Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mi Wari, Mi Lari, Mi Dili: I Came, I Saw, I Left

One week. One week was what they gave us to stuff a few bags full of our chosen belongings, dispose of our household contents and leases, dissolve all utility and banking accounts, finish our projects--or not finish--and quietly say goodbye to our colleagues, friends, neighbors, pets, and the communities that we had come to call home, all before being required to position ourselves like sardines into a laughably brimming, shoddy passenger bus, ready to part after the first and very early morning Call to Prayer. This was our disappearing act. 

A short two months prior, thirty Peace Corps Volunteers dispersed throughout Cameroon’s Extreme North Region heard devastating news. The news came slowly to the region through spotty mobile phone service and the local grapevine. A French family of seven, four being young children, had been kidnapped from the country’s principal tourist attraction, Waza National Park--just seventy-five miles from me--and taken on the backs of motorbikes into an unforgiving, dry-season Sahelian landscape (i.e., one-hundred twenty degree weather, bleak sand, and dried up riverbeds). In Cameroon?! This couldn't be right.  

The father, a French gas company employee, and his family, all Cameroonian residents on vacation, were taken by Boko Haram, a radical Nigerian-based and al-Qaeda-linked terrorist organization. Boko Haram, which translates to “western education is sinful,” has been fighting for an independent Islamic state in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim-dominant north for the last decade. They are responsible for thousands of deaths in Nigeria--mostly civilians, Muslims and Christians alike.  

Soon after, the surrounding Peace Corps Volunteers were consolidated into a safe house with armed guards within my own town, the region's most central and safest city. Headquarters issued a nightly curfew. I was given permission to stay in my own house, without armed guards, not far from the transit house. That concession was a honey-infused blessing, as it kept me from sleeping on communal sweat and dirt-soaked foam mattresses under pelt-happy (but beautiful) Neem trees, and from having to use intermittent plumbing and water with nearly twenty irregularly washed volunteers during hot season.  

The curfews, the armed guards, the continuous checking over my shoulder, and two waves of volunteers’ posts closings (more remote villages closer to the unclear and porous Nigerian and Chadian borders) created an incredible sense of insecurity, in and outside of work life. There was a slow but very present creeping feeling, but, deep down, I knew that my post would not be closed. I was safe. The remaining Extreme North volunteers were no longer being consolidated. Sporadic violence around the borders continued and our approved work territory was continually restricted, but we were still living and working “as normal." Weeks turned into months, and we all began functioning with a freshly developed, heightened internal alarm system. Our new standard of living. 

I was shopping for new pagne (patterned and colorful fabric used in most traditional Cameroonian wear), when my program manager called my burner phone. There was news from the U.S. Embassy. Peace Corps in the Extreme North region was being indefinitely closed. They were pulling us out. I should have seen it coming, but I had finally allowed myself to believe everyone else was exaggerating and I would not be going anywhere. I had been getting back into a routine. Then, poof. Not just the rest of my service but fifty years of Peace Corps work, integration, trust, and relationship building in a high-need area was immediately terminated. Done. And all because of encroaching ignorance onto a peaceful, yet bleeding land. A waking nightmare. Hate and fear were on the move. So easily, a hungry and hopeless person can adopt the extreme perspectives of radicalism. 

That funereal week was a wild blur with a few faint memories of frantically trying to find different owners (who may not want to eat) a batch of kittens, painting a big map of the world on the outside wall of my house for the neighborhood kids, and putting on a “yard sale” (which turned out to be strangely similar to any of our childhood garage sales where my Dad's terrible sales pitches and his “take-what-you-can-carry-and-give-me-a-peso-for-it" attitude reigned).  Bureaucratic necessities were finalized, but little closure came from that week. On my last day, minutes after I had handed the keys back to my landlord and for the first time in many months, a dark sky spat out angry hail and rain. It was cold and eerie; a perfectly-timed surrogate weep. 

With only two more months remaining in my service, it was decided that little fruition would come from placing me in a new post. I spent the remainder of my time as a vagabond volunteer visiting friends, helping with a few projects, and simply trying to embrace my little time left with Cameroon. It was wonderful and wearing. Then, after a handshake and a small souvenir pin, I was put onto a plane and flown home. 

That was it. A quick, two-year flash. La fin


It has now been nearly six months since I returned to envied American soil--when I, freshly-off the plane, thought how the town of Kenner, a very uninspiring concrete-sprawled suburb housing New Orleans’ airport, looked so beautiful, when I, with little grace, rolled out the bed of a pickup truck to surprise my uniformed sister on her twenty-fifth birthday, and when I met all four of my nieces and nephew for the first time ever. It took me only two and a half weeks to get back into flushing just-containing-urine toilets. I embraced my native land with a vengeance--all the hot water, all the food, all the new babies, all the magical sidewalks and superb conveniences. I even forwent my last assessment to becoming an officer in the State Department's Foreign Service, deciding that I wanted to be here, at least semi-stationary, for the next little bit. My younger brothers’ voices have changed, I have nieces and nephews that call me “Biff,” and after a hefty amount of bonding time, my family is surprisingly not completely ready for me to leave again. It is good to be home, in the land of plenty. Cameroon is, again, a hazy world away.


But, that is not true. Life in Cameroon continues--grave inequalities, hunger and disease, kidnappings, births, deaths, and celebrations.  I am not able to block it, not able to forget. 

Often, I have sat down to write my last “Elizabeth Goes to Cameroon” installment, but every time, I have been unable and left staring at blank paper (likely distracted and foiled by Netflix or happy hours). It seems only fair that I would attempt to write something as profound and eye-opening as my experience, something worthy of my gratitude for Cameroon and the Peace Corps. A great ode or ballad. But for the moment, I am resigned to leave it here. Perhaps when I hit seventy, I will be more eloquent.  I didn't feel I had enough good-bye time when I left my Cameroonian home, but that wound slowly heals, as I realize I am not closing a simple, adventure chapter in my own life book. My Cameroonian experiences, education, and friendships will remain with me in some form throughout my life. I was allowed an intimate look into her own trials, sorrows, and triumphs, her own similarities and uniquities; things that will continually help build and construct me--a better me. One day, I hope to see that beautiful place with its beautiful people again.

Thank you, Cameroon. Thank you, Peace Corps. Thank you, Peace Corps Family. Thank you, U.S. Government*. On est ensemble. Grand merci. Useko djur. 



Title: Mi wari, mi lari, mi dili (Fulfude, the most common local language of the Cameroonian North: I came, I saw, I left) 

* Post Script: Because it would be unheard of me to write a blog without a grievance…the U.S. Peace Corps, a government institution, gives its Returned Peace Corps Volunteers--after they have done two years of diplomacy and development work in harsh conditions and usually had multiple run-ins with tropical diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever, dysentery, tuberculosis...--a cute, little re-adjustment allowance and one month of health care. One month of health care. That's unacceptable. Let's do better.) 



Here's to wild and wonderful adventures in 2014!


 Some of my neighborhood rascals; I graffiti-ed the front of my house right before peace-ing out.  (Maroua)

 My next door neighbor, Grand-mere, and her goats. The matriarch of the neighborhood; don't cross her, kids. (Maroua)


 The Extreme North Exodus: Collection & Removal (Kaele)

Extremers for Life: John Jack, Earl, and I in our matching pagne at our training group's closing dinner (photo compliments: Jack Gaines)

Friday, April 19, 2013

All the Same, All the Different


Month 3: Swearing-in Day as Peace Corps Volunteers, so fresh.
Month 23: Close of Service Conference, in perfect Cameroonian fashion, there will be no smiles. 

Today, we had news that the French family of seven who were kidnapped in Cameroon several hours north of me two months ago by Boko Haram were released.  Incredibly happy to hear.  A huge weight lifted.  Alhamdulilah.

The Others

They hadn’t closed the gates on us.  Relief came with a bit of guilt for hurrying Earl’s last several inches of beer at the nearby bar.  We had at least fifteen minutes to spare and found Car 582, room A1 easily.  This part of my regular 25 hour trip from the capital city to my home is the highlight, a tasty piece of cake.  On a good voyage, the overnight train barreling us north towards our posts, away from the green, lush South and usually keeping herself on the tracks, only takes about 14 hours.  I was curious to see who they were going to bunk with us since we had insisted on being placed in the same sleeping compartment and, therefore, were mixing the sexes – something for which the ticket lady was unabashed in showing her contempt.  How indecent.  I never mind sharing the tiny two bunk bed cell with Cameroonians - male or female.  Typically, bunk-mates, love to share food and conversation and go to bed early – never seeming annoyed if the lights stay on past their early 8PM sleep check-outs.  Even the children and babies are well behaved.  My guess is drugging.

Two pale-skinned, pepper-haired Italian Jesuit priests.  Hmm.

Jesuits -- I could handle these guys, with their familiar pocket protectors, little luggage, and round bellies (like PCVs, they live relatively pampered but simple lives).  Having grown up with Jesuits, who typically in this day in age focus on education, an improvement, I feel akin.  Conversation would be easy - even in French, neither of our mother tongues.  Could even prove fun.

“My uncle’s a Jesuit,” I say after a few pleasantries.
“Ahh.”
“So, you must be excited the new pope is Jesuit.”  Light chuckles.
I try again, “Well, it’s nice to finally have a pope from the Americas.”  
More light chuckles, “His parents were Italian.”  

These old farts were way tougher than I had thought.  Luckily not too much more conversation had to be forced – bananas and avocados, delicacies in my town, were being sold out of the window at the next stop giving me an easy escape.  We kept the rest of the evening light.  I think I ended with a Buonanotte.


***

For some reason, I never know quite how to react when I see other foreigners in Cameroon.  Do I make eye contact or say hello if I wouldn’t normally?  (Of course in the above instance, I would.  I haven’t forgotten all of my manners.)  Because isn’t that sort of racist?  It’s not like we have anything necessarily in common.  Neither of us are wearing identifying Saints' jerseys or American flag insignia.  All I know is that we sort of share the same color skin and what does that mean?  Sometimes as a pastime, especially in bigger cities where NGOs and missionaries are plentiful, other “whites” unknowingly become part of volunteers’ slightly altered version of the “Punch Bug” game, and then internally or externally, we find ourselves asking “Who are they?  What are they doing here?”  I have this natural inclination to separate myself from these “others” – these √©trangers - fearing I will be lumped with them.   I’m here living and working in a non-bubbled community.  I’m not a missionary, I’m not here with some ulterior motive, I’m not here to bring light to the darkness.  I desperately don’t want to fall into that blanketed, but still existing neocolonialist movement.  I so want to believe that, and I want my Cameroonian counterparts to believe that.  

I realize my initial aversions, or perhaps, hesitations, to being around other foreigners are fairly irrational and unwarranted, but there you have it, they exist.  Maybe it’s because we never share our motivations for being here – not typically a first round topic – and I guess I am not totally comfortable with everyone’s motivations for being here.  Or maybe it’s international development, something I am a part, that I’m not totally comfortable.

During the last two years of Cameroonian living, Peace Corps has, on a much more intimate level, introduced me to this giant world of “international development”.  Even if it’s still only a glimpse, I believe I have learned heaps, and even with its frustrations and major imperfections, it is a road upon which I think I would like to continue, at least in some sort of capacity.  A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently asked if he could film me saying two or three sentences about development for a documentary.  Two or three sentences?  I had no idea what to say.  What did he mean two or three sentences about development?  Was he trying to be purposefully broad in order to illicit some massive variation of responses?  Must be some sort of trap. "Sure. Let me think on it."  I evaded.

The term "development" is tricky to me, finding it ill-used and to be demeaning at times (even if unintentional).  Habitually begun with good aims, international development (not humanitarian aid - short-term emergency fixes), is often accompanied by major waste and corruption.  Of course, “good” can and does come from it, but the idea of development is not so clean cut as it is frequently portrayed in the self-proclaimed developed world.  There is no clear path, no easy way to create equality (if that indeed is the objective), no easy way to fix colonialism.  “Developers” come in all shapes and forms - sometimes coming in very humbly and sometimes coming in on their high horses and all with different reasons.  Peace Corps is a part of that.  Possibly, it is not as effective or not as ineffective as I would like to imagine, but if individual growth is the goal (communities don't grow until their members have), than it seems that what the best volunteers and aid organizations, including Peace Corps, are doing is simply exchanging ideas and information, to be used if desired.  They are optional catalysts.  And that is something with which I am comfortable.  The most helpful aren’t blindly giving out money, donating buildings, or handing out canvas shoes – because those things rarely last.  That's not creating.  Change can't be forced upon a group uninterested in that change.  No person can be told what his or her priorities are.

(Although intertwined, if you are interested in seeing quicker "development," look to commerce and technology -- depending on the country's governing body.  International development, in the above mentioned manner, although much slower is still, certainly, more than necessary.  Both cell phones and AIDS currently have amazing multiplying rates.)

 A few of my cute neighborhood hooligans. Beware.
 Easter morning breakfast: Spaghetti omelettes and giant carrots.  Not too shabby.
Hanging out a reserve outside of Yaounde.  These chimps went inside because of the storm.  We didn't have the same convenience.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Clock is Ticking...

Five months.  Five months at the most.  All that is left of what has sometimes felt like being stuck in a desert prison, a self-induced exile, and at other times felt like winning the lottery and living in some tropical paradise, a perfect little arrangement, is five months.  As the kids would say, “that shit cray.”  Like the gifts of that fast swinging pendulum of a ship ride at the state fair, which is well targeted at us crazy stay-close-to-the-earth thrill seeking types, I am left with some majorly strong and mixed feelings about my remaining time – excitement, fear, and vomit-producing nausea – although the latter is less heavy on the fried pickle and funnel cake aftertaste.  The angst that accompanies the much too accelerated and deafening tick-tocking with its impolite hot-breath "Winter is Coming" whispers is not all that cool.  I am actually a little frightened that if I blink too long, summer will already be upon us.  Minus a few days/weeks here and there, my last twenty-two months in Cameroon so quickly slipped away and abandoned me without even the tiniest of goodbyes.  Rude.  

Thus, that annoying look-back process has slowly begun, and I am left realizing how little I have accomplished of what I wanted to do.  Bucket loads of coulda, shoulda, woulda’s.  I am not ready for this little chapter of my life to end – so much more to do!  I am still having plenty of those moments when I find myself with a surprise unprompted grin and am telling myself “Hey, you get to live here, for free, and it’s awesome.”  (Yes, I say that silently.  Well, sometimes.  Ok, fine, sometimes, I accidentally say it aloud, but to myself -- which those occasions then, after I (or a child) catch myself, serve as little memory triggers to a past life when I would witness my mom having similar under-the-breath senile self-conversations as she would drive through town in The Battle Wagon (our faux wood paneled station wagon with back lookout seat) or The Gladiator (our awesome TV equipped, backseat-to bed converter full-sized van which would sadly later be made into a vancake) and I  would think, “Hmm, my mother might be a crazy.”)  Then again, I will probably be ready for this little part of my life to end – so many things waiting for my American re-incarnation.  Four of my four new and only nieces and nephew, who have yet to meet who will undoubtedly be their favorite aunt, are in great need of my presence.  Siblings speak of new design, writing, and furniture projects!  And ponies! There will surely be lots and lots of ponies and rainbows and butterflies and Mexican food!  I say hallelujah.  (As a mental-safety exercise, I must think of all these magical things that await me in the homeland in order to help outweigh the bad thoughts about the income-less, vehicle-less, homeless, healthcare-less life that also waits for me.)

Remembering as well that my Peace Corps departure is mostly inevitable and also because too much heavy contemplation takes its toll -- typically keeping that type of thinking limited to several minutes a day, I try to think and focus on other simpler things, like what am I going to eat next or the silliness of "reintegrating" into American society.  "Peace Corps Goggles" – that is what “they” say we get here.  We start seeing things through a different lens, at times making things a little hazy and bestowing us with new, non-back-home standards.  To give a few small examples, combining Laughing Cow cheese, tomato paste, and baguette together really does not taste like pizza.  It is actually kind of unappetizing.  Or leaving a load of dirty clothes in soapy water for hours and then dunking that into non-soapy water does not constitute washing.  After looking into the small, shallow pot of PCVs, and to be perfectly shallow, a volunteer who might have been a 5 on the good-looks scale previously can get promoted fairly easily to an 8.  Like most volunteers, in addition to having some blurred sensibilities (for the record, I scrub my laundry and consider all volunteers to be around a 7.3), I have picked up some different habits, which would be fine if I could remember if they were acceptable back home or not.  I know there are plenty of things that must be left behind, including the less than endearing behaviors such as hissing for a person’s attention, yelling for service at a bar or restaurant, doing the finger wag in someone’s face (I really like that one), “beeping” someone to call you back when you don’t want to use your own phone credit, or having a small child go do pretty much any errand.  (Truth be told, I am going to continue doing that last one.)  But then there are other things, the things that I have been racking my little brain to remember if they are America-acceptable.  After it becoming so normal to be piled on top of one another in a car or bus while exchanging sweat, phone numbers, and human shoulder pillows, can I touch another human when riding next to them in a car or subway? Like not major touching, but if our arms graze or I rest my leg gingerly next to someone else’s, will they do that uncomfortable but polite removal? I can’t remember!  And how often am I supposed to shower?  Toothpick teeth-picking? Wearing moomoo’s in public? Haggling at farmers’ markets? How much can I eat with my hands?  How much is too much mayonnaise? Are napkins really that necessary?

I actually suspect rejoining won’t be all that hard for the most part.  I guess if anything, I have learned pretty well to be and to be comfortable with being the odd-(wo)man out.  Plus, when I commence my new life as an itinerant couch monger, I feel confident that all my flaws will be called out pretty quickly – maybe slightly more tactfully than how Cameroonians like to do - and I will chameleon right back.  But I will offer a warning, if I was thought to have been slightly hippie-esque or too much like my penny-pinching Great Depression grandma before this…it might have gotten worse.  Also, I know now that I want to own a small farm-type place with lots of animals, plots of fresh grown food, have a barn workshop where I can do lots of money making do-it-yourself projects, and live happily ever after.  Or I shall own a tiny adorable camper that sets up in a different driveway every month.  Either option seems pretty plausible for my re-American life, right?  Agreed.  Until then though, I'll be busy carpe diem'ing in Cameroon.

 Maroua, Extreme-North, Cameroon
Spiced Mangoes, Maroua, Extreme-North, Cameroon

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Tale of Tears

I wanted to blame it on the episode of “Downton Abby” - an episode that wouldn’t reach U.S. airwaves for months.*  It was heart wrenching.  A death in the family.  But maybe it was because my emotions had just been given a steroid shot, or more likely, it was the impending holidays and being far away from family for a second year in a row.  Maybe it was an approaching monthly visit from Aunt Flo, whose stopovers can sometimes create an allergic reaction in me with side effects akin to werewolf transformation at the slightest peek of a full moon.  Maybe it was the freshly received news of the mass shooting and killing of so many children in New Jersey.  Or maybe it was the eighteen months of Cameroon living, but for whatever reason/s, as I sat in my apartment watching, something went off in the deep, dark recesses of my brain, and I became a blubbering mess.  There came this unstoppable torrential tear downpour.  I felt so embarrassed - despite there being no one around to bear witness.

Strangely though, in that sick sadistic way in which I like to poke at my own bruises, it felt sort of okay.  I needed it, with its Drano-like effects helping to flush some of the sad and grit of the last while out of my brain.  It was something I had not done for so long.  Even though I like to pretend I’m some sort of amateur stoic, I’ve never been very good at saying “no” to donating a few daily tears for a sappy TV commercial or some cheesy, emotional firework-igniting song.  Those prevalent moments, which are like seeing the little red Salvation Army bucket swinging in rhythm to the good doer’s hand bell, are amazing compellers for making me contribute something.  Yet from almost the first day arriving in this country, my ability to feel strong emotions seemed to drain from me and my impressive self-regenerating tears went on sabbatical – forcing the realization of owning lazy tear ducts.  They didn’t want to have to work overtime and preferred sitting comfortably numb.

Despite the fact that most days, especially as my time here quickly fades away, I appreciate and love Cameroon more and more - the beautiful aspects of its people, its culture, its food, its majestic landscapes, it doesn't cover up the surrounding and all too-normal sadness which is so annoyingly present.  I walk out of my house and a group of Muslim men, sitting together on a mat, some with hands extended towards the heavens, pray for the small neighborhood girl who has died of Typhoid.  They will do this for days.  I go out on a run and see the same – this time, maybe someone’s mother.  I take a ride on a bus and pass yet another terrible car accident.  Death is a constant.  I shoo away the small begging boys with their metal bowls from morning to night.  I say “non merci” to the children forced to sell boiled eggs or tissues and cigarettes into the wee hours of the morning.  I avoid eye contact and walk around the ancient lady who lies next to her alms bowl.  I watch my neighborhood kids in their dirty clothes and ashy skin hanging out on our street, doing nothing, unable to afford school, and the women who sit with them frying their beignets – realizing how rarely they are even allowed to leave the quartier.  It is five o’clock in the afternoon and my friend reveals she hasn’t eaten today so doesn’t have the energy to go for a walk.  I wouldn't have enough tears even if I wanted to cry, and what would they help anyway? Cameroon with its never-ending bouts of sickness, corruption, and frustrations bestows on her people something of a seemingly impregnable challenge, and leaving me feeling that I’m only playing the silly role of eye-witness and pondering the “why” question-- not towards the identifiable sources of the sadness but the prolongation of it. 

No answers. I have none, but below are just some more disjointed, tiny incomprehensive thoughts on how things like sorcery play both parts of problem and solution helping to contribute to some of Cameroon's nagging ailments...

It's common knowledge that God has a reason for everything -- even if it remains a mystery to us lowly humans. That's not a foreign explanation to the American ear, but belief in it or not, Americans usually tend to dig a little deeper for at least a secondary explanation, hoping and realizing we have some control over our fates.  A young American man for no clear purpose destroys the lives of 27 people in a matter of minutes.  Devastating, and blame must be placed somewhere – mental health, gun control laws, a violent culture, parenting?  Something or someone must be held accountable.  Repetition is unacceptable, and our ways must change.

Similar initial reactions occur here in Cameroon – the unexplained is explained.  Yet to its disadvantage, answers are too often left in the hands of God, or another mystic power – and with that, personal and communal responsibilities are washed away.  The question is answered with itself -- it's a mystery.  Reality can be too ugly and when maybe, correctly, personal actions seem to do too little to change it, what's the point in keeping it around?  My neighbor told me his brother died of “the malaria” which to my surprise wasn’t the doing of mosquitoes but rather was caused by some jealous girl who had cursed him.  Possibly a truer tale would be something more aligned with his family not wanting to admit that they couldn’t afford the bills or being too proud to beg neighbors and family for money, keeping him from the hospital until it was too late.  The old witch lady in the adjoining neighborhood “took” a girl’s heart and the young girl almost died until the old woman was physically beaten and forced to “give” her heart back.  (I would be warned from walking past a particular home in order to avoid being cursed myself.)  I realize believing in the supernatural is super natural but when it is used as an excuse, a rationalization, for our own mistakes, especially in preventable cases, it becomes detrimental.

Sorcery – with both its worthy and wicked ways – is deeply engrained in Cameroon.  It’s even easy to come across a well-educated teacher or colleague that believes in its powers to a certain extent.   One can be a devout Catholic or Muslim and still hold their animistic or traditional beliefs.  They’re not completely separate. (If you’re already believing in one un-earthly power, why not another?  I get that.)  Although it may often seem that teenage girls are possessed by evil spirits, a modern medical doctor at the local clinic could tell us that the girl who collapsed actually wasn’t possessed at all and the root of her schoolyard seizure was health related and treatable.  But when the cost of medical bills keeps the majority of Cameroonians out of the hospitals for the majority of curable ailments, a Cameroonian may never hear or accept another explanation.  Hospitals are for the dying.  (Then again, so is the home so that works too.)  And why would a corrupt, selfish government want to take any blame for its lacking healthcare system?  It seems sorcery is the better answer for everyone.

Cameroonians are occasionally known not to lend a penny (well, a CFA) to a family member or a friend to go to the hospital for some very treatable but deadly illness, but then will no doubt come bearing gifts to that person’s funeral.  That really can hit a nerve, at least for a Peace Corps Volunteer.  But maybe when this life can be such a struggle, why not want to help celebrate that person’s seemingly recent promotion?  To be more positive though, I do think time and continual education will help.  As more clinics, more hospitals, better schools and resource centers open, as more opportunities become available, things will change – and that will take some of the sting, some of the unnecessary and avoidable struggle, out of the daily living, and then maybe Cameroonians will see the good and benefits of investing more money into their living rather than in honoring loved ones in death.

Insha’Allah.

*PCVs are impressively resourceful when it comes to keeping each other up-to-date with freshly released eye-craving media.

 International Youth Day 2013, Maroua, Extreme-North

Baka children (little Pygmies) in Lomie, East Region 
(maybe 2 or 3 African countries actually have a McDonald's)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

And the Winner is...America!

Yesterday, on the day of the U.S. national elections, the country of Cameroon, or more likely a minority of Cameroonians who benefit/profit from the current government, celebrated their president, Paul Biya, residing in power for now thirty years.  Thirty years.  Thirty years of unquestioned, dubious elections resulting in a continuously corrupt, painfully stifled, and suffering land.

Today, even knowing there was a chance that my picks weren’t going to win, I was giddy when I woke up, wanting to get to the internet early because I truly didn’t already know the results - this wasn't the Cameroonian presidential election.  Giddy, I tell ya - dancing around as if I were a middle-aged NPR enthusiast on the day she gets to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo live in concert (yes, me, previously, minus the middle-age part, add a fanny pack; with their sweet euphonious voices, and like with the miraculous weeping Marian statue of Medjugorje, tears were brought to these stoic eyes).  America, although nowhere near perfect, is controlled by its people and their votes – something many countries can’t claim.  I saw the reports -- although nail-bitingly close, a clear, undisputed win -- a hard fought triumph against some actual, worthy opposition.  And I felt a great sense of pride and fortune - not just because my candidate was victorious, but lucky to live in a place where its people constantly, often with great vigor and inanity and forgetting any afore-learned grammar or spelling, freely bicker over politics on Facebook, lucky to be able to participate in a real-life working democratic process, even being able to vote from far away lands - and vote for whomever I choose, simply lucky to be American.  Indeed, it's comforting to know that Americans can disagree, will continue to disagree, and that our offices will be perpetually governed by different ideologies - a swinging pendulum, all contributing to the good health of a great nation. (Of course, if we knew how to have real discussions, while speaking civilly/not be so sensitive, or how to work a bit better together...)

I had an early morning visitor.  It was my friend Prosper, a 19 year old trying to improve his English and with high hopes to make it to university.  He was all smiles and asked if I had heard the news.  I said I had and we simultaneously “Obama”d and he gave me a fist bump, a welcomed dap.  He said " Barack Hussein Obama."  That really happened.  He then asked me what a Mormon was. 

I know it’s not 2008, it’s 2012, but it really is pretty neat to be living in Africa and seeing the excitement here over our half-African president.  No matter what you think of our Commander-in-Chief, he is a symbol of hope and progress for a great many people in a place where those things have a serious dearth.  After living here, it is simply incredible to believe that a grandson of a Kenyan goat herder has now been elected twice to one of the greatest nations of all time.  Despite the fact that ole George W. did a fair amount for Africa, you don't see tons of boutiques, bars, cyber-cafes, barbershops, and anything else imaginable named after him.  Work in Cameroon is more than not discouraging, often making me consider packing up and getting the hell out of dodge, but that right there – having the knowledge that there are real viable possibilities for changing and bettering one’s quality or position in life, not just within the U.S. – gives me some greatly needed encouragement for sticking around.

(And just for the sake of helping release some of my giddiness, my day's mantra...Obama, gays, marijuana. Obama, gays, marijuana...)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Fair Trade

I once lived in the armpit, the dregs, the worst of the worst of this country.  It wasn’t.  It was.  It wasn’t.  Doesn’t matter the realities, it is affixed that way in my brain, especially now that I’ve left it, likely forever to remain in that manner, unfashionably so.  Yet for several months while living there, there was a bright spot, some goodness, a small buoy.  I was given a post-mate, another volunteer living about twenty minutes from me and my only connection to my now much smaller American world (besides a snail-paced internet connection and text messages from other volunteers), and I basked in the warmth of this godly gift.  Soon though and coming to some of the same realizations and conclusions that I had already procured, and our weekly shared dinners and my Daria-like charming personality just not being enough to satisfy, he slipped away into the night, a knobby stick over his left shoulder, a red handkerchief containing his most loved possessions hanging from its end, and jumped onto a train heading north.  I was left there, again, alone.  

I would soon follow.

These days, I live in a bustling city - bustling-ish/kind of sleepy - and, unlike before, I get visitors.  I like to think myself an attraction, the Mecca of Cameroon -- who knows, maybe it’s not me personally (though, most likely, it is).  Maroua is the capitol of the Extreme North Region and gateway to many of Cameroons’ treasures.  So passersby’s, being the polite people they are, call me up when they are indeed passing by.  Some days, it’s wonderful, some days, it’s exhausting.  Recently, my former post-mate, the one who had previously abandoned me in the pits of hell and who now resides five hours south of me, showed up at my doorstep bearing gifts of wine, good reads, and delightful company for our first visit since the days of old - my prodigal son!  We nestled back into my deep-seated couch (a stick frame with cotton stuffed into a casing) in my living room facing the coffee table (a metal trunk with some fabric atop) reminiscing of days past – which seemed now like a distant, too-long, bad dream – and of current, happier days.  The screen saver of my computer which sat across from us flickered on, and it began rotating my life in digital form – photos of family and friends from home, photos of a magical Italy trip my aunt took me on, sharply contrasting more photos of my time in Cameroon.  A picture popped up of me - back home and a few years before, hair down (possibly blown-dried), cleaner in appearance, with a slightly weird expression. 

“Your sister?” he asked.
“No, that’s me a couple years ago.”
“Wow.”  Pause.  Maybe a thought.   “Africa really does age us.”

Shoulder punch. 

Besides making me think of where in the world I was going to track down some anti-aging creamy elixir in Maroua (shit, I am in my late-twenties!), I thought about what he had said...Cameroon does age us. It has aged us -- concluding, however, it was like a good cheese or wine-type aging.  We might look a bit rougher, a little less clean, grayer, or balder, but we, as individuals, are probably better than when we left – and will return to the U.S. that way.  Cameroon gives us a little lagniappe for making the trip over.  She’s shared a great deal of knowledge with us - sometimes leaving me with a feeling that I shouldn't have been privy to it at all and rarely knowing what to do with or how to process all the gifted information, but I appreciate that it’s now mine and a part of my experience, a part of me.  No, it’s not like I’ve had to raise a child or be president, and I am definitely not infinitely sager than before, but living in Cameroon has bestowed on myself and other volunteers an amazing education – maybe tenfold from what we would have received if we were at home in this same amount of time.  So for me, a few extra lines, grossly calloused feet, and more alligatored-skin seem a pretty fair trade. 

The punch was still much deserved.

Convenience.  Selling fresh chickens right from the handlebars.  Customer weighs and discusses.  
Maroua, Extreme North Region, Cameroon

Mumble, mumble, boring thought, mumble:
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, especially a Community Economic Developer, "Monitor and Evaluating" is regularly heard in the vernacular - fairly obvious in definition, monitor and evaluate.  How do we know if the work we are doing is effective? How do the individuals, groups, and organizations who we work with know if their efforts are viable?  Data collection and analyzing.  So we look to implement or ameliorate systems to do this (often easier said than done).  Peace Corps life also affords a lot of minutes, many, to unofficially monitor and evaluate ourselves personally -- lots of reflection time.  A benevolent malevolence? causing PCVs (me) to allot far too much time for allowing discourse on oneself -- unflattering.  The quantity, not the quality, being the unflattering part.  (Well, no, the quality is pretentiously unflattering as well.) But, it is easier for me to talk about something I understand better or can at least take responsibility for versus making partial conclusions on the things around me - realizing that when I do speak of my host community, I am producing only small, incomplete photo-like observations. So, why talk/write at all? Vanity.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An Internal Memo: De-Diversifying

The following, what today’s email opening incited, is pretty unrelated to anyone outside of PC Cameroon meaning it won't be read by the proper audience and shouldn't actually be published, and could also accidentally be viewed as offensive.  For the record though, I'm not anti-diversity.  I love diverse - like how can one pick her favorite jelly bean? I can't.  Here's where as a defense I want to use one of those sentences that somehow makes a person not racist, sexist, or gayist: "I have a black friend," "I work with gay people," "I come from a multi-racial family," or "I have a black, Jewish, gay, handicappable friend." At least one of these statements is true and therefore exonerates me from being thought to be in any way an ist.

Every few months, a subject line with “This Camerican Life” appears in my inbox and for about three point seven seconds my eyes widen and my heart quickens.  This Camerican Life! and fresh off the press!  Yes, please!  Understand that as a big fan of Ira Glass’ This American Life and because I live in Cameroon, this title is simply genius and I feel an overwhelming desire to read this must-be masterpiece of a newsletter! It will be glorious, and I must hurry and click open!  But then, like a flash flood, I remember it is Peace Corps Cameroon’s Diversity Committee's bulletin and drowning disappointment engulfs. 

Yes, yes, of course as a governmental agency we naturally have committees and like to sit solemnly upon their boards straight faced and laced.  There’s the HIV/AIDS Committee, the Environmental Education and Food Security Committee, the ICT Committee (yes, I left that abbreviated because I don’t know what it stands for – Internal Communications and Technology?  Ironical Conversationalist Trainers?...), the Volunteer Advisory Committee, the Education, Agro-Forestry, Youth Development, and Community Economic Developing Steering Committees…committees galore, all which seem to have a solid, good purpose, but for the Diversity Committee – a committee committed to helping support and create a network of resources for diverse volunteers…what? Why?  Ok, I know you think I am being insensitive* but come on, really?? For some unknown and irrational reason, a certain super-strength grumpiness takes over me when I think about the Diversity Committee, and then I feel the need to spit out an unnecessary and vilely written tirade on it.  I can’t be blamed for Elizabeth the Curmudgeon!  I must exorcise this demon dwelling within me, and apologies must be sought from the Diversity Committee!

I’m diverse, you’re diverse, he’s diverse, the cat’s diverse,
and all living in an unmanned universe!

That was my first attempt ever at poetry.  I’m sorry, I will never do it again.

So, firstly (or third full paragraph-in) I need to make clear that I have nothing against the people on the PC Cameroon Diversity Committee and those who support it – they are all very lovely.  Well, the ones that I know and of those, the ones that are lovely.  Honestly, I have a lot of respect for these hardworking volunteers who contribute to this quarterly (?) and who most likely use it as extracurricular fun via an accessible outlet.  Unlike most of the other committees, this one is volunteer organized and run – kudos – a support group for volunteers dealing with hardships of being diverse.  It is hard being different.  Ignorance and bigotry are widespread throughout Cameroon (and the rest of the world).  Often, volunteers must lie or hide certain things about themselves in order to avoid particularly awkward or uncomfortable conversations with host country nationals in fear that they will not be open-minded or well-received.  Sadly, it is a safety issue too.  However and realizing that it’s mainly out of my own ignorance, I still cannot see the importance or necessity of this group.  There is already a 'Peer Support Network' in place - to clarify, a network for peer supporting.  Each one of us as a Peace Corps Volunteer is diverse as that’s one of the big reasons we’re all here in the first place – cultural exchange -- and all will go through major challenges.  We land in countries and become the foreigners, temporary immigrants – we really are aliens saying “we come in peace.”  (Substitute a Peace Corps Volunteer for any big headed green alien in any movie and the story line will likely still hold strong.)  We are all the sore thumbs here.  We are together on this, why try to be separatists? 

Ok, fine.  You argue it’s a committee for supporting volunteers who are diverse within the community of volunteers (not in correlation with our outside host communities) and need a place to feel connected to others.  It is definitely not easy living in a developing nation for 27 months – there’s a lot time of feeling isolated and alone.  I get that.  So Mr. or Ms. Diverse Volunteer, I follow.  Over and out.  You just want to find some common, shared bond with a similarly diverse volunteer.  White females dominate the Peace Corps ranks.  I am finally not at all in the minority. 

…But still, I’m just brought back to my earlier question of really?? (I don’t know if my whininess is properly being heard.  It’s very high pitched and awful on the ears.)   Who gets to belong to this Diversity Committee?  A diverse person? A member of a minority? “Non-whites”, gays (little lesson: “non-trad” is the safe word volunteers use in countries in which homosexuality is illegal, like in Cameroon), Christians, Jews, Atheists, Muslims, orphaned volunteers, Dyslexic or ADD volunteers, age-advanced volunteers, tattooed or non-tattooed, Republicans, vegetarians, Gingers!, or those from Louisiana (look at me and my diversity!)?  Blah, blah, blah and bored.  That pretty much incorporates everyone (there’re only around 200 of us in this country).  Maybe if you are a twenty-four year old female from California, Democrat, from a very white nuclear family, you should be excluded.  We might currently have one of those – and it seems to me that she’s the one who needs her own minority/diversity club.  If only there was a Peace Corps Supreme Court, so I could (of course be on it, appointed by the beautiful powers-that-be, and get to wear a flattering black robe with appropriate grandma-style white dress collar showing) write an opinion calling this whole thing purely superfluous and unconstitutional! And yes, there’s a slight chance I’m being a little ridiculous, but again, not really my fault (Diversity Committee’s).  

We’re all so similar in having at least one of this or one of that in uniqueness that I want us all just to be diverse together.  Peace Corps Volunteers, individuals who went through a long application process and selected to do two years of living and teaching in sub-par living conditions, seem to have a lot more in common than not – a unified strength, I’d say.  Maybe this is all just a matter of the Diversity Committee's identity crisis and its need to re-brand itself as the 'The All-Americans Living in Non-America & Are Therefore Diverse Committee' - existing for all volunteers as a resource in dealing with expressing American-ness in a non-American context, and through that, extending teaching strategies on the subject to our host country nationals, who too should accept and promote the acceptance of diversity.  A win-win.  This way I could more quickly, with little-to-no anger, get the point of it.   

Yet, on second thought, I actually take everything previously stated back.  I don’t really care.  I enjoy getting worked up over little things, and then to no point, argue about them.  Plus, there’s a good chance that this all stemmed from a deep-rooted desire to be a well-tanned feisty Chilean-American who is diverse/exotic looking and who has an easier 'in' onto committees such as this one.  Truly, I am all for people having lots of freedoms and rights, even ones that I might think are silly or don't personally understand, including having a Diversity Committee, which actually hurts no one and might even help someone.  

Diversity Committee, today, you win (unless you want to take my advice and reorganize.  Then, we can both win!).  My chapeau's off to you.

* Into PC, Out with the PC:  One reason for my increasing in-sensitivities... here, physical attributes are used as clarifying descriptions – the fat one, the dark one, the big-nosed one.  Sure, every time I’m called fat I still feel like I just received a swift gut-punch, but remembering meanness was not the intention, I slowly recover.  (Every. single. time.)  I sometimes use “La Blanche” to differentiate or in speaking of myself.  One of the first questions after meeting a Cameroonian might be what religion you are.  In this other “world” in which we find ourselves living, things are not preciously politically correct anymore (never have been), and clearly I’m not being very “PC” or sensitive like a proper American should be, but after you join Peace Corps, a lot of that goes out the window with the daily showers, so apologies in advance (unless you read this last, then apologies now).  

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Long, Winding (Winded) Road to Diplomacy

Part 1: The Path to Peace Corps

For most of our in-house years, my parents dragged my siblings and I all over the city doing community service work.  Saturday morning deliveries for Meals on Wheels, after-school pantry organizing at St. Vincent de Paul, embarrassingly dressing up as the Easter Bunny for egg-hunts for disadvantaged kids, singing poorly or playing Bingo at nursing homes and getting harmless but unwanted caresses by strange smelling old people, weeding at the church, giving our own blood away on drive days, fixing and painting houses for Habitat for Humanity, raising money for March of Dimes – we did it all.  To be clear, this isn’t a toot-my-own-horn admission.  Most of these “kindnesses” were forced – we had to do them.  I would have preferred to be doing so many other things - like being dropped off at Skate Town with its Skittle-smelling bathrooms, giant pickles, tasty packets of loose dyed sugar with enclosed sugar scoop, and Hokey-Pokey interludes, but no, there was no choice.  Throwing tantrums or trying to stage hunger strikes would have been simply useless.  We knew what we faced if we tried to refuse -- guilt -- good old-fashioned guilt with accompanying psychological pains administered by our seriously Dorothy-Day-Catholic parents.  It would be waiting for us if we made the slightest protest or under-breath mumblings about our day's already scheduled activities.  I am fairly positive that within my parents’ 1960s-1970s Catholic school curriculum there was a class called Guilt which gave a plenitude on the subject, such as “Guilt: A Way of Life,” “Understanding the Importance of Guilt,” and “Indoctrinating Guilt.”  Homework for this orthopraxic class never altered: practice, practice, practice.  Most students at the time passed the courses, yet few became such experts in the field as my parents.  (The class was omitted before I entered school, realizing it was superfluous as it would be something eternally used in the Catholic home.)  Small example:  For many years as a child, my sweet, always-old father often had to travel for court appearances (a nerdy Atticus-Finch-solicitor type not a deadbeat-alcoholic-petty criminal) to the towns of Shreveport or Alexandria – several hours away.  After receiving a “no” to his request for one of his many children to be his traveling buddy on the short trip, he would reply using his never-fail tactic, “Oh, ok. That's alright.  [insert thoughtful pause] I hope I don’t fall asleep and die in a fiery wreck.”  Someone would shortly thereafter volunteer and fortunately up to this point, no fiery fate has fallen upon him. 

Maybe by plan and after what surely seemed for them a painfully, too-long development, my parents had done something for me.  Community service finally went from being a chore to a part of life to something I enjoyed.  At some point in high school, I decided that aid work was something I wanted to do as a part of my life -- international aid work, in particular.  Yet, I didn’t know how to do that.  During college, I was able to go on two separate church mission trips – one to Mexico and one to a Navajo Reservation at the Four Corners.  Having always disliked the idea of religious proselytization (which must have been a parental unit influence stemming from their tendency to follow the reported St. Francis of Assisi approach: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”  Words never seemed necessary) and being a non-believing (but still culturally-complete) Catholic, I didn’t really like the work of building a chapel or repairing a church community center.  For my own rationalizing though, we weren’t evangelizing --- that stage had long passed for our host communities, and in retrospect, we were just helping give those individuals what they decidedly wanted.  My relationship with the notion of religious campaigning goes frustratingly back-and-forth.  In theory, I’m very against it.  In reality, I see the positive byproducts of its missionaries, often coming in the form of hospitals, health, food, education, and adoption services – dire needs often lacking enough support from secular institutions.  Societies' religions are always changing anyway.  Getting treated for cholera seems like a good trade-off for having to hear about Jesus or Joe Smith - at least, in a non-speculating way, they have very good stories, but flip the coin and then I see how it physically hurts people when they condemn birth-control in AIDS-ridden countries or teach moral-superiority over others.  Although I decided a religious organization wasn’t going to be my vehicle to humanitarian work, it did reaffirm my desire to work in foreign lands – the trips had been culturally eye-opening and huge educations.

So where did that leave me?  Peace Corps?  No.  For much of college, I believed the Peace Corps was a well-intentioned but somewhat misguided organization.  It was filled with lackluster hippies (Side-note: I appreciate and see the importance of the historical Hippie Movement, believing it to have helped society progress but that doesn't soften my views on its individual level.  Unjustified or not, I have always (after maybe the age of 15) seen old and new-age hippies as mainly self-centered, lazy citizens.  Rude, I know.)  It seemed to me that Peace Corps was actually just a front for its own version of American neocolonialism.  Who was I to tell people that America(ns) are superior and everyone should do as we do?  And using hippies?! – well, that just seemed completely inefficient.  Again, another organization that I didn’t want to be a part.  

Fast forward.  I joined the Peace Corps.

After long fruitless searching, Peace Corps seemed the only real and affordable way for me to actually make my way into the world of international aid.  It would simply be a stepping stone.  Fast forward.  To my pleasant surprise, I didn’t find a rat pack of dread-lock wearing, patchouli smelling freeloaders.  I didn’t find American extremists preaching democracy and McDonald’s at every corner.  I found middle-of-the road, good-natured Americans who maybe selfishly, like me, wanted the free exotic ticket to unknown lands, but who also came prepared to get their hands dirty and extend some help in a place that has asked for it.  Nixon was wrong on this one – the Peace Corps didn’t become a sanctuary for a "cult of escapism" or "a haven for draft dodgers” like he had predicted.

Part 2: Slipping into Diplomacy

Recently, Earth has been in the wake of the dubbed “Arab Spring” and has also unfortunately seen a series of anti-American attacks.  Not remembering our own bloody, not-so-cut-and-dry revolution and civil war, many Americans seem too quick to judge the current transitional, rocky state of things for many foreign nations, forgetting that these things take time.  With that being said though, and despite it being a small minority that holds anti-American views, we live in an ever-shrinking world (marketplace), and no one seems to be left untouched.  Therefore, our national security must concern itself with a minority’s threats.   The U.S. government must address current and future issues in this arena, but how we do that, through its many forms, is of utmost importance.  One of those ways...

Outside of the U.S., for many people most of what is known about Americans comes from media - the news, YouTube, movies, radio - perpetually being filtered in some way for the benefit or the agenda of some one or some group (a universal predicament and not unique to the U.S.).  Perceptions don't come from actual interactions with Americans, thus very limited and biased illustrations take root.  Although a fairly small body, this is where the Peace Corps comes into play as an overlooked but crucial player.  President Kennedy pushed for the creation of the Peace Corps so as to help combat the idea of the "Ugly American," and I believe, along with doing many other things, that the organization is still doing it.

Before I left America for my little 27 month stint in Cameroon, I read Peace Corps’ mission and its three main objectives:  to provide technical assistance; help people outside the United States to understand American culture; and help Americans to understand the cultures of other countries, but not until I started serving did I better understand our purpose and one of our core strengths – the personal interactions.  We might do a bit of development work while we are here and we might spark some sort of American-based aspirations in a few individuals, but a whole lot of what we’re doing is just being American.  We try to be respectful and integrate as much as possible.  We wear traditional clothes, we eat the traditional food, we eat what we are given even when we aren’t hungry, we only use our right hands, and we yell at drivers like the other passengers.  These are welcomed actions in our communities and consequently, “integrating” also helps keep us safe.  Yet, we’re still obviously outsiders (and as outsiders, are new and fascinating objects, constantly being watched and evaluated).  We can’t hide it; we don’t completely want to – so we allow parts of our American culture to show.  We run, ride bikes, and throw the Frisbee, we don’t always or ever fully cover up our legs and arms, we keep pets, we drink publicly in bars, we ask for hamburgers, we cook and bake food that is offered (but not often enjoyed) to our neighbors, we leave meetings after waiting twenty minutes for people to show up - which we think is too long, and we celebrate our own holidays.  We might purposefully try and make eye contact or shake the hand of an older Muslim man, knowing that he might possibly be uncomfortable with it.  Volunteers don't sit around outdoor cook-fires, matronizing our hosts, and claiming that the U.S. is the best place in the world – we try to build  up our host nations, not make them feel more insecure.  Most of our non-work conversations cover all sorts of things - from our families, sports, national and international politics, Rhianna or Celine Dion, the weather, religion, or prices of tomatoes.  Everyday conversations.  Volunteers live and interact daily with the average citizen, and from that new opinions or views are constantly being created.  It is quite possible that I may be the only American that many Cameroonians ever meet.  My impressions certainly mean something. 

Peace Corps, therefore, takes a very unique position in American diplomacy.  U.S. Foreign Service Officers, such as our Ambassadors, the American military and American tourists all play significant and necessary roles in foreign affairs, however, none of them operate on the same plane as volunteers.  We're not living behind guarded walls in American-amenity homes with chauffeurs driving us everywhere we go.  There is a certain freedom that no other American government organization gets to enjoy quite like we do. No, we are not always on some constant positive-high, running around making major impacts in our communities (although it does happen), yet we are making constant, big and little, impressions.  After leaving a meeting or a run-in on the street, or after two years or ten years of having consecutive volunteers, most host country nationals don’t form anti-American thoughts.  They may no longer just see America as a far, far away land and place upon it a simple, single opinion.  They encounter us on basic human levels and come to understand that our nation is compiled of real, living people – something that I think many Americans aren’t always great about doing when regarding non-Western countries (which is understandable – it is hard to know or feel anything for something that you have never experienced).  A host country national who meets a volunteer may have zero desire to be an American or may not think anything different of democracy, or may not think Americans are without imperfection, but what he or she will have is new knowledge found in an absence -- that not all Americans are like George Bush or Bill Gates or Britney Spears, or that not all Americans are evil, or that probably most Americans aren't anti-Muslim.  In fact, most will come away with the understanding that many Americans, like themselves, are agreeable folk.  They may not love us, although many do, but rarely, are we hated.  Evading or defeating hatred -- as far as American Diplomacy goes, that’s pretty darn important.

With less than 500 million dollars for an annual budget and armed with a whole lot of liberal arts’ graduates for an infantry, Peace Corps does a surprising amount -- not just for its host countries but for the American community.  In this particular instance, volunteers, without necessarily meaning to, become very important foot soldiers for acquiring goodwill for U.S. foreign relations.  This may not be the help I originally thought I would be doing or it may not be the type of aid work I still would like to do but it does seem to make some sort of positive contribution to that hopeful, futuristic land where the mythical "world peace" resides.  Maybe it's because I grew up in the South where Peace Corps recruits less heavily, or maybe because of my own previous biases, or maybe because many Americans actually do see the Peace Corps as a bunch of peace-loving, stinky useless bums, I sometimes don’t think volunteers get the credit they deserve.  They should.  (Now, I do sound like I’m tooting my own horn.)  I may not have always been the most outspoken advocate for my employer, but like President Obama who today said "this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations" and believing that unfounded hate can be combated through education, I have come to realize that Peace Corps is a weapon, however small, in that battle.  Plus, my work doesn’t stop when I leave Cameroon – maybe I’ll help teach some of my fellow country(wo)men that Africa isn’t just one super country or "Dark Continent" simply containing a whole lot of generalized, primitive “Africans.” 

Part 3:  The Long Awaited Conclusion  

Finally and what I am really trying to get across -- American companies who like to be all patriotic and give military discounts should also extend them to Peace Corps Volunteers.  


From Dorothy Day-loving parents to U.S. foreign policy?...it made sense.  Well, maybe at some point it quasi did. I won't pretend I'm proud.

Camouflaged Outsiders, Grand Mosque, Maroua, Extreme North Region