This past week, I was in Yaounde not to only see my love, Alex, who I had not seen in two months, but also his mom, Judy, who traveled from the US to Cameroon to get a taste of our life in Cameroon. Seeing Alex and his mom reunite for the first time in a year was a very emotional experience. We showed her Musee d’Art Camerounais, Mont Febe Monastery, Peace Corps Office, and a French bakery. Giving Judy a small tour of Yaounde was just a small part of educating her about Cameroon. Majority of our time were spent conversing with her about the life of Cameroonians, social issues in particular health and our work at our posts while eating and introducing her to Cameroonian food. She tasted fried plantains, ndole (bitter leaves with shrimp), and a couple different grilled fish.
When Alex and I both shared with her our struggles in seeing each other as we live so far away from each other in spite of living in the same country, she said, “Isn’t there an airport in Bamenda? Can’t you fly to Ngaoundere from there?”
“Yes, there is an airport but it’s not in operation. Actually, here’s the story. When I was telling my counterpart several months ago about how much I miss Alex, she told me that I can just go to the airport that was right there and fly to Ngaoundere. A woman happened to be walking by us and overheard our conversation. She said, ‘That airport has been closed for two months.’ We eventually learned that the airport has been closed to fix the communication infrastructure system. Moreover, Peace Corps Volunteers are actually not permitted to fly in country because the flights are often unreliable and frequently cancelled.”
In this conversation, she was given an insight of the reality of infrastructure in Cameroon. Alex and I both shared our experiences of traveling in country. “I’ve been in a sedan taxi…sedan taxi…with as many as 10 people in one car,” said Alex.
“I’ve been in one with as many as 11 people,” I said.
“Children will sit on people,” Alex said.
“People can really be on top of each other,” I said.
When Alex and I shared with her that we’re planning a trip to Kribi Beach, one of the popular beach destinations in Cameroon, for holidays in December, Judy advises us to go ahead and book a hotel before they get filled. When Alex pulls out his computer and looks up hotels, Judy asks, “Is there a Hilton or Marriott there?”
“No,” I said. She was given an insight as to how there is very little presence of American companies in Cameroon. I should add that McDonald’s do not exist in this country.
Then we discussed our work. “What projects do you have coming up?” Judy asked us.
Alex explains that he is working on educating his community about malaria prevention by not only giving presentations at schools but also visiting homes to see if families are sleeping with nets and converse with them about the importance of sleeping under the nets. He also shared that he’s hoping to start a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS and also a support group for persons with disabilities. He also mentioned that he would like to do presentations on family planning at the schools now that schools are back in session.
I shared that I am starting a series of nutrition workshops and continuing to conduct malaria workshops. I also shared that I applied for a grant to conduct a one day HIV workshop and HIV testing for about 250 persons with disabilities. Once if I get the results of HIV testing which will tell who is HIV positive, I hope to start a support group for persons with disabilities living with HIV. I’m also organizing a women’s empowerment workshop for women with disabilities.
Our conversation led us to discuss about sustainability. We discussed whether or not building wells or water pumps or toilets for the community creates a sustainable impact or if providing education and training to the community members is far more invaluable than handing out an item to them.
Alex also informed her that homosexuality is prohibited in Cameroon and even discussing it is a very sensitive topic.
We shared some of our proposal stories. While Alex has not received proposals, he has had a few women come up to him asking him if he will propose to them.
We also shared a few maladies related stories, which she as expected did not enjoy hearing.
While Judy was able to get a good taste of Cameroon, I have come to realization that Cameroon has a lot of room for improvement in tourism infrastructure. She did not visit Alex’s post because the idea of taking a 15 hour train ride from Yaounde to Ngaoundere and then taking an eight to ten hour bus ride on an unpaved road while being squished with other people and on top of all, using a latrine in his home did not sound appealing to her. Cameroon has so many beautiful spots that are worth seeing but until the roads are fixed and Cameroon bring in good quality hotels and tourism services, not too many tourists will be visiting here.
Last week, I visited four more homes for malaria evaluation. I visited a home of a woman who became disabled from crashing into a plank which cut her leg severely. Chantel, a member of Northwest Association of Women with Disabilities, never had it fixed properly and so, she struggles to walk and is often in pain. While she had a mosquito yet, it was tied in a knot. When we see it tied in a knot, it often means that they do not untie the knot and bring the net down to sleep under. So, this can mean that they don’t really sleep under the net and therefore, they are not protected from mosquito bites. I asked if she unties the knot, she claimed “yes” but I will never know the truth.
If I had to name one participant from all the workshops who would most likely sleep under a mosquito net, I would say it’s the President of Helping Each Other, Richard, who allowed me to host the very first malaria workshop last April. At the workshop, he showed genuine interest in preventing malaria as he listened carefully and engaged in discussions and said that he sleeps under a mosquito net. When I came to his home, as expected, he did have a mosquito net hanging down which means that he does sleep under a mosquito net. His home was also clean.
After visiting Richard, I met Fanny, a woman with mobility disability who is a member of Northwest Association of Women with Disabilities. She lives in a very tiny studio where she does cooking and sleeping in one room. She is trying to find a job. She had a mosquito net that was hung up and the sides were tucked in at the top but it was not knotted. This means that she may sometimes sleep with the net down.
I then visited a home of a gentleman named Gregory who is a member of Community Resource Centre for the Disabled and the Disadvantaged. He became disabled from an illness and uses crutches to help him walk. He did not have a mosquito net but officials from a health center did visit his home recently and say that they will bring mosquito nets for him, his wife and children. I noticed that his windows did not have screens but he had shutters. I asked him if he closes the shutters at night and he said yes.
I hope to visit at least two more homes next week and then, I will revisit all homes in December to see if those who didn’t have mosquito nets have received them from health centers and made any new behavior changes.
“Don’t tell me the sky’s limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
– Paul Brandt
Shortly before I departed for Cameroon a year ago, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer said to me, “Let your Peace Corps service surprise you. Don’t set up any expectations.” I spent many hours reading blogs written by Peace Corps Volunteers, especially the ones written by those who were serving in Cameroon so that I could be well prepared for my service and know what to expect. I went to Peace Corps events in my hometown so that I could meet Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, ask them questions and learn more about their experiences. I asked many questions in the group on Facebook for those who were departing to Cameroon at the same time as I was. While one could spend so many hours trying to digest so many information to be well prepared for integrating into a culture that is so different from our own culture and living in a new environment, cultural shocks and unexpected events are still bound to happen.
When I applied to join the Peace Corps, I was aware that becoming ill, facing security risks and harassments, and killing unwanted pests, were all going to be part of my service, little did I know that I would land in the hospital for six nights due to typhoid fever and salmonella, become a victim of an assault, and be busy picking up turds in my home. Being medevaced to the United States was never in my planning book. I knew that I would face harassments due to being a foreigner and receive many proposals, but I underestimated how exhausted and worn out I would become from facing these moments repeatedly. When I was interviewed during my application process, I was asked “You will experience boredom and loneliness. How will you handle them?” My response was that I do not mind having downtime as it gives me time to enjoy reading, doing art and relax. However, little did I know that I would experience more down time than I could handle due to work progress moving slowly. The boredom killed me to the point where I experienced feeling depressed and having meltdowns. While I expected to experience teary moments, I believe I also underestimated the how low the down moments could go.
In spite of falling down the mountain a number of times, my service has also brought in so many great joys that has helped me keep on running the long marathon to reach the finish line. When I submitted my application for Peace Corps I knew that the service would provide me with invaluable experiences that would put me on my desired career path which is to be working abroad and solving issues. I have been building up invaluable knowledge in public health, international development, and disability advocacy. I built great partnerships with Cameroonians who are so motivated to see positive changes in their community. I completed the Community Needs Assessment which greatly helped me identify which issues to solve. I successfully organized and hosted four malaria workshops. I have been talking on the radio weekly with a recipient of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders on health and disability issues. I collaborated with two of my work partners to put on a photo exhibit displaying women with disability to educate the public about their lives and challenges.
In the next year, I will have many exciting projects to which I can look forward. One of my work partners received a grant from USAID and Mobility International USA. Thanks to this grant, we are in process of organizing and planning a three-day workshop that will happen in October for women with disability to teach them about legal rights, education and health. I’m in process of collaborating with a local organization to set up a support group for persons with disability living with HIV/AIDS as they’re often denied access to healthcare due to stigma and lack of financial means. I will organize workshops on nutrition and HIV/AIDS and hopefully do an HIV testing drive. I will also hopefully be able to collaborate with Alex to set up a disability support group in his area as most of them lack access to healthcare.
At last, I did not join the service expecting to spontaneously fall in love. Okay. Alright. Sure, I did join with a tiny hope that I would find the perfect match, but I’m still pinching myself! Alex and I both have been discovering many charms of the country together including Twin Crater Lakes, Ekom Waterfall, and Ranch De Ngaoundaba. While one could say that relationships can be distracting to our jobs, but having him in my life has been helping me continue to push myself through the challenges and do better at my job. Alex and I talk on the phone every night sharing our highs and lows, advice on how we can overcome the down moments and how we can do better on our ongoing projects, and of course, big ideas on how we can work with our communities. We look up to the couples who change the world together such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Paul and Didi Farmer, and Carrie Radelet-Hesler and Steve Radelet.
As we await to see what the next year will bring to me in Cameroon, in the meantime, watch this video above the post that I created and see all the treasures I have discovered in Cameroon in the past year.
Peace Corps has three goals that volunteers are require to complete. The first goal is to promote peace and friendship. The second goal is to teach the host country nationals about the American culture. The third goal is to teach the Americans about the host country. There is an ample amount of opportunities to complete Peace Corps’ second goal in Cameroon:
- Introduce American food by teaching them how to cook some recipes from the US. I brought a few recipes from the US with me and also a measuring cup because the US is one of the very few countries that does not use the metric system. I taught my host family during training how to make brownies, chocolate chip cookies and grilled cheese. I taught my work partners how to make pizza and also chocolate chip cookies. Believe or not, many Cameroonians have never heard of brownies or grilled cheese but they did enjoy them!
- Bring pictures of life in the US. I brought pictures of my life in the US. Many Cameroonians were able to see what I looked like growing up and get to know my family. They were also able to learn about holidays I celebrate as they saw images of me in Halloween costumes. They were also able to see the landscape of the US just by looking at the background of the images.
- Tell stories about life in the US. Just by simply sitting with Cameroonians anywhere, whether it’s in a living room or in a shop, and conversing with them, you can still teach them about the US. For example, I had interesting conversations with one of my work partners’ customers in her shop about how Americans practice their religion.
- Connect with them on Social Media. Cameroonians learn more about what is happening in my home country when I share news articles about the US on Facebook and converse with my family and friends from the US. They also learn more about Americans’ opinions about various current events when they read my posts and converse with me and my family and friends from the US.
- Watch movies with Cameroonians. There are many American movies that Cameroonians have not yet seen and would most likely enjoy. Many Peace Corps Volunteers often invite neighbor children to watch movies with them in their home in the evenings.
- Host US holiday parties. I hosted a 4th of July party in my home on 4th of July so that Cameroonians could learn more about the US’ Independence Day. I created a poster sharing facts about the US. I also introduced hamburgers, Americans’ favorite dish, to them.
- Inform them about scholarship opportunities in the US. Cameroonians are always looking for opportunities to get the best quality of education. Two of my work partners recently had the opportunities to go to the US for workshops on a scholarship. They both came back to Cameroon with a much greater understanding of the American culture. They are both utilizing the knowledge that they have acquired in the US to do their projects in Cameroon.
Today, Alfred, a member of Special Needs Entrepreneur Group (SNEG), graciously met me and Veronica, one of my work partners, at his work place in town center and accompanied us to his home which is located on the outskirts of Bamenda. When we arrived at his home, he first showed his father’s living quarter.
While Alfred has a mobility disability in his left leg caused by Quinnimax injection, his father also has a disability. His father was a police officer for 27 years. Then about five years ago, he fell and injured his right hip. He was not able to visit a health center to treat his hip. He was forced to retire from his job. He is always in pain and can’t move well, especially on the right side of his leg. He stays in his home all day everyday. When he was working, he lived in the town center, but when he injured his hip, he had to move into his son’s compound so that he could be looked after. In his living quarter, the floors were not finished, and so, it was just mud. While he does have a bed, he has no mosquito net. However, officials from a health center did stop by his home about three months ago and did note that he needed a mosquito net. They told him that they will be back with a mosquito net for him.
Alfred then showed me his living quarter which is right next to his father’s. His living quarter was very different. The floors were finished and his home was fully furnished. His and his wife’s bedroom had a mosquito net but the sides of the net were folded into the top of the net. It was not knotted at all. This is a sign that they may sometimes sleep with the net down. He then showed me his children’s bedroom and the net was completely down which meant that the children do regularly sleep with the net. Yes, all three of his children sleep on one big bed. This is actually very common in Cameroon – children traditionally sleep on one bed rather than having their own individual bed.
After visiting Alfred’s home, I visited a home of another member of SNEG, Che, who lived nearby. Veronica and I met him at a business place and then, he took me to his home on a bike. Che has arthritis which was diagnosed when he was 17 years old. He has no job, which is why he joined SNEG so that he could get help in finding a job. He lives in a very rural area where roads are not paved. While his home was generally clean and well maintained, he did not have a mosquito net. He told me that officials from a health center visited his home about three weeks ago and even showed me the official paper signed by the health center stating that he does need a mosquito net.
He told me that even when they do bring him a mosquito net, he doesn’t think he will sleep with it because he feels too hot under the mosquito net. I tried to encourage him to at least sleep under it during the rainy season because the weather is so much cooler. I told him that it’s still important regardless to sleep under the net everyday year round because it takes a collaborative work for us to end malaria. I explained that if every single person slept under the net, we could eradicate malaria because mosquitos get malaria just simply by biting people who are sick with malaria.