Je laisse la vie m’emporter

Internship almost done. Plantain chips bought. State.gov email address set for what I hope is only a temporary retirement. I live so entirely in the moment here in Cameroon that I hardly have a moment to look back…or to look forward. But now I will let life, or more accurately, a large jet, carry me home, and to my next professional adventure. Coming up: Internship at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and a semester in Washington, DC. Here’s the “me” that I’m sending ahead of me:

Nina Kuntz is a senior at Dickinson College where she is a double major in philosophy and French. She is interning at NESA through The Washington Center for Internships after being inspired to study the NESA region by a stint working on environmental and peacemaking issues at the Arava Institute in Israel. Nina’s interest in international relations led her to study abroad in Cameroon for a semester in 2012 and France during the 2012-2013 academic year, which allowed her to conduct an independent research project in Cameroon during the summer 2012 and intern at a photo gallery in while in France. She returned to Cameroon to complete a summer internship in Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Yaoundé and is awaiting the October 2013 FSOT apprehensively.  She is excited to dive into American work culture in Washington and hopes to have time to learn Arabic and continue her dance career on the side.    

AND if you want to learn more, you should come to the IRC advising office– oh wait, that’s the wrong shameless plug. If you wish to follow my stateside shenanagins or read about my bizarre travelling past, follow my blog here at:

http://adventuringpage.wordpress.com/

Cheers!

 

 

This Blog Post is UNCLASSIFIED: 10 Weeks of Cameroon in Statistics

Pages of security clearance forms filled out: 60

Months it took to fill them out: 3

Cost of plane ticket Paris-Cameroon, in dollars: Way too much

Internship grant received, in dollars: 3000

Number of hikes up Mont Febe: 17

Number of moto rides: 1

Houses occupied: 4

Total hours worked: about 400

Percentage of Friday afternoons off-work: 100

Percentage of those afternoons spent sleeping :100

Number of sunburns: 1

Number of anti-malarial pills taken: 70 

Hours spent at Mfoundi food market: 4

Number of Embassy meetings run solely by myself: 3

Number of photos sneakily taken of the Presidential Palace: 7

Sightings of Madame Chantal Biya, First Lady of Cameroon: 0

Sightings of Lions soccer players walking around in Yaounde: 2

Emails sent: 293

Number of keggers held at the U.S. Embassy during work hours: 2

Percentage of people in the Peace Corps who are hilarious: 100

Number of attempted IV insertions into my extremities: 4

Number of successful attempts: 0

Number of pineapples consumed: 12

Estimated number of plantains consumed: 60

Number of 4th of July parties attended: 3

Number of 4th of July parties held on the 4th of July: 1

Number of dates gone on with American guys: 3

Number of dates gone on with American guys, in the U.S.: 0

Proportion of my diet that consists of beans and beignets: 1/21

Proportion of my diet that should consist of beans and beignets: 1/2

Number of clubbing outings: 3

Median bedtime: 9:30pm

Percentage of men in the Navy who are attractive: 90 (That’s nine out of ten, ladies. Get on it.)

Number of trips to Biyem-Assi: 9

Number of trips to JC chicken: not enough

Percentage of Cameroonians who exhibit basic politeness: 50

Percentage of Cameroonians who exhibit basic politeness when I’m in the visa window: 100

Amount of stay spent in bacteria-induced stupor: 1/5

Bananas consumed on roadtrip, estimated: 17

Number of business cards collected: 13

Number of instances mistaken for the Ambassador: 2

Press releases written: 2

Cables written: 1

Number of times I typed my secret code in order to access the secure section: 8

Percentage of those times that I felt awesome: 100

Days remaining until I return to Cameroon: ?

Mission: Speak at YES program orientation for high school exchange students about to depart to the U.S

Secondary mission: Interview political leaders from the West region of Cameroon and pay courtesy calls to five gazillion embassy contacts, including traditional chiefs, queens, educational institutions, museums, and regional leaders.

Personal mission: Take tons of pictures, consume as many avocados and bananas as possible, avoid being forcibly married to a chief or senator.

Overlooking the beautiful village of Dschang

Overlooking the beautiful village of Dschang

The traditional palace, or "cheferie" of Bafou

The traditional palace, or “cheferie” of Bafou

These statues guard the chief's palace

These statues guard the chief’s palace

Salt offerings are left by these two rocks by women hoping for twins

Salt offerings are left by these two rocks by women hoping for twins

The throne room

The throne room

Why have one wife when you could have 13?

Why have one wife when you could have 13?

The Chef of Bafou himself and Cultural Affairs Officer Jon Koehler

The Chef of Bafou himself and Cultural Affairs Officer Jon Koehler

These guys, designed on the back of a chalkboard, were my favorite part of the Bafou museum

These guys, designed on the back of a chalkboard, were my favorite part of the Bafou museum

Speaking at the YES orientation

Speaking at the YES orientation

The smiles say it all. Returning and departing students of the YES program

The smiles say it all. Returning and departing students of the YES program

The newly opened museum in Dschang, decorated with tribal emblems

The newly opened museum in Dschang, decorated with tribal emblems

Cultural Affairs Specialist Gladys and I were excited to go the museum

Cultural Affairs Specialist Gladys and I were excited to go the museum

Museum interior, impressively well done

Museum interior, impressively well done

Statue from the West region of Cameroon

Statue from the West region of Cameroon

What we know as the Cameroon was deliniated by Westerners: This map shows traditional ethnic groups

What we know as Cameroon was deliniated by Westerners: This map shows traditional ethnic groupings

The name Cameroon derives from the Portugese Camaroes, meaning prawns

The name Cameroon derives from the Portugese Camaroes, meaning prawns

This portrait of a chief from the West region reminds me of 90's glamour shots

This portrait of a chief from the West region reminds me of 90′s glamour shots

Just another day at the office

Just another day at the office

My face muscles got seriously ripped over the 3-day trip--Cameroonians love to take pictures!

My face muscles got seriously ripped over the 3-day trip–Cameroonians love to take pictures!

The West region is renowned for its coffee

The West region is renowned for its coffee

Maintaining partnerships at the Universite de Dschang

Maintaining partnerships at the Universite de Dschang

Sustainability at Lycee Bilingue de Dschang: The sign says, "

Sustainability at Lycee Bilingue de Dschang: The sign says, “When we have cut down all the trees and nothing survives but the desert, will we be richer?”

 

And then we drove home to Yaounde.

And then we drove home to Yaounde.

Mission(s) accomplished!

The American Dream

 As an intern, I am always “volunteering” to do things at the embassy.

It’s amazing what I volunteer to do around here. I jump on tasks ranging from conducting meetings with groups of Cameroonians and French people, interrogating Cameroonian priests who have personal letters from President Obama and Jesus asking them to come to the U.S. to managing the cafeteria. I’m also up for sorting inventory and pouring 1,000 glasses of champagne. Most of the time, I don’t even remember saying yes to this stuff…or being asked.

One day last week, though, I got an email entitled “speaking opportunity” in which the request for my help was actually phrased as…a question! My immediate answer was yes (and would have been even if this had been a paper shredding opportunity– an intern never says no!). For this outing, I would create and deliver a presentation on U.S. National emblems to English-language learners in the Embassy-funded English Acess Microscholarship program. (It’s sort of like the Dickinson internship grants…if you’re convincing enough, you’ll get some money to learn stuff.) 

The idea was to give a 90-minute presentation in the form of an interactive lesson that would help the students, aged 15-19, improve thier English and understand more about American culture and heritage.

I showed up at the Yaounde Pilot Linguistic Center Tuesday morning, armed with flag printouts, worksheets, my scribbled notes, and a humungous goodie bag. The topic of the lesson was to be U.S. Emblems: The Flag, the Anthem and the Motto. My plan was to ask the students about their own national emblems and what they signified to Cameroonians. Then, I would compare that to Americans’ conception of national emblems and the ideals they represented to us. (Hey, I’m a philosophy major–you’ve gotta start with a solid philosophical foundation!) Then, I had a brief presentation on each emblem along with a related activity.

The whole thing, thanks to the engagement of the thirty students, was a hit. They were packed into the airless classroom in typical Cameroonian style, but there was no commotion. They sat up straight in their chairs, eyes fixed on me, and as I had at the Dickinson welcome orientation, I felt that they were relying on me for so much more than an English lesson.

Explaining U.S. Flag evolution

Explaining U.S. Flag evolution

The winning activites were the anthem-related activity and the closing game. The last thing I told them in my shpeel about the national anthem was that it was famously difficult to sing because of the range required, not to mention that many Americans didn’t know the correct words. Then, I handed out the lyrics of the anthem–but with some of the words missing. We listened to it being sung and tried to fill in the blanks correctly. I brought myself a cheat sheet just in case: This was not the moment to mix up “night” and “fight!”

To finish up, I read the class trivia questions that could be answered only if they had paid close attention to the lesson. The first person to raise their hand got a go. If they answered correctly, they were tossed a prize out of the prize bag. Easy questions like, “How many stars are there on the American flag?” got an Embassy pen. A tiny girl wrapped in a green foulard answered the trickiest question correctly after six incorrect responses (How is the flag disposed of when it’s too old to be flown?) in a whispered voice. She got a huge foldout map of the U.S.

I had asked my questions. Now, it was their turn. I told them they could ask anything they wanted, eyeing two boys in the front row firmly–not ANYthing, mind you! Surely, nearly every teenager sitting in front of me dreamed of going to the U.S. They were learning American English becasue they wanted to know what it was like to speak the language of Obama. They wanted to understand those films they saw on TV. They wanted to live, one day, all the things they heard about the U.S.: The sports players and movie starts, the fast food and the big cities, the cowboys, the schools, and the freedom. They wanted to live the American dream. And right now, they wanted to know:

How old are you?

Where are you from?

Are you a diplomat?

What are universities in the U.S. like?

Are there lots of foreigners in the U.S?

What do you eat in the U.S.?

Do you like Cameroon?

And then the best, and maybe the hardest one:

Do black people experience racism in the U.S.?

I had to say yes. Of course I had to say yes. I tried to explain that like in any country, the U.S. is home to people all along the spectrum of racism: there are people who are incredibly open-minded and accepting, and people who are thoughtless and close-minded. I tried to explain that she, if she came to the U.S., would be a part of my country’s diversity, just the way that a person from China was, a person from Mexico was, or I was. And, like all people do, she would experience different levels of understanding from different people. I explained that while under the law, racism is abhorred, the reality is still evolving to meet that ideal. Here’s the American dream, tempered by reality.

 My unfortunate reality was that I experienced more discrimination in the U.S. because of my geographical background, religious beliefs and intellectual culture than I ever did in Cameroon because of the color of my skin. For me, the American dream was not to be treated equally as those around me, but to have the right and the power to change that when I was older.

I was honest about tough issues like racism with those thirty hopeful students because that’s what they will encounter when they go to the U.S., along with McDonald’s and basketball games. But that’s the thing about ideals: they’re just as important as a reality check. It’s important to have something to strive for when you’re muddling through what can sometimes be agonizing, less-than-ideal life. So I hope that, for these thirty people dreaming the American dream, the flag will wave for them the same way it has for me.

 

You can take the student out of Dickinson…

 

But you can’t take the Dickinson out of the student.

I’m tasting the alumni life pre-graduation due to the overlap between my work in Cameroon and Dickinson’s semester-long and summer study-abroad programs.

It’s an immensely gratifying feeling to be able to welcome my travelling comrades to the country I consider my second home. It’s rewarding to be in a position of a competent adult and professional instead of a somewhat-helpless student. It’s pleasantly bizarre to be welcomed back to the same apartment where I sent six student-y months, now as the Dickinsonians-in-Cameroon authority.   

It’s bizarre too: I realized how long I’d been away from Dickinson when, before I was introduced at Dickinson’s summer program orientation, someone asked when I had graduated. It’s weird, yet almost relieving, to know that I will have one more year to live the college life, but with a different perspective: Knowing that the time to read for hours and go to the gym when I want are precious, knowing that getting up at 6am (or 8, or 9) is not impossible, and knowing that listening to people talk about frat parties will soon be history.

The Dickinson-in-Cameroon embassy visit fell on the last day of the program, only hours before the students would depart. They waited in line outside the gate for their visitor’s badges in their various adaptions of Cameroonian printed fabric, leather sandals and various stages of emotional daze or dissolution, and I could see that they had become Cameroon the way my group and I had. I longed to tell them that this was not goodbye, that Cameroon would never really fade from their souls, and, without sentimentality, that the path back to Cameroon was short if they willed it—and worked at it. Instead I said, “Follow me.”

 

With Dickinson-in-Cameroon in the Embassy lobby

With Dickinson-in-Cameroon in the Embassy lobby

 

 

I love talking about Cameroon. I can go on and on for far longer than anyone wants to listen to me. So when Dickinson-in-Cameroon director Teku T. Teku asked me to run the orientation meeting for the summer program students, my response was…JACKPOT! An insufferable tour guide loves nothing more than a captive audience.

I tried to hit every possible topic of import that I could, without oversimplifying, without lecturing, and feeling suddenly very culpable as my peers absorbed every word I said seriously, eyes fixed on me. I tried to convey the enthusiasm I feel for Cameroon while impressing upon them the realities of living safely and healthily in a country so different from our own.

What I think they’ll remember from my hour-long speech? Don’t drink the water. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. Please, please call me if you’re going to do something not-so-permitted. Always, always be militantly optimistic. Be mindful, but have no fear. And honestly, I think those are the essentials.  

NBA Basketball Coming to an Embassy Near You

One fun part of my job at U.S. Embassy Yaounde is getting to work with awesome people. One fine day as the monsoon rains pounded down outside my bullet-proof window, I got an email from the agent of Luc Mbah a Moute, an NBA player with the Milwaukee Bucks… and a native Cameroonian.

Luc Mbah A Moute

My penchant for tall shoes means that I usually tower over everybody. Not today.

Luc wanted to meet with the Embassy in order to see about partnering up to bolster and expand the educational outreach he does in Cameroon. Luc is a great guy: He came to the Embassy escorted only by his green designer pants, ready to speak to us, person to person, about his passion for providing opportunities to Cameroonian young people. And because the Public Affairs section is charged with the Embassy’s education programs, that meant that the person he was talking to was…me.

Well, mostly. I shepherded him through the security rigamarole at the front gate, then up to the Ambassador’s office, where he talked with Ambassador Robert Jackson, a cultural affairs officer, and a press officer (my supervisors). I took pictures. You can read the headline article I wrote for the Embassy web site by clicking the link below. All in a day’s work!

http://yaounde.usembassy.gov/lns_061913.html

 

 

Seeing Double

When I first came to Cameroon in January 2012, I descended onto the tarmac in the hot, smoky night of Yaounde and understood that I was in a very different world than that of Paris or Boston.

One month shy of a year, I have returned to the same city, knowing that the familiarity and comfort of home await me far more than they do in Paris or Boston.

And yet, Yaounde is not a place that many Americans would call comforting or home-like. Before I even left for Yaounde, I knew that the ten weeks I would spend as a U.S. Embassy employee would be lived from a different perspective than that of a study-abroad student.

I couldn’t help but replay my very first night in the city as I arrived for the second time: As 20-year old Nina arrived in light summer wear and chatted up the French backpackers in the visa line, 19-year old Nina stood silently in a gaggle of chattering American girls. 19-year-old Nina was still sorting out baggage as 20-year old Nina grabbed her suitcase and hopped into the air-conditioned sedan the Embassy had sent. Phantom Nina was sweating along in a madly swerving safari bus as real Nina arrived in front of a paradisical white apartment, balconies glowing behind palm trees and a substantial amount of coiled razor wire. Real Nina sat on the tiles of her first apartment and imagined the city around her: Bastos, so near, with its airy villas and hard-partying friends, then further away, the call to prayer of Briqueterie, Centre Ville’s nightmare of vehicles and Biyem-Assi: home.

But it was not home any more. This time, I was free: no host family to break down my door at six in the morning, no motos clanking along outside, no neighboring eating houses. I was free to invite friends over, go on walks, wear and eat and say and think what I wanted. That’s the beauty of being an adult. I’ll take the responsibility of work and the pain of living unprotected for the right to be who I am.

But back to real Nina. I sat on the floor and envisioned all the pineapples I would buy. They would fill up my counter, my kitchen floor, my nice wooden cabinets, like a veritable Cameroonian pineapple forest. I would call all my friends and family in Yaounde and they would arrive by the hundreds. I would feed them pineapple. The next day, I called my driver and had him bring me over to Rond-point Express in Biyem-Assi. I bought pineapples.

But back to my job.

Working at the U.S. Embassy Yaounde is like working in a little American fortress. And that’s what it is, more or less. Once you get past the gates, guards and metal detectors, you’re in a green-lawned, well-built, air-conditioned, American flag-flying oasis of U.S.A-ness. People speak English, wear suits, and are on time. Even the neighborhood, which is home to many other embassies as well as my apartment, is far more calm and green than the rest of Yaounde.

Working at the Embassy in Yaounde means living between two worlds. Instead of a cold bucket of water to wash myself with, I have a hot shower every morning. Instead of cockroaches and red dirt, I have glass patio doors and hibiscus hedges. Instead of an underfed cousin sitting at the gate, there’s a guard in a uniform. Phones and internet at the Embassy always work. No one smells bad. You can even get hamburgers or grilled cheese at the cafeteria.

As a representative of the U.S. Mission to Cameroon, I’m required to take a lot more precautions than I did as a student. Suddenly taxis and motor bike taxis, which I took habitually to get around, become highly discouraged means of transportation. Instead, I’m supposed to call my car and driver any time I want to go somewhere. My apartment has around-the-clock guards, walls, and an electronic security system. Everything locks. Walking alone during the day is discouraged too, and walking alone at night, while never a brilliant idea, is now a definite no-no.

 Then, I go out into what I consider to be the “real” Cameroon. There’s a moment of shock during every foray where I jump out of my Embassy ride and find myself swept along by the P-Square blasting from the roadside bars and have to dodge swerving taxis. This is the Cameroon I know and love, but it’s an uncomfortable transition. Here’s the thing: when you haven’t showered for three days, it doesn’t bother you so much that no Cameroonian has, either.The heat and mugginess of the streets is positively reliving after the sweating you were doing with five strangers in a beat-up taxi. But plunge into all that from serene, air-conditioned, well-sealed Embassy land, and you’re liable to feel a bit out of place.

But only for a moment. After all, there are pineapples to be bargained for.

One Internship, Many Exploits

Hello, readers of the world!

My name is Nina. Those of you who know me may know me as a dancer, a lover of wisdom, a girl from Montana, a rising college senior, an introvert, a global citizen, or an insufferable tour guide. Those of you who don’t know me— well, follow this blog! Those of you who work with me now know me as Nina The New Intern, Public Affairs Section, U.S. Embassy Yaounde.

Which brings me to what this blog is about, and why.

As you can see from the hyperlink, this blog is hosted by Dickinson College. Why? Because for the last three years, Dickinson has been hosting me as I complete my university shenanogins, everywhere from the home campus in Carlisle, PA to Israel, Cameroon, and France. Now, on the verge of my senior year, Dickinson has furnished me with yet another opportunity to get out in the world– a grant to pursue an internship I snagged with the U.S. Department of State.

After a year of research, rumination, literally hundreds of pages of applications and other documentation sent to Washington, and an agonizingly tough decision between internship offers from the Bureau of African Affairs and the Bureau of European Affairs, I am finally writing this post from the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon.

This is not my first time in Cameroon. This is, in fact, my grand retour  as a working adult. (When I say working, I mean doing unpaid labor, and when I say adult, well, I’m trying.) I’m writing this blog as as a weekly journal of my internship and beyond, so that those who are interested may either profit from my experience or be amused by my efforts– the two are not exclusive. So, if you want to hear about life in Central Africa, Public Affairs operations at a U.S. Embassy as seen from the perspective of this humble intern and, more importantly, pineapple, this is the place to do it.

Comments and feedback welcome!