As most of you know, I am going to graduate school as a Shriver Peaceworker Fellow.  The program is a part of the Coverdell Fellows program that offers scholarships to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for their graduate studies.  As part of my summer practicum, we created digital stories based off of our Peace Corps service, and, we were asked to share these stories with our blog audience as part of Peace Corps’ Third Goal.

Here’s my digital story about one of my/our closest friends, Vivien.  And for anyone who tasted some of the Cameroonian coffee we brought back, Vivien and her family are the ones who roasted and produced the coffee.  Enjoy!

Mollie’s Digital Story: Peace Corps Cameroon

Today marks two years in Cameroon; 730 days not setting foot outside of Cameroon’s borders.  It’s quite the mile-marker if you ask me.  The two year mark means we are rounding towards the finish line of our Peace Corps service, that we are almost done, and that we will be saying goodbye to this adventure and shortly be welcoming the next chapter in life.  While I wish I had some great insights on what it means to be in Cameroon or the Peace Corps for this long, lately, I have found myself reflecting more on what it means to be going home and to be American.

Many people say they are ‘proud to be an American’.  I disagree.  I don’t think proud is the right word, as I did nothing to earn the citizenship of America; it was the hand I was dealt in life.  After spending two years in Africa, I have gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be American, the liberties we are born into, and, how many more opportunities I have had, determined solely by where I was born.  But I didn’t earn it.  Generations past earned it for me.  From the civil war to the civil rights movement, I was born into a country where freedom runs deeper than we understand. As an American, I am able to travel, to get visas to other countries, to save up for the plane ticket, and to go and come back.  That is not true of many other nationalities.  I can vote.  And, for better or worse, the person I voted for can only run the country for 4 years before I can vote again.  I have access to health care. Period.  Yes, there is a whole health care debate raging, but spend some time in Africa and you will be thankful for America’s hospitals, first responders, urgent care centers, and family doctors, trust me.  I had an education; not even counting university, I learned, and explored, and discovered in a brightly-colored classroom in a school where teachers put in way more effort than was reflected in their salary.  And, most and best of all, in America, I can be myself; heterosexual, homosexual, republican, democrat, mom of many or none, professional or beach bum, political activist or apathetic, all without worry of prosecution, physical harm or retaliation against my family.  Freedom runs deep, and liberty takes on a new meaning.

I wish I could say the same for Cameroon.  Our friends work hard, often times harder than we have ever worked and for less reward.  They tend to their maladies with whatever means are available to them.  And they do their best to succeed, to prosper.  I say this not to paint an impoverished picture of Cameroon, as that is not at all the reality.  But the truth of the matter is that life in Cameroon is just harder.  The freedoms and liberties that we as Americans are privy to do not exist here.  There is prosecution, retaliation, aggression, there is opportunity for some, lots of laughter for all, lots and lots of soccer games, and beauty.  Saying goodbye to our friends here will not be easy; Cameroon’s future is unknown.  With a president who has been in power for 30+ years, massive conflicts in multiple border countries, and the latest declaration of war by Cameroon on Boko Haram, we cannot leave our country of service confident of what their future will hold.  But, that’s the difference, we get to leave.  We have a ticket out.  For our friends, that is not the same reality.

Here we are, grateful to be American and hopeful for our Cameroonian friends and ‘family’, ready to say goodbye, and ready to be welcomed home.  I am confident Cameroon is on their own path to liberty and freedom.  I know there is no gift I can leave behind, no souvenir or memento that will repay what we have experienced and learned in our two years.  I know I cannot change the future of the country, and I know I cannot bring all of my favorites home with me (we all know baby Enzo would make a great addition to the Bates/Willis family!).

So, as we get ready to say goodbye with memories that will last a lifetime, we linger in this moment of hope and gratitude.  Americans and Cameroonians alike, we will all keep on fighting the good fight, sharing in laughter and humanity, and walk away incredibly thankful for all that we have seen, learned, and discovered.  And in the next two days, two years, or two decades, Cameroon, we are together.

This last weekend, the neighborhood kids were taking advantage of the pause in the rain and were out playing in full force.  There was the usual crew, plus about 5 extras we had only seen a handful of times before.

I noticed two things.  One, that they weren’t playing soccer, and two, that they were playing really well together.  Normally, there is a lot of yelling, a lot of complaining, and multiple babies crying.  I went and looked out the window, as there was lots of laughter and a general sense of calm that is not normally characteristic of them playing together.

All of the kiddos were playing house together.  As I sat and pretended to do a sudoku (not that they really cared I was eavesdropping), I was surprised at how this game of house played out.  The kids had a handful of props, an empty bread bag stuffed with leaves in place of the already eaten loaf, an empty laundry detergent packet, some rocks that were supposed to be money, and so on.  They traded turns playing the Mom and Dad of the family, without regard to sex or age.  While a positive of the afternoon was that they played really well together, a sad reality of Cameroonian life made itself apparent.

At one instance, one of the kids asked their ‘mom’ for some bread.  The ‘mom’ responded by saying that they had to share all of the bread with their siblings, and make sure to save enough for their dad.  At multiple points, the older siblings in the role play were demanding the younger ones to go wash the clothes, handing over the empty laundry detergent packet, and saying if they didn’t, they would hit them.  Later, one of the ‘kids’ was (fake) crying and the current ‘mom’ asked what was wrong; the ‘kid’ responded by saying they were sad because ‘dad’ refused to give them money to pay their school fees.  The crazy part is, this was all play.  Real life that they all could relate to and agree on, translated into playing house.

I wouldn’t be honest if I said I didn’t laugh.  But, I want to make it clear that I was not laughing at the situation, but rather, at how the kids so carelessly transcribed what we would define as incredibly stressful situations and made an afternoon of fun out of them.  Cameroonians, if anything, are incredibly resilient.  In a grand generalization, the Cameroon home-front is stressful, for both parents and children alike.  And as much as I would love it to not be the case, it is generally incredibly patriarchal, hitting is common, and there isn’t always enough money or food to go around.

They continued on with their day, inevitably transitioned back to playing soccer, and I was left wondering how to process that.  How do you internalize (or, make the conscious effort not to) the household realities for these kiddos we have come to love?  If we are brutally honest with ourselves, there is nothing we, in this current moment, can do to change the reality.  Cameroon is longing for a holistic, systematic, governmental change that will revitalize the economy and bring with it social change.  But, until then, I can only love on these kids, share our crayons, play with them, and laugh with them.

I walked away thankful for the hand I was dealt in life.  I grew up imagining I was a restaurant chef for all of my dolls, that I was a veterinarian, or a million other things.  I never imagined not having enough food or having to worry about paying school fees.  This world isn’t fair, no one said it was, but all I can do is be thankful my niece can also grow up with endless imaginary possibilities, where her version of house could include her being a teacher, a stay at home mom, an astronaut, or whatever else her little mind can come up with.

Cameroon’s neighbors leave a lot to be desired.  No one is stopping by for tea and cookies or lending sugar when someone else is in need, rather, the nations are trying to survive in the midst of massive atrocities that have become daily talking points for Peace Corps Volunteers.  Sandwiched between Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon struggles to stronghold their borders.

If you’re not up to date on the latest between the CAR and NIgeria, catch up.  The people of those nations, our neighbors, need all of the political support, and attention, they can get to end what is going on.

We all know of Darfur and Clooney’s ‘Save Darfur’ movement.  Quoted in this article about the hell on earth taking place in the near-genocide capital of the Central African Republic, the situation in the CAR is more grave than Darfur.  “Both men [Peacekeeping forces] served in Darfur and agreed it was a model of simplicity compared with the mayhem they’ve encountered in CAR since their arrival in January.”  If Darfur, who had masses of media attention and political intervention, was considered simple in comparison, more help needs to be sent to Cameroon’s eastern neighbor.

Now, if we shift to the northwestern neighbor of Nigeria, we are faced with a terrorist hot spot operating under the name Boko Haram, loosely translated to ‘Western Education is Forbidden’.  This is the organization that was responsible for Peace Corps having to remove all volunteers from the Extreme North region of Cameroon after they abducted a French family and their children within Cameroon’s borders.  Since they, they have organized and have carried out multiple attacks within Nigeria’s northern states and on the border.  Lately, they have been responsible for a large bombing in the capital of Nigeria, Abuja.  And, last but definitely not least, they kidnapped over 200 girls in mid-April as they prepared to take a school exam, threatening to ‘sell’ them into marriage on the market.  On Sunday, Boko Haram added to this number and kidnapped 8 more. You can read about this insanity here, and this madness has to stop.

While blogging about it doesn’t do much, nor does reading a few articles, it is one step in the right direction.  Read, become aware of what is going on, and you our fellow blog readers who live in nations that carry political clout – speak up and speak out.  We are left hoping for a day where Cameroon, and its neighbors, can truly live in peace.

If you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Nkongsamba area, or pass through often, you know Justin Youmsi.  Justin is the counterpart of the Agribusiness Volunteer posted in Poola, a quarter of Nkongsamba.  Justin is great; he is the first person to make you laugh, works harder than most, and is dedicated to seeing his village improve and grow.  As a PCV, he is a fantastic counterpart to work with!

Last rainy season, I found myself quite board and without a ton of work lined up for our second year here.  I met with Justin to see if there was anything I could help his organization do.  He is the president of GROUPELMA, an association of farmers in the local area.  When we met, he was explaining his desire to see the youth in the area have a trade that they could do the support themselves and their future families.  The problem here is that while most of the youth in Poola receive their high school degree, there is not a job market to support them once they graduate.  Though educated, the youth tend to sit idle due to a lack of economic opportunities, and furthermore, because they went to high school, they have not gained the necessary farming skills to be able to grow and/or sell crops.  So, we began to discuss what we could do to assist the youth in Poola.

As it turned out, GROUPELMA had already created a project proposal to address the problem of idle youth in Poola, however, they did not have a funding source to begin the project.  The project proposal was to create a sustainable income generating project for the youth, while teaching them the necessary business and life skills to successfully manage their new enterprise.  The community agreed that a necessary, and profitable, skill that could be taught is pig raising.  Well, seeing as Shaun or I know nothing about raising livestock, thankfully we were partnering with Justin who does that for a living!  We could bring business classes and entrepreneurial management classes to the table, and with the local health volunteers in the area, we knew we could find someone to train on basic health education and HIV/AIDS prevention education.  Given that the youth are idle, sex is definitely one form of entertainment, which made HIV/AIDS prevention education a key component of the life skills taught through this project.  So, our project framework was set!  We would, together, teach pig raising, business classes, and HIV and health education.  Now we just needed money.  But, viola, the project was right in line with some of Peace Corps development objectives!  We completed a funding application, and we were on our way to our pig project!

Each candidate received 4 piglets that they will raise until they are large enough to sell at the market.  With the revenue they will earn from selling the pigs, they will reimburse GROUPELMA the initial investment (cost of piglets, food, etc), so that the organization can continue the program with a second set of participants.  They will also, then, have enough funds remaining to purchase another set of piglets for themselves, and are now able to raise them, manage their business, and sell them to make a profit to support themselves and their families.  Ideally, the cycle will continue successfully and enable more of the youth in Poola to gain a trade that will be profitable for them.  The project officially started in January, when we launched the first round of five youth participants.  Since January, we have been meeting every two weeks for a couple of hours.  Beth, the other Agribusiness volunteer in the area, trade off teaching the business portion of the course, with Justin teaching the technical pig raising portion, and partnering with the health PCV in the area to teach the health and HIV prevention classes.

Since January, the project has gone really well!  I keep waiting for the big hiccup that will derail it all, we do live in Cameroon after all!  But, to my surprise, all is moving smoothly. Last week we held a ceremony, in a way it is was an official opening ceremony for the project and the partnership of the project between Peace Corps and GROUPELMA.  The purpose of the ceremony was also to explain, more formally, the goals of the project to the community and to drum up more interest for future participants, now that we almost finished with the first round.  To make the ceremony more ‘official’ the sous-prefet was invited, as well as the Peace Corps Agribusiness director (mine and Beth’s boss).  We purchased little cakes from the bakery in town, rented chairs, arranged to have a sound system that never showed up, and prayed that the drizzle of rain didn’t turn into a downpour.  Even though there were a few hiccups on timing, African time is always an issue, the ceremony was a big success.  The whole executive board of GROUPELMA was present, the sous-prefet showered the project with support, and our director explained the goals of Peace Corps and our reasons for being here.  And, because a certificate is worth gold in this country, all of the participants received their official certificate of completion for the pig project.

So, to give credit where credit is due, here’s a huge shout out to all that made this project a huge success.  Thanks to Beth for being willing to jump in right after arriving at post and help get the project started.  A huge shout out to Gillian and Martine for teaching on HIV/AIDS prevention education, we both know I could have never done it without you both.  And, to Justin.  Thanks for letting me crash Poola and get behind a project I believe in and can get motivated to do.  I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have worked with him, I was in a work ‘slump’ before the project started, and the work in Poola kept me going, kept me focused, and, leaves me wrapping up my Peace Corps service feeling appreciated, believing in the change that the community can accomplish, and realizing how much I am going to miss the relationships with the whole Poola crew.

 

As we all know by now, mail can take a long time to get to us.  We’ve gotten letters in record time of 10 days or 6 weeks!  With about 7 weeks left in Nkongsamba (and our last week in Yaounde), this is the last week to send us mail.  We’ve loved all of the packages, letters and post cards we have received, and we would hate for one to arrive after we have already left.  So, this is your chance!  Last call for mail!