work. Then I went to the teacher’s room to work. A few minutes later, the Doc walked in singing, “Natten går tunga fjät rund gård och stuva.... San ta Lucia, San ta Lucia.” “Talar du svenska?” he asked. “Ja, visst,” I responded. Then we launch-ed (badly!) into some other Swedish Christmas songs–in August, in Bafoussam. My trainee colleagues must have thought the Doc and I had consumed too much beer at lunch! Turns out he speaks pretty good Swedish, looked all over Rwanda for Swedes, and didn’t find any. He was amused to find me in Bafoussam.

Now I’m in Buea, at the foot of Mt. Cameroon. The University is about five-years-old and has roughly 6,000 students. It’s also the starting point for treks to the summit of the mountain. A half hour away is Limbe, a beach town with a very relaxed, vacation atmosphere. The Peace Corps rents a house there for volunteers passing through or volunteer gatherings. The bungalow is part way up a hill, so the balcony offers a view of the town and its bay. Equatorial Guinea is straight offshore and Mt. Cameroon rises to the northeast, a bit inland. It’s wonderful.

Here in Buea are two Peace Corps people, one recently finished his 3-year stint teaching physics, the other has completed one year (of either two or three) teaching mathematics. These guys have been extremely helpful, advising me on the logistics of Buea. My faculty colleagues in education are very interesting and friendly. I’m sure I’ll like working with them.

There will be some challenges. So far, the biggest one is lack of books. The students don’t have textbooks. That’s just the way it is. I’ve had trouble finding books to use in preparing courses. The University is new and so far they seem to be filling the library with donations from British universities. Many of the books are 25 and 30 years old. The ones in my field are not only out of date but full of nonsense. I’ve ordered a couple of my favorite books and will borrow others from my colleagues’ personal libraries. (I’m told this is different in Nigeria and Congo, where students, faculty, libraries, and bookstores all have books.) I asked a colleague what kind of assignments they do without books. Well, they’re very good note-takers. If you assign an essay, it won’t be a research paper, but a reflection in which a student can review the notes and make connections with his or her own experience.

I’m sure the next two years will involve hard work and, I hope, adventures. Warmest African greetings to Pietisten readers and staff.

Christine "Kit" Swanson has been a Peace Corps Volunteer (1998-2000) as a Lecturer at the University of Buea, Cameroon, Africa.

See all articles by Christine Swanson