Field Notes, Photoggling

Painting the Town Red: HIV/AIDS Day Mural at Fonfuka

NOTE: Due to a lack of larger news sources covering the events in western Cameroon, I have attempted to provide a synopsis partly in order to provide context for my traveling adventures, but also just to let people know what is going on in my host country. 

Once upon a time, Britain decided that its Cameroon (a small strip on the western side of Cameroon, which includes today’s Northwest and Southwest regions) was ready for its independence and so it told the regions they could either join Nigeria or Cameroon. The British Northern Cameroonians decided to join Nigeria while the British Southern Cameroonians chose to attach themselves to Cameroon that had recently gained their independence from France and avoid the recent political crisis in Nigeria.

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However, the unification was not always peaceful. Originally a federal state (West Cameroon and East Cameroon) that assured a greater level of self-determination to the Anglophone regions, under President Ahidjo, there was a referendum on becoming a unity state, which passed. (According to Pa A——, Fonfuka resident, the two options for the referendum were “yes” or “oui”.) The two new regions were a minority, Anglophone in a Francophone country. Over the next few decades, these tensions rose and fell. (It does not help that most government positions are given to individuals from Douala or Yaoundé, which are both Francophone.) More recently erupting in the early 90s and in 2008 over poor working conditions and the re-election of President Biya and reports of election fraud.

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Once upon a more recent time, plans were made for me to head to a far away village named Fonfuka (another volunteer’s post) in order to help paint a mural for World AIDS Day.

And this is where the two stories converge: this past November the teachers and lawyers began striking in Bamenda. Since then, there has been no school in the Northwest and Southwest and once again (as in the 90s) Operation Ghost Town has been implemented, which means no one goes to work and no transport is running on certain days (Mondays and Tuesdays in this case), but people can still go buy food and other necessities the other days. Over the past few weeks the protest has grown from Bamenda to other big cities in the Anglophone regions: Kumba, Buea, Kumbo, Limbe. People have been arrested, beaten and kidnapped, which further intensifies the protests. (While traveling through the region a guy showed me a video he had of the BIR (the army, also the same forces that are up in the Extreme North battling Boko Haram) beating a man. I was told every bone was broken before they finally killed him.)

Meanwhile as a volunteer (as most of us are placed in small villages), it is fairly easy to be removed from conflict. Unless, of course, you need to travel through one of these big cities to get to post, which is needed to get to Fonfuka, located in the middle of nowhere, Northwest. Fortunately, now that ghost town has been implemented, striking is a tad more predictable, which means if you can plan your trips you are less likely to get stuck in Bamenda or another ghost town.

So as soon as I received a green light on still going to Fonfuka (obviously Peace Corps would not want us volunteers vacationing there at the moment), Jack and I hurried out of Yaoundé in order to avoid being stuck in Bamenda during Ghost Town.

Out of Bamenda, one could enjoy the scenery: mountains on mountains on mountains. In fact, going to Fonfuka involves going up and down mountains. First by car on paved road, and then, by moto on unpaved roads. After over twelve hours of travel, we finally arrived and work could begin.

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View of some of the mountains.

In some ways being in Fonfuka was like being in a different country. People speak pidgin, which when spoken fast, was impossible for me to interpret. (I was so excited to discover Fulani people living there because I could communicate in Fulfulde with them.) The culture is much more boisterous than in the quiet Adamawa, the food was different, the houses were more spread out, and everyone drinks sha’a. What is sha’a? Essentially a fermented corn smoothie that is extremely cheap. Fonfuka has around thirty(?) sha’a houses and people will spends hours sitting around and talking with others in them.

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Jack in his natural habitat aka a sha’a house.

Being there also made me realize the depth of the tensions in the regions at the moment. During the four days I was there the Internet was shut off in the Northwest and Southwest regions, but even in the middle of nowhere, more accessible by moto than car, people were still very aware of what was going on. Some even referred to themselves as Mbozonians (my apologies I have no idea how to spell that) drawing the name from the mbo people who lived in Buea and saying that they were “the people living behind the mbo people” (Buea used to be a capital city.) Others refer to the francophone regions as “La Republique.” But one sentiment is clear: Many want independence.

There are also many rumors. (Just last week everyone received a text from the government warning about spreading “false news” also many people’s MTN account stopped working temporarily, meaning people could not call each other.) My personal favorite? That France told President Biya to stage a coup in order to transition the power to the military and offered him sanctuary in France.

These rumors can make traveling more difficult. For example, when I was heading out there was word that there was another ghost town, which meant I had to spend an hour trying to figure out what the situation exactly was on the ground. (Spolier: I made it out safe and sound without any incident.) While the guard told me I was fine, a few hours after I had left, two other volunteers traveling the other direction were told to cancel their plans and stay in Bafoussam.

But of course, this post is also about Fonfuka and the belated AIDS day mural we finally painted. In three days we managed to finish the entire thing. I would like to give a huge shoutout to my dean for letting me count a painting class for my major senior year, which helped made this project possible.

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Huge shoutout to Jack for roasting, peeling and grinding coffee beans every morning so we could both start our day with a cup each.

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I still don’t understand how they make the roofs so tall.

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Gridding

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Small pikin doing their thing.

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The community was really great at helping out, be it finding ladders, holding paint, etc.

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Rough draft. End of day 2.

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Photo with a council member of Fonfuka.

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I jokingly told him he was too ugly for a photo and then snapped his reaction.

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Early morning underpaint.

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Lawrence, Jack’s counterpart, helping with the painting.

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The finished product. End of Day 3.

Following the end of the painting, there was a community sensitization on HIV/AIDS. The Northwest has the highest rate of prevalence in Cameroon. Posters about ARV adherence and condom usage were also hung up in almost every store and sha’a house.

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Fonfuka’s mayor presenting the product to the community.

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Sensitizing the community

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Laughing because the pidgin word for having sex literally translates to “slapping skin together.”

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Lawrence sensitizing on HIV/AIDS.

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Jack, Lawrence and the mayor. Fonfuka’s dream team.

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