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.

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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.

Moto Man Monday: Abdulai

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Name: Abdulai C.

City: Nkongsamba

“The moto men serve the people of Cameroon.”

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Moto Men are essential to Cameroonian life. They can use roads that are not passable in cars. The lower price of the Okada makes it more affordable even for people who are not “Big Men”. For most small cities, you can get an Okada ride for the equivalent of 20-40 cents.

Mission Accomplished

Before I left for Cameroon, I sat myself down and asked how I would define success as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I sat on a park bench in Kiev overlooking the Dniper river trying to imagine what exactly I would be doing that could lead to success. I had never even touched foot in Africa, let alone Cameroon. So I set my pen and paper down and went back to nursing my coffee and reading.

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Twelve weeks later, I revisited this question. I had finished training and was living in my village. Since that time, I spoken with many seasoned volunteers about their lives and how they decided if they were successful. Some people came here with huge expectations—something akin to White Savior Syndrome. I didn’t want that. I wanted to check my ego at the door and realize that if I haven’t shifted the entire American culture which I already understand and am a part of, then I most certainly will not shift Cameroonian culture in two years. I am not going to leave Cameroon a famous “thought leader”. I settled on what I consider a modest goal: I want to change one person’s life. If I can do that in two years, I win.

I’ve been in Cameroon nine months now. Honestly, I feel that most days I am too mobile to be doing effective work. I had planned four days of Youth Day activities in Manjo, but students were accusing the principal of witch craft at the local high school because many students were becoming asthmatic. In response, he cancelled all of our activities.

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After Youth Day in my village, I travelled to Buea to help with the Race of Hope events. We tested almost 1,000 people for HIV in a single day. The event was flawless due to the hard work of a great team. I was supposed to be in my bed, sleeping at home on the 17th and ready for meetings the following morning. But destiny had another plan for me; the Cameroonian President, Paul Biya, was coming to Buea so the streets were all shut down and every last military person was in Buea. I ended up staying in Buea for an additional day and some much needed girl time, but that meant missing my meeting in Manjo.

Some of the best days can come from just going with the flow and taking opportunities as they arise so when my friend Becca suggested lunching in Douala, I said sure. Our original plan was to have coffee with her friend and then have a nice lunch and continue up to my village two hours away. As I arrived in Douala, I called my friend Bienvenu and asked him to meet us for coffee as well. He has been a source of happiness in my life since my first weeks in Cameroon, so being able to see him was quite serendipitous since he is actually living about four or five hours north. We immediately sat down and started catching up because we have a number of mutual friends. We started recalling how in December I came to Douala to speak to a large group of Youth about setting goals and creating great action plans. It was hands down my most successful activity this far. It was just like speaking to a group of University students in the United States. They were smart, they asked challenging questions and they were interested in evolving and making the world a better place.

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After the speaking event, I went to have drinks with a smaller group of five participants. We talked about how difficult it is to balance the demands of becoming an educated person and to support yourself or your family financially. I got a chance to speak with each person about some of the individual challenges they are facing and discuss the short and long term impact of their daily decisions. For example, should one work a job that makes good money now at the port, but have little opportunity for advancement or expansion? Will that job still be there in 20 years or will technology make it obsolete? More than two months later, Bienvenu told me that one of the men I spoke with listened to my advice and was now focusing full time on school. In other words, my way of thinking had influenced him to make a change. A smile spread across my hot, sweaty face. I had done it, I had reached my goal. But here is the beauty of it all—at the time I thought I was just sitting down with some cool city kids. My peers, 20 something, educated Cameroonians wrestling with the same questions. That is where the real magic happens when you’re just going with the flow of things.

I win.

Why am I Here?

There comes a point in every twenty-something’s life when they must/should ask themselves if they are spending their time how they envisioned. For the record, I think this question should be asked periodically, no matter what age you are. Are you living passionately? When I have to make a tough decision, I like to ask myself “What would my most adventurous, bad ass hero do?”. I contemplate that, then go do it.

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How did all of the signs point to Peace Corps? When I was young, maybe 12 or 13, my mom took us on vacation to Essex, Massachusetts. If you look at pictures of this vacation I was looking disgruntled in almost every photo taken. It was around this time I began to experience teenage angst which showed itself though my facial expressions and poor wardrobe choices. Today, I lovingly call it “my awkward decade”. I may or may not be finishing it right now.

But there was Michael, this zen-like man with a rather unconventional house on the wharf. I sat with him one day and he told me how he had a dream about being in the African savannah and seeing some kind of exotic animals, maybe zebras. Then instead of finishing his story lamenting his unfulfillment, like so many adults I knew., he told he “and then I did it. I joined Peace Corps and got to see the things I had only read about come to life”. That’s all it took. I knew what kind of person I wanted to become. Today, I haven’t spoken to Michael since leaving Essex, but he has had a lasting impact on my character.

This article talks about the life choices millennials are making. Are they going to make us better? Or are we just reckless? But Max’s life choices resonate with me so much. I have a degree in economics and a small pile of internships on my resume. I also know that the idea of Max’s father, that each of us will live well into our 80′s, can be an assumption made in vain. Life is a race against a timer that we cannot see—and what society says people Piggymy age “should” be doing does not take that into consideration. I have given up 2+ years of a dependable, well paying job to make some of the most interesting, gutsy friends I have to date. I may not be adding to my 401(k), but I have my breath taken away by the beauty around me and the kindness of humanity. I feel completely alive everyday.

The West