Monday, February 17, 2014

Another side of my favorite continent

For the first time in a while there are actually a million things I could blog about. Specifically, the many images, stories, laughs and lessons learned from my recent trip to Cameroon for two weeks. Our team will be hopefully be updating our team blog soon (you can read more here) assuming my slightly exaggerated and attempted humorous writing makes it past the engineer in our group who prefers the literal at the expense of funny. Of all my short term and long term trips in the developing world, this trip was by far the best. That is a bold statement for me to make seeing as most of my undergrad was spent falling in love with places after two weeks with other groups of mostly equally motivated students in our feeble attempts to "save the world". I also must add that I may have found something that I am most passionate about and could really see myself doing as a career. This is an equally dangerous and bold statement since most of my life, I have different ideas what I want to be when I grow up on a nearly daily basis. After the extreme stress and frustration that resulted from working with the founder of the start up we're partnering with, the success of our trip came as a pleasant surprise.

I have slightly avoided blogging in general this semester because I've felt that my attitude about life and especially Delft has been generally negative for various reasons but this trip was a nice refresher after the nearly burn out busyness and stress of the past semester. More importantly, it gave me a deeper appreciation for parts of my life in Delft and the people that I've been blessed to meet. Although I went to Cameroon confident about my experience in Africa and short term trips and with the same sense cynicism that I haven't fully been able to shake since Uganda, the trip brought many pleasant surprises along with many expected experiences.

1. Like all the African countries I've visited, Cameroon was a country full of color, life, and laid back people. Although I speak almost nonexistent French, conversation with the people we encountered who spoke English was effortless, funny and open. A stroll through any village and town and we were greeted with the constant signs of life. People running their shops, music flowing from open windows, people dancing, groups enjoying a beer outside, motorbikes loaded with food and other random supplies to be taken on bumpy and dusty roads, women carrying exorbitant loads on their heads without breaking into a sweat,  we children returning from school in their smart uniforms, and boys playing football with anything that remotely resembles a ball. Quite unlke organized, quiet, and generally dead Delft, there was no place we visited that lacked signs of life. Living in a remote village, unconnected to the grid and with limited supplies did not deter its residents from having a good time. And in the big city life was even more exuberant: listening to fabulous live music at one of Yaounde's many cabarets and dancing with the locals on stage was a pleasant change from Delft and its rhythmically challenged engineers.

2. Unlike Uganda, Cameroonians do not associate alcohol with the world's greatest sin (this may be a bit of an exaggeration). Enjoying a beer or a sip of whiskey (at practically all hours of the day) was part of life for all classes and genders and professions (we even enjoyed some fine French wine at the local priest's house) in Cameroon. I'm sure this enjoyment of drink may carry its own set of problems, but I did not observe any excessively drunk people, and appreciated how both genders were able to enjoy a beer or two. Beyond drinking, women seemed to have a more prominent place in society than simply baby producers and cooks. However, given the comments from one of our local guides about how I was slowing down the group on the walks (even though I was walking faster than most of the boys) and the need for me to do the cooking, Cameroon still has some work to do regarding gender equality.

3. In many ways Cameroon fit the stereotypical western image of Africa: red dusted hills dotted with bright banana and palm trees, dusty and bumpy roads, children everywhere, women carrying water on their heads, and vibrantly printed clothing. But Cameroon also had relatively good roads (better than Michigan in most places), a very large highly educated population (unfortunately no jobs), and many extremely wealthy and motivated entrepreneurial people (our hosts) who firmly believe in their country. Cameroon was the first francophone African country I've visited, and the difference between French and English colonization was very apparent. The French language has infiltrated seemingly all areas of the country (even English speaking Cameroon--English and French are the two official languages). While it was quite common in Uganda and even middle income Botswana to find people in rural areas with no grasp of English, most people seemed to have at least a decent level of French in all areas we visited. And even the local dialects contained French influences. More importantly, a common theme during our interviews (particularly with government officials) was that in many ways the French still have 70% of the control in Cameroon and their control is a big reason why Cameroon was recently rated the most corrupt country in the world. Unlike the English, the French did not simply pack up their bags and leave when colonization ended. A significant portion of their economy is based on resources gained from their ex-colonies and they will influence investors, contracts, and policies in their favor. One of our hosts even claims that western media is influenced by the way the French portray Africa. He made the bold statement that Ghadafi would still be in power in Libya and there would have been minimal violence if the French had not interviewed and portrayed him as such a bad guy. Obviously there are biases both ways, but it was interesting to see how different the politics and business climate was in a former French African colony.

4. This trip knit together my often seemingly pointless studies with my deep desire to somehow aid in the development of Africa (a very broad and bold statement, I know). Working for an NGO and doing seemingly meaningless and fluffy projects that to me seemed to not require the need for an inexperienced naive white person to manage, made me quite cynical towards development work in general. But living in Uganda also planted the first seed of my interest in rural electrification and seeing Africa's electricity network develop in a sustainable way. Off grid solar lighting makes SO much sense in sub-Saharan Africa for so many reasons: economic, logistics, environmental and social. Being able to have the freedom to create our own project without the confines of faculty chaperons, release forms, and bureaucracy was delightful. We were friendly and assertive and in two short weeks made a plethora of useful contacts, conducted numerous interviews and ultimately developed a surprisingly comprehensive picture of the electrification situation in Cameroon and the potential for small solar lamps. It has been a while that I have felt so motivated and passionate about something. My work in Cameroon means very little in terms of credit for my master's program so it is now difficult to detach myself from doing more research and sending more emails to gather more information. Unfortunately, now that I am passionate about the project again, I also have to remind myself that it is not my business and sadly I am doubtful that the business will be successful due to the person running it. Ultimately, if anyone is hiring some kind of solar consultant and needs me to travel to a country for weeks or months at a time to do in depth research and interviews, I am very very much on the market!

Finally, one of the biggest reasons I have felt rather trapped and negative about life in Delft, has been because of the people. After a lovely year of exploration and meeting loads of new people, I came to the sad realization this summer that although it is generally very easy for me to meet people and make new friends, in the end there will always only be a few people who you are close to. Delft is not Valpo or Korea or Uganda, where my friendships and interactions were mostly filled with open, well traveled, and dynamic people that I felt completely comfortable with. I didn't think about who I was or what I was doing, I just lived. I didn't think about what information I shared or how certain activities I would only do with certain people. Unfortunately, Delft is not quite the same and perhaps the feeling of not being fully comfortable with the people I often interact with has also led me to scrutinize my life choices and question the direction my life is going. But Cameroon and my wonderful team helped reinstate my appreciation for the few people I do really care about in Delft and in the Netherlands. People who don't find my life crazy or shocking or question my choices. People who instead question what gets me excited and passionate. People who I can have deep conversations with or simply be completely silent with and not feel awkward. Ultimately, these kind of people are not necessarily found after years of friendship but rather flit in and out of life. So instead I'm going to focus on these friendships rather than stressing about my life choices and how certain people judge them.