I’ll be the first to admit this one, I have seriously dropped the blogging ball. Every time I sat down during Pre-Service training to write something, I immediately felt that I either did not have an interesting enough story or enough information to actually write about. But now, after a long two-month hiatus, I’m ready to rumble.
Reflection upon PST:
Have you ever simultaneously felt like a toddler and master’s degree recipient in the same day? No? Well, let me tell you that this is the exact feeling I have every day of training in the Peace Corps. During our technical training I feel like a Public Health savant and my brilliance is quickly dimmed two hours later in French class. Before joining the Peace Corps and committing my career to be solely in French, I never gave the language a second thought. Growing up in the United States, French is an elective you can take in school, but practically you’ll never use it unless you travel to Quebec or do a semester abroad in France. Personally, I found Spanish to be far more useful in the US. With an emerging Hispanic population, I was able to practice and improve my skills in the US and later while working in Costa Rica. I walked into language class the first day thinking, “Spanish and French are basically the same. This is going to be a breeze.” In retrospect every time I think things will be so easy it is so not. For all that do not know the French language, I want to take you down a road to explain the frustration I have with the entire language. I want you to now read that entire last sentence and not pronounce the last letter in each word. The French language is full of SO MANY SILENT LETTERS. Oh, and, one more thing; out of all of those words you just read, you will actually pronounce one of the last letters in the words for whatever the reason. Welcome to the French language. It has been one of the greatest challenges I have ever faced. I would rather spend 10 hours rewriting my final MPH report about selective serotonin receptors than sit through French. But as much as I failed and flopped (and still do) through learning this new language, I know it must be done. Learning that one language stood between me and joining an elite group of 200,000 US citizens that have served in 171 countries worldwide.
So let’s recap the last two months:
PST was full of uncertainty. Due to civil unrest in the country, Peace Corps has removed volunteers from the two Anglophone regions of Cameroon (The Northwest and the Southwest). It is worth stressing that the other regions are very safe to work in and, Cameroon, as a whole, is a very peaceful nation. Many of the volunteers that were working in the Northwest and the Southwest have widely expressed the feeling that they felt safe in their respective villages. Unfortunately, many of my incoming health stage’s posts were supposed to be in the Northwest and Southwest; 16 of the 27 to be exact. When Peace Corps Cameroon announced on October 23, that volunteers would be removed and our stage would not go the two regions, PC Cam staff was given the arduous task of hunting out 16 new posts for my health stage. For this reason, we did not find out our specific regions until week seven and our actual posts until week eight.
I spent much of PST unsure of what to tell others. I couldn’t tell my friends and family where I would be going or begin researching the specific culture that I would inevitably live in. I would also be lying if I didn’t question if I would even go to a post. Usually our posts are picked and vetted up to a year before we ever arrive in country. I was afraid that we would end up being sent home and redistributed to other Peace Corps countries. But, thankfully, that did not happen.
We did site visits on the fifth week of PST. During site visit, I was sent to the Adamawa region. Usually your site visit indicates where you be posted, so I was thrilled with the prospect of spending the next two years there. While it would not involve a ton of HIV and Aids work, I was excited because it is a truly beautiful region, with kind and wonderful people. We also had the added bonus of celebrating Halloween there with other PCVs! It was so fun to celebrate even though we are worlds away from the US. It is little things like that that help alleviate the FOMO I frequently feel. The only part of my visit to the Adamawa that I look back on with ill feelings is the fact that I tore my lateral ligament stepping in a pot hole.
After this occurred, I was sent to Yaoundé to get my ankle checked out. That week was the most nerve racking. Once the MRI indicated I had a torn ligament, my fate was in the hands of Headquarters in Washington if I could return back to training or if I would need to return to the states for surgery. While my ankle frequently hurts and walking is less than desirable, I refused to go home. With persistence that I could continue, and the promise (that I didn’t keep) of using crutches for a month, Peace Corps let me return to training.
Finally, we received our site posts. Much to my surprise, I was posted in the Littoral. Not only was I shocked to not be going to the Adamawa, I was shocked to find out that I would be going to a city of 250,000 people. To put things into perspective, many of my fellow stage-mates are in villages with less than 1,000 people. It feels painfully ironic that I planned on being posted in the bush in a village of 500 people with no electricity or running water, and here I am; in a large metropolitan city with running water, electricity, and solid cell phone service. As my fellow stage-mates joke, I am living the “posh-corps” life.
After 10 long weeks of intense language and community health education, 47 (27 health and 20 Agriculture) traded in the “T” in PCTs for a”V”. It is almost surreal to think that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that I love so much already. Our swearing in ceremony was held at a very glamorous resort in the West Region. The night before our stage got to take hot showers, swim in a pool, drink above average beer, and sing wagon wheel more times than I can count. Cameroonians use the phrase “nous sommes ensemble”; it means “we are together”. That was so characteristic of the last night of PST. It is no secret, when you put 27 20-something year olds, all with different backgrounds and beliefs, in a rigorous 10-week training away from everything we know, personalities can clash. But on our last night, we were together. All difference aside, we are one huge, dysfunctional family. The next day we took the same oath that thousands of PVCs, Senators, Governors, and Presidents have taken before us; an oath to defend the constitution of the United States. Even during a time when loving the government is hard, there was a solemn and daunting feeling taking the same oath as so many great leaders before me. While the United States is not perfect, I proudly boast it is a country that I love dearly and am so thankful to get the opportunity to represent.
Honey, We Adopted a White Girl:
After the swear in ceremony concluded, we all returned to our host families to say our final goodbyes and pack up before leaving for our posts the next day. Living with my host family was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I lived with a Muslim, polygamist family that does not speak English, with the exception of the father and one son; both of which spoke more broken English than anything. Communication, at first, was nonexistent. Because I arrived in country with zero French, I could not communicate aside from typing what I wanted into the translator on my phone. Truthfully, I did not actually get to know my family until the end of PST once I had enough of a grasp on the French language so that I could hold extended conversations. I will admit that Cameroon does religion right. Different religions truly live in peace in Cameroon, and America could really take notes from them. My host family was so kind and accommodating to a random American Christian girl. They never pushed their own beliefs on me or belittled me for my own beliefs. I was especially close with one of my host mothers. Pardon my French, but Agee is a real badass woman. She’s a renegade in her domain without even knowing it. Ask any of my friends in PST and they’ll tell you I rave about my “boujee” mom. She wore dresses embellished with rhinestones and glitter. You could hear her no matter what part of the compound you were in because her laugh was always just that boisterous. Unlike the other wives of my host dad, she worked so that she could send her children to better schools; including sending her oldest daughter to medical school. She often told me how happy she was that I was chasing my dreams and doing the things I wanted in life. She was so remarkable for so many reasons and I am very thankful that I got to be a part of their family, even if it was just for three months. At the end of PST I got the family a few gifts and FINALLY got a family photo. While I’m still missing a few members of the family, getting over 15 people in the same place for a group photo is nearly impossible.
New Post, New Me?
Finally, I departed for Nkongsamba to start work at my post. I was assigned to work with an incredible NGO. The Association of Dynamic Women is a non-profit focused on allllllll things relating to women. They do everything from menstruation education to gender based violence counseling. Every person that works for the association is so dedicated to improving the lives of women in any way possible. They are passionate about their work and unbelievably accommodating. If you think I’m exaggerating, the President of the Organization, who happens to also be my work counterpart, opened up her own home to myself and the other two volunteers posted in the Littoral for our first few days because she knew we didn’t have any furniture in our homes. Claudine is the most amazing woman I have met in Cameroon. In our first weeks’ time in the Littoral, she assisted with all of our moving logistics (which, trust me, moving two suitcases, a trunk, a backpacker’s pack, a bed, and other miscellaneous items, is no small task), fed us unlike any feasts we’ve had in country for multiple days, negotiated pricing on home goods so that we wouldn’t pay the “white man” price, and is always so willing to help. Aside from her unbelievable accommodating skills, working with her and the organization is just as exciting.
I am also so excited that the same volunteer that was at the airport to greet all of the new trainees, is my site mate! To add to the coincidence, we also have the same last name. So when people joke that “the” white people in town are siblings, they aren’t too far off. D’arcy just entered into his second year of Peace Corps Service and is about a 15 minute moto ride away. Coincidentally, when we (Myself, Julia, and David) arrived to post while D’arcy was launching a 5 day HIV screening event to celebrate World Aids Day. As soon as the new Littys (the name affectionately given to volunteers in the Littoral, or Litty Littoral) to post, we jumped to help at the events D’arcy planned. It was so cool to be a part of such a cool event, even on my first day. I would also like to give D’arcy and his team a shoutout for testing over 2,000 people for HIV in 5 days. I have a feeling that working next to him will keep a fire underneath me to do more and aim higher than I would otherwise.
I am less than a week into work, and were already discussing the plans for the Cacun Cultural Festival in March. During this festival, 30,000 people will ascend upon Nkongsamba for music, dancing, and women’s empowerment. This year we are aiming to test 5,000 people for HIV and provide linkage services. Already Claudine and the staff have confidence in my ability to help plan such a huge event; even when I don’t have the same unwavering faith in myself. On my first “official” day of work, the threw me a huge welcoming party. I’ve never felt so loved and welcomed at a job. This incredible capable and I know without a doubt that the next two years will be full of love, laughter, and empowering women.
I salute you for making it this far into the post! Thank you so much for following along with me on this incredible journey! If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email. If you’d like to send me physical letters or packages, you will be my new favorite human. My permanent mailing address is:
Peace Corps Volunteer
Corps de la Paix
Nkongsamba, Littoral Region, Cameroon
CHEERS TO THE NEXT TWO YEARS!!!!