Faces of Obala – Valery

The views expressed here are those of the interviewee. The following interview has been translated from French to English, and in certain instances has been edited for clarity.

 

Valery is my neighbor and good friend. He has frequently watched my cat for me when I’ve been out of town and is, in my opinion, a very forward thinking person with big ideas and a big heart.

Name: Nouma Assouma, Paul Valery. I have two African names and two European names. Nouma is my father’s name, and Assouma is a name that was given to me that means “a person who always finds his way”. Paul is a European name and Valery is a French name. So that is the meaning of what I am.

Profession: Well… Here in Cameroon and we’re young people that are in a very competitive world where you need to set down your marks before having an occupation, so I do many things. I’m a teacher and I’m a Senior Youth and Action Instructor, so those are my principal occupations for now. And I’m equally doing counseling of young people, a youth counselor. I don’t really work in an organization, it’s a personal initiative [that I have]. It’s a personal initiative because I have the burden of [having] a good society. The burden of a young person who was well brought up and who has self confidence in his own community. In school, where I help, I teach science subjects. I teach science subjects because of the burden I carry, the burden for a good world, a world without pollution a world where nature is respected, so I opted to teach science subjects in secondary school… Physics, chemistry, biology.

Who currently lives in your house with you? In my house, we are what they call the “African family”. So I live with my mom, my sister and my nieces. And [also] my cousin, Elodie. So we live like that in that home and we like it. I’m the only man in my family for the moment.

Are you from Obala/the Center region? If not, where are you from and why did you relocate here? I was born in Obala, schooled in Obala for the first years in secondary school and then I went to Yaounde to complete my high school education and my university studies. And after that I went to Kribi for my professional studies and then I came back to Obala, to help. I came back because here in Obala I had a lot of responsibilities to help young people. Obala is like my homeland, and I had a burden to help the young people of my homeland to have what I said before, to have self-confidence in them[selves], to know that even though they were born in Obala and are living in Obala everything is not lost. They can gain more from learning. So that is why I came back to Obala, even though I’m working in Yaounde but I’m always in Obala to do that job.

What is your favorite meal?  Haha, favorite meal… I like eating vegetables, and [maybe] a piece of meat. But principally vegetables. It’s different than most people I talk to. The fact is that I am a sensitive person. When I was doing biology in school all the time we were to kill animals for studying so I was like… I pitied the animals. So that was when I started getting afraid of eating a lot of meat. So I have a certain engagement in protecting animals, in my private environment, so that is why I don’t really eat a lot of meat. I eat meat when I have an occasion to do that, maybe I’m with friends or in a family meeting, so I can eat it, but as a personal initiative it is difficult [for me] to go to the market and buy meat for myself. And it’s also more expensive here [than vegetables are].

Which household chore do you like the least? I don’t like doing laundry. I don’t like doing laundry because in Cameroon, and in my tribe, a man is not supposed to work in the house. When you are born a man you have other tasks to do, like going to the farm, weeding the grass, and taking family decisions, going out every day to search for funds to keep the family going on. So we grew up with that behavior and sometimes if you’re not a smart person you end up not doing anything, not doing any house work and then you end up being just like me, not liking [doing] laundry. The rest of the work in the house, I do them because of passion and because I like joking. I like joking by imitating the girls, that’s why sometimes I can cook while joking, I can clean the house while joking, because I like joking. Not really because I need to do that. For me it’s just to keep the environment funny, I’m the only boy in my home, I have a lot of sisters and cousins so I don’t think I have so much to do at home. I can only do it for fun.

What is your favorite thing about Obala? Well what’s great about living here in Obala, it is the complexity of the people. That is, we are all mixed here. Obala is like a small Cameroon, you can find all the tribes, the people from the North, the people from the Western region, the people from the Center region, the people from the South… everybody is here in Obala. And what I like here is that Obala is a growing town, it has a lot of opportunities that are just [starting] to be detected so that the people can take advantage of that. So that is why I like Obala. It’s a small town where you can find everything you need here, the market is not too far, you have the town, the quartiers [which] are not too far, you can easily say hi to a friend and everybody is like living in the same pot, a melting pot of behaviors and you need to find your way here. The market is open every day, the church is not too far, you have many churches, many religions that live together, we have many tribes that live together. It’s really a complex, a complex of religion, behaviors, tribes, and here we are happy to be here. That is why I like being here.

What is something you wish you could change about Obala? Something that bothers you. The mentality. Directly, the mentality. It means that you know they usually say here in Obala that life is difficult. Life becomes more and more difficult as the day goes on. But I say, life does not become difficult but our behaviors change as the day goes on. So we need to change our behavior to change our life. So if they ask me what I really need to change in this town it is the behavior, the mentality of the people because here there is a general feeling of not being self-acting [proactive]. So people are always thinking they are poor, they have problems, they don’t eat much, they don’t have much money, but we can live without all that; if you consider what you have then you consider your life. So that is what I really need to change here if I was given the chance. To tell the people that everything is possible. For instance, you don’t need to throw the dirt everywhere on the street because there is no dustbin. We can organize ourselves and produce dustbins. A dustbin is something that is not really expensive, we don’t need to buy it, you can take an old bucket and place it somewhere and then people can throw their dirt [trash] in. We don’t need money for that. We don’t need money to be kind to somebody, you don’t need money to really appreciate the life you have. So all that is the mentality. And we don’t need to always think that elsewhere is better than here. It’s true we have a lot of problems, linked to the political state of the country, but if we consider the life we have then I think Obala will be better than that.

What do you wish you had more of? Something I need to have more of is… education. Yes, education. Because he who keeps studying does not get old. That is the only thing I would like to have forever. And for that, I will do anything to acquire it. I can sleep outside just because I want to be educated. I want to learn more. That is my passion.

Who is your role model and why?  My model is somebody that respects humanity. And I really appreciate the Tibetan monk that they call the Dalai Lama. I really appreciate him and all his peers, that is all the people that work in the same line with him and who appreciate humanity. When I talk of humanity I mean the environment, the flora and fauna, the people… so [he] is really a model for me in life. Because if you don’t appreciate humanity then I don’t think you should live on this earth of ours.

If you had 1,000,000 CFA, what would you do with it?  [Laughs] If I had one million CFA? I would get engaged in a business. I would get engaged in like, agricultural business, agri-business, where I will invest to employ. I would invest to employ because one of my dreams is to be an employer, and help young people that come from grade school to have jobs. Because it’s not necessary to go out and become an engineer, become an accountant and stay at home. It’s not necessary. So if we can have some small business unit where we employ young people coming out from school, from universities so that they can maybe continue paying their studies and helping their own families then I think that everybody will be happy. [My business will be] helping youth become more independent. I don’t want to invest in a business [just] to do hoarding, that is, to store money, to maybe build a home that I will live in that will not help somebody, that will help only me alone. But if I had a million francs I will try and invest in a business where I will employ one or two young people that will equally take care of their own families. Agribusiness, being like a middle man. [Because] starting a farm, having the rights to the raw materials, that is, planting maybe a cocoa farm… that is too expensive. [But] with one million you can open a shop and employ two young people who are maybe walking around the quartier having nothing to do. You can employ them in the shops. And if they have 50,000 a month that’s better for them than to have nothing. You can open a shop with a million francs (about $1,700) here in Obala.

If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go and why?  Directly, North America. Canada or the U.S. because I want to learn more. You know, to earn the moon you need to target the stars. If you target the moon, I think you won’t even get out of the earth’s atmosphere. So, the summit of the world nowadays is the western world. And I don’t really appreciate Europe. I appreciate America because of the way people live there, the mentality, and having in mind to learn more, I think such environments are conducive for people who want to change the world. You know many people will think it’s because its America, it’s not because it’s America. In old days people were leaving Europe to go to Egypt because Egypt was the summit of the world.  Where civilization started, where the pyramids were first built. Today it’s America, tomorrow it might be Africa and the migration will change the direction. You need to target the stars in order to obtain the moon. That is just the reason. I don’t [want to travel to] Europe because, first of all, Europe is an old continent, where people seem to have [already] obtained the summit and there’s nothing to learn there for me anymore. Nothing to learn in Europe, because the Europeans themselves moved to North America… to learn more. I don’t think there’s something to learn from Europe again because here in Cameroon we study in school in our history books, in our geography books, the history of Europe. All the time, since I was born I know many things about Europe that I don’t think that the Europeans themselves know. So for me, I have nothing more to learn there. All my books at home are from France. I know Italy. I know the history of France, from Napoleon Bonaparte and even before that until today. The same thing with Italy. All the time. So for me, Europe is like, all the substance of it has gone out. So somebody going to Europe… well it depends on their choice, but my choice is North America.

Who loves you today?  Somebody in my life who loves me today? That is, I think, the most difficult question of this questionnaire. I think that. Because there are many parameters [to it]. Love is… You know the bible says God is love. I can equally say love is God. So if you can know God in his entirety that means you can know love in its entirety. You’ll know it at the second level and the rest you’ll never know it throughout your lifetime. So speaking of the question of love, I always most of the time shut up. Because for me it is the only thing that can escape from my life, throughout my lifetime. You can come on earth, be born, grow up for more than 100 years and you never know what they call love because it is God himself. But I cannot say that nobody loves me. I can pretend to say that somebody loves me and I will try just because of the interview to think of somebody loves me because of what I obtained in return from that person. I think my father and my mother love me because they took care of me. I suppose they love me. For the rest, Rachel, that is a very difficult question. I thought you would ask who I love, because I would say I love everybody. Because I cannot pretend to say that somebody loves me, but I can say I love somebody. That is easier. I think I love everybody. Those who love me and those who hate me, because I’m unable to hate anyone. I can answer that way, it’s easier.

Tell me about a traditional practice from your culture. One of my favorite traditional practices is the burial ceremony. In the burial ceremony that is where you’ll see the Eton tradition in all its entirety. That is where you’ll see the young people coming together working hand in hand with the old people, that is where you’ll see the future working together with the past. And that is the only place you can see that. That is only place a child of ten years can be respected in the same way as a man of 100 years, just because of his position in the family. Just because of his background in the family. I can be a child and be the representative of the whole community just because my father was the only son of a given family. So during the burial ceremony nothing can start if I’m not there, for instance. Nothing. Where I’m the youngest person no traditional dance can happen, nothing can be spoken if I’m not there. So the burial ceremony for me is my favorite traditional practice in the Eton culture.

What in your opinion is the biggest obstacle or hindrance to Cameroon’s development? What is the biggest things Cameroon needs to change in order to compete with other African countries?  I like this question. And my answer will surprise you. The great challenge here in Cameroon like in many other African countries is the notion of God. We give all to God and nothing for ourselves. And we ask God to do everything for us and we do nothing for ourselves. It’s God who made the minister to become a minister, it’s God who made that child to be an engineer, its God who places (elects) the president and it’s only God who can remove him, it’s God who can give us food, it’s God who cultivates our crops, it’s God that gives us our farms… I think that we ask a lot of God. If we start working for ourselves and making our decisions according to the rules and regulations I think that God will rest and we are going to work and have a better future. The problem is that corruption comes behind religion. When something is not clear, when the facts are not clear, there is [the potential for] corruption. If everything was clear corruption would not have the strength to get into the game. People are using religion as a means to steal, as a means to get involved in corruption, as a means to serve themselves. For instance, somebody in a village who has had the chance to become maybe an officer in the army for instance, maybe a colonel, and he is from the village, he will tell the people that it’s God who made him to become the colonel in the army and he becomes chief of the village and directly he will take all the land because it is from God. They will consider that he came from God and so he must be given everything he needs, everything is centered on him. Corruption just will set in and in that village poverty is inevitable. If he doesn’t say you should have initiative you can’t have initiative, if he doesn’t give you the permission to do something you can’t do something, you need to acquire every permission from him, every power comes from him. And corruption is inevitable and when he becomes used to that he will be not be able to leave his conditions, maybe to go out for retirement, he will not accept retirement because he knows that he will go to the village and not be able to have a brand new car anymore. He will be an old man, so he will live there for life. So I think behind religion, religion is not only a western religion, even our own traditions. So I think that we should take our personal initiatives and leave mystical in-understandable facts aside for us to have a better life. China did the same. Europe did the same. For the industrial revolution in Europe they started counting on themselves. If Europeans had waited for God to build an airplane I don’t think we would have airplanes today. Because they started working for that, if they just waited for God to give them everything, they could not have electricity. So we need that for ourselves, and to think for our future. People always think God will do everything. God will replant the trees that we cut every day in the forest, God will give us back the oxygen we are destroying through pollution, God will give us back the children we are sacrificing every day… I think we still have a century or five centuries to go…

What is one thing you wish Americans knew about you or your culture or country?  [Laughs] Hello my American fellow brothers! I want to tell you that Cameroon is not the jungle. Here in Cameroon it’s true that we belong to different cultures, we belong to different countries, we have different behaviors, but we belong to the same generation. My wish is that our generation should leave its own mark on earth so that they can talk of our generation as they talk of the generation of Neal Armstrong, the generation of Mussolini, Stalin, and other great people that passed through the earth and left their own mark in their own generation. My wish is that our own generation should also leave its own mark. The world has become today a global village. Being in Cameroon is not like being in hell. You are in the U.S., I’m in Cameroon, I don’t know you but I think that the day I will meet you on the street and we do two days of friendship, it will be as if we were born in the same place. Cameroonians are vested in understanding other people’s culture and I also think that it’s the same for the American people. They are interested in getting involved in other people’s culture. Don’t be afraid of Africa, we don’t live in huts anymore. We don’t live on trees, and we don’t eat only by hunting and fishing. We use Facebook, we use Twitter. I’ve watched CNN throughout my life. All the events that take place in the U.S. I can know them right here in Obala. I have friends all over the world, like Rachel just sitting in front of me here in Obala. So dear brothers of the U.S. (sorry to call you brothers because that is our behavior here in Africa when somebody is your friend you call him a brother) we are waiting for you in Cameroon. It is another horizon where you can learn more. And don’t forget what I said. We should leave a mark in our own generation. We should not only be known just for terrorism, or hatred, appetite, cultural differences, tribalism like you’re a white I’m a black, those are olden day thoughts. Today I can be a black, it’s true, but I can have a wife who is white. I can love a white more than a black simply because of her way of seeing things. It’s not because of the color of her skin or the color of my skin, those are olden day thoughts. We can’t live like those people were living. We have evolved. Our children will not equally live like us, they will go one step ahead. We have gone one step ahead, so let us live in our generation. Our children will have the stories from our generation and then they will go a step forward and live in their own. We are different but we are the same, because we belong in the same generation. Thank you.

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Faces of Obala – Eugenie

The “Faces of Obala” project is an endeavor I’ve been intermittenly working on during my last few weeks at post. I have gotten to know a lot of people and have met even more. I want the readers of my blog to have a chance to learn more about Cameroon through personal accounts and by seeing the faces of those I’ve met who live in this community across the world. This is equally their chance to show you what Cameroon is really like through the eyes of Cameroonians. Hope you enjoy.

The views expressed here are those of the interviewee. The following interview has been translated from French to English, and in certain instances has been edited for clarity.

 

Eugenie is one of the girls participating in our A2Empowerment scholarship program. She was the only girl who showed up for our last meeting. She doesn’t like cats or dogs, but she likes to dance.

Name: Teme Ngouma, Eugenie

Profession: Quatrieme Espanol (8th grade) student at Lycee Bilingue d’Obala

Who currently lives in your house with you? I live with my parents, my sisters, and my uncle. We are ten of us at the house. I have four sisters, two big sisters and two little. There are seven children in total.

Are you from Obala/the Center region? If not, where are you from and why did you relocate here? Yes, I come from Obala, and the center region. I was born here.

What is your favorite thing about Obala? There is a lot of ambience and a lot of people. A lot of things to see. Life is easy here.

What is something you wish you could change about Obala? Something that bothers you. Hmm.. something I don’t like about Obala… There is also theft which leads to fighting. It happens often. Like last time, yesterday even, [there was a fight] at the big crossroads in plain daylight. They were fighting over money. If happens everywhere, even in my quartier. I don’t like it. Because they send us into poverty [with that behavior].

What is your favorite meal? “Le pkwem”, “le coc” and “zohm”. They are food of the Eton [people], traditional meals. (They are all legume based dishes, made from manioc leaves)

Which household chore do you like the least? For me, I like all household tasks. Everything, I like to work.

What do you wish you had more of? I would like to have more friends. I would like to have smarter friends who all go to school. And I want to travel.

Who is your role model and why? Zouu, she’s a singer. She’s not Cameroonian but she can speak French. I don’t know what [nationality] she is but she’s white like you. I admire her because she knows how to sing, I like the way she sounds.

If you had 1,000,000 CFA, what would you do with it? Firstly, I would like to build a house for myself and a house for my parents, and also feed my parents. I would also like to achieve my goals, like create work by having a small shop in the market and doing small commerce.

*Note* It takes a lot of money to start up a shop to sell things. It is admirable that she would want to invest her money into making more for the future.

If you could travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go and why? I would like to go to France. Because I already speak French. I can’t go to America because I don’t speak the language, it’s not my expertise. If I go to France I will learn about the culture, and I’ll go alone once I have the means to travel there. I’m not afraid to travel alone.

Who loves you today? My parents and my friends. I know they [my parents] love me because they send me to school. If they didn’t love me they wouldn’t send me to school, they wouldn’t buy me food… so that’s how I know.

If you could acquire a talent (without extra effort) what would it be? I would like to be a nurse, so I could help my family and my friends.

Tell me about a traditional practice from your culture. The Eton people like to farm. They farm cocoa and coffee. There are women who cultivate manioc, corn… Historically most Eton people are farmers.

What is one thing you wish Americans knew about you or your culture or country? Firstly, I could teach them how we farm and how we work. I think sometimes Americans think Cameroonians are mean, but we’re not mean, and they think we aren’t people like they are because we’re black. There’s also certain Americans who don’t like to see black [people], a black human being. But a black person is also nice. Not every Cameroonian is nice, some are mean, but it depends on what kind of person you are.

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Playing the Laundry Game

I have developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with doing my laundry here in Cameroon. On the one hand, I feel so damn productive when I get it done and so satisfied when I get first pick at clothesline space. But on the other hand, it requires a huge chunk of time, it makes me sweat more than I already do, and leaves me with sore muscles and cuts on my hands. Nevertheless, I thought I’d do a short post on what doing laundry looks like here. It started out as a task that I truly loathed (and I still do when it comes to washing socks and sheets), but has developed into a chore that at the very least gets me outside and allows me time to think (yeah, because I really need more of that…)

Step 1: Get to a point where you can no longer deny the need to do laundry. Make sure it piles up nice and high so you can spend at least several hours doing it.

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Step 2: Fill up your buckets with water. I actually prefer to use well water for laundry since I can fill them up faster rather than waiting for the tap, but they’re both good options. Sometimes the tap water even has a nice orange-brown tint to it so your clothes can change colors.

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Step 3: Let your cat take a drink of the water before it gets all soapy.

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Step 4: Assemble your supplies. I usually buy several of the small sachets of laundry soap which cost 50CFA apiece. Some people buy the larger bags, but I prefer the small packs because I don’t trust moisture to not get into a large bag and clump it all up. The laundry powder makes the water soapy, and then you use a separate bar of soap to help you wash each item (and make the water even soapier).

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Step 5: Get out your large plastic bucket and pour some laundry soap in. I usually use half a pack to be economical about it, but if it’s a large load I may end up using the entire sachet. This green bucket is both my laundry bucket and also serves as my dirty clothes hamper. What a useful purchase.

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Step 6: Get excited. Like, super excited.

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Step 7: Pour in some water. I don’t pour in too much. Again, trying to be economical but also because you simply don’t need very much. You need enough to make the soap foamy, maybe about 2-3 inches.

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Step 8: Start washing! You have to do each item one by one and I usually switch back and forth between easier items (tank tops, underwear) and pain in the ass items (pagne dresses, long pants). You use your hands and the bar of soap to scrub out the dirt. I think this is the part of the process where I sometimes end up nicking my knuckles with my fingernails.Whoops.

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Step 9: Once everything has been washed and most of the soap has been wrung out, it’s time to rinse! Rinsing is the best part because it means you’re in the home stretch! This can take up to an entire second bucket of water or more to make sure you’ve rinsed out most of the soap.

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Step 10: Take a small breather, wipe away the sweat.

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Step  11: Once the clothes are rinsed and the water has been wrung out, it’s time to assess the clothesline space. Most times I’ll do this before I start washing so I don’t waste my time, but sometimes the situation can change mid-laundry doing. A second assessment is encouraged. On this day there was still plenty of space to hang my clothes.

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Step 12: Hang ’em up! Doing laundry during dry season allows you more available sunshine so your clothes are more likely to dry in one day (if you get going early enough). Rainy season is more of a gamble for doing laundry. I’ve had to take 3 days before to dry one load of laundry, for example.

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And that’s all there is to it! Now you can enjoy having been productive for the day. Also, laundry drying outside is fairly sacred. For example, if I do my laundry in the morning and then leave for the rest of the day I don’t worry that someone will swipe my clothes. It just doesn’t happen. However, don’t leave your clothes hanging overnight. No one does this and it can also put your clothes at risk of mango flies!

I’ve learned that doing my laundry by hand isn’t the worst thing in the world. Sure it takes more time than if you were to use a machine, but when the days are slow sometimes I appreciate having this chore to do (…sometimes).

Fitting In

Fitting In

*Disclaimer* This blog post was written specifically from the perspective of a Peace Corps volunteer living in an overseas community. This point of view does not extend to everyone, and is not meant to offend any immigrants or foreign-born citizens who have found home in a new community. I applaud you, admire you, and respect you.

As I walked to the parade decked out in my Women’s Day pagne I wondered again, why do I feel so nervous? Why do I still feel so uncomfortable? I know everyone will be staring at me. I know people will jeer at me. Aren’t I used to it by now? I’ve been here for a year and a half. Most of these people know me, don’t they? Haven’t I spoken French all this time? Don’t I have a decent grasp on how to comport myself? Don’t I? I realized then that suddenly, maybe, probably, I will never really fit in here… I believe this is a moment of realization the befalls many development workers and expatriates, and even though I had this haunting suspicion for a while now, the realization felt nonetheless new, disturbing, and a little refreshing.

“I’m always going to be the foreigner.”

As time has gone on, I have come to feel both more and less integrated into my community. More integrated because I am more familiar with the culture, I can sufficiently speak the language, I know the prices for market items, I have things to do, and I have people who feel like friends to me.

But there are also many moments of truth that hit me like a sack of bricks, when I realize how I’m not really any more integrated into the community here than I was when I first arrived. I’m only just now at a place of more awareness and acceptance where I can say it out loud that though I feel integrated at times, I may not be.

When I first arrived the feeling of being an outsider was almost overwhelming. It was terrifying. It was frustrating and lonely and not fun. And now over a year later, I am better able to play the part of the integrated foreigner, and that makes me feel like I belong. But alongside this ability to play the part, is also this recognition (a recognition of which I now feel more comfortable allowing myself to see) that I’m not really that integrated here. And I never really will be. At the beginning I had to tell myself that it would get better. I had to keep reminding myself that I would eventually come to love it here and feel like this was home. And that has been true for the most part. In fact, this does feel like my community and my people and I’m always happy to come home. But it often feels like there should be more, as though I’m missing something.

There is also the fact that the Peace Corps places a large emphasis on community integration that makes you feel like you will not be successful unless you achieve this. And I can attest that that is true. Without relationships, without being able to communicate, without being able to laugh at the bizarre-ness of your life, you will not survive. Or at least not happily. But I think the intellectual mind who looks around them after doing a stint in a foreign land and wonders why so many things haven’t really changed, is poised to face the truth. And the truth is, though you may try, though you may play the part, though people may accept your presence, you will always be a foreigner. You will always be different and you will never really get it; you will never fully understand what it’s like to be them.

But I think that’s okay…

In fact, realizing that you can never fully understand puts you in a position of greater understanding. It puts you in the line of truth, in the face of harsh realities that too many people deny exist. And if despite these challenges you are still able to see beauty in people, the beauty in their way of life, then you’re already halfway there. Even though you will always be a weird part of their community, you can own it. You can accept the awkward, accept the nervousness, accept the uncomfortable feelings that will pop up again and again no matter how long you hang around. You have to learn to appreciate the way they see you. Sometimes it’s not nice, sometimes it’s unpleasant, sometimes it’s wrong. But like the transit highway that crisscrosses through an old growth forest, you were never meant to be there. It’s only technology, and globalization, and the human curiosity that has allowed you to live in a different community in this way. In many ways, the way they see you makes sense. Now I’m not about to go tell any of them that they’re right about me, because that would be silly. But in the privacy of my public blog, I can admit the truth.

I don’t know if this is true of those who spend longer than 27 months in a new place and do eventually come to play the part so well, and feel so at home that everyone begins to accept them as a native, but for me in my experience as a PCV I have found this feeling of “outsider-ness” to be fascinating. I reiterate that I have found it almost comforting. When I ask myself, why do I still feel so weird here some days and the answer is, “maybe that’s how you’re supposed to feel”, it comforts me. It puts things together. It’s like during a breakup wondering why you’re so depressed and everyone tells you that’s how you’re supposed to feel, it doesn’t take away the pain, but it provides a bit of comfort that it’s okay to feel the way you do. That’s sort of how this realization has made me feel. I know people think I’m weird. I don’t do my laundry every day. I talk to my cat. I don’t kill my own chickens. I enjoy my privacy. And although some days I still long to be understood and seen as an equal, I realize that I never really will be.

But I think that’s okay…

I don’t understand what it’s like to not have the right to your own sex life. I don’t understand what it’s like to try and raise 8 kids on your own. I don’t understand what it’s like to hand-plow a field. I don’t understand what it’s like to have so many people in the world look down on you. I don’t understand what it’s like to have so many development workers try and help me and continue to fail. I don’t know what it’s like.

But Peace Corps has gone beyond development work. It has allowed me to meet people that I never would have otherwise. It has allowed me to see a new corner of the world and live how they live. It has helped me be humble. It has helped me to appreciate what I have. It has helped me see equality in a new light. It has helped me redefine helplessness. It has helped me redefine strength. And perhaps most importantly, it has taken me out of my comfort zone, out of my bubble into a much bigger world.

I think being able to accept the weirdness is a form of integration in itself. Diving into the uncomfortable again and again, means that I have grown since I’ve been here. Knowing that I’m being stared at, but feeling confident that I can choose to keep walking or choose to respond if I want leaves me feeling a little more empowered than I did a year ago. Maybe that’s what Peace Corps is… accepting the weirdness and making it your own. Maybe it’s walking up to people and being nice even though you’re in a bad mood. Maybe it’s really trying to understand their culture and appreciate it. Maybe it’s knowing that you’re different, but appreciating the people who are kind to you that much more. Maybe it’s knowing this truth, but seeing past it to the good in others. Maybe it’s accepting this truth of being an outsider, but not letting it stop you from making friends or making an effort. Admitting that I’ll never really get it has helped me get it. Maybe that’s what it is… and I think that’s okay.
You’re Failing

You’re Failing

I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a failure in my whole life. Peace Corps has managed to take my lofty ideals, twist them around, grind them up, and spit them back out for me to deal with. Working in a new culture, with a new language even when that culture and language don’t feel as new anymore still continuously comes with challenges that mix me up and push me down.

My job here is to support youth, to help them realize their potential, to set goals for themselves, to help them lead healthier lives and make more informed decisions. My job is to get authority figures on board with these goals. I’m here to help them realize how important it is to support the youth in their community, to recognize them as both a vulnerable and important population. I’m supposed to be here to transfer skills, to brainstorm, to create new programs and workshops, to show people how much of an impact they can make with very little resources and how in doing so they will increase the future capacity of their community. Sounds simple right?

Yeah I thought so too. Well, not really. I thought it sounded incredibly difficult. And sure enough, it is. Aside from the language barrier which is, with time, becoming less of the issue (woo!) I’m constantly faced with the issue of people simply not caring. Or at least that’s what it feels like. I set meetings, I organize appointments, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat there in the heat, slowly drinking warm water from my Nalgene, smiling at passersby just waiting… waiting, waiting, waiting. And I wonder, we did set the meeting for today didn’t we? Am I early? Am I late? Why does this keep happening?

Coming from a culture where punctuality is rewarded and the inability to keep an appointment is respected with a phone call or text, this has been one of the hardest things to deal with.

In addition to getting people, youth and adults alike, to show up another constant barrier is getting people on board with the idea of youth development. It’s hard convincing people that they can make a difference with little resources. And it’s hard convincing them that when a project does need resources and money that it should come from their own pockets. Despite explaining this time and again and why Peace Corps works this way, it seems to have the opposite effect in motivating people at times. “Oh, well if you’re not going to contribute money to the project then we can’t do it.” Meeting this mindset in people leaves me yet again with a sense of failure. Am I not explaining it right? Did I choose the wrong group to work with? What is going on?

And the truth is, sometimes you’re doing it all right. Sometimes you really are trying your hardest and things just don’t work. Accepting this is starting to bring me out of the pit of “failure”.

Throughout Peace Corps service, we’re continuously reminded that we should readjust our expectations. Readjust what success is supposed to look like, readjust how you deal with failure. But it’s hard.

As idealistic people out to “save the world”, or to at least make a difference in your community, it’s hard when the day comes and you think to yourself, wow, there’s a good chance everything I’ve been doing here won’t really matter. There’s a good chance that every project I’ve successfully put together will not have a life after I leave. There’s a good chance that I’m failing.

And while people may read this post and think, “wow, her service sucks” or “geez she’s so negative”, those people are missing the point.

The point is that when you accept that failure is a part of life, you can begin to start over. When you accept that failure doesn’t always mean you’re failing, you can become a healthier person with a better outlook. It’s not that I truly believe I’m a failure, but coming to terms with trying something and not having it work has put me face to face with who I am and why I’m here. Accepting that sometimes no matter how hard you try, it just ain’t gonna work like you thought, is kind of cool in itself.

There’s something beautiful in this acceptance.

And the fact that despite the obstacles, I’m still trying to do work for my community is pretty cool too. I’m not ready to give up even though I’ve thought about it many times. I’ve still got project ideas that excite me even when I think they might not work. I’ve got about 7 months left and I know that I can still do good things. I know that even if everything I’m trying to do doesn’t work, at least I tried. And I have no qualms about explaining that to a future employer. In many ways your ability to handle failure demonstrates your skills better than your ability to handle success. (And trust me, this acceptance is still a work in progress and has come after many a venting phone call or weeping to myself into another bowl of spaghetti). Peace Corps service is indeed about adjusting expectations but when they tell you that’s what you’re supposed to do you often have no idea what that means.

To me, it means not giving up. Or, it means giving up and trying something new. Sometimes things just don’t work out. Sometimes your work partners just aren’t the right fit. So keep trying. Sometimes your second work partners aren’t the right fit either. But hey, at least you’re trying and that’s what’s important. Adjusting expectations means anticipating the obstacles and working around them. Adjusting expectations means not always seeing failure as failure. And when it is failure, knowing that it’s okay to fail sometimes. We all do. And as much as you adjust your concept of failure also adjust your concept of success, because throughout service they are intrinsically linked.

As I’ve said before success is the little things, and they often have nothing to do with your work. Success is making someone laugh at a joke in French. Success is getting sick and taking care of yourself. Success is finishing a book. Success is getting up the nerve to leave your house and deal with the attention and stares for the umpteenth time. Success is pitching a project idea. Success is trying. Success is letting yourself accept failure.

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Empty classroom as I wait for my students to show up.

What Can You Buy for 100 CFA?

Cameroon –  a land of plenty. A land of endless useless plastic goods and cheap food. A land where if you want a snack while you shop, that is no problem. A land where buying something off of a child’s head while sitting in a bar or in a car is acceptable. Yes it is a land of plenty… that is, except small money.

Cameroon is a country where you can find almost anything you need in larger markets as long as you have correct change. That is why I have often found myself thinking that I feel much richer when I am carrying what we call “small money” in my wallet rather than larger bills.

It is odd and sometimes frustrating that despite the frequent dealings with small money, almost no one has it. Small money is usually considered the 25 CFA piece, the 50 CFA piece, the 100 CFA piece, and in some cases the 500 and 1,000 CFA bills. Most goods, especially produce, are not overly priced. Therefore it is helpful to carry smaller pieces that will ease your experience in haggling for the best price. Yet PCVs come away from our bank visits with mostly large bills because well, that’s just what they give us. And as I said, this means that any given trip to the market leaves you wondering, who in the world can break this bill? And even if they do, who is likely to give me the least amount of grief for it? (“Weyyyy ma fille, pourquoi tu es venu au marche avec ca? On n’a pas la monnaie!”) Shopping in Cameroon therefore is all about strategy: “Where can I get change for my large bill by buying something I actually need, and is this place on the way to where I’m going?” And other questions of the like.

So that’s why once you finally get that sweet jingle in your pocket, you feel richer than with those pesky large bills. It is quite impressive how much 100 CFA will buy! This is the equivalent of 20 cents.

This is what the 100 CFA pieces look like.

This is what the 100 CFA pieces look like.

Sometimes the goodies you can get for 100 CFA vary from place to place, but here is what you can get in our market in Obala.

A bundle of bananas.

A bundle of bananas.

A packet of tissues. (which I've noticed most people use to wipe sweat rather than blow their nose)

A packet of tissues. (which I’ve noticed most people use to wipe sweat rather than blow their nose)

A 4-pack of male condoms.

A 4-pack of male condoms.

A 3-pack of female condoms.

A 3-pack of female condoms.

One small apple.

One small apple.

2 sachets of laundry soap.

2 sachets of laundry soap.

One sachet of tomato paste.

One sachet of tomato paste.

One sachet of baking powder.

One sachet of baking powder.

10 yards of string. People often use this to hang their laundry out to dry.

10 yards of string. People often use this to hang their laundry out to dry.

A whole bundle of mandarins.

A whole bundle of mandarins.

One large beignet.

One large beignet.

One bottle of fulere juice. If made the way I like it, it's like a cross between grape juice and cranberry juice that stains your whole mouth purple. It's made by boiling dried flowers to get the liquid and then adding  A LOT of sugar.

One bottle of fulere juice. If made the way I like it, it’s like a cross between grape juice and cranberry juice that stains your whole mouth purple. It’s made by boiling dried flowers with water and then adding A LOT of sugar.

One large green pepper.

One large green pepper.

I’m sure there are more things, but I as I was shopping in the market one day I thought wow, there actually are a lot of things you can get for just 100 CFA. And again, this is the equivalent of around 20 cents… jealous yet??

Using soccer, a universal language, to discuss HIV

Getting projects off the ground has been a challenge thus far in my service, as I imagine it is for other volunteers around the world as well. We face an array of challenges in explaining what exactly our work consists of, what resources we are actually capable of giving, as well as motivating people, youth and adults alike, to actually show up for the things we plan.

So I am quite content that, in spite of these challenges, myself and the government owned youth center in Obala (CMPJ) were able to successfully complete our debut round of Grassroot Soccer; a huge accomplishment in my eyes.

Grassroot Soccer is a South Africa based NGO that works with youth to talk about life skills and HIV prevention through sport based activity. They have developed an 11 session long curriculum specifically for Peace Corps Volunteers that allows us the means to engage youth with a toolkit that is already put together and with our limited resources.

The curriculum, called Peace Corps SKILLZ, creates simple and powerful connections between soccer and life. I tried to level with the youth who showed up by saying that I understood that HIV is difficult to talk about, because it is in this culture. HIV education and prevention is becoming more mainstream, but there are still many taboos and misconceptions about it. We did our best to create a safe space for participants where they could openly ask questions (though most didn’t) and talk about what they really thought. One of the goals of PC SKILLZ is to train participants to become peer educators. They aim to inspire youth to be leaders and take a stand in their communities, and they believe that one of the best ways to do that is to take an activity that everyone knows and likes (soccer) and use that language to create metaphors and build understanding of heath concepts.

So, a little about my experience with the program. The youth center has a director and his staff, in this case about 4-5 teachers. For GRS, we called ourselves coaches. Our first task was to gain interest and get youth to sign up for the program. It seemed a little challenging at the outset because during the “summer” months many youth are not in town. It’s like a mass upheaval of the population. Myself and the two male coaches, Mon. Voundi and Mon. Noah, decided to try to go to a local soccer field and see if we could recruit anybody to sign up. When we arrived, there were kids playing but we decided they all looked too young to participate. Our cutoff was 12 years old. Our next approach was to go door to door, which actually ended up working pretty well. We took a signup sheet around, explained the nature of the program, and asked if youth wanted to sign up. We ended up garnering a lot of interest that way.

A week or so later, we had the task of calling everyone on our list to tell them to come to the youth center for an interest meeting where we would give them more information and tell them when the first “practice” was. I was impressed with the turnout! We had around 25 people show up for our interest meeting! Of course, that was wishful thinking, as once the program got under way, we averaged about 12-15 youth per session. Which in all honesty isn’t that bad considering it is vacation time.

Our age range was 12 years old to 20 years old, with a good mix of girls and boys. I did my best to help lead sessions in French, but it was of course helpful having Cameroonian counterparts who could explain in better terms what the session was all about. We held about two practices a week at the beginning, and towards the end held 3 a week so that we could finish before school started. We covered topics such as risk factors for HIV, how HIV can spread through a population, gender roles, condoms, and building a support system. Overall, for our first time, I’m pretty content with the results. Not everything went perfectly, and there were some sessions I wanted to run away with frustration, but there were also some pretty cool moments. Seeing youth laugh and have fun playing a game that you taught them was a big boost. I liked when we had open discussions to introduce a topic and people actually shared their opinions and had debates. I liked on our very last session when we had youth name things that they learned and how they planned to be youth leaders. I liked when I wasn’t doing a great job explaining something and a fellow coach jumped in and nailed it on the head, so that the kids actually nodded their heads in understanding. It’s those little moments that I want to remember, because those are the moments that make me feel like I’m doing a good job and making a difference. I might not know whether or not these youth will actually go have conversations about HIV with their friends and family, but I hope they got something out of the program and they can recognize risk factors and dispel myths when they come across them.

Our first meeting.

Our first meeting.

Mon Noah explaining how to play "Find the Ball", which demonstrates how you can't know someone's HIV status just by looking at them.

Mon Noah explaining how to play “Find the Ball”, which demonstrates how you can’t know someone’s HIV status just by looking at them.

Dribbling the ball in between cones to represent avoiding risks of HIV! Notice we used empty bottles and cans for our cones.

Dribbling the ball in between cones to represent avoiding risks of HIV! Notice we used empty bottles and cans for our cones.

We limbo'ed to show the difference in the ages of our sexual partners. The harder it is to limbo, the older our partner is and the more at risk we are of getting infected.

We limbo’ed to show the difference in the ages of our sexual partners. The harder it is to limbo, the older our partner is and the more at risk we are of getting infected.

Running to reach their goals before "HIV" catches them!

Running to reach their goals before “HIV” catches them!

Showing how HIV can spread through a sexual network.

Showing how HIV can spread through a sexual network.

Girls discussing gender roles in society. For many reasons, girls are often more at risk of getting HIV.

Girls discussing gender roles in society. For many reasons, girls are often more at risk of getting HIV.

Showing the importance of having a good support system in your life. The "leaner" would fall and be caught by a circle of supporters.

Showing the importance of having a good support system in your life. The “leaner” would fall and be caught by a circle of supporters.

Madame Yoko helps the participants during our last session. You got a "Red Card" for exhibiting risky behavior!

Madame Yoko helps the participants during our last session. You got a “Red Card” for exhibiting risky behavior!

The final group of participants who attended enough sessions to receive their certificate. We made it!

The final group of participants who attended enough sessions to receive their certificate. We made it!

Some things I would do differently and/or work to improve for next time:

Be adamant about meeting with coaches the day before practices. We tried to do this a little bit, but it didn’t always work and we found ourselves scrambling to get things ready the morning of and sometimes not being on the same page mid-practice.

Work harder to create a team culture. We enacted this a little bit, with some team cheers and lingo, but it lacked enthusiasm a lot of times. I think coaches need to be really excited in order to get the participants excited too.

Start on time, no matter what. As is typical of many African countries, Cameroonians often don’t abide strictly to the clock. We ended up starting more practices than I would have liked 30-45 minutes late because it seemed silly to start with only 4 youth present. But I think the more you reiterate the importance of starting on time, the more likely the message is to be received… in theory.

Don’t be the only one pitching in for resources. This is another constant issue: money. Cameroonians are quick to point out the need for certain materials and resources, but I was faced with the issue of being expected to dole out cash for everything. Not only did I try to avoid this by saying one of the benefits of GRS was that it could be done with limited resources, but I also tried to reiterate that I’m a volunteer who doesn’t get paid much and also if they wanted the project to be sustainable it was important to try and fund things themselves. The message didn’t always go over that well, and so I ended up shelling out money for small things like plastic balls and printing materials. It’s hard to express that while, yes, I was the one who pitched the idea this is by no means “my” project. Peace Corps volunteers work to build the capacity of the local people. In this case that would mean that I help facilitators learn how to implement this program and I assist in training youth on HIV prevention, not just that I am the one to pay for all the materials. Again, this is a tough spot to be in, and I imagine I will spend the rest of my service reminding people what I’m really here to try and do.

Ça va aller, n’est pas?