October 23rd, 2016 by | Tags: | No Comments »

Dear Peace Corps and Cameroon,

Thank you for the most incredible two years filled with treasures and happiness in spite of experiencing teary and challenging moments. It’s a chapter in my life that will always be retold again and again for years to come.

Signed,

Rachel
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer – My service will still go on for years to come as I will continue to educate my fellow Americans about Cameroon and also Cameroonians about the USA.
Cameroon 2014 – 2016

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October 23rd, 2016 by | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Peace Corps was a living dream.  The regular activities of Cameroon are now a memory.  It’s so surreal that I lived a life riding a motorcycle through the chaotic streets of no traffic lights and through the lush green mountainous countryside.  I was surrounded by people walking with big buckets and baskets on top of their heads as if they were not worried that they would fall off and people walking with babies on their backs with pagnes wrapped around.  I shopped for clothes by picking out fabric and taking them to a tailor.  Wearing pagnes was a part of my life as that is what most people around me wore too.  I bought my food at outdoor markets.  I was called “White Man” many times and was proposed to too many times to count.  I fell in love with a fellow volunteer and took getaway trips with him in packed bush taxis.  I worked with persons with disabilities and together, we changed lives.  While at times during my service two years seemed so long and never ending, those two years of my life also went by in a flash.  I’m constantly pinching myself and asking, “Did the past two years happen in real life or in a dream?”

On Thursday afternoon, on my last day in Cameroon, right before the closing ceremony also known as “Gong Out,” I sat in the office of Peace Corps Deputy Director.  The Deputy Director and I sat on the sofa chairs.

“I’ve been asking myself this week, ‘Where did time go?'” I said to the Deputy Director.

She asked me, “So what do you think?  If you had only one minute to sum up your service, what would you say?”

“This would be like an elevator speech?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I was silent for a second trying to process my thoughts about the last two years.  Then I uttered, “Wow” out of my mouth.

“It was a living dream,” I added.  “I have learned as much as I have taught people.  I feel that I have checked unintentionally everything off of all experiences a Peace Corps Volunteer could experience.  I was assaulted and medevaced to the US.  I lost a work partner.  I was in the hospital for six nights for food poisoning.  I fell in love with a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer.  I completed big successful projects.  The U.S. Embassy saw my work and I met with the Deputy Chief of Mission and U.S. Ambassador.”

“When you’ve had the lowest of the lows, you’ve also had the highest of the highs,” she said.

“Yes.”

The conversation continued and we reflected on my two years of service.

Sitting in the office made me feel as if I was reflecting on a very long dream I had while sleeping the night before. It was also a moment when I felt as if I had just stepped outside of a wardrobe like in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I then praised Peace Corps Cameroon’s incredible support throughout my two years of service to the Deputy Director.  I told her that my service has been successful not only because of the great support I received from my community, but also because of the great support I received from Peace Corps Cameroon staff members.  I shared with her that two years ago, when I was in training, I remember very well when I sat in a small room with the Country Director at the training center.  I shared with the Country Director at the time that I was nervous about whether or not I would make it through the two years of service because I had been denied joining the Peace Corps few years before due to my disabilities, and I faced doubts from family and friends about my ability to serve as a person with disabilities.  The Country Director said to me, “You will do well.  You will see yourself through the two years of service.”  His comments boosted my confidence.  I further explained to the Deputy Director that, two years ago, my number one reason that I was nervous about joining the Peace Corps was being able to serve well as a person with disabilities.  When I was first starting my Peace Corps service, I felt a huge tremendous pressure to do well because so many parents of children with disabilities were following me closely and, if I failed, I could be shutting the doors to children with disabilities who may aspire to join the Peace Corps.  I wasn’t doing Peace Corps for only myself and my community.  I was also doing it for children with disabilities too so that I could open up more doors for them.

I did it.  And I feel very proud of completing the service.

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Me with four other volunteers closing our service at a closing ceremony.

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Me with other volunteers who are now Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and Peace Corps Cameroon staff members

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The moment the airplane took off and was no longer touching the ground of Cameroon, I totally lost control of my eyes and shed many tears while Alex continually wiped them off my eyes.  It was a moment that really hit me and made me realize that this two year chapter of life had really come to an end.

“We’ll be starting a new chapter and going on many new adventures together,” said Alex.

“Yes, we will,” I said.  We then reflected on our two incredible years together in Cameroon and then discussed our plans for the next year, which include traveling to Israel and nearby countries and taking road trips throughout the US and Canada.

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October 23rd, 2016 by | Tags: | No Comments »

On the day I closed my service, this past Thursday, I received an award at the U.S. Embassy from U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza for my work with persons with disabilities during my Peace Corps service. The Peace Corps Cameroon Deputy Director told me that for a PCV to receive an award from a U.S. Ambassador has been unheard of during her career.

Thank you to all of my outstanding work partners in Bamenda who were great team players and made our work successful. Thank you also to Peace Corps Cameroon staff members for their incredible support during my service.

The group picture is of me and the U.S. Ambassador with my Community Health Education program manager, Peace Corps Cameroon Director of Operations, Peace Corps Cameroon Deputy Director and Community Health Education Assistant Program Manager.

Me shaking U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza's hand. Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Yaounde

Me shaking U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza’s hand. Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Yaounde

Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Yaounde

Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Yaounde

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October 23rd, 2016 by | Tags: | No Comments »

“Wandering into the heart of the mountains, we find a new world,” – John Muir

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Two years ago, I was on a bus heading into the heart of the mountains of Cameroon.  Even though I had already been living in Cameroon for two and half months prior to moving to my permanent post for two years, little did I know that I would be entering a new world.  I still remember as if it was yesterday when I first arrived in Bamenda on the bus.  As I was coming down the mountains with other volunteers, it was dark, but I could see so many lights lit up.  It looked like a traditional big city.  Because I saw so many lights lit up, I thought I would be living in a modern world that would not be too different from where I came from in America.  However, on the very following day, I unexpectedly faced major cultural shocks.

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View of Bamenda from Upstation

Bamenda was truly a new world.  It was a place that was so different from what I imagined in my mind and from the places I had lived all my life in America.  During the first week, I cried.  I cried on my first day in the office of my host organization in front of my counterpart.  I cried in front of my counterpart again when she came to my home a week after I arrived to check on me.  I felt so lost.  But I quickly accepted that Bamenda would be my home and I would learn to love it.

Bamenda did become my home.  I made new friends.  I found my favorite spots.  I picked up lingo that had Cameroonians calling me “Bamenda girl.”

In spite of my coming from a very different world, I was still able to find commonality with Ruth, Samuel, Hilda and Veronica that allowed us to form great friendships.  We all shared the common bond of growing up with barriers because we live with disabilities.  We exchanged stories about our experiences of being bullied by other children, being rejected because of our disability, and advocating to improve the lives of person with disabilities.  Because we all shared similar life experiences in spite of growing up in different cultures, we were able to come together to become driving forces in working together as team players to change the lives of persons with disabilities in our communities.

Ruth was so determined to ensure that I would stay throughout my two years in Bamenda that she held my hand from day one.  Because she had already been to the US once prior to my coming to Bamenda, she was already familiar with my own culture.  Therefore, she showed me local spots where I would visit regularly and I would be reminded of home during the course of two years.  She showed me PresCafe, a restaurant owned by a foreigner from Switzerland that had tuna melts, salads, carrot soups, and pizza, and Handicraft, a restaurant overlooking the view of Bamenda that served excellent chicken and fries.  She also showed me Imagine Bakery, a bakery that sold a wide variety of bread and baked goods.  Ruth also introduced me to tailors where I could have beautiful Cameroonian clothing handmade.  She showed me where I could buy kitchen supplies and furniture.  Bamenda had no street signs.  I couldn’t find a map of Bamenda.  Ruth taught me the street names and how to reach each destination.

My landlord, Elvis, and I formed a friendship through his great interest in U.S. politics.  When he would hear me entering or exiting the house, he would come outside and sit and talk with me about what he was hearing on television about the U.S. election and ask me questions about the electoral process and each candidate.

While Hilda and I formed a friendship through our passion for advocating for disability rights, we also shared each others’ cuisine.  I taught her and her family and friends how to make Americans’ beloved dishes, pizza, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.  She taught me how to make groundnut soup.

Throughout the two years, I continued to forge many more new friendships.  Antonia, who is a mom of a child with Down Syndrome, generously invited me to her home a couple of times to teach me how to make my two favorite Cameroonian dishes, Koke and Deijei.  She was at Hilda Bih’s home to learn how to make pizza and brownies.

While we taught each other how to make dishes, we discussed other cultural and lifestyle differences.  We talked about why the infrastructure in Cameroon is poor compared to the US, how Cameroonians feel about colonialism, and how Cameroonians and Americans socialize differently.

While I came to disability group meetings to primarily give workshops, I also sat with members to discuss cultural differences.  Dr. Alfred and Richard, who both ran the Helping Each Other group in Bamenda, and I discussed the differences of university education in the US verses in Cameroon and in the electoral processes.

By building rapports with new friends, we open our eyes to new worlds.  This is the beauty of the Peace Corps.  When we live in a new world, we become better educated about the unfamiliarity through communicating with strangers who would then become our friends.  This creates peace.  We create peace when we are willing to travel outside of our comfort zones and form bonds with strangers in strange places.

When I arrived in Bamenda two years ago, I knew so few people.  Three days ago, I left Bamenda with many friends with whom I’ll remain in touch for years to come.

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Me with all of my work partners at the Send Off party for me.

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October 18th, 2016 by | Tags: | No Comments »

Take a tour of my home in Bamenda where I lived for two years for Peace Corps.

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