first month

Its’ been over a month since I landed in Yaoundé along with 9 other Dickinsonians. After going through a honeymoon period during the first week, we ran into a period of difficulty and sickness during the second week. Some might call this reality. During this third week, we all seem to have accepted and swallowed a lot of these challenges. Please note: these challenges have NOT kept us from discovering a beautiful culture and way of life that is present in Cameroon. Every difficulty has exposed us to a different aspect of Cameroonian culture and left us with endless stories. I hope to share certain aspects of culture on this blog periodically throughout the semester. In this way, I can give you a peek into the challenging yet fulfilling experience we face every day down here. **I got a little carried away, so if you don’t have time to read this enormously long post, I’ve italicized the important parts**


Taxis-             What is public transportation? In Yaoundé the only way to get around the city is by taxis that dominate the streets. I am not kidding when I say that for every 1 regular car there are 3 taxis. The taxis are private enterprises that just need to be registered with the government to operate. So basically if you have a car that runs and you pay a registration fee, anybody with a license can drive. A typical taxi is an early 1990s Toyota or Honda that is painted yellow and is in rough shape. I truly doubt that the majority of them would pass inspection in the states.

The way that taxis operate is very unique, as they will pick up multiple people going to different destinations around Yaoundé. A taxi driver will pick his (have not seen one female driver) route based on where his passengers are going. Therefore he finds customers who are going to the same neighborhoods or places that are on the route. The typical fare is 200 francs (0.40 cents) however if you’re going further (such as across the city) it is customary to propose a higher fare. Proposing a smaller fare is appropriate if you’re going a shorter distance (such as from one adjacent neighborhood to another). A driver will slowly drive by unmarked, yet established, taxi stands (how everyone knows where they are is beyond me) and will listen as people tell him where they are going. If he is going that direction he will give them a nod and a beep, which means that he accepts their offer. If he is not going that direction he will keep driving. The result is that you end up in a taxi with people you don’t know and going to potentially different neighborhoods. It’s cool because you get to discover new areas of the city, but sometimes frustrating when you are late to where you are going. Basically what we have here is an organized hitchhiking network.


Going out in public- Jaws all on the floor, acting like they never seen a white person before!! (Eminem song lyrics) Every time we go out in public, it’s a show. Whether it’s walking home or down the street to the store or at a bar, everyone is always staring at us. Many times people will call out “la blanche/le blanc” (white woman/white man) and point and laugh or stare. The girls on our trip will often get marriage proposals or offered a ride on their moto (very enticing I know). Every once and a while there will be someone who tries to touch one of the girls or follows them around for a while. I truly feel bad for the girls here because it takes so much more courage to go out in public and get cat called and objectified on a daily basis. We go everywhere in groups and do a good job of walking home together once it gets dark out. Fortunately everyone lives near enough to each other that you don’t ever have to walk home alone. We never stay out late either. Our families like us home by 9 p.m. at the latest because there are lots of thieves that operate in the later hours of the night. So far we have gone out to a couple bars and had some fun but in the early hours of the evening so we get home before 9. Starting next week, we will be able to stay at the Dickinson Center when we want to go out and stay out late. It is much safer because we will be in a big group going to and from clubs/bars and there is no threat.


Social life-             Social life is a BIG part of the culture here. High unemployment and cheap beer (700 francs = $1.20 for 0.65 L) keeps many bars full of people enjoying a cold one to escape the daily 90-degree heat. Similar to everywhere that isn’t the US, binging is not the style of the Cameroonian beer drinker. Students that have host fathers have said that it is part of their fathers’ routine to go get a beer after work every day and come home to a prepared dinner. Most of the bars are male dominated as a result.


Families-             Our host families come in all shapes and sizes. All part of the upper middle class, the sizes of houses to the number of people living in them varies greatly. I live in a calmer house with a 21 year-old brother (Jude) and 14 year-old sister (Cynthia). My mother, Mama Jacky (seriously what she goes by, its hilarious), is a department in some sort government ministry. A lot of our host parents work in some kind of government position, as does a lot of the upper class in Yaoundé. Although our neighborhood (Montée Jouvance) is nothing special, much of the 1% live in gated communities in specific parts of the city. Say what you will about wealth disparity in the United States, but I think we often take for granted the existence of our middle class to bridge the gap. Whereas here you find a large part of the population living on $1,100 US dollars a year and a super small percent living with servants and driving Range Rovers.

Daily routines consist of an early wake up (7-7:30) to get to class, class during the day then come back to my house in the evening. Usually they are preparing dinner, so I sit in the kitchen and read while they prepare the meal. Meals at my house include beans, rice, fish, chicken, vegetable stew, plantains, and/or fruit. Interestingly we don’t always eat together. People just kind of eat when they are hungry and at the house. On weekends we have had more sit down meals together, but during the week there is little effort made to coordinate and eat together. The same goes in other host families’ apparently big family meals are not a daily practice.

After dinner we will watch some kind of television, whether it’s the news or a Brazilian soap opera that they love, Mama Jacky decides what gets put on. Because we don’t have a father figure in the house and Mama Jacky is the breadwinner, my brother and sister treat her with enormous respect. Once she gets home from work, she does not lift a finger: her dinner is cooked and served to her on a platter then is cleared and the dishes are washed when she is finished. Apparently fathers in other host families are treated with the same respect by their children and go even further: kids wake up 5 am to clean the house, their father’s car, do dishes, prepare breakfast, etc. The respect that children here have for their parents is extremely impressive, however establishes a very hierarchical tone in the house. It is true that many American households do not have nearly respect for their parents, however they are also not afraid to challenge them. American parents are often challenged and not considered absolutists in the eyes of their children. I think I prefer this horizontal and more balanced relationship, however the level of respect established here is truly commendable.


Cold showers, power outages and limited wifi- I apologize for any delays that occur when it comes to responding to emails, facebook messages or texts. Although there is wifi at the Dickinson Center it is VERY slow and when a lot of people are using it, it is virtually unusable. There is also no wifi at our host families. As a result I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing, which has been really refreshing and great because there is SO much that happens every day that I want to remember.

Power outages are also not uncommon here. Apparently there is not enough electricity to power the entire city, so it is set up on a grid and once or twice a week your neighborhood will have a “coupure” (outage) for 2-3 hours, usually when its most inconvenient. The first time it happened after I moved in with my family, they were cooking dinner and the power cut out. As if nothing had happened, Cynthia went into the cupboard and took out an oil lamp, which she lit and went on with cooking. All the stoves here are gas powered which allows them to keep cooking during a “coupure.” You most definitely get used to using a flashlight to read and brush your teeth.

Hot water is few and far between here. Although I haven’t taken a hot shower since arriving, I really don’t mind. The stifling heat of the day (and even the night), keeps me looking forward to a freezing rinse at the end of the day. I think I take longer showers here than at home just because I miss feeling cold and I know that as soon as I get out, I will start sweating again.

I think it’s interesting to note that even the upper middle class families we live with do not spend money on water heaters or wifi or air conditioning, even though I’m sure they could afford it. I don’t think it’s a matter of being able to afford it, but instead they have never had it as part of their lifestyle and have become accustomed to living without it. They simply don’t have the same priorities that Americans have when it comes to things like technology, social media and luxury. Despite the sweat and the intermittent urge to send an email, the change of pace is really refreshing.


I hope that this first post gives you a little bit of insight into the last month of my life. Unfortunately I couldn’t cover everything, but I tried to hit on the most important parts for this post. Next time I’ll go into more detail about the markets, bargaining prices, and our excursions. So far we’ve been to Kribbi (which is a beautiful beach town on the coast) where we spent the weekend with our heads in the sand. Next week we are heading to Limbe, which is a city in the southwest region of the country. Until next time! –Sam  

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Finishing Strong and Maintaining Relationships


As my internship comes to a close, the value of finishing strong is becoming very apparent. Looking around at the group of interns that are working here at PKSOI, it is clear that not everyone working here has the same mentality during the last couple weeks of the summer. Although the atmosphere is pretty relaxed and my project was mostly completed, I still made an effort to work diligently and ask for new projects even if I couldn’t finish them. That final push really made a difference to how my mentor viewed my work ethic and proved to him that I wasn’t done until the second I clocked out on Friday afternoon. Any push I can make to improve my relationship with him will be beneficial in the future when looking for other internships or jobs.

Having a check out interview with your mentor might also be beneficial to your future career path. Internships give you a rare opportunity to foster a relationship with someone in a strictly professional setting. This relationship can be a great asset to you down the road when potential employers ask for references or recommendations. Communicating appreciation and thanks to your mentor can go a long way when looking for references or networking for jobs in the future.

This kind of appreciation should also be communicated to any groups or people who helped in your internship experience. For this reason, I would like to give a shout out to Dickinson College for their awesome grant program, which allowed me to have an incredible experience this summer. Because this internship is unpaid, I would not have been able to afford to stay over the summer and live independently without an income. Thank you Dickinson for your support!

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Feeling Valued

Something I learned this summer at PKSOI was the feeling of being valued by colleagues in the workplace. Although I worked in a similar office environment last summer at a construction firm, my input was not nearly as considered as it is here. From day one the director of PKSOI made it very clear that he valued intern input, however I didn’t completely believe that a United States colonel would actually care about the opinions of undergraduates. The opposite proved to be true. I found that during discussions, lectures and briefings, I felt extremely included and part of the situation. My opinions were listened to, valued and taken into account at every turn and as a result, I feel very satisfied with my overall internship experience.

To cite a concrete example, today the two star general commandant of the U.S. Army War College took time out of his extremely busy day to meet with all the interns and discuss our experience at PKSOI. The general was not only concerned with the good parts of our experience, but also the bad parts and suggestions we might have for the internship program going forward. For an hour, we were able to discuss the positive and negative aspects of PKSOI in a completely candid fashion, as none of our supervisors or mentors was allowed in the meeting. This gave us the opportunity to be completely honest with a superior about our experience this summer.

Being valued in an internship setting not only makes you feel good, but also encourages you to work harder to achieve your goals. Even before this internship began, I already felt extremely valued by Dickinson when they invested $2,000 in me in the form of a grant. Since PKSOI is an unpaid internship, this grant and investment allowed me to stay in Carlisle over the summer and afford to work without pay. Without this grant, I could never have afforded this opportunity and would have missed out on the wonderful experience that was this internship.


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Understanding an Organization


Last week I learned that not every part of work is enjoyable. On Thursday and Friday last week PKSOI held their Strategic Action Plan, which is a meeting where they outline their goals and mission of the organization. Sufficed to say, hearing a bunch of professionals argue over phrasing of mission statements for two days isn’t very interesting. Despite being extremely boring, the planning conference shed some light on how organizations like PKSOI strategize to complete their goals. Being a very multifaceted organization with very diverse goals and tasks, planning sessions are necessary to make sure there isn’t any overlap between different branches of PKSOI.

The conference helped to show different branches what they were each working on. For example, the employees from the education branch who teach courses at the War College were able to present to the group and tell them what they do well, what they do poorly, and how they plan to improve over the next 2 years. As each of these branches (doctrine, policy, etc.) presented their short and long-term goals, I gleaned a better understanding of what PKSOI was trying to accomplish as an organization. I was also fortunate enough to contribute to the discussion when the branches split off to discuss and plan their presentation to the whole group. Despite only being here for 2 months, I was able to share my opinions about what I thought PKSOI was doing well and not so well. The professionals respected my ideas and even incorporated some into their presentation, as well as taking them into account when forming their future goals.

Although the Strategic Action Plan was ultimately very boring to sit through, I look forward to participating in similar planning sessions in whatever organization I become a part of in the future. Just being part of this experience was very valuable as it taught me how a professional organization builds a roadmap to accomplish its goals. Now when I become part of an organization I will have a good idea of what to expect and be more ready to contribute when it really counts!

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You have to be SOCIAL!!

As my research on Mali continues, I am starting to understand the potential that resides in an 8-hour workday. Although I spend the majority of my day researching for my situation assessment on Mali, it is impossible to read and write consistently for 40 hours a week. That however does not mean you can log on to Facebook or Twitter during these lull periods, as such behavior in a workplace environment is unacceptable. Instead I have been using this time to become more knowledgeable about my field, whether that means becoming more well read on current events, or exploring networking opportunities and talking to professionals and other interns. When people say that some of the best conversations happen around the water cooler, they weren’t kidding!

I have found that talking with others about the fields of peace building, NGOs, non-profits or government is much more beneficial than going on “” or Googling “NGO job opportunities.” Not only can colleagues provide better insight for fields you’re interested in, but can also provide you with names, organizations and hopefully recommendations for opportunities that are a good fit for you. At this point in the process, your GPA is not nearly as big of a concern compared to your ability to converse, relate and be social. Some of the smartest people have the worst social skills and without those skills, how do you plan to relate to future employers? These social skills not only help you relate to potential employers, but can help in networking. Giving a good impression as a smart, nice and interested young person can go just as far as an award winning research project.

A quick example: Having been here for almost 7 weeks, I have developed relationships with my fellow interns, discussing everything from global current events to what people are doing on the weekend. By engaging my fellow interns and giving a good impression, I have created a network of individuals who will be entering similar fields as me in the next 5 years. Furthermore, I have already seen the benefits of this network! Just yesterday, an intern who is working with her mentor in a seminar with students at the War College approached me. My fellow intern told me about a student in the seminar who is a foreign service officer deploying to Mali next year and offered to introduce me. What resulted was a 20-minute conversation about his career in Foreign Service and his business card, with instructions to email him my situation assessment on Mali when I’m finished with it. Down the road this connection and resource could serve as a portal to entering the field of Foreign Service, all because I had taken the time to discuss my career aspirations with a fellow intern. Being social and curious goes further than you think.

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Military or Civilian… Is there a difference?

This past Monday marked the first furlough day for civilians working at the U.S. Army War College. Because I am an unpaid intern, one might say that every day is a furlough day for me… However my supervisor, Dwight Raymond, along with hundreds of other civilian employees were furloughed on Monday for the first of 10 unpaid Mondays as part of the government sequester.

This difference between civilian and military officials is something I have been observing since I arrived at the PKSOI. Having no military background, participation in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Company), or career at West Point, I was completely oblivious to the civilian-military relationship prior to this internship. In my time at PKSOI, I have learned how the differences between civilians and military personnel, are not as stark as it sounds. In many cases, such as Dwight, the civilians at the War College are retired colonels or other officers and therefore have worked on both sides of the table. When it comes down writing doctrine, conducting studies, or doing research, the only thing that matters is mental capacity instead of military experience. At PKSOI the research being conducted is by both civilians and military personnel, who are both educated, motivated, enthusiastic and passionate about their jobs.

This collaboration between civilian and military personnel increases the production power of organizations like PKSOI. There is absolutely no bias or barrier between military and civilian personnel and as a result, I have been welcomed with open arms by military employees at PKSOI. They have helped explain military hierarchy, operations and lifestyles, which have subsequently helped me in understanding things I have come across in my research. Furthermore, they have been very willing to explain their experiences and express their appreciation in regards to the work that I am doing. I could not be more impressed and thankful of the warm welcome offered to me by the military personnel at PKSOI.

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Characteristics of a failed state

As I explore further, I have begun to find that failed states like Mali that attract jihadists and armed rebels, are inevitably similar in nature. All these states have similar characteristics that help to foster anarchy, a safe haven for terrorists, and the need for international aid. These characteristics include: a vast and ungovernable territory, usually comprised partially of inaccessible terrain (in this case desert); a weak government with a history of attempted rebellions, different kinds of leadership, weak democracy and rampant corruption; a history of ethnic tensions between two or more groups; and finally, a struggling economy, with a lack of international investment. In examining history, you will find that failed states will often be subject to many of these characteristics, which contributes to their ability to foster illicit activities.

In Mali’s case, all these traits are applicable and allowed rebel and jihadist organizations to proliferate in northern Mali as soon as the government collapsed in March 2012. The collapse created a security vacuum allowing jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Ansar Dine to migrate to northern Mali and easily capture virtually defenseless cities, such as Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Upon capturing these cities and towns, the extremists imposed strict fundamental Islamic rule, also known as sharia law. In the process committing grave human rights violations and forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in southern Mali or neighboring countries. The Islamic groups also allied with a northern Malian ethnic group, the Tuaregs, who had formed the MNLA (National Movement to Liberate the Azawad) in an attempt to gain independence of the northern regions of Mali (also known as the Azawad). Between the MNLA and the jihadist organizations, the northern regions of Mali fell easily and government influence to the region was subsequently severed.

The coup d’état led by Captain Sanogo of the Malian military allowed for these groups to easily take control of the north. What’s worse is that the coup’s objective was to take control of the government because many believed they were being too lenient with MNLA activities in the north. However what ended up happening was a complete collapse of command and authority, which allowed the MNLA more operability and provided the jihadists with a safe haven.

Hopefully this blog articulated the level of absolute disaster that is present in Mali, between the threat of terrorism, ongoing civil war and strife, lack of stable government, and problems with refugees and internally displaced persons, just to name a few. Although international forces (mainly France) intervened, more international support is required in order to help fund state building activities and reestablish a more stable democratic government. I also hope that this blog succeeded in showing how some of the characteristics of a failed state (that I suggested in the introduction), can be applied when examining the conflict in Mali. Going forward I will keep these characteristics in mind and stay attuned to any states that show any of these traits and see if they collapse in the same manner as Mali.

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Exploring ONLY Mali

After another week at PKSOI, I have fallen into a daily routine that is centered around my research for Mali. Every day I arrive at PKSOI around 8 a.m. and usually spend the majority of my workday (until I leave at 4 p.m.), researching different aspects of the country and formatting my findings into the template that Mr. Raymond mapped out for me. As I discussed previously, I am conducting research about a variety of aspects concerning Mali, in hopes of giving forces a better idea of the situation they will be coming into. In this blog, I will try and give a concise report of my findings regarding the background and profile of Mali.

Mali is a landlocked country in Western Africa and which spans almost twice the size of Texas. Mali is home to 15.9 million inhabitants who are concentrated in the country’s southern regions, due to more fertile land and moderate climate as oppose to the dry and arid desert climate found in the northern regions of the country. The main population center is found in the capital city of Bamako (1 million inhabitants), however other populated areas are found along the bank of the Niger River, where fishing and agriculture industries make up much of Mali’s economy. The economy is also based around the production of cotton (however it cannot compete with the global market prices of cotton) and the potential gold industry (which no one wants to invest in). Due to these economic issues, Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world with the GDP/capita sitting around $1,100 per year.

Although the official language of Mali is French, Bambara is very widely spoken along with other tribal languages and dialects. Bambara and other tribal languages are supported by the extremely diverse ethnic groups found in Mali, which include Mande (50%), Peul (17%), Tuareg (10%) and others. These ethnic groups have not always coexisted peacefully; primarily the Tuaregs and the state government (mostly Mande factions and personnel). Since Mali’s independence in 1960, nomadic Tuareg tribes who occupy the northern regions of Mali (known as the Azawad), have launched numerous rebellions and demanded independence due to economic and political neglect from the Malian state, which resides in Bamako in the south. It is important to note that the tension between the government and the Tuaregs is purely secular, as most Malians are Muslim (90%).

This conflict created the security vacuum in northern Mali after the collapse of the government when extremist jihadist organizations, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), started flock into the north. These extremist groups quickly allied with rebel Tuareg groups (known as the MNLA) in order to work together against the Malian government. Although the MNLA are not considered Islamic radicals, their Muslim faith helped foster a sense of brotherhood between themselves and the extremists.

For a more detailed account of the crisis in Mali, the Huffington Post has written a lot of good articles (just search “Mali, Huffington Post) or this UN web site goes into good detail without getting too technical ( keeping/missions/minusma/background.shtml).

As you can see, the situation in Mali is extremely complex and involves many moving parts. Everything from a history of civil strife between the state government and the nomadic tribes, to the more pressing issue of terrorism and jihadist movements in the northern reaches of the country. The collaboration between these two groups makes the state government’s mission even more difficult, to the point where international assistance became necessary in January 2013. Next week I will go into further detail about how what I discussed in this blog has affected the current condition of the state.

This is the first time I have really studied individual aspects and demographics of a country during a conflict. Usually when I have studied or read about a conflict (whether it be intervention, civil war, conventional war, etc.), I have read summaries that might mention how certain political conditions or economic climates (for example) are affecting a situation. But never have I explored these areas in such detail. Merely having the time to explore all these domains in the Mali conflict has made me curious to explore how these domains affect other crises, past and present. How has the media been affected in the Syrian conflict today? How did the evolution of the political climate in Germany lead to World War II? In answering these questions for the Mali conflict, I have become more aware and interested to look for these effects in other historical events.

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First Couple Weeks at PKSOI

After having completed two full weeks at the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI) at the U.S. Army War College, I have begun to realize that this is not a typical 40-hour week. It is unlike any of the other full time jobs I have held in the past. Upon arriving on the first day and going through the orientation process, I immediately saw that PKSOI and the rest of the College was a very motivated and hard working group, despite the relaxed work environment that they maintain.

Prior to arriving, each of the interns was assigned a mentor to work under for the summer. However at PKSOI, the word “intern” does not carry the usual connotations that the word carries elsewhere. At PKSOI the interns are here to aid their mentors as research assistants, rather than brew coffee, make copies, run errands, etc. Therefore, the 24 interns at PKSOI this summer will be working on projects concerning very recent current events around the world.

My mentor’s name is Dwight Raymond and works for PKSOI as the military’s expert on mass atrocity and genocide prevention and/or response. After a long and illustrious career in the military  (see positionID=38 for his biography), Mr. Raymond retired and entered civilian life where he has spent his time publishing three handbooks: Mass Atrocity Prevention Response Options (MAPRO), Mass Atrocity Response Operations (MARO) and the Protection of Civilians. Mr. Raymond makes regular trips to Washington D.C. and the United Nations in New York City to consult the U.S. military and international forces about how to respond to mass atrocity situations. Most recently, Mr. Raymond has traveled to South Sudan to observe an intervention training exercise and consult the intervention forces on the best way to protect civilians in the context of the South Sudan atrocity.

During these exercises there are numerous forces from different countries and backgrounds participating, that all have different levels of knowledge about the situation. According to Mr. Raymond, the South Sudan exercise showed how differing levels of knowledge about the situation facilitated inefficiency and miscommunication when conducting the exercise. To make sure that all parties involved have the same level of understanding regarding the situation, Mr. Raymond has tasked me with writing a situation assessment about the next international intervention in Mali. The assessment will be between 20 and 30 pages and include information about Mali such as operational environments (geographic, political, military/security, social, informational, infrastructure), actors involved (military forces, adversaries, vulnerable civilians), and the general background/profile of the country. Details about each of these subsections will follow in the next few blogs.

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