Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Some Useful Information to Share with Family and Friends

Peace Corps/Cameroon
Some Useful Information to Share
with Family and Friends
Due to recent technological (email, international SMS, etc.), Americans have become increasingly accustomed to immediate and convenient communication. This is increasingly becoming the case for Volunteers in Cameroon, although frustrations, particularly with traditional “snail mail,” do remain. Peace Corps Cameroon would like to emphasize the following points to give you a realistic picture of the means of communication available to Volunteers in Cameroon before they leave home:
Traditional snail mail still takes a long time and is not reliable. Packages and envelops that appear to contain valuables still go missing with disheartening frequency. If you are going to regret something if it is lost or stolen, don’t send it.
Cell phone service will soon cover the entire country – although some volunteers will still be posted to areas where network may not yet be available. With the ubiquity of telephony and email, volunteers and family members may want to set up schedules for communication to prevent unnecessary worry when systems go down.
In the case of an emergency, families should contact Peace Corps Washington. This will insure that family inquiries are handled in the most efficient manner.
All inquiries concerning Volunteers, the political situation in Cameroon, mail, etc. should be directed to the Cameroon Country Desk in Peace Corps Washington. This will insure that family inquiries are handled in the most efficient manner.
Cyber cafés now exist in all the larger cities and many of the smaller ones in Cameroon. However, e-mail is not totally reliable and often slow.

In the event of an emergency situation in Cameroon, Peace Corps/Cameroon will notify the Office of Special Services (OSS) at Peace Corps in Washington. OSS will in turn telephone the family of the Volunteer(s) involved.
In the event of an emergency (death in the family, serious accident or illness, etc.), family/friends should contact the Office of Special Services in Washington. The telephone numbers are 1-800-424-8580, extension 1470, or (202) 692-1470. After working hours, the Peace Corps Duty Officer can be reached at (202) 638-2574.
If you have an important question regarding a news report on Cameroon, you may contact the Country Desk Unit. However, the Desk will not always be aware of specific information, such as what individual Volunteer's vacation schedules are, how long it takes for mail to arrive at specific Volunteer posts, etc. The number for the Country Desk Unit is 1-800-424-8580 extension 2320, or (202) 692-2320.
Volunteers often enjoy telling their "war" stories when they write or email home. Messages might describe recent illnesses, lack of good food, isolation, etc. While the subject matter is good reading material, it is often misinterpreted on the home front. Please do not assume that if your family member had a malaria attack that he/she has been unattended. There are two Peace Corps Medical Officers in Yaoundé. In the event of a serious illness, the Volunteer will be treated and cared for by our medical staff. If the Volunteer requires medical care that is not available in Cameroon, he/she will be medically evacuated. Fortunately, these are rare circumstances.

Few countries in the world offer the quality of postal service that we consider normal in the U.S. Volunteers, family and friends who expect U.S. standards for mail service will be disappointed. Mail takes a minimum of three weeks to arrive in Cameroon and may take several months. Some mail may not arrive at all. Some letters may arrive with clipped edges because postal workers have tried to see if any money was inside (again, this is rare, but it does happen). We do not want so sound discouraging, but when we are thousands of miles from our families and friends, communication becomes a very sensitive issue. We would prefer you be forewarned of the reality of mail service in the developing world.
We strongly encourage Volunteers to communicate with their families regularly. Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from their Volunteer, so please advise parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they shouldn't worry if they don't receive their Volunteer's letters regularly.
In the past we have noticed a common Volunteer letter writing pattern that particularly disturbs families and friends. During training and their first three to six months at post, Volunteers write home frequently. They are adapting to a totally new environment (which can be very difficult), and writing helps them process the new sights and sounds. However, once Volunteers feel at home with their surroundings and their work starts to take off, many simply forget to write home for long periods of time. Please don't be overly concerned if there is a break in correspondence three to six months after your Volunteer arrives at post!
However, if a family member or friends does not hear from a PCV for over three months, then that person may contact the Office of Special Services (OSS) at Peace Corps Washington (1-800-424-8580, extension 1470). OSS will then send a "health and welfare” inquiry to the Peace Corps Country Director in Yaoundé and ask him to check up on the PCV. In such cases, the Country Director is required to respond to OSS within 5-7 working days.
Contacting the Volunteer at his or her site could involve making a series of phone calls, radio contacts, or even sending a staff member to the site (which means several days travel in some cases). The PCV will then be asked to write home and the Country Director will inform OSS with information to pass onto family members. As you can see, this is a time-consuming process that affects quite a few people. Peace Corps asks Volunteers and their families to try to avoid both heartache and headaches by maintaining a regular pattern of writing to loved ones.
Most packages sent to Cameroon arrive (sometimes a few months late). Nevertheless DO NOT send things that have important sentimental or monetary value. Don't send expensive items, such as the Volunteer's favorite pair of one-carat diamond earrings. Items such as food and clothing have usually arrived with no problem, but it's expensive for the sender and receiver. If sending packages, "bubble envelopes" work best. If sending any food items, put them inside a ziploc bag. This will reduce chances that bugs or rats will devour them.

For the first 3 months after your Volunteer’s arrival in Cameroon, mail should be sent to the following address:
Name, Peace Corps Volunteer
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 215
Yaoundé, Cameroon

Once Volunteers complete training and are at their posts, the quickest way to send mail is to send letters and packages directly to your Volunteer's address at post. Remind your Volunteer to relay their mailing address at post as soon as they know what it will be. If you do not know your Volunteer's address at post, mail can be sent to the Yaoundé address above. Please realize that mail sent to this address will be held in Yaoundé until sent out on a bi-weekly basis to Volunteer posts (delaying delivery for up to several weeks).
The following suggestions and postal regulations may be useful:
1. Mail should be sent directly to the Yaoundé address or your Volunteer's post address beginning three weeks before the end of the training.
2. Both Volunteers and family members should number letters sent so that the receiver can determine whether any letters do not arrive.
3. Packages should be sent via air, not surface mail (surface mail has been known to take longer than two years to arrive.)
4. Sending packages to your Volunteer in Cameroon is a risky proposition. Theft of packages is not only a problem in the Cameroonian postal system, it also occurs on the U.S. side. Although occasionally a package arrives quickly and without problems, it may take months or it may get "lost" along the way. Therefore, it is not advisable to send valuables this way.
5. If you do send packages, bubble envelopes seem to work better than large boxes. They are less tempting to would-be thieves. The sender should clearly and honestly mark the contents on the outside of the package, but a general description of the contents is sufficient: "clothing and candy" rather than "Nike high top sneakers and 2 lbs. Godiva chocolate."
6. Express mail is an expensive option that may take just as long to get to Cameroon. Perhaps a more secure option than regular airmail for documents, checks, etc., it is subject to more scrutiny by Cameroonian customs than regular mail. For items other than documents, Peace Corps staff has to submit import licenses to customs, and clearance can take up to 10 days. Thus, you may not necessarily save any time by using Express mail. DHL and UPS operate in Cameroon for those important documents. Note that current prices for these services run around $100.00 for one pound or less.
7. There is a tax which Volunteers will have to pay on all packages received before they can retrieve them from the post office. This tax varies according to the size of the package. It might be a nice gesture from friends or family to send a six-pack of Mountain Dew, but it may cost a Volunteer up to $10.00 to get it out of the post office.
8. Packages sent to the Yaoundé office are sent regularly to Volunteer posts. This may delay delivery to the Volunteer by up to several weeks.
9. If Volunteers wish to send a package from Yaoundé to the States, Cameroon postal rates are high and insurance is not available. For this reason, many Volunteers wait to send packages with returning PCVs (whom they ask first, in country) or wait until their Completion of Service (COS) date to send home gifts and souvenirs. Letters going to the States through the Cameroon post have been quite dependable.
10. US postage-stamped letters can be put in the "next traveler" box at the Peace Corps office in Yaoundé, to be hand carried by the next person going Stateside. Note that this is a courtesy, not an obligation, and Volunteers shouldn't expect any traveler to carry more than letter mail, unless special arrangements are made with the individual. Air travelers may be required to open letters and packages and/or submit them to X-rays, especially when they don't belong to the traveler.
11. The Cameroon Desk in Peace Corps Headquarters, Washington, is available to answer Volunteer & families' questions about mail. Due to staff and budget constraints, they cannot, however, facilitate the sending of personal mail for Trainees and Volunteers.

All major cities and increasing numbers of remote towns in Cameroon have access to telephone and FAX services. Almost all volunteers now have cell phones (GSM). This has greatly improved Volunteers’ ability to communicate with their family and friends in the U.S.
The cost of calling the U.S. can be expensive. Often a Volunteer will place a short call to a friend or family member and have them return the call. Please explain this to family & friends so that they are not concerned when Volunteers call, relay a number and then hang up or are cut off!

Email is now available and quite reliable in almost all provincial capitals. Most Volunteers open an account with yahoo or hotmail.

Diplomatic Pouch
The diplomatic pouch is meant for official business of the US Government only. Since Volunteers are not considered employees or agents of the government, they are not entitled to the use of the pouch.

Sending Money to Volunteers
While Peace Corps does not restrict Volunteers from receiving money from their families, please bear in mind that receiving money from abroad may lead to perceptions by Cameroonians that mitigate against some of the goals that the Volunteer is trying to achieve (i.e., acceptance in the community). Unfortunately, there are no simple methods to transfer money to Cameroon. Please note that Peace Corps is not able to transfer personal funds from the United States to a Volunteer or Trainee.

Credit Cards - Visa and American Express credit cards can be used in a few hotels and restaurants in major cities (Douala, Yaoundé and rarely in provincial capitals). Some can also be used to obtain cash advances at banks in Douala and Yaoundé. Some Volunteers bring credit cards and arrange for a family member to make payments from savings or a checking account in the U.S. Volunteers find credit cards particularly useful when traveling after their Peace Corps service. In setting up arrangements such as this, it is best to designate a family member with "Power of Attorney" to act on behalf of the Volunteer. Note that credit card and identify fraud are rampant in Cameroon and volunteers are advised not to use credit cards for any purpose.

Visiting Volunteers
Peace Corps Cameroon encourages family and friends to visit Volunteers. However, experience has shown that visits should be carefully timed so as not to interfere with the Volunteer's service or with integration into their community. First, visitors are not permitted during a Volunteer's pre-service training or during the first three months at post. Peace Corps has learned from forty years of experience that Volunteers adapt better to training and to their sites if they are not distracted by visitors during these critical periods.
The best time for visits are after a Volunteer has spent at least six months at post. They have established themselves in their community and have honed their language skills. Thus they are better able to host visitors. They also have a better understanding of Cameroon and have a clear idea of what sights they would like to show you! Note that Volunteers' supervisors discourage them from receiving visitors during peak periods.

Answers to Some Common Questions
Can Volunteers travel to the United States while on vacation?
Volunteers may travel, at their own expense, to the United States or a third country with the permission of the Peace Corps Country Director. The Country Director will normally authorize travel as long as the Volunteer has accrued the required vacation time and the trip will not take him or her away from the site during peak work periods.

How can family/friends in the United States send plane tickets or documents to Volunteers in Cameroon?
The best method is to have the items hand carried by a person who is traveling to Cameroon. For example, if another Volunteer is home on vacation or is having a family member come to visit them at post, arrange to have the items mailed to the traveler in the States and then have them carry the items to your country of service. (Please be aware that you and your PCV must make all arrangements yourselves).
Another reliable, but expensive, method is to have plane tickets or other documents sent by DHL or UPS. These types of carriers are able to ship documents from the States to the Peace Corps office in Yaoundé. The price will vary but the minimum cost is currently $75.00 to $100.00 for up to one pound of documents.

Will family members or friends be able to send facsimile messages to Volunteers in Cameroon?
Use of the facsimile machines in the Peace Corps office is restricted to official purposes only. Volunteers can receive faxes through numerous private Tele-boutiques located all over the country. As the Tele-boutiques rely on telephones and the telephone infrastructure is poor, this service is not always reliable. If you would like to send a FAX to your Volunteer, please ask them for the fax numbers nearest them.

Information and Advice
for Families and Friends Planning to Visit Cameroon
The following points of information and advice have been compiled from various sources (previous visitors, former Volunteers, staff, etc.) for people planning to visit Peace Corps Volunteers in Cameroon. Visitors and Volunteers have learned that advance planning, communication between the volunteer and visitor, and flexibility are very important aspects of a successful and satisfying trip. We hope that the suggestions and information below will be helpful. You may also wish to consult various travel books such as the Lonely Planet's Africa on a Shoestring and West Africa on a Shoestring or the Rough guide.

1. Planning. Start planning at least six months before departure since several things have to be done sequentially which can add up to several weeks/months. Keep in mind that communication takes a long time, so arranging the logistics through the mail will require a lot of lead-time. Make sure that the timing of your visit is convenient for the Volunteer you are visiting. A Volunteer's primary obligation is to his/her assignment, so be sure that your visit will not disrupt any work plans. We recommend visits at some point during the second year.

2. Passport. If you do not already have a passport, obtain a passport application and application instructions from a post office or your travel agent. To apply for a passport, you will need the completed application with two passport photos (with your signature on the back of each photo) and the application fee.

3. Visa. To apply for a visa to Cameroon, obtain two application forms from the Cameroonian embassy, 2349 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20008 or over the Net; the phone number at the embassy is (202) 265-8790. After completing the applications, send them to the embassy with your passport, two passport photos, W.H.O. records showing the required yellow fever shot (see below), the application fee, and a copy of either your tickets or your detailed flight itinerary, and a bank statement. You may also need to submit a letter of invitation from your Volunteer family member. Peace Corps Cameroon will also provide you with a letter supporting your visa application if your volunteer provides the offices with the details of your visit. You will be issued a single entry visa only, unless you specifically request multiple entry. You must have multiple entry if you plan to leave the country and return during the period of the visa's validity. Be sure to call the Embassy and verify with them that procedures have not changed.
It is our understanding that the Embassy will not return your passport to you unless you send a pre-paid express mail envelope. If you are in the D.C. area, you can pick it up at the embassy.
Separate visas are required for almost all African countries you may plan to visit, except for intermediate stops where you will not go outside the terminal while en route to or from Cameroon. Each embassy requires that you send your passport with the visa application, so you can only apply for one visa at a time.
You can consolidate and expedite your passport and visa applications if necessary by going through a private company that handles it for you for an additional fee of approximately $30 per visa or passport. (Ask a travel agent for details).

4. Health. A yellow fever vaccination is required. This immunization must be logged in a World Health Organization (W. H. O.) International Certificate of Vaccination. For more information on what additional vaccines, antimalarials or medications are required or recommended, contact your local health board or the Division of Immunization at the Centers for Disease in Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 639-1870, or on the Internet at
You should also plan to take anti-malarial prophylactic drugs prior to departure from USA and during your stay in Cameroon. Contact the Malaria Hotline at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, (404)639-1610 for information on what drug(s) to take and where you can get them.
While in Cameroon, precautions must be taken with food preparation and water treatment. Drink only bottled water in sealed bottles or water that has been filtered and chlorinated or boiled. Vegetables must also be soaked in chlorine if they are not being cooked or peeled.
There are health risks, and the medical facilities in Cameroon are not comparable to facilities in the United States. Peace Corps medical Staff cannot provide care for family members or friends who require medical attention while in Cameroon. We strongly suggest that you consider extra insurance with emergency evacuation coverage from a company such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. (P.O. Box 11568, Philadelphia, PA 19116, 1-800-523-8930 or 215-244-1500 in PA).

5. Money. The currency used in Cameroon is called franc CFA. The franc CFA is fixed to the Euro (656 CFA = 1 Euro.) Travelers’ checks are safe, but incur exceedingly high commission rates and other charges (up to 25%). You may want to take at least some travelers checks in Euros, since switching dollars to CFA in Yaoundé is usually more expensive than switching dollars to Euros in U.S. and then Euros to CFA in Yaoundé. Some of the big (and expensive) hotels in Yaoundé will accept an American Express or Visa credit card (caution advised). ATMs on the “Plus” system are increasingly available around the country. The best person to answer questions about money (and how much to take) is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit.
6. Baggage. Have all your suitcases locked. On most airlines, you are allowed 2 pieces of baggage (not to exceed 50 lbs. each) per passenger for trips from the United States to Europe. You may be charged an excess baggage fee for anything over 50 lbs. from Europe to Africa unless you check your baggage through to Africa directly from the U.S. (If you check baggage all the way through, be sure the baggage ticket has all appropriate code letters for the trip; the code for the airport in Douala is DLA, the Yaoundé airport is NSI, and the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is CDG). Consult your airline or travel agent for further information.

7. Flight Check-In. If you fly from Paris, arrive at the check-in counter for the flight to Douala or Yaoundé two hours before take off. They start checking passengers in then and you cannot get a seat assignment until this check-in. The check-in process goes very slowly, so plan to stand in line a long time. They will not allow large carry-on bags.

8. Arrival in Douala / Yaoundé. You must have both your passport and W.H.O. card for immigration when arriving at the airports in Cameroon. French and some English are spoken at the airport, but it would be best to ask the Volunteer you are visiting to have someone meet you at the airport. You will have to open all bags for inspection. Try to keep all your bags in sight once they come into the baggage area. There will be men vying to carry your bags for payment. Carry your bags yourself if you can. If not, negotiate a price with one person before allowing anyone to take your bags (about 1$ per bag.) If no one is going to meet you at the airport, get instructions ahead of time from the Volunteer on how to take a taxi to your next destination.

9. Accommodations. Your best source of information about where to stay is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit. The Yaoundé Hilton presently has a special rate for families and friends of Peace Corps and is recommended by Peace Corps staff, and the Akwa Palace Hotel in Douala gives a Peace Corps discount as does the Parfait Garden.

10. Photos. Picture taking is fine, in general, but you should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph. Photos are never allowed at the airport or any military installation, so please keep your camera concealed when near these locations.

11. Identification. During the course of your stay in Cameroon, you will have to show your passport to the police several times, so you must carry it with you in a safe place at all times. It is sometimes convenient to have a certified photocopy of your passport to present to officials. Your volunteer will know how to do this.

12. Departure. Presently, you must pay a departure tax of 10,000 CFA at the Douala or Yaoundé airport before boarding. Check ahead of time, as this tax needs to be paid in local currency, and most likely you would need the exact amount.