Cameroon: Stages of Volunteer Life

A Peace Corps Volunteer watches a celebration in her community in Cameroon.
By Kara Coughlin
Sept. 10, 2020

The village is long with a paved road down the middle—not very wide on either side. From north to south, the major landmarks are the health center, the mosque, my house, the primary school, the market, and the high school. My house has three main rooms—an indoor area for a bucket shower, an indoor latrine, and a detached room for everything else. I have all I need—even a water pump right next to my house.

ARRIVAL

I wake up when the sun does. Usually by 6:00 or 6:30. Then I eat breakfast…usually pasta because that's what I have. Someday I’ll figure out where to buy eggs! After breakfast I get ready for work. Most women here wear long pagna skirts or dresses and cover their hair with a wrap and another shawl on top of it. I feel comfortable wearing long skirts and shirts that have at least some sleeves. I do not choose to cover my hair, which is perfectly acceptable to my village. Once I’m dressed, I fill my water bottle for the day and head out to the health center.

The walk through the village takes about 20 minutes. Each morning some of the old men greet me in Fulfulde. They are proud every time they teach me a word and I remember it the next day. Then, there are the children who love to call out to me using whatever little bits of French they know.

The center itself is simple. The waiting room is outside—a few benches shaded by an awning. The chief of the center has an office which also serves as a consultation room. If you go straight through that room, there’s a back storage room. To the left of the storage room is the room used for birthing. Off the birthing room is the room where the families of the women in labor can wait. To the right of the storage room is the lab. The lab is very basic, but equipped to run some simple tests like malaria tests and stool samples. There is also a room for basic procedures like injections, wound care, and things like that. Three inpatient rooms have three or four beds each. Finally, there is the pharmacy which stocks basic and commonly prescribed medications.

After work, I usually go home and eat a snack of whatever I can find. Sometimes a mélange of avocados, onions, and tomatoes with vinegar. Then I like to go for walks. I’ve met some of the older “grandmas” in my village, and I often visit them. The conversations never get too far because I can’t say anything other than, “Hi, how are you? What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from?” and the appropriate responses in Fulfulde. The grandmas don’t speak French. But we all enjoy the visits, even though it’s mostly us just looking at each other, wishing we could say more. After my walk, I go home before dark and settle in for the night. Sometimes children come over and draw pictures for me; sometimes I do my laundry or sweep my ever-dusty house. Then I cook myself dinner and get into bed by 8:30 pm. I’m usually asleep within an hour.

VOLUNTEER LIFE

At orientation, before leaving the United States, Peace Corps staff went on about “the ABC’s.” I’ll admit that at the time, I blew it off. They said that once you become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you end up in this weird middle place. You’ve been exposed to so much that you’re not fully in the American culture anymore. You see things in a new way and have a new perspective that never really leaves you. You’re a very different person from the person that people at home know. The “you” from home, the American culture you, is the A. You will never again be the A. Then there’s the B. The B is the culture you’re living in. My B is the village where I live now. Peace Corps says you will never be the B because, let’s face it, you are so different from your new community. You can learn the language, eat the food, live in the same kind of houses with the same level of amenities, but no matter what, your past, that A culture, is always a part of you. Everything that you thought you knew how to do—like cooking dinner or doing laundry…those are all different too, and you don’t really know how to do them. You will never be the B.

That leaves you as a C. You’re not like the people at home anymore. You’re not like the people you live with. Being the only C is a pretty lonely prospect sometimes. Sure, there are advantages to being the C. For example, I understand so much more about the world than I did before leaving the United States, and I’ve had some invaluable experiences. But it still leaves me feeling pretty much on my own out here a lot of the time. That’s not to say that I don’t have friends or people who care about me. I have great friends! They may think I’m incompetent at washing my clothes, but they try to teach me (and then re-wash every piece of clothing I think I’ve already washed). They want me to be happy. They support me. But there is always a space between my C and their B. Our lives are so different.

We’re in the full swing of both rainy season and Ramadan. I’ve been fasting for Ramadan with my friends in the village and, let me tell you, breaking the fast (breakfast…get it?) is much harder than fasting. Fasting starts early in the morning, which means that you wake up and eat around 4:00 am—before the morning’s prayer. Then you spend the day without food or water, which I haven’t actually found difficult.

The hard part comes around 6:30 pm when it’s time to eat again. In the village where I live, this starts with bouille and beignets—basically hot corn flour porridge and donuts. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? It’s not. Actually, I really like this part of breaking the fast. Next comes a “boule” and a half of couscous—corn flour mixed into boiling water until thick, then left to settle into a loaf. A “boule” is about the size of two tennis balls. You eat about three tennis balls worth of this stuff, which is incredibly filling. After not eating or drinking all day, your stomach capacity isn’t that big and trying to squeeze all of that food and water into it is literally painful. The first night of Ramadan when I broke fast with my friends I had to lie down before I could manage to walk home.

Speaking of friends, when my parents came to visit me for my birthday, we were at my village health clinic for vaccination day. We cannot vaccinate babies who weigh less than 2.5kg. It’s usually my job to weigh the babies, but since there were students there, they were weighing them, which allowed me to notice a little baby waiting her turn. She was clearly too small to be vaccinated and when that happens, I like to let the parents know as early as possible—otherwise they end up sitting around for an hour before being told to go home without any vaccine. I went and weighed this little baby and verified she was much too small to be vaccinated. I took her and the woman who had brought her into the consultation room and had my mom and chief of the health center look at the baby. In the meantime, I chatted with the woman who brought the baby in. It turns out that the baby was from a village far from the health center. She was only 16 days old, and her mother had recently died. The woman who brought her was on the older side to have a baby and had not had children for many years. She had gone to the baby’s village to pay her respects to the family of the baby’s mother. She’d found the baby then. There were many other children, and no one was taking care of the baby. So, this woman brought the baby back to her village and began taking a natural breast milk stimulant. Within a week or so, the woman was producing breast milk and breastfeeding the baby. I thought it was an amazing story—a woman finding a baby in trouble and doing everything possible to ensure the baby thrived. Still, I was unsure how the baby would do. She was very small and fairly unresponsive to stimuli. We sent the woman and child home with advice on how to best feed the baby and told them to come back to the health center for a week later.

A few days after I met the woman and the baby, I went to visit a friend of mine and casually mentioned the pair. My friend said, “Well that’s my aunt!” She told me where they lived, and I went to see them. The baby was doing great—growing well and developing normally. Her name is Mariam and, now, she eats all the time. At the last vaccination day, Mariam was big enough to receive her second dose of vaccine. I’m not sure why this struck me so profoundly, but I was incredibly moved by the fact that the woman took charge of Mariam without any obligation or compensation. Anyway, I go and visit the two of them often and they have become good friends of mine.

TWO YEARS PASSED

I’ve realized that after 23 months in this country, 20 in this village, I’ve started to acquire some Cameroonian habits. For example, today I threatened a two year old with a shot if he wouldn’t take his medicine. That’s just one of many things that mothers regularly do here, and which I have adopted. Then there’s the regular washing of shoes, umbrellas, and backpacks, the washing of the half of the house visitors can see, the mixing of macaroni and rice and, of course, the staying home and doing nothing when it rains. However, there are other local habits I haven’t mastered yet.

For example, killing a chicken. Ramadan ended recently. The celebration at the end of Ramadan lasts for three days. On the third day, I went with one of my good friends to her village. She lives here in the same village I do, but her family is still in her village just down the road. That’s where we went to visit her parents. Despite the fact that they cooked for me and welcomed me into their home and all I gave them in return was a box of sugar cubes and a liter of oil, they felt that they needed to send me a gift. So, Saturday rolls around, and one of my friend’s brothers shows up at my house with a live chicken.

I was unsure with how to handle a chicken hopping around my living room. Its feet were tied together so at least I could catch it. Eventually I picked it up and secured it around a stick. I was well aware of the fact that I would be eating it the next day, but I couldn’t help feeling kind of bad for the little guy. At one point, it got tangled up, and I tried to untangle it. But it freaked out and started flapping its wings, and all I could do was yell at it in Fulfulde to calm down.

Long story short, I now know how to kill, pluck, and de-intestine a chicken.

I don’t know how often I’ll use my new skill, since I am about to go down to the capital for my COS conference. Basically, three months before volunteers go back to the United States, they go to this conference, which is meant to explain a few different things—how to write resumes, how to close out our service and, of course, how to readjust to American life. It’s exciting, but there’s a fair amount of sadness surrounding it, too. My time in Cameroon is winding down. Everything is about to change. But I’ve learned about change. I showed up in this village knowing nothing. I got into a car in the regional capital with all my stuff and a man I had only met once. Did it occur to me that I was getting kidnapped? That no one would ever hear from me again? Yep. It definitely did. But I chose to have faith.

We drove down a long winding road. I had NO idea what direction we were headed. We passed through villages with unfamiliar names, we stopped for herds of cows. Eventually we pulled off the main road and went down a dirt path and stopped in front of a house. “Welcome home,” I was told. People unloaded my stuff and then left me alone. “Ummm…Okay.” I thought. “Now what?” I was standing alone in the middle of a house that was apparently my new home. I had NO idea where I was, how to leave if I needed to, or where to buy the things I didn’t have. I had to figure out how to hook the gas tank up to the stove. That was the second time that day I feared for my life. I had to figure out how to eat something…which ended up being spaghetti with tomato paste because I had nothing else. I had to sleep in the house all alone…well, with the bats, the mice, the cockroaches, and the weird thing thumping around in my ceiling. And that was all on day one.

But, as the days passed, I learned. I met people. They accepted me. I was so different from most of them. I was the only white person for 20 miles. I couldn’t speak their language, I couldn’t cook the food they ate. I didn’t even know how to eat it! I didn’t know how to wash my clothes or where the market was or where to get water. I needed a lot of help. But no one in the village cared that I looked different or spoke differently. They cared about me anyway. They showed me how to wash my clothes, how to get water, how to cook. They taught me their language and how to buy the best quality things at the market. And when I did it wrong, they encouraged me, corrected me and, sometimes, secretly fixed my mistakes themselves.

The one person I spent most of my time with the village has only one thing in common with me. We are both women. After that, the similarities end. She was married at 14 and orphaned young. She had her first child at 15. She had three babies die. She had one daughter die in adulthood. She never went to school and speaks only the local dialect. She spends her days cooking and cleaning. I have both of my parents and have yet to be married or have children. I have 17 years of schooling. I speak three languages. I work at a hospital. Without coming to Cameroon, I never would have met Fanta. Now I call her a friend. She is one of the most amazing women I know.

It can be hard to accept changes. It can be hard to reconcile differences. But, I’ve learned, doing so—embracing both change and differences—might lead to some of the most wonderful things that life has to offer.


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