Pictures coming soon.
Batoula-Bafounda, Cameroon, Africa
Today was my dad’s birthday and the first time in my life that I wasn’t at home eating banana cream pie for it. Today was also the first day of many days that I realized are going to all start bright and early, but get progressively more and more difficult as the work continues. This is the freshest I’m going to feel for quite some time.
Eric, Ryan, Amy, Kate H., and I were up, dressed in jeans and headgear, and finished with Aylynn’s egg breakfast by about 7AM. We strolled outside into a surprisingly cool, misty morning. On the way to the well, I actually began shivering. I never would have guessed I’d be cold while in Africa.
The purpose of this morning was to walk the proposed lines and see what they look like in reality, rather than just 2-D on a Google Earth map. While walking, we discussed overhearing Paul Dennis, the smiling politician/school teacher we had met yesterday, thinking we had three tap lines instead of two. True, we had three taps, but one will be fixed at the well itself. Someone had mentioned to Paul Dennis that it was never our intention to have so many taps, that we were sticking to the design that we proposed over the summer, and his response was to encourage us to investigate a tap down the backside of our well site. We agreed to consider it, if it’s what the people want.
Our current project is supposed to include a tapstand at the well site, a wooden tower for housing our solar panels, a concrete tower for holding our tanks, and two pipelines running in opposite directions. One pipeline will go towards the chefferie and the farms on the far side of the village. The other pipeline will go to the market to accompany the dirty tap that currently exists and receives excess use on a daily basis. Paul Dennis had argued that we had no water going to the houses behind the hill, even though we told him our current placement was still miles closer than the water sources without our implementation. Nonetheless, we walked the back stretch of the site. That is how we met Victor.
A small, old man with gaps in his teeth and baseball cap came shuffling out of a hut as we entered a clearing. He saw us, waved, put his hands to his mouth, and opened his arms wide. “Merci! Merci! L’eau!! L’eau!!” Eric looked at me, “Low?” “Water,” I answered, then we laughed. Eric knows about three words in languages other than English and his accent was horrendous when he would try to repeat what people were trying to get him to recite in French. “Can we look around here?” Eric asked Victor. Victor’s expression was blank. “Nous cherchons ici pour un lieu possible pour une autre robinet,” I explained. Victor’s face lit up and he clapped his hands. “Is this a good place? Do a lot of people use this old well? ” asked Eric, pointing to the well beside Victor’s house. By this point, children had come out of nearby huts to stand back and stare at us. The women held babies in the doorways. “Beaucoup de personnes utilisent cet puit?” I asked. Victor nodded. “C’est possible qu’on peut fermer cet puit parce qu’il a de l’eau sale? Et on peut ajouter un robinet avec de l’eau pour boire?” I continued. He nodded eagerly. ”Oui, oui! Ça, c’est sale! C’est pour les vêtements et les animaux!” Eric stared at me blankly. “Basically, people come here, that water is dirty, they use it for laundry and animals, but they would have a lot of use for a tap if we come this way with a line. It’s probably a good place.” “Okay,” said Eric. “There’s a lot of people down here too. Well make sure he understands we aren’t definitely going to put one here.”
I turned to Victor, but he was ushering us towards his house. He ran inside and pulled out a bunch of chairs. We all sat in a line and then another woman came over with a bunch of bananas. We each took one to eat, and the Africans laughed when we wouldn’t eat more. They left a banana leaf out onto which we were to leave the peels. As we finished, Victor began his excited babble again, so I told him what Eric said to make clear. “Nous ne savons pas si nous pouvons mettre un robinet ici, d’accord? C’est possible, parce qu’il y a beaucoup de personnes qui l’utilise. ” ”Oui, beaucoup!” he said, agreeing with me that a lot of people come to the well. I emphasized that it was only a possibility, and he nodded and repeated me like he understood. We stood up and headed for the hill, saying goodbye. Suddenly, Victor was shouting behind us. He must have been my grandma’s age, but he ran up the hillside to catch us, telling us to wait. He went sprinting back into his house, returning with a big pile of avocados. “He understands, right?” Eric asked me. “To be honest,” I said, “I’m not sure how good his French is. I think I speak it better. He probably speaks the local dialect and only knows a little.” “Oh, boy,” said Eric upon hearing this. We thanked the panting Victor for the avocados and dumped them into our bags before waving goodbye and vanishing over the hillside.
The next major task was for our group to split up. I went with Amy and Kate H. to make some orders while Eric and Ryan continued to evaluate the site and layout their tools. The girls and I met in Tomas’ courtyard with a subcontractor who convinced us he could have the gravel and blocks delivered that we needed. He listed his price. I had to work as the middleman, translating between the two. Kate said the price he listed was steep and I agreed, then went into haggling mode like I was still in Ouidah. The man simply laughed at me until Tomas came back over with Paul Dennis and Guy. We eventually settled on a price. I quickly learned that speaking French doesn’t mean much in Cameroonian village conversation so long as you’re not a man.
This theory continued to prove itself as I went with Kate H. and Paul Dennis to the hardware store in Bafoussam with Zefere, Aylynn, and Paul Dennis to get groceries and money from the ATM. Aylynn gave us some peanuts to eat on the ride back. They tasted like raw peas, which I guess makes sense. After we had returned, we found the others and decided Kate H., Amy, and I should run out to order pipes and connections. I had to scramble to learn words for utilities, but I had my dictionary strapped to me like a Bible. Paul Dennis’ English wasn’t very good, but if I got the concept across to him in French, he understood the project enough to describe the obscure angles and cuts we needed in our PVC parts.
When we returned, we went to the site to put in some work. We had some trees cleared that would have blocked too much sun on our solar panels. Unfortunately, cutting the trees down released hundreds of fire ants around the site. Eric tried to pick up a branch and the locals went up in a laughing riot and yelled at him to drop it. They, however, picked the branches up without a problem. I guess they thought we were too weak to withstand their fire ants.
With the trees cut, we surveyed the site, made tampers from logs, and pounded down a flat clearing. We laid out the first layer of blocks in the dimensions needed and assured that they were level. I turned around to find a crowd with a number of people perched on logs and rocks, sipping a milky drink from plastic cups. “Palm wine!” said Paul Dennis. “Oh, I’ve never had any before!” I said eagerly, remembering the others mentioning palm wine in the past. It’s literally tapped from someone who climbs a palm tree and hangs a bucket from the tree like maple syrup collecting. The longer it sits, the more fermented it becomes. Morning palm wines are weak, evening palm wines are strong, and the one they had was just past the middle. Paul Dennis grabbed a cup from a local (which made me feel guilty) and happily snatched up the jug and poured me a glass. It was like chalky water with a smooth, tangy kick. Little bits of plant material floated in the cup and I was reminded of how raw the drinks and foods are here in the village. Kids crowded around me once they became brave enough and, after I joked a few times with them, they were soon climbing on me and hanging from my arms.
It was finally time for dinner as the sun was setting. Our group waved our goodbyes, and the crowd departed for the evening. We followed the winding trail back to the main path, passed the market, and entered the compound, locking the doors behind us. We began cleaning up inside. I went down the stairs to the first floor just as Kate J. and Emily were coming up to our second floor. They had just arrived on bus. They said curt “hello’s”. I think Kate J. was tired and a little grumpy from traveling, because I remembered her being more outgoing in the past. I felt bad for not even realizing who Emily is. I knew she had been working in Australia recently, but I had only spoken to her over the phone. I had imagined a tiny, young woman with long blond hair. I’m not sure why, but Emily was actually born in Liberia and is 100% black. She has medium hair done in braids and glasses. When she offered her hand and introduced herself as Emily, I had to restrain my surprise. I guess I was adopting the Yovo-spotting mentality. I could hardly imagine calling Emily a Yovo but I realized she would still be called one in Benin, despite being black. It was just strange seeing a black non-African after all of these days.
As they continued up the stairs, I shouted out directions to our room. “What do you mean, our room?” asked Kate J. “All five of us?? That’s not happening. Where is Tomas??” My mouth probably dropped open a little when she said that. I glanced down and noticed her enormous suitcase dragging behind her. Aylynn was also carrying bags that I knew were Kate’s. That’s when I recalled what Kate H. had warned me, about Kate J. being a “diva”. When I returned from finding Kate H. downstairs, I learned that Kate J. and Emily were staying in Aylynn’s room and that Aylynn was being moved down the hall. I found this extremely rude on several accounts, especially considering that the house was currently housing a number of funeral guests in addition to us. Kate J. was acting like we owned the second floor. Poor Aylynn works so hard every morning to sweep and scrub the red dust off the tiles, I couldn’t imagine treating her so poorly. And why encourage the mentality that Americans should be like royalty when they visit? No wonder Africans feel entitled to our money, if they think we’re that important and therefore wealthy!
Dinner was also a struggle because Kate J. wouldn’t eat gluten or fish. She picked at a few dishes, but turned her nose up to most of it. I knew she must have had food stashed somewhere because there’s no way a woman of her size could get by on scraps like that. After dinner, Aylynn cleaned up and our group sat down to negotiate prices and set up a schedule. For the first time since I had a free night in Africa, I did not go to a bar. Instead, we all headed to bed at around 9PM, trailing not far behind the sun in preparation for an early start yet again tomorrow morning.