Peace Corps volunteer finds Cameroon a long way from Colfax

March 6th, 2015 by bobebill

By: Sarah Edwards, for the Auburn Journal
March 5, 2015


“Ashia Mami, How for sleep?”
“No, fine. You want carry water?”
I awake early to the conversation of women passing by my window while searching for water. Under the shelter of my mosquito net, I prepare to start another day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the village of Misaje, Cameroon, West Africa.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I work both to provide technical training to the community, but also to share with Cameroonians about America and share with Americans about Cameroon. I have called this community of 3,500 home since November 2013, working as an agribusiness volunteer. While my technical projects are enhancing the community, I cannot deny that the most striking part of my time is the exposure to a whole new culture.
The best description of my community or even the country as whole is vibrant. Women dress in colorful patterned “wrappa,” pieces of fabric tied as skirts, their babies tied to their back in another colorful fabric. The school children’s uniforms of bright blue jump against the dusty background of the dry soccer fields. The landscape itself is a wash of color; the green of the farms and oil palms set against the red-brown colors of the local brick houses. Even the sounds here are vibrant. From my house I can hear one neighbor calling to another across the way, the grinding mill transforming corn into flour, baby goats bleating for their mothers, and an active debate among the teenagers on their way to school down the hard-packed earthen path.
Most days, on my way home from work, I stop to visit my neighbor Florence. Today, she has just finished cooking over the fire, as most people here do. In what I have come to see as typically Cameroonian generosity, she prepares me a plate and wouldn’t bear to let me refuse. The meal of choice here is fufu and njamajama — a loaf of hot corn flour (slightly similar to polenta) and huckleberry leaves cooked with red palm oil. My plate balanced on my knees as I sit on the bamboo stool, I use my fingers to break off a piece of the steaming fufu and use it to scoop up some njamajama. We sit and chat about her new grandson, the dry season climate and her difficulty to fetch water, farm preparations and my work plans.
She always makes a point to ask after my mother, who visited here in October. Family is central to everything here.
Saying my thanks and goodbyes, I enter my house, checking to make sure my solar lamp has been charging as I do so. There’s a rumor that the village will be connected to power in the next six months, but for the time being, we all are dependent upon candles, kerosene lamps and the power of the sun.
In the time since I’ve arrived in Cameroon, I have noticed that there appears to be an overarching narrative of West Africa in the news — one of sickness and death from Ebola, one of kidnappings and terror from the actions of Boko Haram, one of hunger and loss from oppressive poverty. From my time here, I am seeing a contrast to that story.
The side of Cameroon that I have come to know, my own corner of West Africa, is one of reliance and creativity. While danger and hunger are present here, people watch out for each other, preparing extra food to share with others if they can. They develop ways to work around the gaps in the system. Facing a lack of formal banking, they have created a strong system of savings and loan groups. When I ask friends and neighbors how they are doing, the prevalent response is that they are “just managing.” While conditions are not ideal, people are finding a way to work through it.
That’s not to say that this community couldn’t use some help. The biggest need in Misaje is better access to clean drinking water. Currently, local water taps flow inconsistently or shut off altogether, driving people to collect water from the stream and consequently sending rates of typhoid and dysentery through the roof. While the local government has made effort to expand the decrepit and overworked water system, their resources are scarce. In conjunction with some local community leaders, I have developed a project to rehabilitate and expand the local water catchment. In order to ensure long-lasting success, we will work to create a strong water management committee. The project is a part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program, where funds are requested from the public to complete the project, linking our home communities with our Peace Corps adoptive communities.
The project will only begin once the donations are all collected. A quarter of the project will be provided for by my community, in the form of labor and local materials.
Once everything is prepared, the town crier will alert the community to gather and begin the work to remove the dysfunctional water catchment channels and dig them to collect more water. From there, we will build a larger catchment tank that will filter and treat the water, sending it to the town in a safe drinking form.
When the project is successfully completed, Misaje should have enough clean water for the whole population with room for expansion. This will reduce the rates of water-borne diseases and free up time that people currently have to spend looking for sources of water.
My neighbor, Florence, will no longer need to wake up so early to find water for her family before she goes to the farm to work. The project will help to improve the quality of life in Misaje and will forever create a link between the community here and the community back home.
Sarah Edwards is a Colfax native currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon.

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