After an incredibly quick first six weeks in Cameroon, it’s time to give you an update! I’ve thought long and hard about what format this blog should take, and how best to explain my work out here in sufficient detail to describe everything clearly without waffling too much! For this first post I’ll just explain the work I did in the first five weeks.
In each following post I’ll give a (brief) general overview of the work I’ve been doing since the last blog, before going into (more) detail on my views on a particular subject, such as education, health and infrastructure. If there’s anything you’d particularly like to know about any aspect of life here, topic requests are very welcome so please don’t hesitate to leave questions, suggestions and comments below! Finally, I’ll highlight an interview which particularly stands out for me, from the Humans of Cameroon photo album I’ve been putting together here.
What I’ve been up to
The first week here was extremely tiring but also really quite productive, which was great when you consider just how relaxed (read: slow) the Cameroonian culture can be. I came with four other Cameroon Catalyst volunteers: Claire and Pat, the charity’s co-founders, Claire’s husband, James, and Caitlin, a Canadian International Development student applying her academic knowledge in the field for the first time.
The principle aim of the first week of the trip was to build relationships. We had meetings with a very wide range of people in order to introduce the charity and our work, and to discuss how we can collaborate to ensure our resources are used as efficiently as possible in the future. For example, we met the British High Commissioner Brian Olley in Yaoundé (the capital of Cameroon), representatives of various NGOs and local politicians in Bertoua (the town local to where we work in the east, and where I’ll be staying for most of my time here in Cameroon), and village chiefs and builders in Bambouti and Mbelle Mbeke (the villages Cameroon Catalyst are currently focusing their efforts on, located approximately 60 miles / 100 km from Bertoua in the direction of the Central African Republic border). The meetings were generally very positive, and it’s now up to me to continue to build those relationships over the next few months – a challenge I’m really looking forward to!
Another important part of the first week involved carrying out interviews for our new local-volunteer position. This person will shadow me while I’m here, learning exactly how Cameroon Catalyst operates by joining me both in meetings and on site, allowing us to have a permanent representative on the ground after I’ve left. We interviewed almost twenty applicants (with half coming from Bertoua and half from Bambouti and the surrounding villages), before choosing the best four (by chance we chose one man and one woman from both the town and villages, resulting in an excellent mix of backgrounds and opinions in the group). These four, who I’ll be profiling in the Humans of Cameroon album over the next couple of weeks, are shadowing me for a month before I select the strongest candidate to continue with me for a three-month probationary period. Following a successful first four months together, we then hope to sign a contract with them in late July / early August so that they become Cameroon Catalyst’s very first employee. I’ve already had a productive first couple of weeks with the group – which I’ll describe in more detail in my next blog post.
Two other key steps started in the first week were the analysis of all of our projects through a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) framework led by Caitlin, and the research of the availability and costs of various construction materials on behalf of the design team back in the UK. These tasks are ongoing and are currently being carried out with the volunteers.
I then spent three weeks assisting the NGO Better World Cameroon (BWC), who are based in Bamenda and Bafut, in the west. Cameroon Catalyst have recently started working with BWC in order to share our western engineering expertise in return for their invaluable knowledge on cultural aspects and using local materials in construction. I was able to learn from a wide range of projects and people, and hope to now bring those skills back to the east. For example, they’ve built some very attractive examples of windows made from reused glass bottles and a highly energy-efficient stove (constructed using just locally-sourced, low-cost and villager-accessible materials), in addition to their larger projects such as these houses , this community centre and this in-progress accommodation block. Initial discussions with villagers in the east about these projects have been very positive, so hopefully we’ll be inviting the BWC team to come and teach everyone here very soon!
Finally, I spent a fun and very productive week in Yaoundé, the capital. I was lucky enough to be able to stay with an old friend of Pat’s; an influential woman who now lives in a beautiful house with several very friendly members of staff always willing to give to a hand. Unfortunately she would prefer to remain anonymous, which is a huge shame as she and her family have some extremely interesting stories to tell! Just by coincidence, she’s an important member of FEICOM, the government department which provides councils with funding for the completion of their civil engineering projects. Thanks to my host I was therefore able to have meetings with some of the agency’s key directors and engineers; potentially excellent contacts for Cameroon Catalyst in the future!
I’m now back in Bertoua, starting the next stage of my work with the volunteers. I’ll describe our work in detail next week – here’s a brief overview for the mean time. Speak to you soon!
What I’ve learnt
1. It’s very easy to see the different levels of wealth in each city by looking at the traffic: Douala and Yaoundé are the richest cities, full of cars, while Bertoua in the east is much poorer and full of motorbike taxis which take you across town for about 25-40 pence. Other cities such as Bamenda are somewhere in the middle, both in terms of wealth and the car/motorbike ratio.
2. Almost everyone speaks Pidgin English in the ‘English-speaking’ region. Counterintuitively I can therefore understand people better when they talk to me in my second language than in my mother tongue!
3. Bottle windows look great, regardless of the culture you come from!
What I’m looking forward to
1. Getting my teeth into managing Cameroon Catalyst’s new volunteer team.
2. Getting used to driving amongst 2 million (ish… probably) motorbikes on the journey across town.
3. Experiencing living with a Cameroonian family for an extended period of time, and making some close friends within the group.