Archive for June, 2014

The view from Cameroon: Sevastopol graduate writes about her work in Peace Corps

June 19th, 2014 by bobebill

PCV bilde
Sevastopol High School grad Clare MacMillen, right, with her friend Rose on Cameroon’s Independence Day.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Clare MacMillen is a 2009 graduate of Sevastopol High School who graduated in 2013 from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She entered the U.S. Peace Corps after graduating from college and has provided these insights into her everyday life in a little town called Pitoa.

Dusk is my favorite time of day in Pitoa, North Cameroon. The oppressive heat of the afternoon is shooed away by the evening breeze, neighbors greet one another as they return home from the onion and sorghum fields, and the steadily darkening sky is punctuated by the flickering lights of cooking fires.

This is the time of day when I feel the most relaxed and comfortable in my new community — less like a foreigner and Peace Corps Volunteer and more like a friend, neighbor, and peer. As I walk along the dusty road to my compound, I pause and greet the elderly men who rest beneath the lengthening shade of the neem trees. “Allah hoku djam.” “God give you strength.”

Although I do not know much of the local Fufulde language, they are quick to cheer my efforts. With my greeting they shift their flowing blue-and-white robes and make space for me on the plastic mat where they lounge, drink tea and gossip. Together we sit and watch people pass by.

Women clad in bright pagne carry their market purchases while their children laugh and play in tow. Young men linger at the local boutique and listen to the latest song from the Nigerian pop music group P-Square on their cellphones. Marauding goats scour the ground for a bit of greenery or dropped corn kernel. Gradually the men leave for home or for evening prayer at the mosque and I, too, say my goodbyes. “Djam wala sobajo am, sey jango.” “Sleep well, my friend, see you tomorrow.”

When I applied for the United States Peace Corps in my final semester of college, I could not imagine chatting amiably with wizened men in a second, let alone third language on the edge of the Sahel Desert. In fact, I could not predict much about my upcoming 27 months of service.

Established in 1960 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps is an organization that sends American citizens from diverse backgrounds to provide technical assistance to interested countries, teach volunteers about the cultures of other countries, and share American culture. These ideals resonated with me as a liberal arts student with an itch to travel and desire to work rather than vacation in another country, and in September 2013 I landed in my host country.

Cameroon is a small West African nation of only 21 million people. Despite its size, the country is diverse environmentally, culturally, linguistically and ethnically. The 10 regions include littoral forests, humid forests, marshes, aquatic systems and arid savannahs. The three regions that make up the Grand North are heavily influenced by the Muslim religion, while the Grand South is predominantly Christian.

Another level of diversity is the sheer number of languages spoken across the country. Officially Cameroon is bilingual. Two regions speak English while the other eight are Francophone. However, these languages are most widely spoken in official capacities while everyday conversations are spoken in one of hundreds of local patois. During my first 10 weeks in Cameroon, I learned this introductory information about Cameroon as well as practiced my French and navigated cultural differences with my host family. Then in November I was assigned to my village and home for the next two years: Pitoa.

Seven months later I have run the gamut of emotions: intrigued, surprised, fascinated, frustrated, bemused, enamored and exhausted. My first three months of service here were dedicated to integrating with my community and assessing the environmental needs of my fellow community members and work partners.

Each day I ventured outside my compound with my work partner/translator/cultural liaison/person-who-shows-me-where-to-buy-vegetables, Sadou, to meet local officials, professionals involved in agriculture or forestry, and motivated people in the community.

Compared to my structured work days in the United States, I initially felt lazy and my “work” seemed stagnant. How could I have spent three hours eating gumbo and shelling peanuts when I should be teaching people about planting trees? What do I do when I think a community garden would be a fantastic idea but people seem uninterested? In fact, what in the world am I doing here?

I now realize that questions like these are natural and are exactly why Peace Corps is a unique experience and provides invaluable experience in international development. Development is long, slow, and challenging. Too often foreign organizations enter a developing country with the intention of helping the nation improve its infrastructure and increase its standard of living but do not consider the cultural differences in the process.

True, learning how to speak, eat, sit, greet, dress, joke and avoid a barreling herd of cattle like the people of Pitoa does not resemble a typical American workday. However, investing in the integration process is how I showed and continue to prove how much I respect those with whom I work and live. More important, it is how I learn how Pitoans envision their improved community.

Since those painstaking changes in my mentality about development and my role as an agent of that change, my work has slowly taken shape here. I am also fortunate to have found incredible work partners, men and women who are motivated to try something new, invest some of their time and energy, and become strong local examples of the possibilities of education and innovation.

One of my main projects is with a women’s technical training center. The school provides education opportunities for young woman who lack school facilities in their small villages, dropped out early because of marriage or childbirth, or are considered too old for traditional high school.

One of our biggest accomplishments is the creation of a tree nursery with 400 trees, all of which will be planted on school grounds and at the local school for deaf and mute children. The women learned basic plant biology, nursery construction and maintenance, transplanting, and the economic possibilities of trees including selling the saplings themselves or transforming leaves, roots and bark into other products.

Each woman also received an instructions sheet, nursery bag and several seeds to bring to their homes in their different villages. As the rainy season approaches we will plant soy and talk about improved fallow practices and how to make tofu as well as create a comparison plot of corn looking at the productivity of seeds bought at a local market versus those adapted to the Sahel environment at Cameroon’s Agricultural Research Institute.

Other projects in the community include demonstrating improved cook stove construction, assisting with a high school environmental club, and helping other volunteers with projects that range from composting to education about malnutrition.

Each day here is varied and at the same time, each day is routine. Like anyone my life has developed a natural rhythm. I wake up to the cliched but blaring crow of a rooster, make tea for myself and milk for my 5-year-old neighbor Abdulazeez, sweep out the endless amounts of sand in my house, head to wherever my work requires me armed with sunscreen and a smile, swing by the market for vegetables for dinner, sip a cold orange soda with my friend Rose, prepare dinner, read, crawl into bed beneath my mosquito net, and repeat.

There are still little adventures, whether it’s dancing until midnight at a toddler’s birthday or trying to explain the Electoral College in French. Whether comfortably mundane or breathtakingly exciting these moments and the Cameroonians with whom I share them remind me why I joined the Peace Corps and why I love this strange, challenging and inspiring job.

And on the occasions I am struck by homesickness, I know that just around the corner there is a place on a mat for me and the kind words spoken there are words of friendship, no matter the language.

Written by
PCV Clare MacMillen
Special to the Advocate

Cameroon: Beautiful mountains and beaches, but not easy to get around

June 16th, 2014 by bobebill


June 15, 2014
The Record (

The highway cop leaned on the taxi’s window and studied the cards proving that my son and I had been vaccinated against yellow fever. He wasn’t happy.

“You got your yellow fever shot, but what about polio? Meningitis? You need those shots, too,” he said sternly.

That was the last question I expected to be asked when the cop pulled over the car as we headed to the beach in Cameroon. (Can you imagine a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike checking your medical history?) We weren’t sure about his motivations; was he looking for a bribe? But we argued that while we’d had all the recommended shots, Cameroon only required proof of the yellow fever vaccine.

After we went round in circles for a bit, my daughter, a Peace Corps volunteer living in Cameroon, defused the situation by simply saying, “My family is just here to see your beautiful country.”
If you go

“They think Cameroon is beautiful?” the cop asked, his tone softening, and he let us go on our way.

The encounter summed up a lot about our recent trip to Cameroon to visit my daughter. The West African nation offers beautiful mountains and beaches, as well as friendly people, but it’s not the easiest place to travel. Aside from unexpected traffic stops, it’s very hot under the near-equatorial sun, and it lacks a sophisticated tourist infrastructure. Water, electricity and paved roads? As in many developing nations, not always available.
Cameroon offers beautiful beaches like this one in Kribi.

But we were able to navigate it all with the help of an expert guide: my daughter.

I’ve always been the travel planner in our family, so it was a turning point for me to hand over control to a daughter who knew much better how to make her way around the country, whether she was haggling with cab drivers (forcefully, fearlessly and often in French) or demonstrating the importance of small talk in Cameroonian culture.
Cameroon offers beautiful beaches like this one in Kribi.

We spent time at the nation’s two most prominent Atlantic shore resorts — Limbe and Kribi — and both were lovely, with excellent, just-caught seafood. But the heart of our journey was the time we spent in my daughter’s new home, a midsize market town near Mount Kupe in the rainforest of the Southwest Region of Cameroon. My daughter’s friends and work partners overwhelmed us with their warmth and generosity, sharing their aspirations for the future.

Getting to her town was an adventure in itself. The paved road ends some distance away, so after getting out of the car we’d hired for the journey, we climbed onto the backs of moto-taxis (wearing helmets, as required by the Peace Corps) and rode 20 minutes uphill on a rutted, rocky dirt road into town.

Once there, we spent a fair amount of time “strolling and greeting” — walking around the town, meeting my daughter’s new friends and work partners. Cameroon is divided between French and English speakers, reflecting its split colonial past, but in her town, the language is pidgin English, with its own rhythms.

To ask, “How are you?” my daughter just said, “How?”

“No, fine,” was the usual answer. (The “no” means “no problems.”)

“How for work?”

“No, we are just managing like this.”

A restaurant chef invited us to her home for lunch and cooked a feast of white beans and plantains; my son said it was the most memorable meal he’d ever had. The grocer at the tiny kiosk where my daughter buys her daily provisions gave me a gift of eggs, which left me — as a middle-class American — deeply humbled.

Many people, especially women, seemed especially excited to honor my status as a mother: “This is the mommy? Welcome, Mommy, you are very welcome!” they would cry, air-kissing me on the cheeks three times.

We visited the agricultural projects my daughter is involved in — one to teach farmers how to grow mushrooms, another teaching how to grow the moringa tree, which is used for both medicine and food. We also visited a carpenter friend, who told us that his 2-year-old son will not work with wood but will become educated; and a couple who opened an orphanage after their own children grew up, and now care for 13 children — with no government aid.

My daughter’s house has running water only about 45 minutes a day, so we had to get up around 6:15 every morning to fill half a dozen buckets to wash ourselves, our clothes and the dishes, as well as flush toilets. I spent some time relaxing on her covered side porch, watching as schoolchildren with backpacks and men and women carrying wood, bananas or tree limbs on their heads walked past. A path nearby winds up the steep hill, past cocoa, coffee and palm plantations.

In Limbe, we stayed at a hotel that was a 20-minute cab ride outside town on a beach of chocolate-colored volcanic sand dotted by dramatic rock formations. We rode (mostly gentle) waves while looking up at Mount Cameroon, a volcanic mountain that is the tallest in sub-Saharan Africa. One morning on the beach, we watched half a dozen fishermen line up to pull their net to shore with the morning’s catch. My daughter’s Peace Corps friend jogged over to help them and was rewarded with a fish, which our hotel cooked for us that night. Like all the fresh fish we ate at the shore, it was sweet and full of flavor.

We visited the Limbe Botanical Garden, which was started in 1892 by German settlers in Cameroon and is still a research organization studying the region’s horticulture.

We also toured the Limbe Wildlife Center, which houses primates rescued from the wild — often babies whose mothers were killed for food.

We spent time watching a large colony of drills, which are closely related to mandrills, going about their day: mothers shielding their babies from nosy neighbors, juveniles roughhousing, individuals grooming one another. Drills are among Africa’s most endangered species. Nearby, in their own large enclosure, chimpanzees engaged in what sounded like a bar fight, with a lot of shrieking.

At Kribi, we stayed in a hotel right on a curving beach. The restaurant next door could have been at the Jersey Shore, with covered wooden decks overlooking the surf and a menu that included calzone and brick-oven pizza. We took a side trip to the nearby Lobe Falls, where fresh water tumbles over rocks into a saltwater cove.

Guides at the falls offer canoe rides upriver to a Pygmy village. Our guidebook, “The Rough Guide to West Africa,” dismissed the Pygmy village as phony, but we decided it was worth taking a chance; at the very least, we’d have a pleasant ride on the Lobe River. We struck a deal with a guide to take us the next day for $10 each, plus gifts for the villagers of salt, soap and rice, which we bought at tiny stalls near our hotel.

After a tranquil 45-minute ride up the beautiful river, we reached the village, which consisted of six or eight structures in a clearing near the riverbank. A total of about a dozen people were there; others, we were told, were hunting in the dense forest. We felt awkward, imagining how strange it would be to have tourists come into our living rooms to scrutinize our lives.

But my daughter — once again — was able to break through some of the strangeness of the situation and make a small connection. She sat down to play with some of the small children and asked our guide for the tribal words to say “thank you” and “your babies are beautiful,” coaxing smiles from the proud mothers.

GETTING THERE: A number of carriers, including Delta, Air France, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines offer flights to Douala or Yaounde, Cameroon’s two largest cities.

VISA: The Cameroon government requires a tourist visa, costing $120; The visa application must include proof of a yellow-fever vaccination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends vaccines or medications for polio, meningitis, typhoid, malaria and hepatitis A.


* Tsaben Beach Hotel, Limbe. Oceanview cottages start around $24 a night.

* Limbe Wildlife Centre:

* Arne’s Cafe at the wildlife center (my daughter said this is where backpackers would eat, if Cameroon had backpackers).


* Hotel Les Polygones, BP 97, Kribi. Oceanfront rooms start around $50 a night.

* Au Plaisir du Gout restaurant next door. Offers pizza, calzones, omelets, seafood.

GETTING AROUND: My daughter and her friends often take inexpensive minibuses in which the passengers are crammed onto the seats and their belongings stacked high on top. But we took larger, Greyhound-style buses and often hired taxis, at reasonable cost, for long drives. In Kribi, most taxis are moto-taxis, where you climb on the back of a motorbike. In Limbe and Douala, passengers often share taxis, with drivers squeezing four people into the back seat and two people into the front passenger seat. The person sitting between the passenger and the driver — basically on the gear console — is known as the petit chauffeur.
Email:; Twitter: @KathleenLynn3

– See more at: