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Harvest Appeal 2010
This year's Harvest appeal will be to support the work of Hazel Durbridge. Hazel is a VSO Volunteer working in Cameroon.
Hazel writes passionately from the heart. Here are her first two letters.
A Thank You From Cameroon - Monday 31st May 2010
First of all I would like to say thank you very much for considering to part sponsor me. It was actually really exciting to hear that a church near Luton was going to take an especial interest in what I am doing with VSO. Although I was born In Yorkshire I came to Luton about 28 years ago shortly after university when I had my first teaching job and was looking for somewhere to buy. I have lived in South Luton ever since, was married at the parish church and had my 3 children in the L&D. I also have a soft spot for Lilley as I have kept a horse in the village for 14 years and know many people there. I taught in secondary schools for about 10 years and then on the back of fostering teenage boys and young mums I got in to community development work and gradually over the years that became more and more economic development and project and programme management. I worked for the Childrenís Society on Marsh Farm, two district councils in Bedfordshire and a lot of programme management contract work in deprived housing estates in Tower Hamlets and Islington.
This broad range of experience is perfect for VSO. I didnít choose Cameroon. I made a decision I would go wherever I was sent, although I did say I would prefer somewhere hot. I didnít think then about how hot Ďhotí could be. My role in the extreme north of Cameroon is to work as an Institutional Development advisor for Bogo commune which is a small town about 30 km east of Maroua which is the largest city in the province. The task I am given is comparable to a consultant being called in by the political leader of the council to advise the Chief Executive on how to run the council better and if you thought about that situation in England not everyone would welcome you with open arms and itís the same situation here. I totally buy in to what VSO are trying to achieve in the participation and governance programme because if you can get the infrastructure of government to run better any money then flowing through is more likely to end up in the right place.
Cameroon is supposed to be one of the top 5 most corrupt countries in the world. I canít say Iíve seen absolute examples of corruption yet Ė itís hinted at. What does happen is that the council doesnít get the money from the government (les centimes additional) on a regular basis so quite often there isnít money to pay salaries. That sort of puts a different perspective on things.
People become volunteers for all sorts of reasons. I have a social conscience, but I donít think Iím going to change the world. I wanted an adventure before I became too old to enjoy it. I was 51 two weeks after coming out here. I have now been here 3 months. I thought the VSO training was good, but it still didnít prepare me for the reality and the very deep culture shock I experienced the first few weeks I was here.
First of all, itís the distances you have to travel and the time it takes because the roads, the vehicles and the general transport infrastructure is so appalling. From the capital in the south it took 16 hours by train then another 12 hours to get to the nearest town by bus, then Bogo is another hour. I remember thinking this wasnít a place I could run away from easily.
Secondly, Bogo has no waste disposal so the streets are covered in a layer of plastic bags and other detritus that is non edible as the wandering horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs eat anything remotely edible. They need a no plastic bags campaign, but after a few weeks you realize that that is the least of their problems.
In the far north of Cameroon there are two distinct groupings, tall, angular, ascetic, almost Arabic looking Africans that probably originate from nomadic tribes travelled south and then stockier, very black, muscular Africans. They are all strong because of the level of manual labour, the majority have wonderful teeth and in repose their faces look quite stern and scary. Because they have to wait ages for everything they have a capacity to sit absolutely still. This calmness copes with getting stuffed 20+ into a mini bus that seats only 12. Some of them are also so thin that male and female alike they have the bodies of a British 12 year old. You canít get quite so moral about bony underfed cattle and horses when a good percentage of the human population have bones that jut out in an equal extreme. I donít know if this is malnutrition. There is not famine here, but people are poor. The housing is grim, even the housing of quite rich people. Only nassaras (their term for white people) get to cook using gas, you donít get in country training on how to manage without running water, everyone has the same kind of basic bed frame (if you have one), table, chairs, bookcase. All of mine broke the first week because I must be 4 times heavier than most people here. In the first 2 months I lost 10 kilos and I havenít been sick yet. Most of it is sweated out, the rest is because there isnít that much choice of what to eat and the intense heat (it hasnít shifted out of the 40s degrees centigrade since Iíve been here and once went over 50 when I thought I couldnít breathe) diminishes appetite.
All of the volunteers are stick thin and talk endlessly and with some pride about how many times they have had malaria and typhoid, amoebes (I hadnít even heard of them till I got here) and itís compounded by the fact that when people get seriously sick they leave it and leave it until they are delirious before they go to hospital, because we all get the hospital tour the first week and it is scarily awful. However, one thing they know about here and are really good at treating is malaria and amoebes so people actually get well and come out again.
There is a 65 year old volunteer here who I came with called Mavis who has done 7 VSO placements and I have asked her if the extreme north is more difficult than other placements and she says she thinks yes, but she is not sure how much of that is compounded by her ever advancing age. Cameroon VSO staff describe the extreme north as Ďchallengingí. I remember one volunteer saying to me a bit scathingly when I emailed about conditions Ė if it was easy they wouldnít call it a developing country.
There isnít much in the way of external resources here to rejuvenate yourself, but I do love certain things. I have never in my life enjoyed drinking ice cold water so much. This is particularly special when electricity can go off for days and then drinking water is hot.
There are moments when the joie de vivre of this place is infectious. What makes my heart sing every time is generally in the public transport that breaks every health and safety rule imaginable.
Last Tuesday I went to a neighbouring village to see a Dutch guy and his wife who are doing exactly the same work as me. It was an amazing day and I travelled back in a dodgy old bus that had about 40 of us crammed inside and on the roof plus chickens and goats. At these times I see the best of Africans with their kindnesses, story telling and such film star smiles Ė Cheryl Cole eat your heart out to see their real perfect teeth. Finally the unexploited is stunningly beautiful.
While we may only get a living allowance, if all you eat is tomatoes, cucumber and mangoes you save, and we use the extra to be a tourist. This month I went to Rhumsiki which was 2 bone shattering hours on an unpaved road there and back on the back of a motor bike, but at the end some government sponsored hotel where you are the only occupants of the glorious swimming pool other than stork like birds and swallows dipping in and flashing their blue underbellies.
Rowena and I (who is one of four 65 year old volunteer Trojans here) went and had our fortunes told by the crab sorcerer and went on a couple of guided tours. Andre Gide described this place as one of the most beautiful in the world. Itís close to the Nigerian border and awash with cheap Nigerian whiskey and the local beer brew of bil-bil. It is also an animist area which is predominantly pagan rather than Muslim or Christian.
My other trip was to Boubandjida national park and the journey was epic. First of all, we had a five hour journey in the bus to Garoua, and an accident en route where a double lorry that did not even have a windscreen swayed across the road and sliced off the back right section of the bus when we were overtaking. Luckily no one was hurt and the drivers are generally very careful with their atrocious vehicles. We stayed the night in the boiling hot catholic mission. If I canít sleep outside and there is no through breeze I wake up in a pool of sweat unable to breathe. The next day we got a 4X4 and drove for 6 hours, only one hour on paved roads with the roads steadily worsening to vertical inclines into and out of dry river beds. Finally, having been the only vehicle on the road for the last 3 hours we got to this magical encampment on a dry river bed, no swimming pool or air con, but a beautiful, romantic setting surrounded by flowers and birds and where you could sit and have a cold beer.
During that afternoon and the next morning we were taken by a guide and sometimes on foot and saw lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, about 6 types of antelope, baboons, monkeys and wart hogs. You donít see the large groups because the vegetation is so lush and they fade into the landscape, but what you do get to see is fat, happy looking animals in an astonishingly beautiful setting and you are an elite.
There were 2 other French people in the park who were filming for an ONG. The park shuts in June until December because the rains will make the paths impassable. Next time I will write in more detail about the work, but it has taken me 3 months to get started.
Nobody speaks to you until formal introductions are made and nobody does anything promptly here. I have also had the added challenge that the language of work here is French. I got a grade A at A level 33 years ago. Most of the volunteers here are bi-lingual from the French speaking part of Canada. Local people who are not educated speak Fulfulde so I am trying to get to grips with two languages.
Please let me know if there is anything you especially want to hear about. I have been told to write a minimum of 4 reports, but actually I write a lot all the time and can cut and paste under headings for displays if you tell me specifically what you want to know e.g. family life, faith etc. I donít mind what you put in your parish magazine. I wonít write anything I think should be private. I didnít bring a camera. People here react badly to being photographed, but I use my mobile phone camera sometimes and have some pictures although I havenít downloaded them yet. I expect you want one of me, where I live, work, Bogo Ė let me know and Iíll make sure I get them to you mid June. I am very impressed with all the fund raising work you do and will do anything I can to help.
My very best wishes
Cameroon - The Work
This month I wanted to talk about work, because I finally feel, after 3 months, that I am beginning to see a little under the skin of this place and how complex the issues are.
I now have my national volunteer. This is a Cameroonian person who works alongside each VSO volunteer and is supposed to translate from French into Fulfulde and prevent us from making the worst cultural gaffes. Harire wasnít my first choice, but I was outvoted by the other 3 on the panel.
My concerns are that she has immediately allowed herself to be sucked into the commune politics, but to be fair any person of Ďlowerí status would be. Amadou, the Secretaire General (SG) is forever calling her into the office and asking her questions rather than speaking to me. Secondly she struggles with my French. Some people struggle with my French, others donít and Iím never quite certain whether it is an issue of will, listening or intellect, but having to repeat yourself over and over again is very tiring.
Finally, I am beginning to realize that I have adjusted well to the heat. I have more energy to work through it than she has or maybe itís about will. The other day she fell asleep! On the positive side I have begun to get more access through her to the women who never leave their concessions (compounds).
On the surface Bogo is a predominantly Muslim, sleepy town (90,000) with 2 bars that sell bottled beer and one that sells bil-bil in the Christian area. There are tiny little shops that sell no more than a small market stall, no cafes, restaurants, hotels Ė one place that sells barbeque meat and a Nigerian guy who cooks spaghetti omelettes in the evening. There is a market every Thursday which is the day everyone buys their food.
I have been told by a number of people, but I donít know whether this is 100% true yet, that all the women who sell at that market are either divorced or prostitutes or both. This includes a large number of very pretty, very young women. Prostitution is rife amongst young girls and older married women except among the latter age it barely seems to carry any stigma at all. Itís a cultural thing that they do it for extra money. Amongst the young it is explained away as poverty, bad education (but most girls donít go to school so no education really) or poor parenting. All of these women are covered from head to foot, but only a few cover their faces.
In the meantime among the young men who have no jobs (itís not uncommon for a person never to have worked since leaving school and be in their mid thirties) itís a life of dossing about, popping pills and smoking marijuana from Nigeria. Because socially there is nothing to do everyone has lots and lots of sex from about 12 onwards.
Having had Muslim/Christian morality rammed down my throat in training and starting off being paranoid about showing too much leg and having a beer in the bar I now wear pretty much what I want (Harire is forever pulling my skirts down over my knees on the moto) and donít feel remotely guilty going in the bar for an odd beer and talking to the men there.
I realize I am not liberal about sex at all, but that I have very strong feelings about love and relationships that are totally alien to how people think here. I am certainly not going to be preached at by any Bogo-ite about morality when I think they show such an appalling lack of concern about the future for their young. To be fair, nobody has preached to me at all. I get treated with great respect and affection by the average person on the street.
Because there are 4 nasarras in Bogo and they think all white people look alike and canít differentiate features, it has taken them a few months to realize I am about 20 years older than the other 3 and they now call me mama nasarra. In many respects, other than pecking order on the buses about who gets to sit on the front seat, I get treated like an honorary male.
The other day I was working with a woman in her home who is about 30, speaks very good French and has 2 teenage girls. She does my workshop catering and by African standards is quite wealthy and her girls go to school. The complexities of catering for 70 people became apparent as she herself canít leave the compound and has to send either young children or men out to buy the food. It is not even a nice compound. They donít do gardens or flowers here. There is no green, just cramped togetherness.
When we left I said to Harire, Ďhow can she give her girls a vision or dreams for their future when she never leaves that space?í ĎVision? Espoir (hope)?í Harire scoffed. ĎWhat do they need with vision and hope? Those girls will marry at 14 and stay in the compound just like their motherí. Such a thought depresses me, but what I need to accept and understand is that many many women here just accept it with no desire to question. So all my American self development theories of having the vision and planning towards it in incremental steps that has worked pretty well for me (with allowances for the fact that those in your plans may have their own Ďvolonte (will)í that doesnít, unfortunately coincide with yours), is just irrelevant here. When Bogo-ites start on Ďcíest la pauvreteí (itís poverty) I think no it isnít, Ďcíest la volonteí, but the truth isnít as simple as that.
I have long conversations on these issues with my French/Fulfulde teacher Jean-Poste such as whether they should start a programme about family planning so that people have less children and may then be able to afford to educate them, but he is Catholic with 5 children and both the Catholic and Muslim faith donít do contraception.
There are concerned people who have tried to run small business workshops for the young female prostitutes on the market, but pretty much as people complain of young unmarried mums in England, they would rather hang out with their babies and mates chatting. How does someone in my role make a positive intervention?
Going back to my role in the council, which I liken to the political leader bringing a consultant in and telling the chief executive he/she is going to help him run the council better. In England the senior management team would not all be positive in their response and it is the same here. They all get horse whipped into coming to the meetings by the Premier Adjoint who has Ďla pouvoirí (power), but the moment his back is turned they absent themselves, mock my French, speak in front of me in Fulfulde which at the moment I have little chance of understanding, or generally ignore me.
I have little windows of opportunity where their interest is captured in spite of themselves. This job would be hard if I was fluent in French, finding the words to challenge them because they all consider themselves to be doing a perfect job, but it is much harder to do it in a language I havenít spoken regularly for 33 years.
Outside of that setting I am supposed to model female career potential and preach safe sex. I sometimes think, do people really want us here, but the truth is they do. Ordinary people have such faith we will help them itís very moving. I do other things. I run BAC English revision classes for a handful of motivated, young intellectuals who think that Bogo will improve if the price of millet remains stable and the road to Maroua gets tarmac Ė I prompted them with Bogo having a swimming pool which they all fell about laughing at.
I am looking in to the potential of starting little land rental co-operatives for some of these young men who canít get jobs. I pick peopleís brains about the culture constantly and ruminate on their answers endlessly.
A teacher in the bar said to me that it was essential that these women who never leave their compounds meet someone like me. When I write monthly there may seem to be a measure of calm in the analysis. The process is not calm. Itís lonely and thankless at times and I rage about stuff Ė mainly the stuff that gets to me emotionally. There is a German hotel owner in Maroua who has been here about 30 years. He came over to West Africa driving cars across the Sahara and flushed with youthful indestructibility bought the hotel and married a Cameroonian woman. He says he never integrated. Couldnít stand all the superstition and cultural hocus pocus, European culture has moved on etc etc. Yet on the other side he is fiercely defensive against many volunteersí need to put the African way of doing things within a European context of understanding. ĎItís just the way things are here Hazelí he says to me. ĎMany people donít feel the need to changeí. When I think I canít possibly integrate into this culture and will remain emotionally on the outside for 2 years I think, Ďletís go homeí and itís always the general public that pull me back.
The other day a little barefoot girl in a dusty dress and flies on her nostrils and in the corners of her eyes took my hand as I got off the bus and walked the 1200 or so yards back home with me chatting to me in Fulfulde as if I understood every word. I wouldnít remember her if I saw her again, but her gesture touched me deeply.
HakkiloÖhakkiloÖslowly, slowly. One final word about relationships Ė exclusivity is alien. I am not sure how much men and women talk intimately. They donít eat together, pray together, live in the same houses. Parents choose the partner the first time at 14 and these marriages may not last. After that women make their own choices and Iíve met women who are on 3rd or 4th husbands. They are phlegmatic about polygamy. Thereís humour and wit in there about their competition, but not outrage. Iíve seen men being very tender and gentle with their children and introduce me proudly to their young, beautiful wives and with obvious affection to their ageing wrinkly wives. They donít seem to get worked up about emotional stuff. Maybe itís just the endless unrelenting heat zaps that element of passion out of you.
I have a new house Ė a 2 bedroom, private house (owned by an absent Chadian) with a big walled compound, my own well with an electric pump and my own night guard who I can sack if he is creepy and I am going to get some chickens and maybe some sheep who have floppy spaniel ears here and are cute, and have an allotment and grow tomatoes, cabbages, cucumbers, melons and beans. I am extremely excited about this. I didnít ask for a bigger house, just a private one, but all the other places we saw were just so shockingly awful that this was the only possibility. I move later this week.
Click here to visit the News page for Hazel's latest letters.