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Public Service 24/7 is not possible

There is a favorite beach in Limbe, far from downtown that features cold drinks, an armed guard (it is the Gulf of Guinea after all) and a beautiful black sand beach. Most of the time, the crowd consists of a few scattered ex-patriots and other volunteers. As you walk into the lukewarm equatorial water, you can turn around and stare at apparently untamed mountains that meet you right at the coast. It is a very undeveloped coastline and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
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A few months ago, I was with my three girlfriends at the beach and we were feasting on an enormous pile of mangoes and taking pictures, trying to look skinny—just being silly and relaxing together. As the morning bled into afternoon, there were maybe a dozen very obviously American families at the beach. We started talking with a very tan and friendly couple; they were the kind of couple that has been married for decades, plural, and still hold hands. They told us the families were missionaries from all over Africa vacationing Limbe for a conference. We each shared thoughts on ex-pat life and compared living conditions in Cameroon and Ethiopia. As we parted ways, the wife looked at us and said with sincerity, “Thank you for serving.” That was the first time anyone had told me thank you for giving up two years to come here.
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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn June, I spent a day working with Knock Out Malaria to deliver mosquito nets to two orphanages in a small town in the Southwest. We arrived at the second orphanage where I led an impromptu session on the Hokey Pokey Dance followed by a more formal session on malaria prevention from Sonia. As I sat there daydreaming and watching the children, my friend Erica whispered to me “Do you think we should get some cookies?”. Without pause, I answered “No thanks, I’m not hungry.” Erica looked at me over her glasses with a simultaneous scowl and smile, looking at me in a way that only she can to communicate that I just said something pretty ridiculous. “They aren’t cookies for you! Get out of your head and stop thinking about yourself”. For the record, there is no good way to react to a faux pas like that. I can only be thankful she is one of my best friends here and so she is likely not to write me off as a jackass.
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I feel like a fraud for being thanked for serving because, most days, living in my transient little village feels like regular life to me. I have the ability to put my foot in my mouth in two languages now. The whole of me is neither of those scenarios. That is me, a public servant, climbing on top of a bus trying my hardest to cuss out the driver while freeing mine and other’s luggage to the horror of the agence. I am also a public servant as I go into a prison once a week and work with the men to learn entrepreneurship and leadership skills. They are two polar representations of daily life for a public servant that is positively flawed.

Homesick at 11 Months

I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a pile of Mangoes I bought for the equivalent of one dollar in front of me. The Lumineers and Coltrane are playing and I’m wearing a onesie at the frip which probably was originally sold in America. I have electricity and running water (today anyway). I could probably be in America. But I’m not. And I can only think of home. It’s almost Flower Day at the Eastern Market. I’m thinking about how I missed Easter (actually I forgot and was sick anyway). I’m thinking about how my niece can walk this Easter and she will practically be a teenage by the time I get home. I remember how my mom and I would eat lunch together twice a week last year at this time. I miss yelling at my mom to go to bed while she sleeps on the couch almost every night. I can smell the cider and pizza at Motor City Brewing Works.

My family

Home sickness sneaks up on me like a bad hangover or a sneaky case of stomache bacteria. I woke up with the best intentions, put on my running shoes and even left the house. I got to my local call box (for those of us without cell phones) and turned right around and went home. Being homesick is a lot like the classic symptoms of depression. I start telling myself that I have no projects going on, that I’m not a good volunteer. I will want to spend all day watching American TV shows (Entourage or The Wire anyone?) or sleeping. I don’t feel like cooking. Most of all, I don’t want to leave my house.

All of these behaviors are counterproductive. In fact, after I told myself that I have no projects going on and I’m a bad volunteer, I made a list. I have 9 projects of activities in the pipeline this month. That’s not nothing. And even though I punked out on my run this morning, I am going to make myself do a quick indoor workout tonight. No. Excuses. I obviously need the endorphin boost.

I’m lucky because most days I am so amused and full of happiness. I left Michigan at 18; I’ve been gone a full 6 years now. The truth is I only have one friend there Being home can be more lonely than being in Cameroon where I am a total outsider. When I’m home I spend a lot of time in my mom’s robe or with family. Maybe this is the beginnings of a yearning to plant some roots? I traditionally only went home 2-3 times a year. But I still miss my people who are spread out all over the world. The one’s who have known me before my travelling days.

My people

Before I came to Cameroon, I Skyped with Julie and alum of my school and PCV in Ukraine. She told me that I would have bad days, weeks, even months. Well, my bad month is here. When I feel like this, I remind myself that even bad days happen in America and it’s part of the game.

 

Being a (White) Woman in Cameroon.

A month ago I was in Buea to test more than 1,000 people for HIV in a single day at the Race of Hope. I was in the lobby of my hotel trying to negotiate for a lower price and partial refund because they had promised hot water, no cockroaches and continental breakfast for my set price. I knew it was a tall order—and they had failed to deliver on it. In fact, there was no running water at all. The man behind the counter made an effort to deflect responsibility refusing to talk to me at first, though the reservation was in my name. Then said he could not give me money because the manager was at church (an all day affair for Cameroonians). My needs were so unimportant to address that I was following him through the hotel while he hauled buckets of water to their various rooms. As I climbed those wet stairs after this man, I realized he didn’t even see me as a person because I was just a woman. I probably didn’t make household decisions anyway. As my temper was flaring, my friend who was sharing the hotel room with me stepped in. When my friend finished negotiating the refund, the manager stopped in the doorway with a knowing smile and says warmly, “Don’t worry, I am married too. I understand.” And without a glance at me he cruises back downstairs to watch his evangelical television. It took my friend ¼ of the time to get me my refund. Yes, he was less frantic. Yes, I was all too glad to step into gender roles since I knew it would benefit me. No, a little part of me did not die.

PCV Erica and Irene

Since this is not the first time I am dealing with this I thought I would share the two general reactions I have to this scenario:

  • Go on the defensive. I notice it afterward, when I realize I approached the situation ready to be given the run around, be treated like a festering wound or totally ignored. Sometimes sexism sneaks up on me so I am left to freestyle.
  • Be totally belligerent. I’ve climbed on top of buses while yelling in French, I’ve had to call my boss to prevent me from snatching my money and running or fighting and old drunken man, I’ve stomped my feet so hard they hurt, I’ve explained shamelessly that I don’t care if they are a man I am still first in line. I will not condone my behavior. It just is what it is—at this point it is the past.

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Peace Corps has three stated Goals inarticulately summarized here:

1) Skill transfer. In other words, do work, teach others to work.

2) Share American culture with Cameroonians

3) Share Cameroonian culture with Americans

So if I zero-in on Goals 2 & 3 what should I do about this sexism? This is where the white woman part comes in. I stick out like a sore thumb everywhere I go. So even though I may loose nearly all battles I have against men in regards to respect, I keep on keepin’ on because when I am headstrong and insist I have rights and am equal, I know women are paying attention. Whether the big men in my village like it or not I am these women’s most tangible example of what an American woman is like.

Women carry the Cameroonian economy on their shoulders while birthing an average 4.3 children per woman. Everywhere you look, they manage their household and children like a well oiled machine all while having one or more small (often untaxed or informal) businesses.

Informal Business

Nothing can remain the same forever. And things, they are changing. Even in my agricultural town there are women who amaze me in their gutsy leadership. One woman I work with is the manager of a local cooperative. She is smart, eager to learn and does not hesitate to do business in a place that still regards formal business as a man’s club. She is fearless in a situation where there are not a whole lot of mentors to share advice and insight. This woman is backed up by a man in my village who also shocks me with his great leadership and faith in his team. Sometimes I have to ask myself who is learning more—the business people or the Peace Corps Volunteer? The women leaders I meet here are special because they are the trailblazers for tomorrows Cameroonian women. They take the best practices from Global North countries and add their own Cameroonian flavor to make it their own. Somehow things are getting done.

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