Don’t Judge by the Book Cover

January 28th, 2016 by | Tags: , | No Comments »

When I was on the plane heading to Cameroon from Brussels for the very first time last September 2014, I was sitting next to a very quiet woman who was also a soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteer.  I was exhausted and so, I selfishly didn’t take a moment to converse with her to get to know her better.  I left the seat probably after an hour the flight took off and moved to a row that had several empty seats so that I could stretch out and sleep.

Throughout the training, I continued not to get to know the woman too well.  I will admit that I was probably a little clique-ish as I spent most of my training only with a few select volunteers.  This woman exhibited tremendous struggles in adapting to the life in Cameroon while I was immersing so easily.  I recall during the first week when I was sitting next to her in training and she said, “I’m not feeling good. My stomach hurts.”  She often expressed complaints about living in Cameroon.  At one point in training she said, “Life is so much worse here than I thought.”  She was often quiet throughout training especially during discussions.  She showed struggles in understanding French.  There were rumors that she said that she was considering going back to the US.  I should note that I witnessed a lovely handsome man taking the time to console her and persuading her to stay in Cameroon.  I remember clearly thinking and even saying to some volunteers that she would probably most likely be the first to early terminate.  I really didn’t think she would be able to go through the entire service.  I judged her harshly.

Then, after we swore in and moved to our posts, I remained in contact with her by simply being Facebook friends.  I followed her Facebook status updates via my Facebook newsfeed and looked at photos of her life at post.  Photos showed her smiling and looking as if she was well integrated into her post.  There were also images of teenage boys in her home and vaccine campaigns.

Then at In-Service Training, where all of us, volunteers who trained together, reconnected, I took the opportunity to get to know her more.  I told her that I have been really impressed with how far she has come and the work she is doing.  At that time, I learned from the same lovely handsome man who happens to be Alex that he one day found her upset during the first week in Cameroon.  She admitted to him at that time that it was her very first time outside of the United States.  I was speechless.  I had always thought having experiences traveling abroad was a requirement to join the Peace Corps although I did learn a few weeks before then that was not the case as another volunteer with whom I’ve become very close friends also have never left the US until joining the Peace Corps.  She taught me that having experiences in traveling abroad is truly not a requirement to serve in the Peace Corps and it’s not even a requirement to succeed in the service.  She taught me that I need to give people chances when I think that they may not make through the service because everyone adapts differently to a new environment.  While some people may integrate successfully right away, some can be slow in adapting, and there should be nothing wrong with that because they can eventually become one of the very best volunteers.

This volunteer, Jasmine, is posted in a village in Adamawa, and has been doing the most beautiful work.  She is one of the very best volunteers I know.  She regularly invites young teenage boys to her home.  While feeding them, she converses with them about life in Cameroon.  She educates them to be the best male partners and empowered to advocate with girls to improve gender equality.  She teaches family planning, HIV prevention, malaria prevention and nutrition at the schools in her village.  She is working with a disability organization in the nearby capital to educate persons with disabilities on various health topics.

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I eventually learned that she grew up in poverty.  She also taught me that traveling abroad is not the only way to present experiences in adapting to different environments and being resilient.  If I were screening applicants and deciding who to accept for Peace Corps, I now know that there are different kinds of experiences that would allow applicants to successfully integrate into the communities in a strange land away from home.

When I look back on Pre-Service Training, I wish I had lend a hand to her and been more supportive in helping her integrate in Cameroon and never judged her for being slow to integrating in Cameroon.  In the meantime, we have become very close friends and we provide each other support on regular basis through texting on our phones and conversing on Facebook.

To soon-to-be volunteers who are about to start their service and are reading this blog, when you see a trainee in your group struggling, take the time to reach out to the person and help the person push forward and thrive instead of being judgemental.  Every person deserves an equal chance to succeed.

Jasmine in her village during the first three months after swearing in

Jasmine in her village during the first three months after swearing in. Photo courtesy of Jasmine.

Jasmine conversing with young teenage boys

Jasmine conversing with young teenage boys. Photo courtesy of Jasmine.

Teenage boys visit Jasmine regularly to learn more about empowering women

Teenage boys visit Jasmine regularly to learn more about empowering women. Photo courtesy of Jasmine.

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