Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Dear Readers,

Last week I finally completed my Peace Corps service after three years in Cameroon. I left the country Friday night and arrived back in the US late on Saturday night. Since then I’ve been resting up at my mother’s home, getting reacclimated and organized.

As some of you have noticed, I stopped updating this blog about six months ago. The last year has been very challenging. It’s a long story, but mostly I had just reached the burnout point and didn’t feel like writing about the difficulties I was having. At some point when I’ve had some more time to rest and reflect I’ll write more about the last few months and what was going on. For now I’ll just say that I have been ready to come home for a while and I’m glad to finally be back.

In spite of “burnout” and other difficulties I had by the end, I don’t regret joining the Peace Corps or the time I spent in Cameroon for a second. It was one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but also one of the best experiences and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Although living in such a radically different culture and doing the kind of difficult (and often thankless) job that Peace Corps volunteers do is a huge challenge, I feel I gained far more than I sacrificed through the close friendships I made, by learning another language, in experiencing another culture, and in the satisfaction that in my own small way I tried to serve my country and make the world a slightly better place. I feel I accomplished what I set out to do and I take pride in my service.

I also took some valuable lessons from Cameroon. I learned that it’s possible to live much more simply than we do and to have a good life without so many of the shiny toys and frivolous luxuries we waste so much precious time and money chasing. I also believe my time in Cameroon has made me a much stronger, wiser, and more independent person. That alone probably made it worth the trip.

Perhaps most importantly, I gained a renewed appreciation of my own country. It somehow feels appropriate that I returned home on the 4th of July. I think you have to leave America for a country like Cameroon for a while to really appreciate the greatest strengths of our country. It’s not the money or shiny electronics or McMansions that make America a great country. It’s the tremendous amount of freedom and opportunity we enjoy. We have our problems of course and should always be trying to improve ourselves, but living in Cameroon has repeatedly impressed on me just how much opportunity we Americans have to live our lives the way we want and just how much is possible here.

As for what comes next, I haven’t decided yet. In the short term, I plan to spend the rest of the summer in the US, visiting friends and family and getting used to being back in America. I’m used to daily life in Cameroon at this point, so I know it will take me some time before things here feel “normal” again.

I plan to do some traveling again this fall and then come back home to spend the holidays with my friends and family for the first time in three years. After that it will be time to start working again, although I haven’t figured out yet exactly what I’ll be doing. No matter what I do in the future though, I know I’ll always benefit from what I have seen and learned over the last three years.

I will try to start doing some more blog posts about Cameroon in the not too distant future so you can catch up on some of what I saw and did over there, even if it’s well after the fact. Better late then never right?

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy X-Mas from Cameroon

We've got lots of Christmas lights and fake plastic trees up around Buea (seriously) and everyone is wishing everyone else a "Happy X-mas." Tonight should see lots of partying around town - usually Christmas Eve is when everyone goes out drinking with their friends. Tomorrow people will be spending the holiday with their families and friends. I've had several invitations so I'll be moving between several different places over the course of the day and night. I anticipate a long, steady, gorging process.

Hope everyone out there is enjoying the holidays! Best wishes from Cameroon.

Oh, Goody

Just what Cameroon needs: rebels.

Busy today trying to wrap things up before Christmas but I'll try to post more on the tortured recent history of the Bakassi peninsula after the holiday.

Fortunately I don't think there's any danger to me or any other Peace Corps volunteers - we're nowhere near this area. Just to be on the safe side though Peace Corps has given us orders to stay away from the beach for the next few weeks. Hopefully nothing will come of this.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Back to the Lecture Hall

VisiCalc: On the bleeding edge of technology

After my time at the university in Nanga, I thought I was probably done with the college scene here in Cameroon. Not quite. A member of my NGO's board of directors is an economics professor at the University of Buea (located here in ... Buea). A few weeks ago he invited Bill and I to give presentations on business and technology at a seminar for his students. So, last Wednesday we went before an audience of several hundred UB students (mostly economics, business, and accounting and finance majors) in a packed lecture hall.

Fortunately, we had technology on our side. The school had loaned us a projector, so we were able to set up a laptop and use PowerPoint for our presentations. I even got to include the cool VisiCalc screen shot above.

There were presentations by our host on the stock market (interesting) and by another Cameroonian professor on risk management (booooring). Bill gave a talk with lots of cool illustrations and animations and some video on how credit card transactions and online retail work (credit cards and online retail are not common here in Cameroon - the economy usually works on a strictly cash basis). I followed him with presentation introducing the use of information technology in corporate accounting and reporting. I gave a bit of history, then talked about spreadsheets as an essential accounting and reporting tool. After demonstrating how a spreadsheet works using Excel, I then moved on to a discussion of different types of accounting software packages from Quicken to SAP and some of the advantages and challenges of using them. I capped off the presentation with a demonstration of QuickBooks as an example of a simple accounting program.

The students seemed interested and we took some good questions at the end. All in all I thought it was a successful evening. It felt good to be back in the classroom.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The CAMTEL Customer Service Model

Customer service is a bit of an oxymoron in Cameroon. For whatever reason, most Cameroonians don't get the idea of customer service. Generally service here is slow and surly.

Recently, however, an incident involving CAMTEL (the Cameroonian telephone company) brought lousy customer service to a new level. Thankfully, CAMTEL is modern enough to be able to provide DSL service in Buea and other select areas of the country. The organization where I work has a CAMTEL DSL line which we use to power our cyber cafe. It can be a bit slow at times but is generally pretty reliable. We also have a land line provided by CAMTEL. (Most Cameroonians now just have cell phones using service provided by MTN or Orange, the two big cell phone service providers. Land lines are actually rare.)

A couple of months ago, our land line stopped working. The boss called CAMTEL to have them send a technician to see what was wrong. The technician showed up and after playing with some wiring got the land line working again. However, in the process he inadvertently screwed up and cut the DSL wire, so we lost the internet. Since the cyber cafe is the component of the NGO that keeps us in business, not having an internet connection was, shall we say, a tad inconvenient.

After repeated calls, the boss got the technician to come back and basically told him to just undo whatever he had done. Which the technician did - shutting the phone back off but at least getting our internet working again. He then presented us with a hand written receipt for 20,000 francs CFA for the work he just did. In other words, he was billing us to fix the damage he himself had caused. Furthermore, the bill wasn't even a legitimate CAMTEL bill, it was just him freelancing trying to extort money from, allegedly because we made him come out on a Saturday. Boo hoo. To add insult to injury, our phone line still wasn't working.

Understandably upset, our boss refused to pay the bill. The technician left but came back several times in the following weeks to demand payment. He was politely turned away each time.

Then, about two weeks ago, our internet connection went down. Occasional service interruptions are not uncommon here, so at first we didn't think much of it. Just one of Cameroon's many little inconveniences. But as our down time stretched from minutes to hours and then into two days, we realized something was seriously wrong. After checking our network and all our wiring to verify that the problem was not on our end, we called CAMTEL for help.

A team of CAMTEL technicians (including the one who had demanded payment for fixing his own mistake) came and started looking for the problem. After climbing the telephone pole, they discovered that the line had been disconnected.

At that point, the technician who'd screwed up our connection the last time announced that he was the one who had disconnected the line on his own time because we didn't want to pay him. His colleagues were just as shocked as we were. This was a really really dumb move, even for Cameroon. When our boss threatened to take it to his supervisor at CAMTEL, the other technicians begged him not to, because telling his boss would get him immediately fired. Of course, when I heard this my response was, "That's the point isn't it? This bastard should be fired."

However, my boss is a much kinder and more forgiving person than I am, so he decided to let the guy go and just drop the whole matter. He did however keep a copy of the guy's illegal handwritten bill as evidence. If the guy ever tries it again he'll immediately take it to the technician's supervisor and have him fired.

Ah, Cameroon, where service technicians demand bribes to fix the mistakes they themselves make. What a country.

Scribbles From The Den

Recently I came across Scribbles From the Den, the blog of a Cameroonian writer named Dibussi Tande. He posts both original material and also news articles and other blog posts about Cameroon and Africa. Lots of interesting stuff. He was nice enough to cross post my pre-election post on his blog, so I thought I'd return the favor by linking to his blog. Stop on by and check it out.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Deep Thought

There's something surreal about sitting in a little shack in Africa eating an omelet while the TV on the wall is blaring syndicated reruns of the Care Bears.

Fortunately the Care Bears were able to use the Care Bear Stare to save the Forest of Feeling from Professor Coldheart's dastardly plot.

America Drops the O-Bomb

Election day started on a comical note at the office. Two Cameroonian men came into our cyber cafe asking how they could vote for Obama over the internet. After a good laugh we gently explained to them that it doesn't exactly work that way.

Tuesday night turned out to be a big night here in Cameroon as well as America. I ended up staying up all night with some other Americans and Cameroonian friends to watch the election returns. We hung in there until the result (which came at about 5 AM here), then watched the candidates speeches and turned in for a nap around 7 AM. Rather, I would have liked to take a nap, but tons of Cameroonian friends immediately started calling and texting me with congratulations. Turns out none of them slept either. I was at Bill's house most of the night, but I heard lots of the bars around Cameroon stayed open all night and turned off the usual music videos and soccer matches in favor of CNN or the BBC.

Friends back home have emailed me about the spontaneous celebrations they saw in the streets of their towns. I wish I'd been able to see them. No parties in the street here as far as I know, but it was definitely an event.

Other Peace Corps volunteers have told me since Tuesday they have been approached on the street by strangers who ask if they're Americans. When they say yes, they are then congratulated and told how Obama's election is proof that America is the greatest country in the world. As I speculated in my last post - I think we just got a do-over with the rest of the world.

On a side note, Nigerian t-shirt makers are thrilled - they are going to turn a huge business selling Obama t-shirts all over west Africa. I've already seen a few around Buea. Bill told me he saw one in rhinestones. Ugh.

Congratulations to President-elect Obama. I just hope and pray that with all the tremendous problems we are facing he can meet the high expectations everyone has of him. America needs a great President right now and I hope he makes us all proud.

No one knows where the future will take us, but for now, it feels like America's back. Hallelujah!

Monday, November 3, 2008

OBAMARAMA, or, the 2008 US Presidential Election Through Cameroonian Eyes

I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. - Barack Obama

If you thought I was out of touch with US politics, rest assured that’s not the case. Even if I had no internet access and no desire to follow politics, I would still be hearing about the election from all my Cameroonian friends (and some passing acquaintances and occasionally even strangers). Cameroonians have plenty of access to international news on the TV and radio. Via satellite or cable many households even have CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, not to mention the BBC, Al Jazeera, French news programs, etc.

Much to my surprise when I got here, Cameroonians love American politics. If anything, Cameroonians sometimes seem to follow American politics more closely than politics in their own country. Many also seem to follow American politics more closely than a lot of Americans I’m sad to say. I’m not sure exactly why the fascination. Maybe because the US is still perceived as the world’s only superpower and the President as the world’s most powerful leader? Maybe because they know that when the US acts in the world it can affect them in one way or another? Maybe because the prevalence of American popular culture around the world makes people interested in what’s going on in the US? Maybe because there aren’t too many surprises in their own political system, so American politics are more suspenseful?

Whatever the reason, many people here love to talk about it and ask questions when they meet Americans. I’m usually happy to do so – gives me a chance to help fulfill Peace Corps’ goal of promoting understanding of Americans abroad. It also gives me a chance to occasionally clear up misconceptions – they follow American politics but sometimes don’t always understand the mechanics (such as the difference between a primary and general election, federalism, the electoral college, etc.)

They also love Barack Obama. Lots of Cameroonians are borderline obsessed with him and his candidacy. The head of the NGO I work for talks about the latest election news daily – every twist and turn and jump or dip in the polls is discussed. The owner of the bar where I eat lunch stops to talk to me about Obama on a regular basis. The carpenters I paid to make some book shelves for my apartment had me hanging out in their shop for half an hour after we’d finished our business so they could talk about Obama. A random teenager I met who’s a friend of a friend invited me out for drinks just so he could ask me about the election. I see people walking around wearing Obama t-shirts and hats. (No buttons though – in Cameroon a button with someone’s picture is a way of memorializing the dead – if you wore an Obama button people might think he had died.)

Part of it is obviously because Obama is black. Africans often forget that not all Americans are white, so to suddenly see a black man in a position to become President astounds some of them. Even more so for the fact that his father was African. Amusingly, many Cameroonians think Obama is Cameroonian because the name “Obama” is a common family name among the Ewondo (one of Cameroon’s 250 different tribes.)

However, I think it’s also about what Obama’s candidacy tells them about America. It tells them that son of an African student can rise to become leader of one of the largest and most powerful nations on earth. It reinforces the idea that somewhere in the world is a place where people can rise above the limitations imposed on them by others and make something of their lives. More than one Cameroonian has told me “This would never happen in Europe or Asia – the son of an African would never become President of France or Italy.” They see America as special and Obama’s candidacy only confirms that.

I’ve met two or three McCain fans, but that’s about it. Mostly they say they’d rather see McCain win because Obama’s too young, and in a society where age is respected that carries some weight. But in contrast to the Obama supporters they don’t seem too inspired by McCain.

In general most Cameroonians I talk to about America have a positive view of us. They generally see us as “the good guys” in the world and are impressed by our society’s dynamism, prosperity, and democracy. And whatever our faults and limitations in all these areas they can’t help but look at their own society and wish politics here were a bit more like politics in America.

Two weeks ago I was invited to a panel that discussed the elections at the University of Buea, and one panelist presented American elections, warts and all, as models African nations should strive to follow. So cheer up, my fellow Americans depressed by politics, it’s better than you think.

That said, in recent years America has tarnished its image around the world and that is felt here as well. But here it seems like people almost feel confused by the events of the Bush years. Over the last two years I have heard lots of comments like “America is such a great country, why are you doing these horrible things around the world right now?” or “How could such a great country with so many smart people pick someone like George Bush to lead them?” I usually don’t have a very satisfying answer for these questions, other than that Americans are human and just as flawed and likely to make mistakes as anyone else on the planet.

I think this sentiment among Cameroonians that America is a great nation that somehow lost its way may also help explain the appeal of Obama. Simply by the fact of who he is and how high he has risen, he is telling Cameroonians (if not the rest of the world as well) that the America they admired is on its way back. If Obama were to lose the election tomorrow I suspect lots of people outside America will despair and wonder if we’ve lost our way for good. In America we often tend to forget that the rest of the world exists during our elections, but as I’ve learned here in Cameroon, this isn’t just OUR election.

However, if he’s elected, I believe America will instantly get a “do over” from much of the world. Especially here in Africa, it will be as if the last eight years had never happened, for a little while at least. Eventually the honeymoon will end and then it’s up to us, of course. But I guess that’s supposed to be the point of democracy isn’t it?

Friday, October 24, 2008

And We're Back...

Hello out there to any readers who haven't given up on me and still check the blog in spite of my long absence. As I noted in a previous post, I went back to the US for a monthlong break and returned to Cameroon late last month. Since then I haven't really felt in the swing of things as far as blogging goes, so I've been lazy and not posted anything. So, I decided it was finally time for an update.

Home leave was good. It was great to see friends and family again, to be back in the States, and to eat loads of unhealthy junk food. I gained a few pounds actually. I didn't have too many problms with reverse culture shock, except for bizarrely begin really uncomfortable being around white people for my first two days back. Odd... And of course I spent a lot of time telling people things that started with "In Cameroon..." over and over. All in all though, it was a badly needed change of scenery and I returned to Cameroon feeling recharged.

I've settled back into Buea easily. I've been putting in a fair amount of time working with my host institution, a local NGO called LINK-UP, that tries to help impoverished children and orphans in several communities in Cameroon's Southwest province. My work with LINK-UP has so far revolved around two main areas.

The first is a new micro-credit program they have recently started in collaboration with an outside group called Drombaya. This is a program to provide small loans to families the organization has been helping to start or expand their own small income generating activities. Generally, these are small scale projects like making and selling or reselling food items and small artisanal work. Before going back to the US I helped them craft some of their loan policies and design the paperwork and process. The program started up in my absence and seems to be off and running fairly smoothly. For the moment I'm not doing much in this area but I'll be revisiting it to see how the pogram is working once it's been operational for a few months.

My second project with LINK-UP is basically management consulting. The organization started small and has always been run by its founder and President. When it started he could do this out of his head and mostly by himself. However, as the organization has grown and been successful, they've passed the point where an ad hoc management style works effectively. So, I've been working with the President and the staff to develop and write down their internal rules and procedures in an effort to help them better manage their activities and make the organization more professional.

Outside LINK-UP, I've made contact with another local Cameroonian development organization called Nkong Hilltop, which mostly works in he agricultural domain, running micro-credit programs and building skills among farmers. I recently did a computer security workshop with some of their staff where I provided training in how to protect their computers against viruses (a huge problem in Cameroon) and use the internet safely. In the future we are planning more computer related training sessions in order to help them start trcking some of their projects and better manage their finances using computers.

Besides work, I've started taking a French class at the local Linguistic Center, a government sponsored language training center aimed at promoting bilingualism in Cameroon and offering French and English courses. Although my French is still pretty strong, now that I'm not using it daily any more I can feel it slipping a bit, so the five hour a week course is perfect practice to ensure I don't lose too much of it while I'm here.

Aside from that, I've just been hanging out with friends here in Buea and sneaking off for an occasional day trip to the beach.

So, that's what I'm up to these days.