Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Vacationing in the US!

Just a couple of sentences to say that all is well with family, friends, and me!  I am enjoying the chance to reconnect and talk about my life and work in Cameroon and the Central African Republic.  Weather has been gorgeous.  Here's hoping that your summer is passing even better than mine.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Literacy and Illiteracy

As an elementary teacher and Curriculum Coach, I spent a lot of time thinking about literacy.  What is it?  How do children learn to read and write?  Now, you think about it for a minute.  In order to read, you have to be able to see clearly, recognize all the letters in a word, all of the possible sounds they make, which sound is needed in a particular word, and how to put the sounds together to form a word.  You also have to recognize where one word stops and another starts and what to do with punctuation marks.  At the same time, you must know to read from left to right (for English anyway) and top to bottom.  Meanwhile, while handling this entire cognitive load, you also have to make sense of the words that you read.  It is amazing that any of us can read, yet the vast majority of us in the USA do – and many even like to do it! 

As I work in the Central African Republic and Cameroon, I am thinking more about illiteracy.  Yes, we have people in the USA who can’t read or can’t read much. (Those we call functional illiterates who can read only enough to get by on basic tasks.)  Here though, there are many more who have never had a chance to go to school.  They are intelligent people who speak multiple languages, but can’t read or write in any of them. 

UNICEF says, “Education is a fundamental human right: Every girl and boy in every country is entitled to it. Quality education is critical to development both of societies and of individuals, and it helps pave the way to a successful and productive future” (  Here are some other revealing 2011 statistics from their website.

% of literate people
% of literate youth (15-24), male
% of literate youth (15-24), female
Net primary school enrollment (%)
Life expectance at birth     2011
% of people with mobile phones
% of people who use the internet
% HIV positive
* During the height of recent insecurity, only about 25% attended primary school. 
  (For most of that time, all 20 of the EEL-RCA Village Schools operated!)

Yesterday I was fortunate to be invited to a seminar for district animateurs (community developers) working for literacy.  It was organized by Pastor Gilbert who is the chaplain at the Protestant Hospital in Garoua Boulai and was recently named regional animateur for literacy.  It was an all-day workshop, but I could only attend through lunch.
To start the day, people introduced themselves.  The first couple people talked in French (I am sure mostly for my benefit.)  When it was my turn, I spoke in Gbaya – reading an introduction and thank you that I had prepared with help from my Gbaya teacher.  I am not sure how well I pronounced words, but they understood (I could hear appropriate responses to what I said) and appreciated the effort.  The question then came up as to which language should be used for the sessions.  I said that they should use Gbaya since it was their common language.  Pastor Gilbert sat beside me to help me with the main ideas.  (I understood about 20% of what was said.  Encouraging for my Gbaya learning, but frustrating because that is not enough to understand what is said!)  After the break, the session was in French.  Here’s some of what I learned.

Churches in Cameroon have created 16 literature centers in the country.  These centers work on translating materials such as the bible and literacy-learning books into local languages.  Once such center, located in Meiganga, focus on the Gbaya language.  The Bible has been translated; in fact, the new version was just dedicated about a year ago.  They also have three books for teaching (mostly adults) to read and two to teach basic math.  Unfortunately, many of these books are not currently in circulation.  They need to be printed which means finding funding… 

The literacy program here is divided into levels.  (Note:  in French literacy is alphabetisation.  I like that name because it is linked to the alphabet. On the other hand, I find it hard to pronounce!  Analphabetisation – illiteracy – is even harder to say!)  The top level is the national church.  Then each Literature Center has an Animateur General. Under him are some regional animateurs (four for the Gbaya region) who are responsible for district animatuers (10 for the Gbaya region) who are, in turn, responsible for literacy programs in congregations.  At one time every Lutheran Church had a literacy program.  Now, some have functional programs and others do not.  This seminar is part of an effort to reactivate literacy programs since there is a great need for them.  Literacy programs run for six months after which participants get a certificate of participation or diploma. 
The Animateur General for the Gbaya region, HAMADOU Samson, led the workshop.  Not all the district animateurs could be there, but those who came including us “extras” (the catechist from the host church, the leader of the Women’s Group from that church who teaches a literacy program, a few others, and me) learned a lot about reasons to run a literacy program, organization of the national program, roles and responsibilities of regional and district animateurs, and how to organize training sessions for teachers (called moniteurs here).  There was also time for district animateurs to voice questions that the Animateur General answered.  The sessions continued in the afternoon although I could not be there.

To announce the beginning of sessions and breaks, a man rang the church “bell.”  This is what they use to call worshipers on Sunday morning, too.  It is very loud! 

As is the custom here, participants eat well during a seminar.  To start there was bread, coffee, and tea.  At the 10:00 break there was coffee, tea, bread, beignets (small round donuts), and peanuts.  Then at 1:00 we were served lunch:  meat in a sauce with rice and boule (a starch made from yams and formed into a ball).  Different groups took responsibility for the food which was served in the catechist’s living room.  As in many homes in the US, each time we went into the living room, the television was turned on.  Why do people do this???  I find it distracting, even annoying, but many feel the need to have the background noise.  Maybe here, too, it is to show that they have a television!  Who knows?  (Note:  I don’t have a television and rarely have the chance to watch one, but I don’t miss it.  I have borrowed DVDs that I watch on my computer sometimes.) 

I was pleased to attend this seminar.  At some point EEL-RCA needs to consider restarting its currently-defunct literacy program.  When that time comes, I hope we can work with this program that is much further along. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Funeral and updates

Wisdom from my Gbaya lesson: Fio nɛ wen bíí leŋ.  (Death is for everyone.)  Funerals happen everywhere, but it seems that I hear about a lot more of them since I have been here.  Surely, with a smaller population than the US it can’t be true that more people die.  It is true, however, that more people die young or die of things that rarely cause death in the US. 
I got the change to go to a funeral Monday.  I don’t know all the details about the deceased, but I know he was only 59.  He had had two operations for a hernia, but the second was eight months ago, so I wouldn’t think that was the cause of death, but the people I talked to didn’t know any other cause.  He was the chief of the neighborhood, so the funeral drew many people.  I went because I know one of his sons. 
We arrived after the funeral service had started.  It followed the Lutheran rite and was led by the pastor of the local church where the deceased had been a member.  There were at least 5 choirs present – identifiable by their “robes” (matching outfits).  People sat everywhere.  A couple of tents had been set up and plastic chairs and benches brought from everywhere.  They had huge speakers, a sound system, electric guitar, traditional drums, and a drum set.   Music was a big part of the service. 

A family member spoke.  The man had been a Christian for 42 years.  He’d had two wives (not at the same time) and 12 children.  He had done much to improve and help the neighborhood.  The mayor and other officials (church and governmental) also spoke.

They took up a collection to support the family.  Here, many people process up to the offering plates (actually cooking pots in this case) while others passed pots among the seated.  There were many, many people. 

All of these aspects of this funeral are similar to funerals I have attended in the US.  There were, of course, differences.  This service was held outside the man’s house.  It was in Sango, not English.  And, in the middle of liturgy, it started to rain. 

When it started to sprinkle, a woman (probably an in-law) took a broom and started “sweeping” the sky. (See picture.)  It seemed to me she was trying to sweep away the rain.  I asked later and was told that that the in-laws are responsible to make sure that things are done correctly to honor the deceased.  Why ever she was doing the “sweeping,” it was to honor him.  It didn’t work to stop the rain.
For about ½ hour it POURED rain.  People moved under cover and waited.  Some moved, in particular, to protect the casket.  It was under a make-shift canopy, but with the blowing rain, it had to be protected further.  I took a couple of pictures because the puddles and instant mud are amazing.  After the rain abated, the pastor came into the open space and continued the service.

As in the US, once the prayers were done, some people – family and those close to him, filed past for a final view of the body.  The casket was closed, but there was a door that lifted up so that the face could be viewed through a window. 

Then, the casket was lifted by pall bearers and carried to its final resting place.  In the US, that would involve going to a cemetery in a hearse, but, in this case, the casket was buried in the concession – behind the house.  I asked about burial practices later.  It can be anywhere.  Sometimes a burial stone is put up.  (The picture is from another house not far from my guest house.  Beside the stone monument is a relatively new grave, too.)  My informant told me that sometimes families bury the body inside the house – so that the loved one is still close, I guess.  At other times, it is taken to a separate cemetery. 

There was a procession that led the casket.  It included a group of women dressed in white.  (See picture.)  The one in front, who I am pretty sure is the wife of the deceased, carried a wooden rifle.  (I asked about that later, too.  Depending on the economic means of the family, a real rifle or a wooden one is carried to honor the dead.  If it is real, shots may be fired.) 

  As the pall bearers neared the hole that had been dug, they had difficulties because a small lake of slippery mud had been created by the heavy rain.  They persisted and placed the casket.  After prayers, including those of the wife, the casket was lowered.  More prayers were said and the pastor shoveled in a little dirt.  At funerals in the US, the hole is draped and flowers are all around masking the fact that the casket goes into the ground to be buried.  It is also not usually lowered until the mourners leave.  Here it was different.  There were so many people around the grave, though, that the hole could not be completely filled until after people moved. 

At this point we left the funeral.  I asked some questions about usual funeral practices later.  As in the US, a meal is generally provided after the funeral, but often in the evening.  How much is offered depends on the means of the family of the deceased.

People here are often buried the day they die or a soon thereafter as possible.  Embalming is rare.  Caskets can be purchased from Bertoua, a town about three hours away.  If a family can’t afford that, the person may be buried without one. 

After three days, there is a service for the “Lever de fin de dueil” (lifting of the mourning period).  After the liturgy (if the person is Christian), a meal is shared again.  People who have come from out of town stay through this third-day service and then leave. 
We all honor our dead and mourn their loss to us.  I really liked the saying on this t-shirt of one of the pall bearers.  “I commit my spirit into your hands.” Ps 31:6.

Here are two pictures of the continuing work at the hospital – primer and then painting the final colors.  Almost done!

Next Monday, July 15, I will be leaving Garoua Boulai for Yaoundé.  Tuesday I head to Philadelphia!  I will be visiting family, friends, and several churches.  Who knows when or where the next blog entry will be from… 

Friday, July 5, 2013


I think the discussion of weather is considered important "small" talk in the US – you know what you talk about when you don’t know what else to say or when you first meet someone.  I think, instead, it should be called “large” or “all the time” talk because it is such a frequent topic of conversation.  And (not to get up on a soap box or anything…), I think people on radio and TV go overboard – they are NEVER happy with the weather we have.  It’s too hot; can’t wait for winter. It’s too cold; can’t wait for summer!  And so on and so on. 

So, it’s not surprising someone asked me to write about the weather here.  It is also understandable because I live in the tropics and people want to know what that’s like and how I can stand it.  So, here are my observations about weather – mostly in Garoua Boulai with some notes about other places I have been this year.

The tropics run between the Tropic of Cancer (23° N latitude) and the Tropic of Capricorn (23° S latitude).  These are imaginary lines between which the sun’s rays are most direct, and often hottest.  Garoua Boulai is at almost 6° N latitude; definitely in the tropics.  (It is, by the way, at 14° E longitude, so I am on the other side of the Prime Meridian from the US which is in the western hemisphere.)  Still, it is not that hot here which has a lot to do with the elevation.  GB is 996 meters (or 3,270 ft.) above sea level. 
Here are some other cities for comparison:
Pittsburgh             40 N        80 W             900 ft. (not in the tropics!)
Bangui                  04 N        18 E           1,216 ft. (often hot and humid)
Baboua                 05 N        14 E           2,339 ft.
N’gaoundéré        07 N        13 E           3,976 ft.

Higher elevation can moderate tropical temperatures, so can being close to a river and other factors.  Baboua and Garoua Boulai are moderate and pleasant.  N’gaoundéré, on the other hand, although higher, is drier and hotter. 

So, next, there are two seasons: rainy and dry.  In the rainy season it rains.  In the dry season it doesn’t.  (What a surprise!)  Of course, there is more to it than that, but basically, there’s no sense checking the Weather Channel or an internet site.  I checked today just for fun.  It says it will rain every day this week!  (And, so far it has.)

Here are some details.  The rainy season runs from late March/April through late October.  While it rains most days, there is often sun as well.  Sometimes there are even rain and sun at the same time, but that’s not too common.  When it rains, it often rains very hard – torrential, tropical rains.  This produces almost instant puddles and lots of mud.  It often rains hard for an hour or so, then tapers off and stops.  On the other hand, sometimes it rains all night or all morning.  It is no wonder that some roads are built with gutters to provide a place for the rain water to go. 

Here in Garoua Boulai, we also have overcast days that are gray.  The temperature on these days is often in the mid-60s.  I commented on it to one person who said, “Well, it is June…”  When the sun comes out, the temperature has been in the mid to upper-70s.  Very pleasant, as a matter of fact.  At night, I sleep with the windows open and a blanket.  Yes, a blanket in the tropics!  With so many overcast days, sometimes I wonder if I am back in Pittsburgh.
Many times rain comes with storms that include lightning and thunder.  This is one of the areas in the world where the most lightning strikes.  I found a map online (not very clear) – I live in the dark area – dense with lightning!  You can search for more information online. 

Many more mosquitos are around during the rainy season since they lay their eggs in puddles and standing water.  That means there are more of them to spread malaria and other diseases.  Having a mosquito net is important (although few people here have them), especially for children who are more likely to die from malaria.  This house has screens, but I have been using a mosquito net to be on the safe side.  So far, no malaria!  Yeah.
Cloud formations are beautiful during this season.  Here are a few pictures that can’t capture the depth and breath, but can give you an idea.

During the dry season, travel is easier because there is less mud on the roads.  The temperatures get hotter as well; I’d say they go into the high 80s and low 90s in Baboua.  It is hotter in N’gaoundéré.  The sky is very blue then.  The days get hot, but it cools off at night most times in these areas.  Pittsburgh summers can be just as hot and definitely more humid. 

Plants do grow in the dry season; it is one of the reasons manioc (cassava) is a popular staple since it grows year-round.  In fact some plants flower in the dry season.  Also, ripe mangos begin to appear in the market just before the rains starts. On the other hand, most crops are grown in the rainy season. 

People here only talk a little about the weather.  They may ask how one is supporting the cold.  (It goes down into the 60s after all!)  Or comment on the length or strength of the rain.  It is not a topic like in the US, though. 

Here’s hoping that you had great weather for your picnic or other Independence Day celebrations yesterday!