Ode to the Road


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Reasons to Love the World

BBC Travel posted an article, 50 Reasons to #LoveTheWorld, saying that the news can be pretty depressing, making us want to stay home. They asked people to “share one experience from the last year that truly inspired them – something that, in no uncertain terms, reminded them why they love the world. Madly.”

Coming off a not so great week as a Peace Corps volunteer, I decided to do the same. Days here can be frustrating, but I have moments almost daily where I stop and am reminded of the beauty of this country and the world.

So here’s why I love the world —

Because when I let go of the work frustration I feel and just sit under the stars with my neighbors to escape the heat inside, I feel at home.

Because when I reached the summit of Mount Cameroon, the highest peak in Western and Central Africa, I felt so tiny compared to the vast volcano, but so powerful for having conquered its steep slopes.

At the summit of Mount Cameroon!

At the summit of Mount Cameroon!

Because when that elusive dry season thunderstorm rolls in to provide a short break from the stifling heat, the whole town breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Because as I sat in my apartment on the 19th anniversary of one of the worst days, wondering how I should feel or what I should be doing, my neighbor poked her head in to give me the first mango of mango season and I realized I should just feel what I feel. In that moment, it was pure happiness as I tore off the skin and let the juice roll down my chin.

Because as I floated with my dad and sister in the clear water of the Mediterranean after more than a year apart, I remembered how lucky I am to have the best family in the world.

Because when my favorite Besongabang mommy, who’s deaf, and I have a conversation – me speaking Pidgin so she can read my lips and her speaking Kenyung that I don’t understand, it always ends in fits of laughter that remind me that humans can connect, anywhere, anyhow.

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Because all arguments in Cameroon end in on est ensemble or “we are together” without any grudge being held. And that’s beautiful.

Because when I walk through the field to reach the primary school in Besongabang to teach water and sanitation classes, I’m met with chants of “Auntie Cary!!!” coming out of the classrooms, reminding me how unique my life is in this moment.

Water testing during water and sanitation classes with the primary school

Water testing during water and sanitation classes with the primary school

Because when my sister and 3 friends came to visit, all in the last year, my Cameroonian, Ecuadorian and American worlds all collided in a magical way.

Because when I float in the Atlantic waves off the black sand coast of Limbe and stare up at majestic Mount Cameroon rising out of the tropical flora in the distance, I remember that I am fortunate to be here.

What inspired you to love the world in the last year?


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Thanksgiving!

One of the hardest parts of living abroad for me is missing holidays. Knowing my family is all getting together without me makes me want to be home more than any of the other days I spend on the other side of the world. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays and it’s hard not to be nostalgic for family road trips to Iowa or Pennsylvania, my grandma’s apple pie, crisp weather and sweaters. I’m happy to say that this year despite not having any of that, I had a wonderful Thanksgiving in Cameroon.

The Mamfe cluster (the six nearest Peace Corps volunteers) and I prepared a Thanksgiving feast for our friends and work partners. I made stuffing (from scratch!), honey glazed carrots and pumpkin bars. We substituted chicken for turkey and had green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy. Past experience with preparing food for Cameroonians taught us to also prepare some Jellof Rice, a traditional Cameroonian dish.

Quddus eyeing my pumpkin bars

Quddus eyeing my pumpkin bars

Two of the other PCVs drafted a program including singing of the national anthems of everyone present, which turned out to include not only the Star Spangled Banner and the Cameroonian national anthem, but also those of Puerto Rico and Malaysia. We also went around the room sharing what we were thankful for, hearing from guests in French, Pidgin and English. My neighbor shared that she is thankful for me teaching her to make American dishes including onion rings and banana pancakes, which according to her she can now prepare better than me (debatable). We ended the program with the mandated prayer and then we all chopped fine chop!

Singing our mostly in tune rendition of the National Anthem

Singing our mostly in tune rendition of the National Anthem

My counterpart, Takor, sharing what he is thankful for

My counterpart, Takor, sharing what he is thankful for

My neighbor and friend, Margaret, enjoying her fine chop...notice she has mostly rice.

My neighbor and friend, Margaret, enjoying her fine chop…notice she has mostly rice.

It was perhaps my most active Thanksgiving. After finishing dinner, rather than slipping into the typical food coma, we had a big dance party! Boxed wine was flowing and there was no shortage of Nigerian pop music to be played. Our Thanksgiving ended up being a fun blend of American and Cameroonian party traditions.

Dance party!

Dance party!

Being away from home on Thanksgiving is difficult, but it’s also becoming one of my favorite holidays to share with friends from around the world. And now, I go chop Christmas for my own village. See you in 2 days, America!!


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Ebola.

The Ebola crisis is like a car wreck that I can’t tear my eyes away from. Every time I have had an internet connection for the past few months, I use it to search the news for updates on Ebola. Recently, my Google news search results for “Ebola” are turning up fewer and fewer articles about the thousands (and predicted possible millions) of cases in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, and more and more about the panic spreading throughout the US.

I think the reason I can’t get Ebola off my mind is because so many of the photos look like they could have been taken in Cameroon, from the familiar pagne fabric designs covering the bodies of those caught in a photographer’s frame to the colorful health murals and posters warning of malaria and HIV/AIDS. Descriptions of transport conditions sound like the reporter is writing from a bush taxi in Cameroon and peoples’ hesitations of going to the hospital are just like I’m having a chat with my neighbors.

Cameroon has been fortunate to have been spared from the Ebola crisis. We all had a moment of panic when our neighbors in Nigeria began being diagnosed, but thanks to careful isolation and treatment, it was contained and Nigeria was declared Ebola free on October 20. Cameroon shut down its borders during that time to avoid infections here, but that didn’t stop rumors from flying. It was a few weeks of uncertainty, especially as Peace Corps volunteers were removed from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

I have never been to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea, and I don’t like generalizations of assuming Africa is one big country or homogenous culture. Cameroon itself has so much diversity within its own borders that I can’t even begin to imagine what other countries on this continent are like. But I can imagine what it would be like if Ebola came here, and I know it would be disastrous. Between cultural practices and local conditions that would progress the spread of Ebola and poor conditions in healthcare facilities that are entirely under-equipped to handle a disease that requires isolation, the thought of Ebola arriving here is terrifying. If Ebola comes to any new countries, luckily they have lessons learned from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to help contain it more quickly. Cameroon is supposedly putting a plan in place and providing training to healthcare professionals. Many Cameroonians I have interacted with know about Ebola and how it’s spread and have a real fear of the disease arriving, something Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea couldn’t have until it was too late.

So it’s because of all this that it frustrates me that three cases of Ebola in the United States dominate news coverage, while the thousands in the three West African outbreak countries are left out of the news (unless its to discuss a travel ban). I can only hope that Ebola arriving in the US makes Americans aware of the fact that Ebola is not “their” (people of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia) problem, but the World’s problem. The people and cultures of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia have been reported on in some very infuriating ways. A great article in Vanity Fair traces the Ebola outbreak back to its origin in a rather culturally sensitive way and is a must read for anyone trying to understand how the outbreak got to this point.

These countries are in dire need of resources to stop the spread of Ebola, not to mention the rebuilding that will be necessary in the future. If you’re worried about the outbreak spreading to the US, your best bet is to stop the outbreak at its source. If you can, donate to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), who is on the ground working with limited equipment and personnel to stop the outbreak. It is possible to stop Ebola.

Before you worry next about how Ebola will affect you, educate yourself on the disease and the tragic impact it has had on Sierra Leone, Guinea and Libera and think about how you can make a positive impact in light of an awful situation.


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Holiday in Italy

I recently met my dad and sister in Italy and it was such a wonderful break. I didn’t even realize how relaxing those 10 days in Italy really were for me until my flight back to Cameroon when all my guards slowly started to come back up. I got to hug my dad for the first time in 15 months and have pillow talk with my sister as we fell asleep with bellies full of so many foods I have been missing. We swam in the freezing but crystal clear Mediterranean, which caused my dad to laugh louder than I maybe have ever heard him laugh (science tells us that more salt makes us float more easily). We hiked around the Cinque Terre villages working off all the pasta we consumed by climbing millions of stairs. I ate gelato twice a day for many days. My dad re-learned how to drive a manual car while on tiny busy streets in Pisa with mopeds zooming all around us. We went wine tasting and explored several small Tuscan towns. I took hot showers with water pressure (!) and wore clothes that came fresh from the dryer.

It was amazing.

I was worried about how I would feel coming back to Cameroon after such a fabulous vacation. It was hard to say goodbye to my dad and sister and I felt overly anxious on the airplane thinking of all the things that could go wrong with my taxi pickup in Yaounde. I arrived back to my apartment in Mamfe to mice and lizard families that took up residence there while I was gone and I hit my head so hard I probably had a concussion, so I had a day long pity party for myself. But my neighbors greeted me with screams of “CARYYYYYYYYYYYY” (or “KELLYYYYYYYYYYY” from my landlord) and told me they could see on my body how much I enjoyed myself. My 4-year-old best friend took a nap with me in my hammock. My market mama had zucchini, only the second time I’ve seen it in Mamfe. My favorite moto man called me to see if I was back. It’s the little things.

Since my return, work has been moving slow, but I’m trying to remind myself to be patient. I can’t decide if that is getting easier or harder the longer I’m here! My cooperative is in the midst of preparing for our Fairtrade audit as the cocoa buying season is starting. We are continuing with water testing and mapping and are preparing to build prototypes of improved cookstoves as part of the hygiene and sanitation project. I’ve taken up a new pastime of sewing bottlecaps covered in fabric together into potholders (or maybe coasters since metal conduct heat?) I’m still working on that one! My Peace Corps clustermates and I went on a hike and I’ve been trying some new cooking experiments. It took a day, but I’ve fallen pretty easily back into the slow pace of life here. I have a big chunk of time in Mamfe now until December when I leave to go home for the holidays so I’m looking forward to making progress on my various projects and hopefully updating this blog more frequently!


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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Recently, I had two of my most fulfilling and two of my most frustrating weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer.

My postmate and I ran a youth life skills summer camp to teach about HIV/AIDS and related skills including communication, decision-making and relationship skills. We used the Peace Corps Life Skills curriculum which is very participative and unlike traditional educational settings in Cameroon. In addition to a week of sessions with the youth, we painted an HIV/AIDS prevention mural and planned a youth talent show. We also trained a team of five facilitators, some of whom began planning this program with us back in February. It was a lot of fun to watch the facilitators come into their own as they moved from lecture style teaching to more interactive facilitating.

Youth participants performing a role play

Youth participants performing a role play

Mural Painting!

Mural Painting!

Getting people to show up to things that they’ve committed to can be a big challenge here, so although we had registered 60 youth to participate in the program, I was very nervous that not even a single student would show up the first day. We ended up having 34 youth receive certificates for completing the program and that is a HUGE success! The youth were very dynamic and it was amazing to see their growth is just two weeks. We had a community talent show that the youth put on at the end of the two weeks to present what they had learned. They shared information about HIV/AIDS, presented skits on communication and good decision-making, danced, and performed some amazing lip-synched songs. I think my favorite part was their beautiful arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.” The attendance at the talent show was lower than I had hoped for, but it was a really rainy day and in Cameroon, you don’t go anywhere in the rain…not even to watch your child perform in the talent show (and maybe not even to the talent show if you are a performer).

Besides the typical frustrations of people not showing up on time and spending four hours on printing a few sheets of paper (power cuts and low voltage), we had some challenges that I didn’t expect. First was with the idea of “motivation” or being paid to do something, but not officially being paid. I think this stems from the corruption that permeates deep into society here, but even a volunteer is expecting to receive “motivation.” This is a cultural difference so although we thought we had made it clear that our facilitators would be volunteering their time with the program in exchange for training and a certificate recognizing this, we didn’t realize the true meaning of “volunteer” here. It was disheartening to realize this and to think about the larger impacts it has on development potential in this country. And then I went on to think about if intrinsic motivation works in this country and then I just spun in circles into a deeper hole. Sometimes it’s best not to think too much.

The other challenge we faced happened to be with the local government who had so kindly donated the Town Hall for us to use free of charge for our project. We ended up having a scheduling conflict, which they didn’t notify us of until the night before the talent show after the youth had cleaned and decorated Town Hall for four hours on a Friday afternoon. This was unfortunate for the youth, made for some logistical difficulties and was disappointing for us to feel unsupported by local government.

Overall I was very happy with the way the project went and was impressed with our youth participants. However some of the challenges and their broader implications for development had me questioning if any of the work I do here will actually be effective. Then this morning, our Country Director sent out an email with a link to this article. It had a quote that really put things into perspective for me.

To be successful in life is to learn how to be effective in imperfect environments – your high school, college, workplace, religious institution, community. The imperfections of such environments do not excuse effort but engage it. As a Peace Corps volunteer, you are continuously confronted with unforeseen challenges and institutions that seem resistant to change. Either you give up and use these circumstances as an excuse, or you engage these challenges with revised strategies and continue to reinvent how you do your job.

The last week, I have been using these challenges as an excuse to hole up in my house rather than engage with the challenges facing me and Cameroon’s development. This article has inspired me to devise new strategies and approaches for my projects over the next year rather than shy away from the challenges and resistant institutions here.


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Conversations with Oliver

Recently, my landlord and his family moved from an apartment in the back of the building to the brand new dazzling apartment right next to mine. It has changed my daily life a lot, in a great way. I now feel more part of a family. His wife Margaret (in addition to making daily comments about my weight fluctuations since the last time she saw me 5 hours earlier) feeds me anytime I walk by her open kitchen door. The 4-year-old son, Kurdos, has been conditioned by Pavlov’s Law to yell “Cary!” and come running anytime he hears the distinct creak of my door. And Oliver, my landlord, can be entertained chatting with me for hours about random things. Topics of our most recent 2 hour conversation include: potatoes, pineapples, bribes, American vs Cameroonian educational systems, loans, laundry machines, gender roles and his son’s difficult dietary restrictions (this 4 year old has chosen to be a vegetarian in a country where no one is a vegetarian!).

Oliver’s response to everything I say is either “Hm?,” “Hm!” or “hahahahahah.”
When I tell him the cost of one year of a university education in the states – “Hm?”
When I exclaim that I’m not used to washing my clothes by hand and I prefer a machine – “Hm!”
When I say he should try cooking breakfast for his wife some day – “hahahahahah.”

I spend more time sitting on my front porch now, chatting with Margaret as she does her dishes or washes her hair in the front yard. Kurdos passes many hours trying on my helmet and telling me it’s heavy and then taking it off only to put it back on again. He also discovered how the tap on my water filter works, making me realize my apartment isn’t exactly child proof!

Margaret and Kurdos left this morning to go visit family for a couple weeks. I felt like I was being abandoned for a quick second when she told me they would be leaving. It’s funny how quickly we can adapt to new circumstances. Maybe it will be nice to have a couple weeks to myself without Kurdos tearing apart my apartment!

Kurdos likes to just hang out with a toothbrush in his mouth

Kurdos likes to just hang out with a toothbrush in his mouth


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Guest Post: Are you getting me?

Guest post by my sister, Molly!

Visiting Cameroon was amazing.

But mainly, Carybeth is amazing in Cameroon.

If one of Paraguay’s favorite national pastimes is sitting in silence and drinking tereré, a chilled traditional tea, then one of Cameroon´s favorite pastimes is arguing.

And I’m talking full on, voices raised, arms-a-swinging arguing. It might be a moto that cut you off, a pedestrian crossing in front of you, overcharging on the palm oil, whatever really.

Now you may think that Cameroonians would contain this tradition just within themselves and let visitors remain innocent bystanders…but that, my friends, is not the case. If there is one thing that CB will have mastered by the time she leaves Cameroon it will be sticking up for herself and she is fierce on the field!

Our little baby has never been known for her fighting skills…you might say she peaked at age 5 with her threat of ‘Do you want the claw? (extremely long finger nails) or ‘Do you know who I am?’ (no explanation available) But there is a new boss in town and her name is Cary…or Karen…or Kelly…or sistah…or….are you getting me? The name Cary is a very difficult one for Cameroonians to say.

I definitely heard her yell the following in a transportation related disagreement: ‘You fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me! You are bringing shame to me, making a fool of me, you are getting me?!’ (that´s the extended version of the proverb)

Transportation seemed to be the inspiration for all of our fights as people constantly wanted to charge us extra, make us pay to keep the car less crowded (Cameroonian vehicles do not travel until they are filled to the brim, a tiny car must have 3 across the front, 4 across the back to roll…children do not count as people/there are never any bus schedules because they will not leave the station until every seat is full) and then pick people up along the way, etc.

The awesome thing is that generally all fights end with a hand shake and the saying of ‘We are together.’ The particular proverb incident, which was part of a longer 3 hour ordeal, ended that way and CB said she saw that man last week and he was truly delighted to see her and asked how I was! Cameroonians don’t seem to hold grudges and if they do they never last for longer than 5 minutes.

In Cameroon’s defense most of our issues happened while we were traveling and with people who were seeing us for the first time. They’re not really to blame in a city like Limbe that has 2 foreign run oil rigs right off their coast and a slew of short term volunteers moving through and spending lots of money in the city– it creates expectations that are hard to break.

In CB’s town, Mamfe, people were awesome and generous and excited to show me Cameroon. People dashed us (gifted us) lots of food and juice (hibiscus juice–amazing!) We cooked with her neighbor, visited her football center, attended her women’s group meeting and sang and dance, did a Malaria program in her market (where one woman said, ‘Cary why isn’t your sister speaking English?– Cameroonian Anglophones speak a very different sounding English, ‘Grammar English’ and lots of Pidgin), rode lots of motos and just had a wonderful time snuggling and talking after so much time apart.

We did some traveling where we saw hippos in the wild(!!! this one is a story for the campfire folks…or the bar), saw the largest thatched roof in the world at the palace of a chef, visited a modern art museum of the Cameroonian artist who designed Cameroon’s national football team’s jerseys, ate spaghetti omelets, and spent some awesome time at the beach.

I’m so proud of Carybeth and it was awesome to watch her in her now natural habitat feeling as comfortable as can be negotiating prices with her market lady, talking to a bunch of new people at the market about Malaria, not flinching as her power went out for the 15th time in one day, fighting for that last dime– on principle!, impressing people with her pidgin, and navigating us across the country with ease! I can´t wait til she can tell you all of her stories in person, but don’t start an argument with her…she will definitely win 🙂