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.