Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tuesday - Jan 29th

Tuesday, January 29th

Yes, another busy day and we have tons of information. I won’t go into all the details here, but we have many pages of notes.
First thing in the morning, we met with Marcel Fotim, the man from Hydrosanté. It’s a local NGO with a small office in Bamendjou. He told us that they work for better water and health (santé) in the area. For example, there was a cholera outbreak here two years ago with a number of deaths. They conducted a survey and education campaign in that village, and he showed us the survey and their literature. They work as volunteers and don’t even have the funds to make as many copies as they would like to distribute. Marcel took us on a field trip of two water systems in a part of Bamendjou we have not seen before. First we saw a pretty sizeable system put in by a Danish company, 15-20 years ago, with a gas-driven pump collecting creek water, a chlorination system, a large storage tank, and distribution to standpipes over a pretty large area. He said that the system only worked for a very short time because the villagers and chief did not reach agreement on how to pay for the necessary fuel. Everything still looked functional but the pump and motor had been removed. Then we hiked down to the creek and saw a system that diverted water down a long pipe to a ram pump, which sends some of the water further up the opposite rise to a monastery, where they apparently have a filtration system to clean the water. This setup is about 25 years old and functions well. It uses no fuel because the water pressure from the overall flow is used to send a fraction of the water to a higher elevation.
The contrast is stark and shows that any system we might install should consider very carefully what went wrong with the Danish system. The problem seems to have been that there was no institutional means of paying for fuel costs, rather than the level of technology, so one might think that a solar system would circumvent this. Still, the simplicity of the ram pump setup is appealing. So today we will look for elevation gradients near Bakang that would accommodate this. In general, we’re at a higher elevation where the flows may not suffice.
As if that was not enough to take in, we then went to Bafoussam to talk with the General Director of SNEC for the region. That’s the national water company. We had already seen that they have a water treatment plant between Bafoussam and Bamendjou. That’s where the water comes from that fills the storage tank in Bamendjou. The treatment plant was built by the French about 20 years ago. Our big question was whether this system could be extended to Bakang. There are really three questions: first, whether there is enough system capacity to serve the additional demand; second, what would be involved in getting the flow from existing lines out further to Bakang; and third, whether the water is affordable. The director said there was plenty of water, but we looked at the topo map together and the deep valley between Bamendjou and Bakang makes the extension somewhat challenging. He says the water price is affordable because it’s set by the government – we have heard differing opinions on this issue.
So that’s our learning for the day. We’ve had some random and funny experiences that Amelia promises to add to this! - Dr. Steve

Random observations from Amelia et al.:
· Probably, one of the strangest things that happened was while we were attempting to do the pump test. An old lady (the same one who danced with Sam during our last visit) came up to us, pulled a couple porcelain vials out of her purse while speaking Patois so we did not understand a word she said. She grabbed each of our LEFT hands and sprinkled a bit of ashes (of what we were not sure) and then mixed it with some dirt-like fine powder. Then she told us to lick up this concoction and she showed us how. Needless to say we passed up this wonderful opportunity.
· Another crazy story happened while we were in Bafoussam. We were just driving along trying to go visit a company and we came across a beer truck flipped on its side (how that happened we have no idea, but excess speed around the traffic circle is a likely cause). The people around this accident decided to help in the clean up and take some of the beer off of the truck. One man was standing on the sideways truck drinking his beer. This was even while the police were standing nearby!
· We have had some issues with the food we are eating. Martine is a well intentioned cook for us, but her repertoire seems limited. There are these reoccurring fish heads that seem to never die. The fish really isn’t to our liking but they seem to want to be with us for some reason and every meal includes a fish head looking at us.
· Our driver’s name is Guy (pronounced Gee) and he has the greatest ring tone that we have ever heard. It says “Ring Ring..Ring Ring..Your telephone is ringing” with a gradually increasing volume.
· My room is right by the gate that we are walking into the house in and there is a goat that lives right next to it. This animal has the most inconsistent sleep habits and it wakes up at all different times of the morning ( baaa …..baaaaa …….BAAAAAA………etc.). I never thought I would say that I am looking forward to sleeping in a bustling city but I think that I am.
· The other day we were going into Bafoussam and a log truck was stuck sideways in the road. To let drivers know that there is a problem up ahead, they place branches in the road. I guess it is an effective system. So there were cars and motorcycles backed up. Apparently the truck could not make it up the hill. After some discussion and whatever, they took the logs off the truck, dragged it back to the right direction, and pushed it up the hill. This was probably all the people from the bus that was waiting nearby. We don’t know if they came back for the logs…
· We are driving all over the place to talk to various people and our driver is really great about getting us where ever we need. The only issue we have is the music that we are listening to while we are going places. He has just a few CD’s that are (1) old country music, (2) instrumental American classics and (3) the evangelical Christian CD. While all of these could be good on there own, they tend to get really old after about four times. We bought him some new CD’s but he has made it clear that he prefers his own music. We paid 2500 CFA (about 5 bucks) for three CD’s but one only works on the computer, not his car CD player, and you get these odd music videos with it.
· There is this huge hole in the road on the way to Bafoussam. Basically, you really can’t see the bottom of it and your car will be lost in this hole. Along this road, I noticed a random sign that said “Danger de Mort” i.e. “Danger of Death”. Needless to say this has really caught our attention. The mayor claims that it is just an electrical plant, but the sign says “thermal generation.” We think that there is some sort of illegal testing going on there that they are trying to hide. We are going to try to find pictures of it on Google earth when we get back.
· Most people who live around here travel to various locations via bus. These are normal busses that you would find in the states and we all feel like we have been on one that is overcrowded with people and stuff. You have no idea how much you can fit on these busses. They pile people in (its so not safe) and then just keep putting stuff on top. They look like they are going to tip over as there is as the stuff on top is as high as the bus itself.
· Nura, the PCV, told us how she learned how to tie a string onto a cricket. She said that the little girls take their crickets for walks and the little boys are training them to fight with each other.
· We originally thought that many areas of Cameroon are booming with lots of construction, and scaffolding around buildings made of logs. But on closer inspection it becomes obvious that most of these projects were left unfinished in previous years. Nobody has the money to finish them or, for that matter, take down the scaffolding (let alone the structures themselves). Not so funny, just different.

Monday, January 28, 2008

January 27th

1-25 (late) – Dr. Steve
Last night at dinner we had some existential doubts about what we are doing and why. Hearing about the hardships shrugged off by the Peace Corps folks probably exacerbated this, but we also feel daunted by our own ambitious tasks. It can feel like the people of the Bakang village will live their lives whether we come here or not. Everything will always be covered with brown dust. There will always be ruts in the dirt roads and power lines with no electricity. The scope and degree of our differences can feel overwhelming, and what we will do here, no matter how successful, will be a drop in the bucket. Maybe only a droplet in the bucket.

I suppose, in our hesitations, we’re asking about this bucket, and why we would want to fill it. One might say that the volume needed is not the disparity between our cultures but between the levels of true need in our societies. And, in fact, our own bucket in the U.S. is hardly overflowing for some people. But on the average, at least (and that’s a big issue), I’d say it’s still pretty full.So how do we justify our work, when it can seem so negligible? One ethical test that one can apply to an action is to ask, “What would be the consequences if a lot more people did what I am going to do?” This makes me feel better about the droplet, because a lot of them together will fill a bucket. Lots of buckets. So, by this test, we’re doing the right thing.
But all in all, the bucket metaphor is still pretty limiting. For example, our chemical engineers know that it’s better to find a new catalyst than to build larger reactors. We want to help people bring out their own betterment. That’s what we do when we show people how to repair a well, or bring solar energy to a region that has not seen it before, but will adapt it to their needs.

Furthermore, the bucket analogy says we’re doing something that can be measured, and I am sure it *cannot* be. This is frustrating for an engineer! Of course we’ll be able to measure the water production from the wells we develop … but you can’t put a number on good will, and that’s an important part of this.
And besides, we may be engineers without borders, but we’re people without borders, too. What we do here is in the name of international good will, to show people who we are and that we share our capabilities. We’ll get them some cubic meters per hour of potable water…but we are also here to shake hands and share a smile, to root for the soccer team, to struggle with the language and hear them laugh, to walk down their roads with them. Those are immeasurables, but they’re the stuff going in the bucket. All of us in EWB are helping. Stop trying to measure it, and just do it the best way you can.
Okay, Dr. Steve – get some sleep.
1-27 – Dr. Steve
We were wondering if we’d have enough to do on Sunday, ha-ha. (please pardon any typos since I’m typing this on the laptop on a very bumpy road to Bafoussam!) – but it turned out to be loaded. We started out going to mass at the church on Mr. Mukam’s invitation and the service was quite different from what any of us are used to. This was the second service, which is in French and for the younger set; the early ser vice is in the local language for most of the locals. Singing was at least two thirds of the program and a wonderful mix of African traditional, Western hymns, and age-old Catholic chants. There was also a baptism included in the service.
For purposes of symmetry, Mr. Mukam then took us to funeral. But this was not like anything we’d ever seen before. The local chief (actually a sous-chef, subsidiary to the chief or King of all of Bafoussam) had passed away a number of months previously—and been buried—but it was now time for the big affair celebrating his life, and also choosing his successor. There was lots of food, and we were placed at a table with the mayor for a variety of hors d’oevres. We left quickly, though, to get a view of the dancing as it began. There was traditional percussion and chanting by a central group while crowds formed lines that circled around the musicians. Apparently, when the music briefly stopped, a different part of the family would take over the music, and new groups of dancers would also crowd in. The daughters carried bags of the chief’s clothes on their heads, and there was a group of widows on the periphery who, per tradition, were holding empty pots. Since the mayor was asked to join the circling throngs, we followed as well and went around several times.
Shortly after we exited the dancing circle, there was a great shout of excitement, and many of the people ran down a path through the crowd. Apparently, the new chief had been chosen – and captured - by the Notables. Here they came, to the music, with the new chief covered by a blanket, both preceded and followed in line by the Notables, some in bizarre masks and others in feathered disguise. They also circled the musicians. In the excitement, one person started firing a shotgun in the air, and we decided it was time to leave. But we got some unforgettable moments, with pictures and video to show you all!
Later that afternoon we really needed to get some work done, so we headed back to the Bakang area to scout out elevations and locations of the family compounds (called concéssions) near the school, well. and the hill as its crest runs away from the area. It was a very quiet hike but we ran across a family with a well higher up from where we had been before, which runs dry for 3-4 months of the dry season. One of the men spoke clear French so we learned a lot of the area and he walked us around to more wells and also another stream crossing which is a popular water collection point.
We got the same story we’ve heard before. Basically, the well water is turbid and its taste is bad, so most people only use it for washing. They go to the stream for their drinking water and don’t believe that it is harmful. So it seems like (a) education is in order, and (b) a means of treating the well water is needed. Of course, this is not what the water committee sees as the priorities. We’ve got a lot of work to do.
Today (Monday) we were going to start the well test early, but before we left the mayor’s house, a man from HydroSanté dropped by. His organization has an office in Bamendjou and we had a long discussion. We’ll meet with him tomorrow. We then proceeded to fail at our well test (we could not get the water level cable down the well, even though we were able to in our previous dry run, and we also cannot pump by had at more than 1.3 m3/hr, which we need), so we’re in Bafoussam to try some other things, like finding the well repair guy to help, and renting a pump. Hope for the best. We’ll update you soon!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Water Committee

Well today has been an interesting day. We examined the hand pump and partially took it apart to make the water level meter could fit down the bore hole. The pump test will be on Monday and we all are looking forward to it. There were rumors of a local NGO called Acrest ( using solar energy systems and with only a phone number we attempted to track them down this afternoon. We had partial directions when we left but then could not get through to our contact. After one wrong town we followed roadside directions to a place named Set. We instead came to a tea company and understood our English/French confusion. The NGO was located near the Cameroon Tea Estate (CTE) and had several projects in water usage. Unfortunately they were focused on using water to generate electricity and only had one small solar panel that they were experimenting with. It was still interesting place but it is funny how rumors can be generated. That is about all that has recently happened and I have just about had it with a French computer and an English keyboard. (The a,w,z,q, and m are not where they normally are.) Sorry about the pictures, we will try to upload them again.


Friday: Not what we were planning, but this turned out to be Water Committee day! We showed up at the agreed upon 9 am time at the Bakang crossroads. Actually, we were 20 minutes late – and had to wait another hour and a half for things to actually commence. This is apparently standard Cameroonian scheduling, which even runs late by Dr. Steve’s mental clock. And, in fact, it gave us time to send Doug back to the mayor’s house to get the posters which we realized we would need. Then everyone waited on wooden chairs and benches assembled in the open area by one of the small structures at the crossroads. We could hear the noises of children, and occasional singing, from the children in the school way up the hill. Women would occasionally walk by carrying goods or water on their heads, and guys on mopeds, usually carrying people or large bundles on the back.

Finally the last essential person arrived, the English teacher from the Bamendjou public school (lycée) who turned out to be an eloquent translator as we went through our five alternatives for potable water for Bakang. After the verbal descriptions and explanations, we brought out the poster, and the translator read it out loud.

The committee members then retreated to inside the small building to discuss the alternatives. The conversations were in the local patois, but we could tell from just outside that there were some heated discussions. When they came back out, everyone sat down again for the chief to announce their conclusion. He said that they had considered many parameters, and one that was important was that the housing compounds (concéssions), including the dug wells, were privately owned. This made the well retrofitting, and the rainwater catchments, more problematic.

The chief then said that they would prefer the alternative using solar panels. They understood that this was a more difficult project and it would take longer to accomplish. But he pointed out that food cooked rapidly on a hot fire was not as good as food cooked slowly and patiently. They also had agreed that each family would contribute financially to a fund to maintain the system. Finally, the chief asked that all present should announce their agreement to this decision, to show that it was not his voice alone that was speaking – and we heard all of the committee members in unison.

Before leaving, we agreed with the chief to meet and the mayor when he arrived that evening. We then went back to the mayor’s house to get our work gear and so Dr. Steve could take off his coat and tie. In the early afternoon we went out and inspected some more wells, but then got caught in a thunderstorm that seemed like it was not going to let up…so we bagged it and came back to the house to run the coliform analyses on our samples. To our dismay we seem to be missing our Petri dishes and the literature giving the dilution factors for the test. Sarah is e-mailing us the required information and points out that the bacterial tests are not as important as they were last time. We’ll look in Bafoussam today, but Petri dishes are not likely to be a stock item there!

After dinner, we hiked into Bamendjou where we met Nura and two other Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs). We picked up a beer each in a little store next to Nura’s little house, which is right across from the mission church, and then sat in her place and had a truly memorable conversation. The details we learned about life in Cameroon as a PCV would fill several blogs and these people are amazing, amazing, amazing. Also hilarious, because it seems like a strong sense of humor is an essential tool of survival for them. I’ll let Amelia and Doug share some of the PCV stories! We very much appreciate the fact that we are here for shorter periods of time and our accommodations are luxurious compared with theirs.

I’ll (Amelia) talk more about our time with the PCV’s. These people are so amazing! Nura talked about how lucky she is to have electricity in her house, but she is actually stealing it from the store just above her house with a little cord. She even has running water, but the shower is pointed directly at the toilet so she has to sit on it in order to take a shower. They are all starting a new project where they raise rats. Actually, it sounds disgusting but they assured us that rat meat is really good (not so sure about that). They are all going to be given three rats and have to breed them in order to sell them to people. What a career! Nura did assure us that the malaria pill that Doug and I are on is the best one that we could have, while Dr. Steve’s is not quite so lucky. There is a side effect of sun sensitivity and Dr. Steve’s head is now a bit pink even though we haven’t had much sun (he has a solar collector)! They are all on the pill with night terrors and are having some interesting dreams it sounds like. It was so nice to see them for a while and after we came to Mr. Mukam’s house to watch the football game with the chief of Bakang II and another chief from the area (it was Mali versus Nigeria). Going backwards in time, on Thursday, after we were able to blog for a while in the internet café in Baffousan, we went around the city trying to find products that would be applicable during an implementation phase. Luckily, we found a man in a store who was able to show us another store that would be able to help us. Unlike in the US, the idea of competition seems not to exist. This man took us to another store separate from his in order to help us find what we were looking for. The same occurred when we were trying to exchange our money at the bank; the first bank gave us a quote but told us we could get a better rate some place else. Needless to say, we went to the other location. Otherwise, things seem to be going well. Hopefully it won’t rain so that we will be able to look at all the wells and housing locations in the village.


Thursday, January 24, 2008


It has been a hectic past few days with hours of traveling and many meetings, but we now have a chance to talk about our trip thus far. Our flights were safe and uneventful; we only had a brief delay when a tire had low pressure. We had a two hour layover in Paris and touched down in Douala before arriving in Yaoundé. It was easily apparent why frequent travelers to Cameroon prefer Yaoundé airport over Douala. The facilities were well kept and the weather tends to be cooler and less humid. After Mayor Mukam greeted us on our arrival, we were driven to the Hôtel le Tango. Despite not being in either of our travel guides, the accommodations have been quite nice with “air conditioning” and a curious set of stairwells. Our rooms were on the first floor but getting to them involved several flights of steps and turns that are impossible to navigate in the dark.

On Monday, our first full day in Yaoundé, Mayor Mukam gave us one of his drivers to take us around the city. The maps we had did not convey the elevation changes and size of the city, or the nature of driving in Cameroon. The roads consist of pedestrians walking on the shoulder with motorbikes and little yellow Toyota cabs weaving around them and through traffic. With very few lights, it was amazing to have not seen a single accident, although the condition of the cabs showed many previous scrapes and low speed collisions. We stopped at the U.S. Embassy to confirm our visit and to inquire about potential funding programs. While guards are located everywhere in the city we particularly felt their presence around the embassy. Photos are not allowed but SteriPens can make it through security. We also shopped around the local banks for the best exchange rate from dollars to FCFA’s and ended up going to the Hilton. The greatest help we received of the day was from Dr. Nkeng, the Director of the National Advanced School of Public Works. He gave us great advice on our project and even managed to get a well driller to come and speak with us. We were also impressed by Olivia’s friend Johann, a medical student who helps coordinate health initiatives every summer in rural communities.


Continuing on with Doug’s remarks (Amelia), things have been going well but at a hectic pace. On Tuesday there was a football match between Cameroon and Egypt (Cameroon lost!) that caused mayhem. Traffic was particularly terrible we were told and at 6:00 when the game started the city seemed to stop. It was so crazy. We tried to grab a quick sandwich but that proved to be less than simple because a simple cheese sandwich is not really customary and our waitress could not understand us. We have been having most of our meals at the restaurant at the hotel. They have been so accommodating to our needs and we had the most wonderful pineapple and even some cold “33”!!!!!! (That’s Cameroonian beer) So on Wednesday morning we were able to get to the embassy. While the meeting went well, we found out that there are many more challenges involved with trying to get money. Unfortunately, we missed the December 1st deadline for the 2008 fiscal year, but we can try for 2009. The man we met with, Ebenezer, seemed interested in our project but explained that there are over 600 applications for an $80,000 budget that is continually being cut. He said that our visit was good and that he would be able to say that he has actually met with us and that would look good on our part during evaluations. So, after that, we went to see Mr. Mukam, the mayor, at his office. He talked to us about the various projects that he is working on which include churches, schools and personal residencies. He gave us coffee and the coffee is pretty terrible but we drank it like heroes. After all of this we took the oh so long trip into Bamendjou. The drive was about 4 hours and luckily most of it was on paved roads. There are these random tolls that you have to stop at along the way and while you try to pay hordes of children attack the car trying to sell various produce items. We arrived in Bamendjou on market day so the village was packed with people selling all sorts of wares. We drove directly to the mayor’s house, which is spacious and comfortable (running cold water, but no hot water). It makes the living here much easier, but doesn’t have the lively feeling of the village. We had dinner at the “Seven Eleven” (they obviously have no idea what that is!) and met with the new Peace Corps volunteer. Her name is Nura and this girl is such a force. She has only been here for a few months and she has done so much. She has a degree in Middle East Politics and Economics and she is here teaching computer skills, English education and working on agriculture. She gave a class today for village farmers about composting and organic pesticides. She did say that it was nice to speak English for a while, but she has learned all of her French since she has been here and it is really good. We have had so much going on that tomorrow will sort of be a slower day that will allow us to mentally catch up and spend some time getting to know the area a little more. The days are pretty warm, but while we were in Yaoundé today it rained for a while and our driver told us that was very strange. The nights are actually quite cool and there really are no bugs around, which is so good because I’m pretty paranoid about the whole malaria thing. Things are good and we are all learning so much!


Dr. Steve here. I too am excited, but in this case, to be back in Cameroon and meeting the wonderful people of this country – again. Everyone is so welcoming, and patient with my French. The chaotic traffic of Cameroonians on foot, on bikes, pushing carts, riding in buses crammed between the bundles of plantains – it’s now a bit familiar. This is a culture that seems to accept their many inconveniences (is there a choice?) but is also intent on making the best of their country. The medical students we spoke to take 6 weeks in the summer doing free clinics in rural areas; when they become doctors, their salary will be a fraction of what we pay a graduate student. Dr. Nkeng told us that the country tries to assure affordable Universities (at about $100 per year), but this means they are dependent on government funding which is inadequate. The country spends a large proportion of their budget on primary and secondary schools, but still, 40% of the teaching positions are unfilled. Nura has 120 kids in her computer class, with 4 computers. She has them draw pictures of keyboards to use. The U.S. Ambassador has a special program for self-help efforts in Cameroon, but the available funds have decreased year by year. Amelia already mentioned the large number of localities that apply, in hopes that our country will aid them.So here we are, with a small village to help. Our task is simply to get them safe drinking water. I hope we can find the resources.


We have made it to another internet café and have a little more time to tell about our adventures. We were hoping to upload some daily journal entries and pictures and the computers seem to be cooperating. This morning we traveled to Bakang for the first time. The hand pump in the village square is still in operation and it appears to now be a main source of water for the community. We were also very curious about new power lines running along the major roads. As far as we have been able to tell, they were promised during a recent election and several homes were connected with power. We walked up to the school and and were quickly overwhelmed by the children. After speaking with the teachers we began to walk away, but the children had not lost their interest in us yet. We decided to make the best of the situation and measured the size of the roof. We had a lot of help. We also travelled to the southernmost region of Bakang, and began water quality testing of some hand dug wells. In addition to one well that was tested last trip, we were led to four more. Each person we met has given warm welcomes and has been extremely helpful. We will be meeting with the community tomorrow in what will be an overwhelming experience. Now it is time to buy a bucket.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Yaoundé Update


We have all made it safely and are traveling around Yaoundé today. We dropped quickly into an internet cafe but we are off again to meet a well driller contact we previously emailed. Tomorrow we will meet at the US embassy to discuss possible resource opportunities for our project. We will be able to talk more later and upload some pictures.


In Cameroon

Hello to All:
Things are going very well. We met with Dr. Nkeng today and we are going to go back in a few min to talk to one of the well drillers that gave the quote. We tried to go to the embassy this morning, but we did not have an appointment. We were able to get one for the, morning so we can go there before we leave for the village. The hotel that we are in is good and we are doing well. Dr Steve almost lost his ticket in Paris which could have been a bit of a problem. Hopefully we will post soon again with pictures.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Coming Soon!!

Amelia, Doug and Dr. Steve will be traveling on an epic journey to Bakang January 20-February 3. Stayed tuned for more Cameroon adventures.