As part of a study guide for my new book, THE MARKET BOWL, my publisher (Charlesbridge) asked me to answer some questions about my time as Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, the country where the story takes place. I thought I might share my answers with you here.
The title page from my book. I like the image it gives of an African market place - all crowds and bustle.
(Image above links to Amazon. Clicking here takes you to Indiebound.
You grew up in suburban Ohio. Why did you decide to join the Peace Corps?
The first part of your question answers the second. Cincinnati, Ohio is a lovely place to grow up, complete with rolling oak-covered hills, a wide, lazy river and four seasons to make sure you understand the extreme ends of the thermometer. But I had a feeling that it was a wide world, indeed, and that I ought to get out there and see it while I had the chance. Also, I had graduated college and felt my life was becoming consumed with chasing money, instead of learning and growing. So when a friend jokingly told me I should join the Peace Corps, I explored the possibility. And the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to do it. It seemed like a good way to give back to the world for all the privileges I had been given. It turns out, though, that I received far more than I gave. It was a fantastic experience.
What exactly did you do as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon?
I was assigned to a program called “Community Development” which covered all kinds of projects. My particular job was to work on water and sanitation. Like all volunteers, I worked with Cameroonian counterparts on whatever I did. I helped villages build spring boxes and wells to provide clean, uncontaminated drinking water for their populations. I worked on a project to build a small dam, which kept water from running off to the sea and forced it to recharge the groundwater. This made the wells in the area last longer into the dry season before they dried up. And I evaluated some possible water projects for the United Nations Guinea Worm Eradication Project. The work I did for them was fairly small, but one of my friends, Susan Graham, did a lot for them. Guinea worm is a fairly disgusting disease. You swallow the worm eggs by drinking contaminated water. About a year later, worms that are several feet long burrow their way out of your arms and legs. It is very painful and potentially crippling. At the time, the only way to remove the worm was to wrap it around a stick and pull it out of the body about one inch per day. Gross!
Some of my Cameroonian colleagues at the Community Development Office in Ebolowa.
Did the Peace Corps give you a choice of where you’d like to work?
Not exactly. You could indicate where you would like to go. I said Nepal. And you could indicate regions where you would not go. I said Central America and the Caribbean were not for me. Some people thought I was foolish, because who wouldn’t want to work in the Bahamas? But I wanted to go somewhere far away and not somewhere where all my friends and family would come to visit me for a beach vacation.
|Finished cover art for THE MARKET BOWL, complete with crop marks. The dense rainforest and the rich red earth of Cameroon made a great place to live and work for 3 years.
The Peace Corps then matches your skills to the needs of a particular country. I was very happy when I found out I was going to Cameroon. It is quite diverse in population, geography, weather, etc. so I knew there would be a lot to explore and learn.
Did you need to learn a different language before you traveled to Cameroon? How did you communicate?
Cameroon is a bilingual country. They have both English and French as their official languages. But they also have over 200 other languages spoken by the various ethnic groups who live there. Peace Corps volunteers go through three months of training in the country where they are assigned. They learn about the culture, the job they will be doing, and the language they will use. I learned French at that time.
|Learning French in Batié, Cameroon.
Then during the three years that I lived in Cameroon, I learned one of the indigenous languages, Bulu. I can still say a few things in Bulu, to the delight of a Cameroonian friend I met in California ten years after I got back. For example, you might say “Ye ô ne mvoe?” (pronounced a bit like “Oh Num Voy”) when you meet a friend on the street, to ask someone how they are.
|My Cameroonian friend Nathalie. I met her after I came back to America, when I was the Regional Advisor for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She emailed me and was surprised when I answered her in Bulu!
Did you eat a lot of bitterleaf stew in Cameroon? What were your other favorite dishes? What’s the weirdest thing you ate?
Yes, I ate a lot of bitterleaf. It’s called Ndolé in the French part of the country. It is difficult to make. The leaves need to be washed very well so they aren’t overwhelmingly bitter. All the volunteers knew the best places near them to get the best bitterleaf, and which places to avoid.
Ndolé - bitterleaf stew - is so delicious, even the gods are crazy for it.
There was another dish which I loved, called folaré. It was also a leaf dish. The leaf was sour and served with a peanut sauce. I’ve looked for a similar leaf here in the states. The closest I have found is something called redwood sorrel. It tastes similar, but you can’t eat a lot of it, because it is slightly toxic and apparently a laxative! I also loved Koki (a sort of yummy cake made from beans) and esankana (warm, roasted, spiced peanut butter.)
I ate many weird things in Cameroon. I was served monkey once, but declined to eat it when I saw a little monkey hand sticking up out of the sauce.
I wasn't up for eating monkey. Too cute!
I did eat crocodile, and boa constrictor, but I think they weirdest thing I ever ate was fried termites. They’re really good.
What most impressed you about the country?
That Cameroonians, many of whom have so little, generally seemed much happier than Americans, who have so much.
My training group celebrates the holidays thousands of miles away from our families with our new Cameroonian friends. We were known as the "stage de fete" which roughly translates as the "party trainees" because after working all day to learn a language, a culture and a job, we liked to have some fun. You can hear the song we are dancing to here:
If it sounds familiar, you must be a soccer fan. A cover of the song by Shakira was used during the recent FIFA World Cup. But this is the original song from Cameroon.
You realized you wanted to write children’s books while in Cameroon. Why?
When you go to live in a foreign country, where no one knows you and you know no one (at first), you get to find out a lot about who you are. Your identity is no longer defined by the expectations of friends and family who have known you forever. So I guess I was on the look out for new ways to express who I am. One night, as I listened to the music of the drums and the mbira (small finger pianos) being played at a party near my house, I fell into a sort of a trance. I had a dream that I thought would make a good picture book so when I got back to the states, I learned how to make that happen.
How is life for Cameroonian children different than it is for children here is the States?
This is a difficult question to answer, because, just like in America, Cameroonian children have a broad range of experiences. Maybe this would be a good place to say that much of what we are shown here in the United States about the experience of African children is a bit uneven. We usually see images of poverty, famine, and misery. And while it is true that these all exist somewhere on the continent of Africa, it is only a small part of the story. Some Cameroonian children are quite wealthy, and have all the things that American children might have – x-boxes and bicycles and such. Others have very little, but find ways to play and have fun just the same. I’ve seen these kids make toy cars out of old water bottles, shoe soles and bamboo. One thing that Cameroonian kids don’t have (or at least they didn’t when I was there) is cable TV. They do have television, but there is only one station. So the kids spend a lot of time outdoors playing games they make up. A lot of Cameroonian kids also work, helping the family make money, like Yoyo in THE MARKET BOWL.
Families are different in Cameroon too. It is legal there for a man to have more than one wife, so families may be very large. I stayed with one family that had one father, four mothers and 23 children. That’s a lot of brothers and sisters! In America we sometimes say “It takes a village to raise a child” but this expression comes from Africa. In Cameroon, all the adults in your village are considered your relatives. So if you have one father and three mothers, you may have dozens of aunts and uncles. That’s a lot of adults for a kid to answer to, isn’t it?
Dancing with some of my host family's 23 children.
And, of course, the food is different. Besides bitterleaf stew, children eat all kinds of fun things. There is a season of the year where they eat a sort of grasshopper. The kids gather around street lights and other light sources that attract the grasshoppers and catch them, then bring them home to fry up and eat. They must be quite good, though I imagine the legs might get stuck in your teeth.