oh! for the love of mold!

•September 13, 2011 • 7 Comments

Just last week, Greg put the following status update on facebook:

“My shirt smells like manioc. My pants smell like mold. Today I introduce a new fragrance to the world – Eau de Cameroon!“

It’s really too bad that blogs can’t be scratch and sniff.  Honestly.  If you want to fully understand what our unabridged and uncensored experience in Cameroon has been, you really need to see it, feel it and smell it.  We draw the line at tasting it.  At least for this particular topic of the week.

And while we are beyond overdue for posting the outcomes of the three photovoice projects from last month (it was very exciting and the results amazing, but the best things come to those who wait, you know, so patience people!) sometimes we have to pause and… nope, not have a cup of tea… nope, not watch the flowers bloom or the clouds drift away in the sky…

This is Cameroon.

This is Yaoundé: we watch the mold grow.

Right before our eyes.  Just like magic!

All kidding aside though, Yaoundé has a warm, humid tropical climate.  During the rainy season, laundry will take 5 days to dry.  Sometimes it feels like things will never dry at all.  It makes me cry which creates even more moisture and makes it take even longer.  And all this causes the most gloriously favourable environment for the cultivation.

Nothing is sacred to mold.  And small victories are many for those who wish to fight it, but big ones are scarce.

Here are the items that have, at one point or another, fallen victim to the mold monsters:

-luggage and backpacks

– leather sandals

– motorcycle helmets (this picture has not been modified, altered or manipulated in any way!)

how do you say "yuck" in pidgin?

– all of Caroline’s purses (which led to many a curses!)

– jewelery (madness, I say, madness!)

– wooden chopsticks (which we only realized after they were already in use –ALWAYS ALWAYS look before you put anything in your mouth even when trying to have a nice romantic evening by candlelight)

– baskets & pot holders

– nearly every article of clothing (nope, that’s not ring around the collar… it’s a fresh batch of fuzzy mold!)

– books, note pads, folders

– extension cords, electrical cords, surge protectors

– my wallet (while inside my purse no less)

– the broken umbrella we had forgotten about in the back of the closet

– the wooden spoon I usually cook with (that gets scrubbed before use)

– the very precious scrabble game (another 5 letter word for evil but gives less points)

– the portable radio (“this just in from the BBC Africa:  “mold is attempting a coup d’état!”)

– camera cases and nearly all of bits and pieces

– the medical kit (stay healthy and you don’t need the kit… but the consequences are that it will mold over!)

– the sleeve to Greg’s coffee maker while we were on vacation

– my best spool of quilting thread (still rather angry about that one)

– and anything ignored or unused for a week or so.


Now of course, the mold isn’t so discriminatory.  It has launched an all out assault on the walls too.  Although bleached and scrubbed, the fuzzy wuzzy new life form is quickly emerging from the cracked wall at an alarming pace.  It’s quite an interesting phenomenon, really.  Our very own scientific experiment.  Maybe the cure for cancer is growing in our apartment and we don’t even know it!

within days of Greg's manly scrubbing with bleach... it's baaaaackkk!

While we do our best to vinegar and bleach our belongings on a regular basis (I hate cleaning even more now), the mold is much more focused and determined than we are.

We’re fighting the good fight.  It may win many of the battles, but this is war… and we’re not backing down!



We realized that the motorcycle helmets were not getting enough ventilation being stored in our closet, so we brought them to the office where they would benefit from greater air movement.  And it’s been working.  However, today another volunteer tried on my helmet (a perfect fit!) and instead of mold (which would have been awful), a colony of ants erupted and landed on her head.  Our office mates came to the rescue, the ants were, shall we say, “relocated” to heaven, and the helmet is off on a new adventure.

If it isn’t one, it’s the other.  But I digress.


trapping tourists in Oku

•August 29, 2011 • 2 Comments

“That’s extortion!”  Kay said.

And she was right… but if you want to see anything in Cameroon, you kind of have to let go of any possible principle you might have and accept to pay bribes for the most mundane things.  Like putting foot in Oku.

It’s a good thing that who you are with makes all the difference to how you feel about your experiences.  It was a great day thanks for this group of lovely NW folks regardless of the “incident”.

We began the day early from Bamenda, first Cornelia, Kay and I.  Then we picked up Myra and Florian in Ndop before making the long ascent towards Oku.  I had been on this road back in December when we did the Ring Road trip.  Though now in the rainy season, the scenery was even more lush and green.  The road also had more potholes, but that just contributes to the “African massage” and the building up of a much stronger stomach. Mine was upside down for most of the morning’s journey.

a view from the road

This part of Cameroon, I would say, is one of the prettiest.  I’m biased though because I love mountains and hills.  I also think that the small villages along the way, with their mud construction and thatched roofs make for a beautiful setting.  Our goal that day, besides the lengthy Sunday drive, was to get a peek of the lake with rests up in the mountains.

We stopped midway up to let the car radiator cool down, all of us except for the driver thinking that smoke coming out of the hood wasn’t a good sign!  It gave us a chance to look around a bit and take in the views.  Kay got a few nice snapshots of some kids passing by.

nice place for a piggy hangout

We’d been told that we really should go pay our respects to the Fon by going up to his palace and bringing a gift.  I was extremely suspicious of this request by the locals – we’ve had this misadventure before.  Once in the main village we purchased a box of wine – also apparently called palace water.  We then took a stroll out towards some of the handicrafts shops, mainly to stretch our legs after the bumpy 2+ hour drive.

We came to the same shops I had been to in December – they seemed not to have changed much at all.  Filled floor to ceiling with woodcarvings of all kinds, there is a definite beauty to the work they do here.  Most of the pieces are so enormous; one can’t even imagine how anyone could take them home.  Some are borderline inappropriate for children – it just adds to the charm.

Some carvings - some as tall as me!

no comment - at least none that will not embarrass me later

Oku is also home to one of the largest and best-known honey production.  There are several beehives visible from the main road, and most shops carry the products as well.

one of Oku's many beehives

By this time, it was part lunch and we were antsy.  Our goal was still seeing the lake, and we had passed it on the way to the village but hadn’t stopped.  So we were anxious to do the right cultural protocol, pay our respects to the Fon and head back out.

the Sunday drive gang waiting on the tire change

This is a difficulty.  While we want to be good visitors and observe the requested customs, we are also bound to be taken advantage of.  And in this case, it was just that.  We drove to the Fon’s palace (where we also got a flat tire! One more slight road misadventure).  We looked in his gift shop, spoke a few words to the Fon himself – a former teacher and school principal.  He thanked us for the palace water.  We told him how beautiful the place was.  And then made our way to sign the book… which was nothing of the sort.  The Fon’s agent asked us for cold hard cash:  10,000 FCFA ($20) per person because we were tourists, but he’s bring it down to 5,000 FCFA because we were volunteers.  That was for seeing the lake and for walking around.  We argued.  We said we’d skip seeing the lake altogether since the “entrance fee” was more than we could afford.  He said we needed to pay him regardless of whether we saw the lake at all.  Just for physically having set foot in their community.

or should that be "tourist extortion centre"?

And if you are a tourist in Cameroon, let me assure you, this isn’t unusual.  And it makes it that much harder to mentally accept wanting to get to know this country any better than on the surface.

But what is there to do when you do want to see more than the inside of a stinky cab in the city or the grabby and shady parts of the market?  You swallow your principles and values, and you offer up something. In this case, Kay, who saw the incoming dark skies of rain that could make our return trip a muddy mess, put a final offer on the table of 10,000 FCFA for all five of us.  And then we said we’d go.

And we did… back on the road, the radiator still smoking and small prayers for no more tire punctures, we headed back to the lake.  The misty fog was rolling back in and the peek-a-boo view revealed itself for a quick moment.  It is a peaceful place from the top of the mountain looking down at the lake.  We’ve been told it is a magnetic lake and that aircrafts cannot fly overhead.  Perhaps the helicopters don’t want to pay the Fon for the privilege either.

We lunched in the car on the return, bouncing all about, bits of bread, avocado and cheese flying.  But the rain never caught up to us!

We had a beautiful day (I got a hellish sunburn though) and the beauty of the countryside remains a spectacular sight.  So if you don’t mind the hassle… it’s a great place to explore!

and finally... Oku lake!

the last fifty

•August 23, 2011 • 3 Comments

We will be boarding a plane in exactly 50 days.  There have been ups and downs in this experience, so it is a fair question for people to ask:  WHAT WILL YOU ACTUALLY MISS ABOUT CAMEROON?  Here are 50 of them…

  1. Grilled fish on the street
  2. Walking sock sellers
  3. Huge avocadoes
  4. River Soy strawberry-banana drinks
  5. Saying “on fait comment alors”
  6. Kids at Good Shepherd Home / Abangoh orphanage

    Cuties from the Good Shepherd Home

  7. Small children carting even smaller children around
  8. Finding cockroaches already upside down dead
  9. Grilled plantains at Makanene
  10. Buying cashews in Bamenda
  11. Amusing the ladies at the La King when picking a new pagne for a dress
  12. Any conversation about how the rainy season hasn’t started yet when there’s a downpour outside
  13. The beautiful scenery around Bamenda and Ndop

    Great views from a hike near the town of Santa

  14. Chatting with the guy at the newspaper stand at Dovv
  15. Toothless grins from my banana lady
  16. The teeny tinny translucent lizards on the living room walls
  17. The joy of finding and then eating cheese
  18. Not caring about mismatching or colour coordinating clothing
  19. Maman Clémentine at the MFundi market
  20. Vanilla Soy yogurt in a bag
  21. Tennis “camp” in Bamenda
  22. Fresh bread daily
  23. Walking to work
  24. Custom made clothes
  25. Being told “c’est en rupture, madame” when the pharmacy has run out of drugs
  26. The excitement when the water comes back on
  27. Watching ladies carry trays of bananas on their heads
  28. Buying fruit on the roadside for next to nothing – 11 avocadoes and 32 mangoes for $2!

    All this for a dollar! Gotta love mango season!

  29. Smoked roast pork from St Tropez Restaurant
  30. Amazing fruits and vegetables!
  31. Watching TV shows on the laptop “beneath the mosquito net”
  32. “Preventing” malaria with gin and tonic
  33. The thrill when word spreads about finding western products in the grocery store
  34. All the other volunteers we’ve gotten to know

    Fikir, Greg, Caroline, Cornelia, Nia and Danielle

  35. Menge (we know you’re reading this) and many others!
  36. Taxi rides across town for under 50 cents
  37. Expecting to see the unexpected

    and that is how celery is transported to the market!

  38. Fabric fabric everywhere!
  39. JC’s chicken – rotisserie cooked & then deep-fried!
  40. 650ml beers – for $1
  41. Romantic mood lighting caused by low voltage
  42. The game of getting rid of torn money
  43. Reading inspirational (and otherwise) messages on back of taxis
  44. Honoré, Doudou, Dalita, Rose and Alfred
  45. Bougainvillea lining the streets in Bastos
  46. Critters (some more attractive than others)

    this guy knows how to blend in

  47.  Guys walking around with shoes on their heads
  48. Waking up early (yes, it is Greg saying this!)
  49. The train ride to Ngaoundéré
  50. Looking forward to going home

tales from the northwest

•August 8, 2011 • 1 Comment

Might as well be the wild west the way things are going.

OK that’s an outright and blatant exaggeration.  The work we have been doing for a week and a half has been going well.  Greg’s even calling this almost like a vacation because even though we have worked nearly every day since arriving in Bamenda, the pace and intensity of the work has been very different.

The entire month of July we were running ragged getting back in the swing of things in Yaoundé.  There was a full week of “Program Planning Process” to develop a new strategy for VSO’s work in Cameroon.  Then Greg was on the writing team for the PPP proposal, while I was on the “meeting the other NGOs” team checking to see if there were potential partnerships to accompany this proposal.  Finally we had to catch up on the work we hadn’t been doing.  I had to write a post-mortem on the less than stellar ending of my local-partner placement (don’t ask).  And then we had to plan for the 2 photovoice projects we are currently running in the NorthWest.

All of this to say that it’s been crazy and most of what we were doing would have made for very boring (over)work blogs.   Although we’ll be very happy to share some of the amazing photos and stories of the 2 photovoice projects we are now facilitating, a few random things have taken place which, hopefully, will amuse a few of you enough to forgive the long blog absence.

Here are three of the latest tales from beneath the mosquito net:

Where’s the beef?

Riding in a taxi cab last Tuesday, we came up behind a very laden yellow taxi ahead of us.  Nothing unusual with that.  Except of course that the taxi cab was full… of cow parts!!! Sticking out of the trunk was, at least, two cow heads with horns, a couple legs and what appeared to be enough meat to feed a small village.

Bumpers of taxi cabs here are usually painted with a slogan or prayer.  In this case it was: “Not what you think”.

Yeah… not sure what the people riding in the back seat were thinking either.

Then today, we were once again – by pure luck of course – riding in a taxi behind the cow-taxi.  This time it was a little less loaded… only the cow stomach was hanging out of the trunk!

Our love-hate relationship with power outages and floods

Some weeks ago, back in Yaoundé, we were lazing around (yeah right!) when, as often happens, a large thunderstorm came through and knocked out the power.  It was dusk at the time, and so we didn’t need candles.

However, within seconds the sheets of rain became too much for the still unfinished roof of our apartment complex and rain started to pour in.  The water started to pour into the hallway, then into our apartment – flooding the entrance, the kitchen and the pantry.  Without any light to see how successful our mopping efforts were (not a good time for the headlamps to be out of juice!), we did the best we could.

So we thought that would be enough for our “power-flood” adventure in Cameroon.  Until 2 nights ago.

A friend let us know that the next day would be a region-wide power cut.  The power company had announced that it would be from 7am to 5pm.  Great, we thought, no problem.

Only, of course, it wasn’t to happen that way.  Sometime between 1am and 2am, the power disappeared and we were left in total darkness.  Not a problem in the middle of the night really… until…

Yup, you guessed it… the flood!  This time it wasn’t rain but an overflowing toilet in the guest room next to ours.  Our friend Aysha, also in the NorthWest working on the photovoice projects, woke up around 6am (still in pitch dark) and had a rude awakening when setting her feet down in over an inch of water and raised the alarm.  The flood had cascades along the tiled floors from the toilet in question, out in the hallway and into our two other rooms.  The rooms are quite small and we had (which we will not do again!) placed much of our photovoice equipment on the floor, plus our own computers and cameras.

None of our equipment was damaged – except for one of the project’s participant notebooks which are still attempting to dry out.

Sh*t happens, but in this case we were a little extra annoyed.  The occupant of the room where the flood emanated from – a worker of a well-known development agency – had not only noticed the problem at least an hour earlier but said nothing.  When the three of us awoke to the consequences of his silence, he made a speedy escape… driving away in his big NGO SUV before the sun even made an appearance.

We spent the rest of the day – without power while drying out the casualties – taking a rest from a rather eventful early morning rude wake-up call!

Forgive me all Buddhists

After the events of the previous early morning, I thought I would sleep like the dead.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case.  I had only experienced a few “saut-de-crapaud” for most of the night.  Sometime around 5am, I’d manage to curl up in a little ball and was starting to feel some proper zzzz.

All of the sudden I felt something run across my arm. I bolted upright, screamed and shook Greg up while going into undignified hysterics.  With the light switch on the other side of the room – I grabbed the little “buddy light” and scanned the perimeter where my arm and face had been.

You’d think that sleeping beneath a mosquito net would be a safe haven, but that’s a bold faced lie.  Whatever it was (we think a very large spider), Greg bashed the thing with great force (the kind used in the middle of the night when you’re not entirely awake). Then my knight in sleepy-shining armor carted away the humongous (only slight exaggeration) carcass.  After an appropriate amount of time, with significant coaxing by my hero and all bundled back up on the opposite side of the bed, I managed about an hour of sleep.

When I made the bed in the morning, I found two LARGE legs of the obviously dismembered nightly visitor lying on what had been my sleeping spot.

Still grossed out.

midnight over africa

•July 11, 2011 • 2 Comments

It’s been nearly two weeks since we returned from Uganda and our vacation/work with Villages Connected (more on that coming up!).  It’s been incredibly busy.

1)    We had to unpack and get in the groove

2)    Another Canada Day at the High Commissioner’s Residence (such a great time, good food and even better company)

3)    Getting back to playing some tennis

4)    Saying goodbye to Catherine – our AWESOME friend who we arrived with us on Halloween in 2009!!!! The end of the three musketeers… sniff sniff

5)    Work, work, work, work and then some more work (yeah, what else is new?)

But somehow in the middle of all this upheaval… a glorious thing happened!  Another quilt top was completed…

Midnight over Africa

a close up - gotta love all that blue!

It was a case of the blues.  An over abundance of blue scraps that is.  Over a year ago, Greg and I got matching outfits made out of this gorgeous dark blue batik.  When the seamstress finished my dress, skirt and Greg’s shirt (matching outfits for couples are the rage here!), she gave me a large bag of fabric for quilting to support my quilting obsession.  More blues were donated by another volunteer in the Far North – Maxime – who had curtains to match!

I would have done something with contrasts or added some splash of colour, but decided against it.  Since the quilt was born out of a fondness of blues, I was going to stick to it.

I found a pattern online which was called “pinch a penny” by Larene Smith.  I had to amend it somewhat on account of the randomness of my scrap stash.  I started cutting up the pieces, using up as much of the scraps as I could.  Then on a random trip to the big fabric shop with Mischa, another volunteer, I noticed the bluest of all blue pagnes.  I just knew it was the missing piece to the quilt.

Though I started working on this after finishing the last one in February, it wasn’t until this past Sunday – having woken up to early, sick with another silly cold, watching a nice movie on my laptop – that I put the final stitch in the quilt top.

Midnight in Africa

I brought the quilt to the office this morning and asked two of the tallest (and most accommodating!) staff members to hold it up so we could get a picture.  Neither Menge nor Silvestre quite understood my fascination with hand-sewing little bits of fabric together. Granted it’s a little weird if you explain it that way. They didn’t understand why Canadians would pay big bucks for hand-quilted bedspreads either.   But they were good sports about my little request.  Thanks guys!

And as it gets closer to midnight (yeah, yeah, poetic ain’t it), it’s time to switch to a new project.  My 500 meter spool of blue thread is almost out, so I’m onto a different colour scheme.  And a less busy schedule!

our week in pictures

•June 12, 2011 • 3 Comments

*Note:  “Beneath the Mosquito Net” is temporarily reporting from Fort Portal, Uganda as volunteer trainers and film crew for Villages Connected.

It’s been a very busy week out this way.  But since it was so full of photo opportunities, we figured we should just share these instead…

behind scenes at the market - where the women cook dozens of pots of yummy food

who wouldn't want to chow down at this lady's eatery?

on the road to Kyhnyawara

too cute for words...

the dancers' instruments

a lady from the women's cooperative demonstrates intricate beadwork on the handle of a fly swatter

Caroline as a prop - showing that taking pictures from above may, er, be somewhat distorting

getting to the market with 7 regimes of bananas - a regular occurence on the roads around Fort Portal

a breathtaking vista from the outskirts of town

landed, launched and linked up

•June 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

*Note:  “Beneath the Mosquito Net” is temporarily reporting from Fort Portal, Uganda as volunteer trainers and film crew for Villages Connected.

We landed in Uganda to a different kind of culture shock.

That’s the culture shock that comes from realizing we’re not in Cameroon anymore – everything is the same, but then nothing is the same.  It’s a new foreign.  A new adventure in a new land that fails to compare to anything else we know in Africa, in how we work, in how we experience life.  Plus, it comes with a twist:  we get to share it with the Villages Connected team!

When we linked up to de Villiers – friend and founder of Villages Connected – it was immeasurably exciting.  For one, he was the first person from our “former” lives that we have seen in over 18 months. And secondly, there was no longer any shred of doubt this project was going forward – so much time spent in Canada dreaming, planning and marketing the VC media coop concept – now it was made truly real!

Isaac and Greg chewing half a pack of gum - hoping the Villages Connected sign will stick to the vehicle long enough for the drive-by shoot!

Together with Ernie – the man behind the camera – and Isaac – the man behind the wheel – we loaded up the official VC vehicle in Kampala and headed to Fort Portal, arriving just in time to hook up with the media coop participants for a quick meet and greet.  The official start, of course, wasn’t until the next day, but it was great to connect first.  They had lots of questions for us – and we for them.

The official launch of the training was no different.

Greg showing the co-op members a sample of what photovoice looks like

The participants were eager to learn, eager to get started, and eager to see the results.  It was almost as if we were holding them back by going through the elements of VC: participatory media, community filming, microfinance and participatory advertising.  But we weren’t. We were simply putting names and concepts before them that they will experience for themselves over the next four weeks.

And a charged-up four weeks this is going to be!

Time it took to receive a Rotaract invitation: 48 hours. Time it took to feel right at home: 0 seconds.

Besides the Villages Connected work, we also have to learn to operate in a different culture.  So far, we’re blown over by the friendliness of the people we have met.  We are floored by people’s eagerness to know how we like their country.  We are simply spellbound by the beauty of the region.

an over-abundance of bananas - what's not to love?

Too many sights, sounds and tastes to discover and precious little time to experience it all as we do our part to get Villages Connected Fort Portal get off the ground.

just one of the many colourful - and interesting - sights in Fort Portal

One has to wonder…will four weeks be enough for both work and play???