Tag Archives: volunteer

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.

rest

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.

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.

WP_000234

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

La Maison de la Blanche: Manjo Edition

Sunset

In Peace Corps, each of us are given a place to live. No one knows what that place will be like. Running water? How many bedrooms? How difficult is it to get there? Will I have a postmate? When we are in training, we can make requests, but the key word here is request. Peace Corps Cameroon is the kind of place where a small number of volunteers are so isolated and lacking amenities that they have a satellite phone. I came to Cameroon prepared to adjust to whatever Peace Corps threw my way. We traditionally have two meetings while training to discuss personal needs for a potential site. When I sat down in my first meeting with my program manager to discuss post, I made a list of things I would like, in order of preference. It went something like this:

1) Francophone

2) less than 30 kilometres to the next volunteer

3) Internet access within 30 km as well.

My large terrace

But then I started rambling about how I have been daydreaming about making pineapple wine. And before I knew it, the meeting was over. 

Then, four weeks later, we had another meeting. At this point I had been in Cameroon long enough to begin having some dietary stress. The lack of fruit in my diet was making me miserable. I was constipated for weeks at a time. Fruit is not really a regular part of the Cameroonian diet in the way Americans eat fruit. In the States, I can eat a fruit salad and a glass of chocolate milk everyday—that’s a great meal for me! Here, well, the primary ingredients in anything is palm oil, rice and piment. Everything else is optional. So by the time the second meeting arrive, I had been dragged through the mud with language training. I wasn’t feeling so confident with my French, I had even cried in language class the first week. I sat down and told my program manager that at this point, I don’t care where I go, I need to have access to fruit all year round, or else I will not survive. After that, everything is negotiable. I also mumbled that francophone would still be fun.

Bathroom

KitchenFast forward to August 8th, when I arrived in Manjo. I had spent two days travelling with Ben to our region. I stepped out of a bus meant for 35, but packed with 56 (excluding children under 10). I looked around and saw two petrol stations and tons of people swarming at me. Because fate always is timely, the phone towers were not working, making a phone call was impossible, so I just stood there trying to remember how many bags I had. I would later find out phone service is very much an on-again-off-again thing here by the hour during rainy season. But then my community host, Monique found me and within minutes, I was moving through the center of town toward my apartment. As I crossed the street and people gesticulated to eachother that they understood why I was here, I knew that I would never again be a stranger here.

I am living on the Francophone/Anglophone line in the Littoral region of Cameroon. My village is francophone, and my language skills are greatly improved since those interviews in Bafia. I am 15 km away from 5 volunteers and 20 km away from Ben, a guy who began training with me. I have running water all of the time and electricity most of time. While, living with my host family, I spent every morning and evening drawing water from the well. And while I have running water, I still take bucket baths because I heat the bucket first so that I am not freezing cold. I am living in an apartment on the road to Douala. I have 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms. All fully furnished, though I have added a nice speaker system. I have two terraces, they both look out to the mountains which host enviable sunsets on the regular. One terrace has a sink for doing laundry or just to serve dinner on. I have a TV. With cable. I The back terracelive less than 3 hours from the coast. I live in, what some argue, is one of the nicest apartments in Peace Corps Cameroon. The person I am replacing, Cherlin, took it a step further and had made the bed and put fresh soap out for my arrival. But the cherry on top is that I am literally surrounded by fruit. I even have a man, Thaddeus who delivers papaya to me when I call him. 

Dining Room

My bedroomSomehow, needing to be near fruit. Being arguably the pickiest eater in my training cohort has gotten me a little paradise in the jungle. It is my first time living alone. The apartment is huge. Washing the floors is quite an undertaking but also a very good workout. But most importantly, it feels like home. 

Living room

Sunset II