Violence, Guns and Cameroonian Perceptions of American Culture

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis past week, I was having a Coke with my friend, Prosperity. He is educated, employed, Anglophone and thoroughly modern. He is also openly curious about American life. Whenever we get together we usually discuss politics and culture. One conversation led to him detailing how he has heard that America is very violent, that if he was to go there “I should fear taking a bullet at any moment.” I pointed out that I think Cameroon is just as crime ridden or worse, the difference is that the government doesn’t report on it. And if they do, the numbers are only a weak reflection of reality. I followed that up by explaining how increasingly prideful I am of Americans because when we don’t like something, we collectively or individually do something about it, reflecting on the riots in Ferguson over the killing of Michael Brown or the countless volunteers delivering water to people who are going without in Detroit as the city government takes drastic measures to balance it’s debts. As Americans, we do something about it when we don’t like a situation. We have hubris.

Inscribed on Cameroonian governmental signs, after the name or function of the building are three words that translate roughly into “peace, work, patriarchy”. This is their mantra, their motto. After a year of living here, I can attest to the “peace” part. Cameroonians have one of the longest running histories of peace in Africa, guns are very tightly controlled here, and I do not see men fighting here. Sure, they yell and wave their hands enthusiastically, but they seldom outright hit eachother (note: this excludes family members. Cameroonians still apply corporal punishment among family members, wife or child). When I meet Cameroonians, one of the first things they bring up is their pride in how stably peaceful the country is. To counter that, things are not perfect here, Cameroon is one of the most corrupt countries, regularly noted by Transparency International. Human Rights are violated here with little fear of repercussion, and Boko Haram is cementing their foothold of terror in the North everyday. But almost no one fears being shot to death on accident or on purpose.

If a person used the New York Times headlines to judge the level of peace in America, Prosperity would not be wrong to believe America is a place teeming with crime. America is facing an epidemic of racially charged gun violence, no one can deny that. Walking home, I acknowledged that America was violently created through the genocide of indigenous Americans and then industrialized through slavery. Violence is at the core of American culture. We shouldn’t be prideful of that. In fact, I think our leaders and people should demand reparations

But the question remains: Do we want non-Americans to view us first as a crime ridden, violent country? Will we allow that to be our legacy?

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Ebola and the Peace Corps Life

It’s been in the news that the two Samaritan’s Purse worker’s who have been infected with Ebola have been evacuated to Atlanta to receive treatment by Emory Hospital and the Center’s for Disease Control in Atlanta. My newsfeed is exploding with both expatriates and Atlantans complaining or venting their worries to the World Wide Web. I have answered a half dozen concerned emails from friends and family (thank you!), some begging me to throw in the towel and scurry home.

Here is my reality in Cameroon: I live about 120 kilometres from the Nigerian border by air. Yes, the land borders are still open and to assume Africans don’t travel would be making a false judgment call about African economic power. Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have all evacuated their Peace Corps Volunteers, while having two Volunteers in isolation due to potential exposure to Ebola. As of today, there has not been media coverage of a single death or illness due to Ebola in Cameroon. I am still here focusing on my community. And I will be here until I get a phone call from one of my bosses telling me to pack my bags. To leave now would be preemptive and excessive. I came here to complete 27 months of service, and I am not backing down.

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I used to live in Atlanta less than 3 miles from the Centers for Disease Control. I am irritated when I see people posting alarmist articles about the CDC treating the Americans with Ebola flown home in an effort to save their lives. These people are someone’s daughter or son, they are parents, public servants and neighbors. The chance of survival in Liberia is small, but it increases greatly in Atlanta under the care of renowned doctors and professionals. Americans have pride in the world class medical research and care at our disposal. To deny Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol of that care would be morally bankrupt. I have personally met a few doctors who work at the CDC and they are a force to be reckoned with: they have the three C’s that are needed to change the world as an American—courage, compassion and competence. To treat Dr. Brantly and Writebol  might lead to new insights on how to treat victims of Ebola abroad. Looking at the dismal amount of research being done on viruses that tend to only affect Sub Saharan Africa and other tropical Global South countries such as Ebola in comparison to diseases that affect the Global North where a large amount of research dollars go toward cancer research which largely goes untreated here with minimal equipment available to even give a proper diagnosis is disheartening. Turning our backs on West Africa stinks of ignoring a disease because it is largely an African problem and will never be financially profitable to pharmacy companies.

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On Friday, I was talking to my friend Anna about the minutia of a conversation I had with someone, trying too hard to please everyone. She said “Elise, do you know the Serenity Prayer?”. Yes, of course I know it, like peanut butter to jelly her reminder triggered that part of me that allowed me to acknowledge that I am not in control. I let it go. If I was in Atlanta, I would remind people of the Serenity Prayer. There are people protecting you in Atlanta and people protecting me in Cameroon.

With that in mind, I applaud the CDC and Emory for bringing Dr. Brantly  and Writebol home. I am proud to be an American citizen where we take on the hard stuff and deal with things even when the odds are stacked against us.

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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.

 

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