Saturday, September 26, 2015

Deux Fetes

Last April Pastor Djidere Nguembe Nestor was elected regional bishop for our area (the East
Region).  Although he began his work this summer, his official installation was Sunday, September 20, 2015.  An installation is a huge celebration as well as the formal event during the Sunday liturgy.  (On a personal level, this event was significant since I have known Bishop Nestor since I came to live in Garoua Boulai a couple of years ago and he was Director of the Bible School.)  Here’s a picture of me in the new dress I bought for the two celebrations described here.

As you might imagine, lots of planning and work goes into organizing such a fete (celebration).  Relatives and supporters came from all over.  The national bishop was here to do the installing. 

One of the first big questions was where to hold the liturgy.  With a couple of thousand people expected, would they fit in the church?  The areas outside the church and by the Bible School were certainly large enough and also considered, but this is the end of the rainy season when the rains are frequent and often intense.  In the end, the church was filled with chairs – fancy and plastic – with the benches set up outside the door under tents.  In the end over 1,400 people attended!  Holding the service inside the church was a good choice as heavy rains came part way through the service.  Rain came sideways at times because of the wind and mist even those of us inside and not too close to the windows.  I am sure those outside got wet, but at least it wasn’t everyone and the service could continue.

The protocol committee set up seating and directed people to appropriate places which were marked with names on sticky notes.  When expecting so many people, it is important to use all available space.  I know, too, that being upfront is an honor.  And, though honor dictates that I sit on the side upfront, I have to say, it is not my preferred place to be.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to see much of anything.  Here my view once everyone was seated…  The sound system was set up (with one large speaker close to my seat) and worked pretty well.  (Unfortunately, the huge speakers and the system often generate a fair amount of distortion.  At least it wasn’t too loud.) 

The liturgy was standard with the addition of the installation.  The national bishop installed Bishop Nestor; then the regional bishop installed his assistant.  That part was much like I imagine it would be in the USA although in French, of course.  The outgoing bishop preached the sermon.  Then, time was added into the service for people to bring gifts to the new bishop and his assistant.  These people also greeted the newly installed officials.  (That took a significant amount of time!)  The service ended with various people making remarks.  (I don’t think we do that in the US, but I’m not sure…  I’m not usually present at bishops’ installations!)  The whole service lasted about three hours.

Dr. Solofo and Bishop Nestor

Lydie, Bishop's wife

Assistant Bishop and his wife
The celebration actually started the night before the liturgy.  People from out of town, of course, arrived the day before.  I don’t know where they were all housed, but know that the guest houses were full and I am sure members of the congregation hosted people.  Many people gathered at the bishop’s house – across the street from me.  Music and singing started at about 7 p.m.  They used the sound system – turned up very loud; it was at a comfortable listening level for me in my living room!  The celebration continued into the night.  At about 2:30 a.m. the rain started and the amplification ended.  I thought everyone would turn in for some sleep, but about 10 minutes later the a cappella singing started; fortunately for me, it wasn’t nearly as loud.  Celebrate!  (Yes, I got intermittent sleep – and it was quiet when I woke up at 6 a.m.) 

Now, imagine feeding all the guests after the liturgy.  Wow.  Women cooked over outdoor wood fires for hours and created a huge spread.  Invited guests, mostly from out of town, but including people
like me, ate at the EELC Social Center.  We could choose from lots of options:  beef, fish, chicken, boa constrictor, monkey, plantains, manioc, yams, pasta salad, tomato salad…  They had two buffet tables set up in two different rooms.  (One with china plates and one with plastic disposables – imagine all the clean-up required, too!)  Local guests were invited to the bishop’s house for sandwiches. (That is what was announced; I didn’t see what they served.)  A huge thank you to all the women who worked hard to feed the multitude.

Many participants left Sunday afternoon although some stayed until Monday.  We are still settling back into routines after all the excitement.

Fete des Moutons
Thursday, September 24 was Eid al-Adha, Arabic meaning Festival of Sacrifice. This Muslim holiday commemorates when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son – and at the last minute God came to him and said not to kill him as the sacrifice was already accepted.  Tradition says that the food is to be divided in thirds for family, relatives/friends/neighbors, and the poor/needy.  Here in Cameroon, it is often called the festival of the sheep because many people share this meat for their celebration.  In GB there is a religious celebration outside of town and lots of celebrations with family and friends.  This holiday also marks the end of the traditional time to make a hajj – a trip to Mecca and Medina which is required of all Muslims who are able.

The “Fete des Moutons” is a national holiday in Cameroon so most stores, schools, and government offices are closed.

This year, for the first time, I was invited to share a meal with some Muslim friends.  Sani invited me and arranged for his friend to pick me up in his car.  (He doesn’t live too far away; the house is at the other end of town.)  Food was ready as I arrived about 3:30 p.m.  We had mutton, goat, pasta with plantains, salad, tea, Coke, and water.  They served me first on three heaping plates.  Then they dumped the other food onto a large tray from which they ate.  I appreciated the acknowledgement of my cultural norms, but assured them I could eat from the tray with them, as is their tradition.  (Plus, they had given me enough food for at least three people – by putting it back into the common tray, I could eat my fill and not feel obliged to try to eat more than my share!) 

I found the arrangement in the house interesting.  On entering the house, there is an entry way with part that leads to the rest of the house.  On the right was a room with rugs, a mat, pillows and a television.  Beside the hall was a small, room where we ate.  It was enclosed by bars dividing it from the rest of the house and had a door – also grill work – that could be padlocked.  In the room were four of the ubiquitous plastic chairs with a matching plastic table.  There was no room for people to move around the table once we were seated. 

During the meal, we chatted – often with me answering questions about the USA and our culture.  After we ate, we moved to the TV room and watched the news.  Did you hear about the tragedy in Mina, near Mecca?  There was a stampede crushing many people – over 700 dead and 800 more wounded.  People from all over the world died, including seven Cameroonians.  I am told that no one from Garoua Boulai who went was involved.  Saudi Arabia has the huge task of preparing for 2-3 million visitors and is trying to plan for up to 9 million in future years.  What a very sad occurrence this year.  My heart goes out to the affected families and friends. 

You might wonder why I participated at all in this festival; I am a Christian after all.  I believe that our best chance for lasting peace in this world begins at the local level.  We must all be willing to listen to and interact with our neighbors, especially those who are different from us.  We must know them and see them as fellow human beings who share the same feelings, problems, hopes, and joys.  I don’t expect to convert or be converted in the conversations I have with my Muslim friends in Garoua Boulai, but I do hope to promote understanding, peace, and a strong willingness to work together.  (Interesting note: when talking to some of these Muslim friends about the continuing road insecurity in CAR, two of them told me that they would come and get me if ever I were taken hostage!  OK...  Of course, I am never going to be in a place where hostage-taking is remotely possible, but isn’t it a sign of friendship that these “strangers” or “others” would be willing to put themselves at risk for me??)  Many thanks to Sani and his family for a delightful afternoon and the offer of friendship. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

To Meng and Tibati

I arrived back in Garoua Boulai Friday evening and left again after church Sunday for Meng. That doesn’t give much time for unpacking and repacking – and I have evidence that it wasn’t enough because of the things I forgot.  I took the sheet, towel, flashlight, lamp, Bible, notes for what I was to teach, but forgot the umbrella, tea bags, fruit and maybe some other things.  Packing for a trip here is not the same as within the USA nor between the USA and here…  
Ah, well, things still went well.

The Dean (on the left in the picture) of the Seminary (Institut Théologique Luthérien de Meiganga – the Lutheran Theological Institute of Meganga) asked me in the spring if I would lead a training session on pedagogy for his professors and for those at the Bible School in Meng.  He chose Meng because this year they are opening a program to train evangelists as pastors.  I explained this once before, but will try again to distinguish the levels of training here in Cameroon and the CAR.  Catechists study for two years (in one of four Bible Schools) in Cameroon and for three years at the one Bible School in CAR.  They then lead the liturgy on Sunday, often preach, and help out in the congregation.  Evangelists in Cameroon study for three years, also at a Bible School, but not every Bible School has this level.  (Meng does.)  The Bible School in Baboua, CAR does not train evangelists.  These people work with several congregations to help them grow and or to plant new churches. And, in reality, they often act as assistants to the pastors.  A pastor studies for three years at the Institute in Meiganga, Cameroon or four years at the Seminary in Baboua, CAR.  They are fully trained to lead a congregation and perform the sacraments.  Pastors are generally assigned to a district or region; they have multiple congregations – some as few as 4-5 others with more than 30.  (The new teacher at the Bible School in Garoua Boulai was working as a pastor near Tibati and was responsible for 33 congregations!  Himself.  Imagine that.)

Since the church has a chronic shortage of pastors, especially in area in the west, EELC (the Evangelical Lutheran Cameroonian Church) has partnered with the Norwegians to create this new program.  Evangelists who are interested and qualified will complete a two-year training course at the Bible School in Meng.

Getting to Meng
I drove about 100 km. (63 miles) northwest to Meiganga.  Elisabeth Johnson joined me there since

she teaches at the seminary.  We then drove west to Meng, another 250 km. (156 m).  For this kind of travel, mentioning the condition of the roads is automatic.  GB-Meiganga is great – paved road all the way.  Driving 60 mph is common although there are lots of villages where drivers have to slow down – especially because there are often large speed bumps.  Still, one can generally arrive in 1 ¼ hours.  Much of the road from Meiganga to Meng is also paved, but it has MANY pot holes.  (Pittsburghers, you complain about holey roads, but this has you beat hands down.)  Many aren’t deep, but some are.  It isn’t always easy to tell until you are on top of them.  So, driving on the shoulder – or half on the shoulder – is common.  Plus, this is the rainy season.  For much of the distance on the way I drove in driving rain that made it hard for the wipers to keep the windshield clear.  Fortunately, on the way back it rained hard the night before and we had no rain on the road.  4 ½ hours going and 3 ½ coming back. 

Officially, the government should take care of the road, but that doesn’t happen unless it is being paved.  In fact, there was a very nice stretch of road that is not paved, but has been recently graded (probably in preparation for paving).  It was four lanes wide and flat as a pancake.  A joy! 

In some areas, pot holes are filled by local people.  These are often youth who hope that drivers passing by will give them a little money for their effort.  On the way back, we saw four such young people filling in holes – maybe ten years old, including two girls.  It was afternoon by then, so I hope they had attended school in the morning, but maybe not…  Still, we gave them a little money to encourage the work.

Elisabeth and I stayed at the Catholic guest house in Tibati, a larger town than Meng that is five km. beyond it.  (Tibati is known for the large lake that is nearby and for the fish people get from it.  We ate some wonderful Capitan the first night in Meng.)  The guest house at Meng housed the other professors from Meiganga.  Both houses are comfortable although they have a problem getting water at Meng.  Our guest house was separate rooms (as opposed to rooms in a common house as at Meng) and we had cold running water.  We appreciated the courtesy the organizers and Catholics extended us.  I wouldn’t have minded spending more time in the area to see the town and huge lake.  

The Training
The Bible Schools and Seminary generally start mid-September.  This teacher in-service could not be any later than it was because of these starting dates.  (It couldn’t be any sooner since Elisabeth and I would not have been back from the USA.) 

The idea of this training was to give participants time to consider what is working for them and what can be improved.  Then I introduced some basic concepts of Vygotsky – you teachers know who that is, right?  We talked about learning be a process done in collaboration with others and the ZPD – Zone of Proximal Development.  The nine profs were pleased to have the information.  Only one had heard of any of this before (as he had studied education).  Finally, we talked about self-evaluation; each rated him/herself and picked a couple of strategies taught to try out this year.  It would be nice to be able to follow up with them during the year.  Maybe that will be possible.  By the way, all instruction and conversation was in French…

Back in GB
In Garoua Boulai, the Bible School restarted Monday, September 14.  I teach on Wednesday, so I got back Tuesday evening in time to teach the next day.  In addition, students and profs at the Bible School take turns leading the meditation each morning.  I was scheduled for Wednesday morning.  I had asked the Director to switch things because of my travel, and although he agreed to do so, he had to go to N’gaoundéré and had made no arrangements.  Back with a bang!  In the end, I am glad I lead the meditation because we used my planning process in class as I talked to the students about how they can better plan for the meditations they must lead. 

Now I would like to get my email inbox cleaned out, but…  All this week Camtel, my provider, has been having difficulties.  Internet speed is less than half the usual bandwidth.  I have trouble opening my ELCA email account and can’t read Facebook at all.  My gmail (set to the basic level which takes up less bandwidth) works sometimes.  I can’t easily up- or download files.  All those emails sitting in my work inbox with reports attached might as well be on the moon!  I talked to the people in two Camtel offices today.  They are aware of the problem and need a technician to arrive from Yaoundé.  Who knows when that will be? 

I hope to be able to post this message later today, but we will be lucky if there are one or two pictures.  Meanwhile, I will limp along – making some phone calls, looking at a few reports I had downloaded in Yaoundé or PA, or finding other things that need to be done around the house.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Memory Lane and Readjustment

Back in Garoua Boulai after 3 days of uneventful travel!

I decided to write about one of my experiences while in the USA for vacation.  Yes, I visited the family and many friends, but that was “normal,” if very enjoyable.  My family is all well and I was happy to have the time to visit them – and as many friends as I could fit in, too.

Over Labor Day weekend, however, I went to San Francisco to the reunion of Returned Peace Corps

Volunteers from the Central African Republic from the late 1970s!  They have been meeting every two years for about a dozen years, but this was the first time I attended. What a kick.  Had a great time.  Here’s a selfie so you can see the commemorative t-shirt.

It has been more than 35 years since I came home from the CAR (the first time). Approximately 30 people came to this reunion hosted by Barbara Howald and Michael Blake; many of them I had not seen since I left CAR.  Add in some spouses and a few children I had never met and you have a recipe for asking the same person’s name several times or asking about a person only to be told I had
just been chatting with him for 10 minutes.  Lots with gray hair, glasses, hearing aids, and an occasional paunch…  I have been in (unfortunately) infrequent contact with a handful of friends from my Peace Corps days – funny how those people seemed to have changed less. 

What impressed me the most as I caught up with these friends was how similar our values and views on life continue to be.  What drew us all to the Peace Corps is still active in our lives.  We could pick up conversations easily.

Plus, we got to visit San Francisco.  Babs and Michael have a wonderful apartment with a view of part of the city.  I stayed in a very nice hotel about 3 miles closer to the piers (downtown).  The hotel was older but well-maintained and cared for. Rooms were cute.  That is, they were small, but didn’t feel crowded. I had a bed that was larger than a single, but smaller than a double.  There was a sink, hair dryer, luggage rack, hooks, television, full-length mirror, iron, ironing board, stool, chair, little basket for carrying toiletries to the bathroom, and a robe!  I still had room to move about freely.  The toilet was in one room down the hall and the shower in another.  Both rooms were so small that you had to close the door to be able to turn around.  There were two sets of stairs – on so narrow that my arms almost brushed the walls on the ways down.  There was also an elevator though I took the steps often.  I liked this room better than the larger, but cookie cutter-type rooms of most hotels/motels. I’d gladly stay there again.

Saturday we had a picnic in the park that is just below the Golden Gate Bridge – ok, below would probably be in the water, but at the foot on the level park there.  You can’t reserve a picnic spot so Michael sent his (adult) daughter at 6 a.m. to get us the best place!  She and her boyfriend stayed to watch the sun rise and until others could get there.  We had one portable plastic “paillote” (tent without sides) so there was lots of time to be in the sun.  A Mexican caterer came with a huge wok-type grill – but flatter – to make us paella.  Lots of sea food in it – delicious.  Later in the day we ate catered Senegalese food.  Also good but much spicier.
People brought stuff (valuable stuff as it turns out) from their time in CAR which was auctioned off.  All money is going to Water for Good, an NGO that works to provide clean water in CAR.  We had a great time bidding, explaining what the object was and where it came from (sometimes even telling the truth), and laughing.  I bought a shirt – it was made for a man, but does fit me.  Many of the items have now appeared at two or three reunions to be re-auctioned!  Doubly valuable.

Sunday, we went to Alcatraz. A flat rock in the bay was made into a military fort in the 1800s.  Later, they kept military prisoners there.  In the early 1900s, it became a prison for the general population.  Prisoners who had caused problems elsewhere were sent to this maximum security prison – 1 ½ miles from land.  The warden, guards, and their families lived on part of the island so children took the ferry to SF daily for school.  The prison was closed sometime after World War II, then from 1969 to 1971 the island was occupied by Native Americans who claimed the land as theirs.  The island, whose names comes from old Spanish “island des alcatraces,” or Seabirds Island, is now part of the National Park system.  A ferry runs regularly from Pier 33 to the island park.
Water has always been brought in on a barge; none occurs naturally.  Despite that, guards’ wives and some prisoners planted and cared for beautiful gardens.  One prisoner worked on the gardens for 8 years.  Recently, the park got money to restore the overgrown gardens, that had, well, gone to seed…  Barbara is a volunteer gardener who goes a couple of times a week to assist and some other days to be a tour guide.  She arranged for us to help out.

About 15 of us went on the first (staff) boat.  Barbara gave us a quick tour of the island, emphasizing the work being done on the gardens.  Then we cleared out dead plants, dead-headed geraniums, etc.  Most people worked between two and three hours, but I had to leave earlier so I could get to the airport for my flight back to Pennsylvania.  Here’s my work supervisor – s/he watched most of the time I worked –and occasionally sang to me.  Beautiful area and a wonderful way to spend a morning.

Back in Cameroon
Elisabeth Johnson and I arrived back in Yaoundé on the same flight.  (Interesting that both of us could get a direct flight from Paris to Philadelphia – or Minneapolis for her, but neither of us could get a direct one coming back.  She had to make an extra stop in Boston and I in Atlanta.)  Since we needed to come to Garoua Boulai/Meiganga the next day, we arrange for Gbabiri David to drive us.  His friend Celine came along. 

On the road at one of the toll booths, Celine bought some verres blancs that are found in stands of bamboo.  I couldn’t see them closely when she offered me some – so I took and ate three fat, whitish worms from a barbeque stick.  Mostly I could taste the oil and crispness from the grilling.  She offered me more, but I declined.  She said that sometime she will make me some that are better than these.  (Oh, boy, can’t wait!  Yes, the fact that I did not grow up eating these fat worms –or caterpillars – does add a bit of a gag factor…) No picture available as the camera was packed too far from me.  Maybe that’s better…

Just after getting in to Garoua Boulai, I went to the Camtel office to buy internet credit.  It seems that in my absence, the phone/internet companies (at the direction of the government) froze all accounts until a copy of an identity card could be provided.  This is supposed to (somehow) increase security in the country.  No problem, I had a copy of mine with me.  But, a problem developed when that didn’t work.  They said they had to call their boss who was on vacation to find out what to do.  They promised to deliver it to my house with credit.  The woman came at 5:45 with the device and my money; they couldn’t get it to work.  She said I need to buy a new sim card – now why couldn’t they have called me to ask me and do it that day??  I had to go back this morning – office opens at 7:30 a.m. so I went an hour later and the woman was there, but the man who could solve my problem was not.  She called him on the phone and he said he was “on his way.”  20 min. later she called again and he still insisted that he was “on his way” but had to come on foot.  (I had walked, too... So, why couldn’t he tell me about when he could arrive so I could have done some marketing and come back?)  Once he came he basically ignored me, called the boss again, and finally they gave me a new sim card with credit.  I got home (after a needed trip to the market) and found that the devise cannot establish a connection.  (Sigh.)  I called again, and the woman said the man was out of the office, but would come by when he gets back – he is the only one who can fix this problem; she can’t.  (Double sigh.)  So I am preparing this blog entry while awaiting an internet connection; think you’ll see it today?

I am sure that this story has similarities and differences to those you have about technology.  It may not play out exactly the same, but it is still true that when technology works, it makes things easier, faster, and increases connections.  When it doesn’t work, it is a royal pain!

My suitcases are unpacked.  The house is dirty and the girl who was to come clean today didn’t show up.  She doesn’t currently have a functional phone. (Sigh.)  I leave for 3 days in Meng, though, tomorrow, so I will clean (or find someone to do it) when I get back.  I will be doing a workshop on pedagogy for the professors of the seminary (of Meiganga) and those of the Bible School in Meng.  Elisabeth will be there, too.  So, in a bit, I have to pack again – a little differently than for my trip to/return from the USA.  More about that trip next week.

Maybe it is good that I don’t have internet.  It will delay my sending this, but I can’t even consider starting to get caught up on emails on a Saturday!  

PS  Obviously, my internet is working again!