"Transport is necessary in achieving a wide range of objectives including economic growth, personal welfare, governance and empowerment as well as security." ~ P. Njenga & A. Davis, Drawing the Roadmap to Rural Poverty Reduction

Monday, June 30, 2008

Rain, Rain Go Away

It amazes me how much we are able to ignore the weather around us in the US. We watch the weather, more often than not, to decide what we should wear for the day, or to see if we need to take our umbrella to the office. Here, it's much different. Whether or not it rained in Douroum this week determines whether we take the long route or the short route home. High winds take the power down on a regular basis. Most importantly, when it rains, everyone stays inside. If I see clouds and hear the winds picking up before a meeting, I know my guys probably won't make it.

Most of the young men I'm working with live in Douvangar, a village about 4 miles down the road. Jess and I met them through a priest she was doing a project with just at the beginning of this week - we were due to meet them at the end of last week, but lo and behold - it rained. As the rainy season sets in, this will be a more regular occurrence (in late July it will rain almost every other day); we'll see how much of a problem it becomes. At any rate, the guys seem very excited about the project, and several sound like they've got some pretty good technical skills. I was happy to learn that someone here in Meri now owns a stick welder! This will make life much easier (stick welding is much stronger than soldering).

Unfortunately, even though I went over the details of my project and what all my equipment was for with the TSA, my bag was still held up for a day for extra security checking. Either in the search or in transit, I lost a good number of fasteners and small machined parts I had made for the modular ergometer, shown in parts below. Dr. Iz seemed to have a similar experience with airport security when he traveled to Europe for a stirling engine conference - sometimes carrying even the simplest of machine parts can get you carted off for some special attention from security officials. Anyways, I digress.

The ergometer, in pieces (minus wheels and a few other parts)

The ergometer is basically like riding a stationary bike (in this case, a recumbent) with a load on the wheels, which comes from two little black generators. These generators can be hooked up to any resistive load, like a light bulb. The higher the wattage of the bulb, the harder it is to pedal. By measuring voltage and current, we can figure out how much power was being put into the pedals. Such testing has only been done with Americans and Europeans in common literature, but these (African) people can manage feats like carrying large amounts of water (I've seen up to 75 lbs.) for miles in unbelievable heat - something an average American or European wouldn't be capable of.

Up until now, Jess has been helping to translate when my French all too commonly falls short. I spent my first day alone on the project two days ago, when our friend Issa (pronounced 'Esau') took me to Maroua with him to show me where I could purchase some parts I would need for the project. We rode his motorcycle to the city (about 25 miles), and he showed me where I could purchase bolts, wrenches, etc. As many times as I've been in Maroua, and as many times as I'm sure I have walked right by the vendor he took me to, I had never seen him. Back in a little corner of the Grand Marche (a big open-air market), there sits a shop with nuts and bolts of every size....in metric. I built the ergometer using English sizes. Lesson learned.

At any rate, I spent the day with Issa, trying to communicate as best I could. It's interesting that I have no problem understanding conversations - just the other day I was talking about politics to Jamie's friend Matthias - but when the talk gets technical, and a single missed word can change the entire meaning of the sentence, I have to concentrate much harder. Usually I find myself asking someone to repeat themselves quite a bit, because I want to make sure I understand precisely, and then it takes me another 20 seconds to formulate my response...it makes for some awkward pauses. In the end, I got what I needed for a good price and made it home with some sense of accomplishment, only to discover that I forgot to put on sunscreen...boy is my face red (pun absolutely intended).

We had our first real project meeting yesterday, and the three guys that Jess and I met last week have already increased to five. I was on my own again, as Jess had some work to do out in a field, but the meeting seemed to go really well. For the umpteenth time, I find myself learning more than those I'm supposed to be teaching. That's one of the things I love about this work - I have several years of practial experience and about six years of higher education under my belt, and I still have so very much to learn - even (especially?) from some high school grads who can't speak English. My guys are pictured below: Lamamsa, Jean, Jacques, Rigobert and Jeremi.

My guys from Douvangar

Friday, June 20, 2008

First Week in Village - Protocol

Finally unpacking our things in village, we came to find that the power had been out for nearly a week, expected to come back on at any day. In total, the power was out for 8 days, which made it very difficult to sleep at night (temperatures have been up in the 90's at night), and shut down the mill for the local people, not to mention making work after dark nearly impossible. It certainly highlighted the fact that we only get 12 hours of daylight here, as Jess and I spent several hours reading by candlelight until it was late enough to try and sleep each night.

Whenever I come to the village, it is customary to do what is referred to here by 'protocol'. Remember, Africans are big on introductions and welcoming visitors. Protocol involves visiting the local officials and friends, to greet them on my return to the village. Several days are spent merely greeting people, discussing how they and their families are doing, explaining the details of my project, and how it is to be carried out, etc. We visited the Sous-Prefet (the government's envoy to the village), the mayor, his family, local priests and market keepers, several other workers at the sous-prefecture, the gendarme commandant (the local commandant is actually very nice and upright) and our friends around the village. This process takes days.

We also met with three of the young men I'll be working with to construct the vehicle. They're finishing up exams this week, and we'll be ready to start going over the design and buying materials next week. They all seem excited to be a part of the project, and I'm excited to make the a part of it. When I present my results to the NGO in Maroua, these young men will have some marketable skills to offer - if anyone should want to construct such a vehicle, not only is it possible, but they've got local experts on the subject. I think this will play out nicely for all involved.

Two nights ago, there was an uproar across the village as the power came back on. It's amazing how much easier it makes life when one has access to electricity - the fridge is on! We can open the jelly! We can have COLD water! We can turn on the fan, and we can cook after dark! This is great!

All together, things are off to a nice start, after a rocky trip home. I've put in my cv for consideration by the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Denver for a Ph.D. position in biomechanics research - Jess is interested in an intercultural/international communications master's program there, and we may be headed there as early as Spring '09, if I get the position with them. We'll see how things turn out.

Return to Meri and The Trip From Hell

We finally arrived home after traveling for 7 days. We had, at that point traveled by plane, train, bus, bush taxi, car, motorcycle, and foot over a distance that would, in the United States, take less than eight hours to drive (less the 7000 miles covered in the lane, of course). So, after much ado, we have finally made it back home to Meri. Air France managed to misplace one of my bags (the one with all the metal, bolts and wires in it - if a bag was going to get left behind, likely for extra inspection, I figured it would be this one). Thanks to that, we had to spend an extra day in Yaounde and 4 hours at an empty airport waiting for the customs worker with the key to get to my bag. We finally boarded the train to Nagoundere that evening, and headed north.

Thankfully, the train went without issue, ,and we met a really nice married couple who shared our sleeper cabin. The woman was a former agricultural worker and her husband a lawyer, both from Garoua. The wife, Lyna, now runs a restaurant a bit off the beaten path on the outskirts of Garoua, which has an extensive menu with some excellent food on it. They invited us to eat there the following evening at 8, and we gladly accepted. We got on a bus that made the trip from Nagoundere to Garoua in pretty good time (about 5 hours), although there was a kid just behind Jess and I that threw up pretty much the whole trip.

Oddly enough, the couple we met picked us up in their car at our hotel (only very rich people here have cars), and drove us to the restaurant, where Jess and I had probably the biggest meal since we arrived. With roast chicken and beef, fries, pineapple, mango, and various other treats, we had a wonderful dinner with the couple, and when we went to pay, they wouldn't let us. This was not a cheap meal! Jess and I agreed we should eat there the next time we're in Garoua and pay for a large meal.

From there, we left for Maroua again by bus with Touristique, the Greyhound of Cameroon. This trip was a lot longer than it should have been (should have taken three hours, but took five and a half), and Jess and I were pretty much totally exhausted when we finally got to Maroua. Yet again, one of my bags was lost on the way, and we spent another several hours setting up someone to pick up the wheels of my makeshift ergometer when it would arrive the next day. We spent the night at the Case (the Peace Corps crash pad, if you will), and took the bush taxi home the next day.

Of course, it wouldn't be the trip from hell unless we got accosted by crooked Gendarmes on the way, so at both possible places to be pulled over, the bush taxi was stopped and we were asked for our papers. At the second stop, the gendarme not only asked to see my passport and visa (which is all the need), he asked to see my airline ticket and any other documents he could think to require, lest I be forced to pay the 2800 CFA fine (about 5 dollars), which he invented on the spot. We sat and argued with him until he realized we were about to phone our embassy, at which point he finally let us go. This is probably my least favorite part of traveling in areas like this - police have a lot of power, and are typically corrupt to the extent of such extortion. We finally made it to Meri that afternoon, exhausted from the trip.

Sunday, June 8, 2008


So, we've arrived in Yaoundé safe and sound, albeit after a long trip. We'll have to stay here at least until tuesday morning, because one of my bags (containing several months of machining work in bike parts) managed to not make it here - we think it got stuck in Paris. The flights went without a hitch, but the airport staff at CDG were, as expected, totally French (i.e.:totally unhelpful with our short connection). After a lot of funny looks from security at the bike wheels I was carrying and many hours spent asleep in the air (awake for Jess), here we are.

Jess has always said the people in the south are a lot more aggressive - she's right. We basically had three guys standing around us in the airport demanding 50 dollars because they 'helped us' (they hadn't done anything). It took a lot of nasty looks and shoving through them to get outside the airport and into a taxi. After all that, the hotel and pizza for dinner was awfully nice.

The weather down here is cool and really humid. The city reminds me a bit of Accra (in Ghana), although it seems a little less developed. We're enjoying the electricity and internet!