*Disclaimer: This is another honest post (all of my posts are honest but some leave out the nitty gritty). Also, RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) are notorious for regaling people far past the point of interest/tolerance. But, here, you have to listen to me! Muahahaha…
I am very happy to be home – it is difficult in some ways, wonderful in others, and strange in general. For the most part, though, this post is a reflection on my time in Cameroon. I’ll be seeing most of you soon (can’t wait!) so if you want to know how the adjustment is going, ask me then…preferably over a cheese platter. I apologize in advance if I sound preach-y – my posts seem to take that inevitable turn down Soapbox Street when I start talking about the broader lessons I’ve learned. With that, here goes…
“Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets.” Tom Robbins is brilliant. I’m not sure how this advice, which he prescribes for attaining immortality, will pan out. Incidentally, though, it perfectly sums up what the Peace Corps taught me.
I didn’t sign up for the Peace Corps because I thought it would be easy. Quite the contrary. But the experience was challenging in ways that I never fully imagined before I left (on the other hand, many of my pre-departure concerns never materialized). The hardest thing to deal with was loneliness. I had incredible friends in Magdeme and I probably knew every person in village (certainly everyone knew me). Still, no matter how much time you spend out working, visiting, or traveling, you are going to have a lot of time to yourself. A lot. I filled that time planning projects, studying French and Kanuri, cooking, reading, writing in my journal, and attempting to exercise. As any good citizen of Magdeme can attest, however, there are times when all you can do is lie on a mat. At those moments, you are simply alone with your thoughts. And sometimes those thoughts aren’t the best companions because they invite unwelcome guests – worries loom larger, homesickness acts up, heck, even some existential issues creep in. At times, I literally felt like I was holding my breath waiting for it (I’m not even sure what! The slump?) to be over.
But! There are two sides to every story…Here in America, I feel like we are constantly out of breath! Life is go, go, go. And I don’t necessarily mean physical motion. Even when we are “doing nothing” we are often doing something – watching TV, talking on the phone, listening to music, surfing the web. There are distractions everywhere! Very rarely are we ever alone with our thoughts, which, even with what I said above, can be extremely fulfilling. There was nothing like walking my dog each night through the farms, looking up at the sky, and feeling happy/peaceful/balanced for no reason whatsoever. As Geneen Roth says “awareness is learning to keep yourself company.” I feel aware! Cameroon offers awareness in spades! And I think I’ve grown as a result.
So…breathe properly! There is a happy medium for taking time to reflect and stimulating yourself with activity and interaction. As I’ve concluded in many cases, the Camerican option is best.
I joined the Peace Corps primarily because I was curious – curious to experience a completely different way of life, curious to meet new people and learn about other cultures, curious about speaking new languages, curious how my green (novice!) green thumb would fare against the desert. And, boy, did I learn a lot.
No one would claim that the Peace Corps is God’s gift to development. It ain’t. But two-thirds of the organization’s mission involves cultural exchange and, in that endeavor, I think it is unparalleled (well, unparalleled by anything I’ve seen). Now that I am back home, unsure of when (I won’t say “if”!) I will be in Magdeme again, it is tough for me to talk about the connections I made in village. Because what can I say? Those guys (and gals) are my family. I spent every day of the last two years with them and now I am a world away. I can’t practically describe all that they taught me (that is what the blog was for!). At times, I thought it was hard to be there. Only at the end did I consider how hard it must be for rural African villagers, most of whom have very little concept of the outside world, to play host to a complete stranger, a stranger who rejects many of their customs. I asked to be there, they didn’t ask for me! But they truly made me a part of their community and for that I am beyond grateful.
I do have to take advantage of my Returned PCV status (i.e. no longer officially affiliated with Peace Corps Cameroon) to say this – Cameroon’s political situation is crippling the country. I was a history and government major and I spent nearly half of my college career researching and writing a thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I care deeply about the right to sovereign, representative government and supporting people in realizing that right. I went to Cameroon in large part because I was curious about whether people in the developing world (who often face daily struggles to get by) also care. They do.
What to do? So much time and money is put into developing Cameroon but the efforts are sort of like sticking 1000 band-aids on an injury when what it needs is surgery. If you keep putting resources into the same corrupt system, politicians are going to keep manipulating them. They’re clever – you don’t get to be president for 30 years if you aren’t. Unfortunately, the culture of corruption becomes just that – a culture. It trickles down to the point where it affects even village-level interactions. Change is necessary. By the same token, Westerners obviously had a heavy hand in installing post-independence politicians throughout Africa in the first place. Supporting their removal is just playing from the other side of the court rather than changing the game. Well, supporting free and fair elections isn’t necessarily supporting removal. Many people in Cameroon do like President Paul Biya because he has maintained stability – no small feat when the countries bordering Cameroon include a failed state, a country with a violent rebellion, one with an active, al-Qaeda-funded terrorist group, and another with a dictator. Controversial issue. What to do, what to do? I know what I’m doing now – I’m stopping!
My assessment may sound cynical. But I don’t mean it that way at all. I went to Cameroon to learn so that I could be more effective at higher levels of development work. Creative solutions to the problems exist (or are possible). A lot of the time they start with Cameroonians and if they don’t start there they will definitely continue and succeed there. It is sad to see that the system often prevents those Cameroonians from finishing their education and/or finding a job. Based on what I’ve observed, I genuinely believe that the best way we (individual donors) can help is to support individual Cameroonians in their endeavors to advance themselves, whether through education, microfinance projects, etc. A2Empowerment was the best program I saw doing this type of work in Cameroon. Check out the appendix of Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky for a list of good organizations that specifically support women.
After having lived in Cameroon, I am so, so grateful for my own education. A lot of people laughed – I certainly did – when I was assigned to be an Agroforestry Volunteer. However, Peace Corps Volunteers are successful not because of their technical knowledge but because of their determination and ability to think openly and critically, traits that come from being raised and educated in the United States.
So…I’ll be trying to stay curious. I know that Cameroon isn’t Africa isn’t the developing world, etc. There’s a lot to discover out there! In fact, my next move will be exploring the U.S.
Eat Your Beets
If some of the biggest challenges of Peace Corps were unanticipated, so were some of the most important lessons. In that vein, my Peace Corps experience has led me to sincerely appreciate and understand being ecologically “placed” (if that make any sense!) My neighbors in Cameroon live off the land and that has helped me to see what it is to live naturally in a place. Their lifestyles and farming practices are destroying local environments at an alarming rate but people at least understand that their livelihoods come from their surroundings. I often used to have a conversation with my friends about poverty in the U.S. versus that in Cameroon (nearly all Cameroonians are under the mistaken the impression that America is an unadulterated paradise). I would tell them that, in some aspects, I think that it is worse to be truly destitute in the United States than it is to be desperately poor in Cameroon. That statement sounds absurd when you think of the malnutrition, infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, lack of education, etc. over there. But the poorest of the poor in Magdeme survive on their own – they can feed themselves off the land – and the same can’t be said for the vast majority of the American poor (or rich!). I saw the farm-to-table food production process every day and I so admire the people who labor for it. It’s not easy! But there is also something very rewarding about the notion of having to work for your sustenance. Cameroonians think so, too – food production and preparation are central to their culture. And they are very proud of the foods native to their regions and/or ethnic groups.
I think I’ve covered this issue in my blog so I won’t say too much more other than that I’ll try to prepare some Cameroonian food for you at some point and maybe you’ll understand their pride!
So…I will *try* to eat my beets (I hate beets!). Beets grow well in New York so get plantin’! (Okay, not quite yet). Seriously, though, I want to hit the farmers’ markets and cook more – and be more conscious of what it is I am buying, cooking and eating – here in the States. “Thinking globally and living locally” is not only better for the environment but I believe it is more fulfilling, too.
THANK YOU so much for following my blog. Thank you for the letters, calls, messages, packages, and vibes – they meant more than you know. And a huge thank you as well to everyone who supported our Peace Corps Partnership tree-planting project – it received special recognition from the Peace Corps administration and, more importantly, it impacted over 5,000 Cameroonians…and it was all possible because of you! Last but certainly not least – if you (or someone you know) are remotely considering joining the Peace Corps, do it, do it, do it. I guess all that’s left to say is…manayena ba Kanuri-ay “Allah clayowa,” manayena “say tooshiya.” Neyley wayatey! (“In Kanuri we don’t say “good bye,” we say “until next time.” Peace be with you!).