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.
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.
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.
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.