Africa 2010 Memories

Union College Fulbright Field Trip: 34 Days In Africa (Cameroon)

Here is an attempt to understand Africa through a 5-week Language Immersion journey in Multilingual Cameroon. We draw inspiration from participant journal excerpts, snapshots and random thoughts layered upon the text to add diversity that just may be, reveal/bring out any complicated negative and positive distortions; the good, the bad and the ugly through this Africa trip or other. All in all, both participants and readers should learn from this chronicle of a trip. We believe we all can feed our spirits and allow ourselves to gain skills to bring to other parts of our life.  During the trip, we visited 6 of the 10 national regions.

The Grace of a Fulbright Grant

Perceptions and sensations about Africa are varied and readily available, but far from reality.  Africa remains a huge or humongous continent of great riches, complexity, dynamism, family values cum human relationships. Going to Africa as a church minister, pastor, volunteer, Peace Corps, scholar, Fulbright participant or other for a week or more is a daring exercise primarily because of media images and a large monetary commitment in comparison to most other destinations. However in the end, despite the initial apprehensions of a remote and desolate Africa for example, the visitor’s life is enriched and changed forever as s/he develops teacher-leader abilities from first hand or personal experience to underscore the commonality people share in their daily lives.

Specially travelling as a FY2010 Fulbright participant to Cameroon this past summer was a golden opportunity… silver is not good enough, much less bronze. This tenet may even be more apt in the Appalachia and Southeast Kentucky region that seeks to join the diversity race and catch up with the rest of salad bowl United States, confront and rid itself of both conscious and subconscious biases and be sensitized to any haphazard and erroneous stereotypes of other people or faiths.

Last spring, a competitive and prestigious Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, GPA grant from the United States Department of Education was awarded to Union College through a three-phase designed curriculum development project, CDP titled: Linguistic Innovation in Africanized French and its Implications for Second language Acquisition in Cameroon. The grant paid for participants’ airfare, lodging, ground transportation and meals. Through the study abroad opportunity, Union College  would continue to encourage and develop international studies and a deep knowledge of the French language and francophone cultures, foster cultural, intellectual and artistic exchanges between the US and multilingual Cameroon, Africa.

Hello, I just wanted to drop a line to all our Fulbright Scholars. I wish you all a safe journey and remind you to be careful during your trip. Please pay attention to what … tells you during your time in Cameroon. He is a respected member of the community and has a thorough understanding of circumstances as they develop during each day. Remember in Africa nothing is certain….Voyages heureux et bonne chance.

… in earnest, Fulbright GPA would be a stumbling block for some and a stepping stone for others…every participant can make his/her choice to understand that the value of the Fulbright trip is not a function of any failures, problems or challenges, hurtful things or disappointments…

The initial phase of the CDP was a pre-departure preparative and weekend orientation workshop at Union College, Barbourville in May 2010 attended by participants and other project facilitators.  The second phase was a 5-week language and cultural immersion in Cameroon from June 20 to July 25, being concluded by a post-travel development of lesson plans and eventually a curriculum guide with presentations in diverse state workshops, seminars etc. It is certain that the opportunity will have a widespread and lasting impact in the study of French in the Appalachian elementary and secondary schools and beyond.

While we may not remember the details of every encounter, and everyone we met and interacted with, there are some people and some things that are difficult to forget… I mean the smiling hospitable and resilient ordinary natives in the market,… the trip was worthwhile… an unforgettable life-changing experience for some… it left a very few participants (whiners…)  unchanged

Bonjour …! …I would like to thank you for the wonderful opportunity to visit Cameroon. Without you this trip would have not been possible.”

And What Difference does Difference Make?

Participant educators generally agree through varied assessment reports that they gained a deeper understanding of Cameroon history, linguistics, religion, society, culture, infrastructure, family and gender roles which will allow them to develop and implement valuable lesson plans in their French classrooms.  Some go further to state that they have enriched their global perspectives, developed intercultural competences and increased their commitment to international education and Africa. Participants and their guides listened to some 20 lectures/seminars (in-person), panel discussions from seasoned academics and cultural experts in various cities visited, held several curriculum development workshops, read some 8-10 on-line or E-seminars on a variety of topics, and carried out excursions to several educational, historical, archaeological and cultural sites.

Additionally they enjoyed (in)formal meetings and interviews with various scholars, professionals, business people in markets, US embassy officials and local host families who often insured participants stuffed themselves with assorted home cooked dishes. We sincerely thank our host families in Muea, Foumbot, Dschang and Yaounde for the invaluable family immersion experience. We know life is full of surprises and unexpected outcomes. Our initial and fluid group dynamics notwithstanding, the video tape record of the field trip is expected to create a lasting legacy of our coveted Africa experience.

The trip to Cameroon was a trip of a lifetime…

Uhh I learned more about myself than I thought possible… I have a new sense of self, a new perception of Africa and the world, a new outlook on life and the use of scarce resources… I have learnt how to be independent

Hey …, thank you very much for providing… with this amazing opportunity to join you on the trip to Cameroon…she truly enjoyed the trip and we’ve learned a lot from her…

As in-country coordinator, permit me state that… we have been able to learn new accents, teaching and learning methods…. We have taught and learned brotherhood… our sense of belonging to a global world … participants stand head and shoulders above others in the immersion and facilitation field…it was a great initiative, very successful and teaching…

Early Culture Shock Crack Mended – Leaning Forward!

Early in the program, participants generally enjoyed a week-long stay in the SouthWest Region, with field trips in the coastal resort towns of Limbe, Buea, and forest Kumba. Here participants scarcely heard French spoken on the streets of the towns. During this critical first week “away from home”, the majority of participant educators engaged in addressing their experience gap as they challenged many of their long-held notions of Africa, but a few (ill-prepared??) participants continued to focus on stereotypical Africa, failing to grasp the diversity and situate the continent in the global community.

In a visit to the US embassy branch office in the port city of Douala, Director Rick Denniston, challenged participants to “remain open” and avoid the pitfall of always “focusing inwards… and wanting that everything should be like in the US”. From thence, participants took greater care to re-examine themselves and values, resisting the temptation to examine their host country/society through selfish lenses. How true the adages that if you find yourself in a hole, you should immediately stop digging.

It is therefore very understanding that all participants appreciated their interaction with field workers, radio technicians, engineers, bankers, buyam sellam and other ordinary people as they recalled their memorable teaching visits to the Bakingili mount Cameroon lava flow site, the Batoke and west coast fishing border towns, the wildlife primate sanctuary in Limbe, the Radio house in Buea, the French Cultural Center and Alliance Franco Camerounaise in Buea, Buea-Muea Chariot Hotel, the CDC-Delmonte Banana Plantation at Mussaka, the Kumba Barombi crater lake and their dinning at the Limbe coastal beach in the presence of “aggressive” hawkers.

The trip was laced with adventures and misadventures along the way like when pickpockets visited participants in the open or hotel room… I am glad for the self-discovery, cultural marvel etc.

It was a rich experience for us all, but sorry the group had a few whiners – you did great with changing their diapers!

And the Beat Goes On from Anglophone SouthWest to Francophone West Region:

Making their way to Dschang after the Douala brief stay amidst the beautiful sights, sounds and collection of souvenirs en route, hectic photography of rich and varied vegetation, plantation types (palm, rubber, banana, papaya, pineapple and other fruits) participants arrived Forjinju’s Lenale Ndem Palace & Museum, Melong where they were formally received by Lucas Afutendem, Asst Prof at the Department of Languages, Faculty of Arts, Univ of Dschang, who served as in-country Coordinator of the Fulbright GPA. After some quality time touring/visiting the museum, the group headed for Dschang Teclaire Palace Hotel. “The hotel lacked room refrigeration, washers and dryers. But there was a pricey laundry service available along with lights, telephone, shower, sink and a flush toilet”.

We drank water from commercially package plastic bottles and even brushed our teeth with the same water… but curiously we always enjoyed fresh African fruit cocktail (salad?) although we were not exactly sure it was made using the same expensive bottled water. From the hotel balcony, we could see building after building (homes or office buildings) that had been started but just left unfinished. All around was mostly drab and dirty scenery, a bunch of run-down or battered yellow cabs by the roadside or struggling to navigate through chaotic traffic but the people were nice looking,  peaceful and content… with some women who looked like beautiful bright flowers in their dressing carrying babies on their backs. But our sometimes molded accommodation was deemed clean and acceptable and the French speaking staff was friendly and eager to assist.

 We would usually be awoken in the mornings by the sporadic sound of a rooster or more crowing, the craze of hooting motorcycle-taxis carrying anywhere from 2-5 persons, unfamiliar dialects of commuters foot racing to the markets or just a hot argument between two in which one repeatedly threatened another in loud tone to, “remboursez moi cinq francs…. (please give back 5 francs , US $0.01 equivalent to me”. Every now and then during our down time, we enjoyed free television programs and wireless internet service from the comfort of our naturally air-conditioned rooms. We could watch Nigerian Pentecostal pastors on several channels performing supposed miracle-healing services; we did enjoy terrifying Nigerian films; we watched CNN and many French channels if we prayed hard for the electricity not to quit on us.

Another day, the group was treated to some instructive site visits like the Atungong geological puzzle and Apouh mami watta waterfall before a formal village, ordinary people bridging and French language immersion in a rural market of a kind.  In the roadside market, participants danced to tunes and music provided by a lone soloist who enjoyed several drinks of “33” export beer. The locals also taught a few of the participants a folk dance.  Participants snacked on fruit and cookies bought from approaching children who called to sell the items. It was amazing how these children balanced their trays and bowls of assorted sale items on their heads as they appeared startled by our presence.

Back to Dschang, following a treacherous drive on a winding, mountainous dirt, bumpy and muddy road to the birth place of the PD, some participants attended mass on July 4 to express thanks and appreciation for the abundance available to the US before joining in a hectic bridging-experience sharing of a huge “open” independence day buffet style party adorned with assorted national dishes, drinks and visitors in classy dress and females carrying heavy headgears.

NorthWest,  West & Center  Regions – Here We Come:

Not quite the 4-lane road some participants would have loved to drive on, it was time to briefly enjoy a smoother ride to grassfield Bamenda where, participants checked into Mondial hotel after enjoying an urban town market and handicraft center immersion and shopping for gifts and souvenirs. Next day, participants drove on earth routes to visit the complex educational facility in Bambili, the Bafut traditional Palace and museum before returning to their hotel for an evening of cross-cultural discussion and seminar on the challenges of rural entrepreneurship.

Saying adieu to the savannah, participants left a day after and drove calmly to the west region, visiting the beautiful Metche waterfall by the roadside, and headed through Bafoussam into Foumbot where they encountered a lone soldier during their brief visit to Crater Lake Monoun before settling for the night at Hotel Paradise Palace in Koutaba. Koutaba is home to some of Cameroon’s elite parachutes and military. Before their mid trip formative evaluation and exchanges, participants travelled to the Foumban Sultanate and Museum where they learned of the Ibrahim Njoya Arabic School then took off for a weeklong stay at Mansel Hotel in the political capital, Yaounde. Participants enjoyed a bunch of seminars, catholic Church services with music and preaching in the dialect; visits to the Mvogbesi zoo, the US embassy, the elliptical Yaounde marché central, Indian and Chinese dinning as well as assorted fast food opportunities including a chance to taste some “MakDonald”.  It was reassuring for participants and their guides to hear Richard Johannsen, the US embassy Public Affairs officer state that “If you are going into the world, you need French!! I use my French everywhere in the world”.

Enduring Lesson & Journey Thr’o The South Region to Kribi:

It was time to experience another of the remote, underserved and forgotten places in the nation through rough roads that were barely usable, with long stretches of wet and slippery road sections and makeshift bridges.  The driving conditions were harsh making the entire journey from Yaounde to Kribi through Ebolowa painfully long, tortuous and sometimes just hypnotizing as our poor bus sometimes advanced at crawling pace for fear of going off road. Somehow, we took the (high) road less travelled and that made all the difference. 

Even then we are still stopped a number of times by menacing traffic police and gendarmes for the driver of our bus to get out and show papers of some sort. Sometimes, our bus was released only on the “hot” intervention of our chief of party. At one time, we thought we were lost in the awe-inspiring rainforest jungle and “twice our bus became mired down in the mud and had to be pushed out by several kind native Africans who lived nearby”. We had earlier traveled to the PD “mountain village fishtailing through a narrow, bumpy and muddy road. It was a terrifying experience for some of us, but all in all, the picturesque moments and people who were very loving” provided calm amidst the anxiety and excitement that we experienced during the unexpected mountainous bus ride.

As we saw later, in most remote corners of the country there were no decent roads, toilet facilities, good schools or running water, but there remains a strong sense of family and respect among the people. These things, these experiences, and many acts will never fade or go away (die?) from our memory.  

Irony, Au Revoir Exchanges & US Re-entry Orientation:

Yes, a good litany of obstacles occasionally messed with our nerves, notably fatigue and just trying to keep up rather than catch up with the group dynamics. But less we forget one of the cardinal reasons we travelled to Africa: to experience the Afro-Cameroon francophone culture and reach about that later; and “how could we get there (to the point?) from here (US)?”

“It was a blast! I had an awesome time and I am so thankful for the opportunity to visit Africa. I dress in my African garb … when I give a presentation on Cameroon… in church, at school etc. etc.!”

“I am out today in my African dress and I have people staring at me… some are staring so hard…”

“  I am still reflecting on the trip and all the wonderful experiences we had….”

In the end we may not be able to quantify our expectations, experiences, examples, and explorations; talk less of our expertise. We were occasionally tough on each other but we had no choice or on the contrary, we consciously made the choice(s)!! The group was responsible for clearing up nay mysteries, distinguishing facts from rumors, setting priorities.. and we bet, that we did by being non competitive, through camaderie and our leaders, but above all when each of us frequently saw ourselves in our bathroom mirror to know ourselves more. To be on the driver’s seat was no fun… except when it was time to visit moneygram, western union or practice defensive driving.

Today we have pictures, videos, and stuff all collated… we need to keep the group together to better exploit the resources and wealth of material we brought back for ourselves and our (school) children. Do we have a bill of rights… of course; check out all the pre-trip paper work we completed. Our fearful trip is done and we have to ascertain if we came back in one or several pieces?

The Impact of Fulbright Field Trips In the Appalachia & Beyond:

For a long time the only export Africa provided the West was bad news… wars, hunger, disease and corruption. The only positive tales were literary and artistic, thanks to the writings of some and the music of others. Now the situation is changing! Africa is becoming real as many visitors in the likes of Fulbright participants, church ministers/pastors, peace corps volunteers, researchers, journalists or foreign service workers are exposed to Africa/Africans telling their stories directly.

As we prepare our re-entry with heads packed with experiences and knowledge which will never wear away, no matter how many more roads we will travel… we ponder on the beginning of our lifetime engagement with a (dark?) continent. We recall the incredible hospitality and variety – music, drinks, food, dressing, time, drumming, handicrafts, motorcycle taxis, infrastructure, multilingualism, few shopping malls, traffic lights and street signs and devastating poverty.

And let’s admit, we have to admire Africans who tend to stand out in a crowd with big flashy cars, bold dressing used to communicate community status, personal taste and even rebellion…, for their ability to keep their heads up in the midst of serious and often undue condemnation and stereotypes.

I hope this note finds you well & getting back in full force following the quality time we had together to connect and resource each other for what has invariably been a productive study trip to Cameroon.  It was a wonderful opportunity and a chance to develop relationships, share ideas and get recharged for our important educational mission in the Appalachia.  Since returning, a few of us have talked, emailed or seen each other through various events and have wondered if we might get together once again or listserv to promote the sharing of ideas, struggles, blessings and resources.  Send us your ideas.

Thus far, the following lesson plans are ready: Fruits & Vegetables by Linda and Annie; bearing on a description, comparison, word recognition and pricing of Cameroon fruits and vegetables; La Vie de Famille au Cameroun (Family Life in Cameroon) by Megan and Oscar, a lesson on part of a unit on Francophone countries during which students describe and contrast family structure as well as individual roles within family in Cameroon and USA; Bilingual Cameroon and its Implication on American Attitudes of Second Language Acquisition by Elizabeth and Beth Ann during which students identify and distinguish between Anglo- and Franco-phone areas of Cameroon, comprehend the need of second language learning and use debate vocabulary to express their opinions; and Public Education in Cameroon by Rosemary and Cynthia, designed to introduce the Cameroon (bilingual) school system(s).

A careful analysis of the African situation has shown that Africa is sick but not comatose yet. In the words of Richard Dowden in his book, “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”, Africa may have a reputation of disease, poverty & war. However, when outsiders do go there, they are often surprised by Africa’s welcome embrace rather than frightened. Visitors are welcome & cared for in Africa. If one goes there, s/he will find most Africans friendly, gentle & infinitely polite. Every visitor is frequently humbled by African generosity!!