Thursday, February 25, 2016

Women United

Tuesday, Regional Bishop Djidere Nguembe Djidere Nestor invited me to attend the local meeting of Women for Christ (Femmes pour Christ – FPC).  Groups of women from the ten Lutheran churches of Garoua Boulai met at Mbé Duka Church for the morning.  I agreed to go although I didn’t really understand what I was getting into! 

On the way, I stopped for fuel and the bishop got change from the attendant so he had a bunch of 500 cfa bills.  That was a signal; not that I understood it at the time.  (I’ll let you I on the purpose upfront…) These district meetings take place once a quarter and the hosting congregation rotates.  The main purpose is to raise money which is given to the hosting congregation.  The women use it to complete some project.  The last group bought cement so that the dirt floor in the church could be paved.  They also made a small Women for Christ building.  In the process of raising money, the women danced a lot, sharing laughter, money, food, and song.

The whole event began pretty much as usual; people were to arrive at 8 a.m. and the meeting to start at 8:30. Of course, it was at 8:15 that the bishop stopped at my house to invite me.  We got ready and left about 8:30; with the stop at the gas station, we arrived about 9 a.m.  Late?  Not really.  Some women were practicing nearby, but the church itself was empty.  Things did get underway about 9:25…

In the meantime, I chatted with the bishop and Mbé Duka’s catechist.  This is a congregation which has taken a lot on initiative.  The members raised money themselves to build the church and pay for the metal roof (and its installation).  Just recently they also painted the church inside (blue-green –   It is impressive when a congregation takes full responsibility for its construction projects.  (I know congregations in the USA do it, but they can borrow money from a bank to help them and pay it over time.  That doesn’t happen here in the cash-based economy.)  I believe they are also building a guest house beside the church and on the other side already have the catechist’s house.
look for it in later pictures) and out (a warm, sandy color pictured here).

Normally at the start of the Sunday service, one of the choirs processes into the church singing and dancing.  For this meeting, each church group entered singing and dancing.  Another tradition here is to put a coin or bill on the forehead of a singer or dancer that you appreciate.  You might even dance your way up to do it.  This is one of the fund-raising aspects of this gathering.  Women with baskets (plastic colanders to me…) stood near the singers and put the coins into it as singers where honored.  It took about 50 minutes for all the groups to enter and be seated.  (This is why the bishop got change.  Fortunately, I had a bunch already.)

A small group of leaders from the hosting church sat at a table up front to accept and count the offerings for each group, keeping track in a notebook.  The secretary (pictured here) was also the mistress of ceremonies.  Once all groups were seated, she led the the women in singing the national   I am going to try to post the video in the blog, but it is too big to attach to an email, so here’s a still picture.
hymn that was written for FPC.

Next there was a brief part of the liturgy with a message from the bishop (about 7 minutes).  By the way, 95% of that happened was in Gbaya.  I was feeling pleased that I could generally follow what was happen – I knew enough of the key words of the liturgy and could follow when a few French words and church names were thrown in.  I have to admit that I didn’t understand the sermon… 

Then it was time for offerings.  Each congregation had collected money before coming ranging from several thousand cfa ($5) to 34,000 ($68) – a lot for people here.  There was, of course, some processing and dancing as these were presented. 

We had a coffee break about 10:30 a.m. (scheduled for 10, so we weren’t running far behind the printed schedule!)  Of course, women from different congregations who had donated food processed in carrying it on their heads – all the while everyone was singing.

Oh, I forgot to mention an important part.  About five women acted a “soldiers” to direct the groups and individuals.  They were dressed differently than the other women and carried rough approximations of rifles made of wood.  (I guess at some time in the past, they carried real guns, but don’t do that anymore).  They each also had a whistle which they blew to keep time.  (That part got to be annoying to me.)  There was also a young man who played two drums. 

Invited guests went to the catechist’s house to have tea, bread, and bananas.  Some had some porridge, too.  One of the guests commented that no matter which song a group started to sing, all the women of all the groups knew it and joined in.  He wondered when they practiced and how they all knew all the songs!  I wonder, too; no one used song sheets or hymnals!

The others stayed in the church and ate/drank there.  At the end of this time, as we headed back to the church, the bishop said to me that we only had the closing and then we would go home.  Well, maybe, but what a closing… It lasted almost two more hours! 

This is the part where I was pretty lost.  There was no one near me I could ask for a translation.  I found out later, that it is involved word play and challenges.  Individual women would stand up and encourage another church or an individual to give more.  One woman stood in front of me and spoke.  At the end I said, “Mi zii na – I don’t understand,” but no one translated.  Still, I figured it was a challenge for me to give more, too.  So, I stood up and address them in English!  I said that I couldn’t understand the words, but I could figure out a challenge when it was presented, so I held up a bill and gave it to the collectors.  The women cheered; one even said “thank you.”

After a long time, the challenges ended and the secretary read out the amounts given by each congregation.  The total was about 200,000 cfa ($400) – not bad since most of the collecting came in the form of 100 (20¢) or 500 ($1) cfa coins/bills put on many different foreheads! 

Women from each church had dresses made of the same material.  Some use the cloth made for FPC, but others picked other cloth.  I spent some time enjoying the wide range of style of dresses made from the same cloth. 

Most participants at this gathering were women although there were a handful of men: the bishop, catechist, the local traditional chief, a young man who played the drums, a photographer, a few other invited guests, and a few who came with women from one of the ten congregations.  The picture on the left is the traditional chief and bishop.  The one on the right is the drummer – along with the regional representative of FPC.  With great joy, she joined in the drumming for one song.

The program ended after the next site and date were selected, prayers were said, and the Regional Bishop gave the benediction.  But, it was not time to leave.  Invited guests went back to the catechist’s house where we were served lunch.  I got home about 2 p.m. and had had a great morning! 

Porch update:  I bought two lavender plastic chairs to go on my new enclosed porch.  For the moment, I moved a wooden table out there, too.  (I won’t be able to leave it out there once the rains come back because the wind is likely to blow rain in during heavy storms, but I don’t have to think about that for another month or so.)  Here’s a picture.  It is true that the color of the chairs is not the best choice given the color cloth I have had on the table.  Still, it is nice to read on the porch and have a place to put the book (Kindle) or glass as I am relaxing.  Want to come have a coffee on my porch?  (By the way, “café” is used to mean, coffee, tea, or hot milk. So you can have your choice…)

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Making a Living

In the USA we complain about low teacher and pastoral salaries.  We have reason to do so.  The vast majority of both groups work many hours beyond a “normal” 40-hour week and they have a huge impact on our lives: now (for ourselves) and in the future (as they form our youth).

As you might imagine teacher and pastoral salaries are even lower in the CAR and Cameroon. (While Cameroonians have it a little better than Central Africans, both struggle with similar problems.)  Those who work for state schools are paid higher salaries (in theory).  The problem is that they are not always paid regularly.  This is especially true in CAR – it was a problem before the current crisis and worse now.  So, it is better to work for a Lutheran or other Christian school because teachers are paid regularly (if less).

Lutheran pastors working in congregations are paid low salaries.  The national church and congregational leaders argues that congregations can’t afford to pay them more. (That sounds like the USA, no? Even if US salaries are much higher than here, they are low by US standards.)  Those who work for programs and institutions and projects funded in large part by partners are paid more.  No wonder many pastors want to “move up” to work for a project and many congregations are still without pastors. 

Brain drain is another problem.  Pastors, and to a lesser extent, teachers, welcome changes to be trained and to further their knowledge, often with scholarship support from international partners. Great!  The need is extensive.  But once some have degrees, they chose to leave the church to work else where so that they can earn more money.  Can we fault them for wanting to improve their standard of living?  To better care for families? To make their lives more comfortable?

At the same time, there are too many case where positions and needs that people are trained to fill go empty when someone goes to an NGO or even moves up into the central administration of the church.  Although, of course, their skills are needed there, too.

So, what do Lutheran pastors (and catechists and evangelists) and teachers do to survive when their salary does provide a living wage? 

Marc Sourma, a teacher at the Protestant (Lutheran) Elementary School in Garoua Boulai was a participant in the trauma healing class I taught in the fall.  We see each other from time to time; this week he invited me to come see his pig project so I interviewed him yesterday about his projects to make ends meet (and, hopefully) get ahead.

First off, almost he, as most every family, has a plot of land.  We in the US would call them “kitchen” gardens since they grow foods most of which the family will eat.  But, these gardens are MUCH larger than any households in the US maintain.  People grow manioc (cassava) as a staple crop.  They also grow sweet potatoes, yams, beans, and other edibles.  (Mostly starches as far as I can tell, with few vegetables.)  What they can’t eat, they sell in the market.  Think farmers’ market, but one in which some people have permanent shops/spaces and others come as they have things to sell.  Here’s a picture of some manioc plants next to Marc’s house and the ground between his house and the school that has been prepared for the  sweet potatoes that he will plant soon (in anticipation of the rains returning in March).

Marc’s newest project is raising pigs.  He has built a place for them.  As they grow and multiply, they will also be outside.  Next to the pig house, is an enclosed area where he raises ducks - and one chicken.  (In the picture, you can see a duck with the outdoor kitchen and house in the background.) To the side of his house are piles of mud bricks that he and the family make to sell.  (You can see a few in the picture with the manioc and newly prepared rows for sweet potatoes.) 

Remember, Marc is maintaining all the projects and also teach full time.  In addition, he is helping to lead a Healing Group as a result of the Trauma Healing Seminar he attended.  He does have help from his family – he has 8 children, but some of them are still very young.  Imagine.  (Here’s Marc with the five kids who were home yesterday.)

I saw Marc after church today.  (He went to the Gbaya service while I had attended the earlier French one held in the same church building.) He told me that during the announcements he learned about an evangelism project to be held for three days in March – and that he had been named to organize and direct it!  No one had talked to him ahead of time so this was the first he had heard of it.  It seemed willing to help, none the less. 

I guess it is true that if you want something done, you should ask a busy person!  Marc is certainly juggling lots of ball, but with evident success.  Still, I would love to see the say when he, and others like him, were paid a living wage so that they didn’t have to work so hard just to survive. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Items of Interest

Haircut: The thing about haircuts is that they have to be repeated!  I have been cutting my own hair, but getting the back part even is hard as is cutting while looking in the mirror since everything is reversed.  I decided to try to find someone to do it.  It’s only hair, after all, and grows back.  So, here’s the result.  It is definitely shorter.  Not bad.  Not exactly even, but probably more even than the times
I have cut it.  I took my own hair scissors and comb not being sure that Tutu would have them even though she a hair stylist.  She didn’t know what to charge me.  She said that styling and trimming a wig was 1,500 cfa ($3), but for natural hair???  (Especially hair that is so different from Cameroonian hair…)  She wouldn’t name a price and said to give her what I thought was best.  It only took about 15 minutes with me giving some basic instructions; I gave her 1,000 cfa ($2).  I can always trim stray pieces of hair myself – as I have been doing when I was my own barber.  The first picture is me sitting at my dining room/office table.  (I cropped it so that you can’t see all the dust that showed up well in the picture!)  The second was taken this morning shortly after the service of imposition of ashes for Ash Wednesday. A contemplative look – mostly what I get when I take selfies!

Quilt: I have been working on a project for a number of months – a quilt.  It is almost done. A Facebook friend periodically posts things about quilting and I decided to use materiel from dresses, etc. to create one of my own.  Don’t look too closely since there are lots of imperfections – which make it even more valuable to me.  I am doing all the work by hand.  My goal is to finish the binding this week.  Will I do another?  Not this large (double bed size).  It is too hard once I have to attach the backing and binding.  I understand now why people have quilt frames so they can get to both sides while holding the material in place…

Primary elections: I am very tired (already/still) of hearing about the primary elections in the USA and only two states have voted.  People in the US are obsessed with them and polarization and nastiness seem worse each day.  I mention them because people in Garoua Boulai often ask me about the candidates and elections; they want to talk about them.  One could argue that Cameroonians should be interested in what happens in the “most powerful country” and that it is normal that people in that powerful country don’t pay attention to elections and leaders worldwide, but I say that is arrogance.  They are interested because they will be affected, directly and/or indirectly.  We in the US should be interested in what happens worldwide because we are also affected, directly or indirectly.  We need to learn to listen to people from their perspective – without our preconceived notions of what they are saying or “ought to be” saying.  Good leaders listen.  Good leaders give a voice to everyone.  Good leaders know that helping everyone get better and advance means that the whole country (region) advances in better ways and more quickly.  Is the US a good leader?  For its own people?  For the world? 

Commemorative cloth: You may remember that Pope Francis visited Bangui in November.  As is the custom here, commemorative fabric was made.  Anne Langdji gave me a piece that she got from a friend in Bangui.  Here it is hanging from the mantle in my living room.  It says, “Gango ti Tobwa Francois na Be Africa” (Welcome Pope Francis to Central African Republic.”)  Be in Sango means   Cameroon’s commemorative cloth for International Women’s Day (March 8) is now available. It comes in a choice of two colors – violet and orange.  I bought the former as the one I got from 2015 was orange (about $16 for 6 yards) but can’t show you yet since I dropped it off with my tailor so he can make a dress.  He asked if he couldn’t make a head scarf, too, and I agreed.  I am not much for wearing things on my head, but will wear one at least for March 8!  (Maybe if I wore a headscarf all the time I wouldn’t have to think about haircuts…)
heart so CAR is the Heart of Africa.

More elections: Central African elections are still scheduled for February 14.  This is the second round for the presidential vote and will become the first round for delegates to the legislature.  (Those didn’t go well in December, mostly because ballots didn’t arrive in time in some places, so they were annulled.)  Continue to pray for peace and wisdom in the choice of new Central African leaders.

Hostages: I don’t mention it often, but please also continue to pray for the mayor and sous-prefet of Baboua who are still being held hostage.  It has been seven months.  I have heard the rumor that they will be released after the elections.  May it be true.  Certainly the Central African government has not had (or been willing use) money to pay a ransom.  There are probably 20 or so others who are also being held hostage.  I think of them often and pray for them and their families.  Please add your prayers for all hostages.  No one should be held against his/her will.  No one should be able to profit or think they can gain power by stealing people.

More security: My back porch is now enclosed!  We decided to do this instead of just making a stronger screen door was we did for the front.  I can now recharge my solar lamp without having to think about having it taken.  There are still a few glitches that need to be fixed, but I have a   I have found a place in town where I can buy a plastic table and chairs to use out there.  I just need to drive into town one day soon (instead of walking) so I can pick them up (and negotiate a price).  This makes my back door and house more secure.  In addition, I can feel safe leaving the door open for ventilation – important as the dry season continues and daytime temperatures are hotter. 
screened-in porch.

Expectations:  An interesting story about the car.  I went yesterday to buy diesel fuel and the gas station had none.  They said it would arrive later in the day.  We don’t have that problem in the US, do we?  When we go to buy something like gasoline, the gas station has it.  Of course, we are also very used to having electricity, water, and even internet 24/7.  Electricity here is Garoua Boulai is still going out almost daily for two to ten hours a day.  I/we adjust and work around not having what is expected. 

May Lent provide you the time for reflection and meditation.  May you find ways to better follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Village School Program Update

The school year in the Central African Republic started in October 2015.  In January I finally got a copy of the report about the end of the school year (July 2015) from the Village School Program.  Here are some encouraging details.  (Pictures are a couple of years old…)

Student enrollment in October 2014
Student enrollment in June 2015 (% of those who started the year) *
2,550 (84%)
1,245 (97%)
3,795 (96%)
End of Year Test Results - % of students who passed
Test Results of entry into High School (6e) - % of students who passed
* Most of the attrition can be attributed to problems of insecurity in the regions – a few villages are more greatly affected than others. 

The Curriculum Supervisor, David Zodo, visited the schools, observing teachers and evaluating their teaching using the Competency Approach.  He saw 52 of the 62 teachers, visiting most twice to evaluate if they are putting suggestions into practice.  (He has not able to evaluate all teachers because of insecurity in some town and mechanical problems with his motorcycle. 

The Community Developer, Mathias Votoko, worked with all Associations of Parents of Students (APE) to develop budgets, train them as to their duties, and encourage maintenance of schools.  Parent contributions were up 24% over the previous year.

The Director, Abel Service, along with David and Mathias, trained all the teachers during the regular in-service time in September.  This year’s emphasis was on the program to teach citizenship and peace-building (developed in Cameroon and also used by Catholic schools in the western region of CAR).  Soon after this training, the APE were also trained.

Two permanent building are almost completed.  The program had to select schools along the main, paved road so that materials could be effectively delivered.  Even so, they had difficulties with getting supplies when the road was not safe.  Also, the latrine that was build for one school collapsed and parents had to make more bricks and redo the structure.  The buildings should be in use soon.  In addition, Cordaid (an NGO working in the region) is building a second permanent building for the school in Baboua. 

The Village School Program of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic continues to operate twenty (20) primary schools in villages where the government has no public school.  Despite continuing insecurity and challenges, all 20 schools are operating.  In fact, enrollment is up.  Two people told me this story: parents of students in one village with a public school have enrolled their children in the VSP school in Bardé since the church’s school has a good reputation and has been operating consistently even during the troubles of the last several years. 

Communication continues to be problematic.  The villages of some schools are in regions where there are no telephone networks.  Where networks exist, the connections are often spotty or go out for extended periods.  Baboua, the headquarters of the VSP has no internet service (or electricity without a personal generator). 

The need for education and schools is still critical in the CAR.  I hope that the newly elected president (whoever that may be) will see education and health care as priorities so that the country may finally continue its development.

Other Updates:
·      The second round of the presidential election will be Sunday, February 14.  The date was delayed in order to be sure that ballots arrive in all towns.

·      Elections for legislators were annulled since not all towns got ballots in time for the first round.  The first round for these elections will also be February 14. 

·      My stolen passport, Cameroonian residency card and driver’s license arrived at the US embassy in Bangui four months after being taken from my house in Garoua Boulai, Cameroon!  (No the computer, camera, and phone did not make the complete trip with the documents.)  I have a new passport and residency card, but the embassy will send the license to the US embassy in Yaoundé so I can get it back. 

·      I have started planning for my home assignment visits in the USA for the summer.  If you didn’t get a copy of the letter, let me know.  I will visit as many people as I can.