Friday, November 23, 2012

Mi yida a hortan

Over two years ago, I spent my first night with my host family in a little village named Nyamsong. I arrived at their house in the evening on a day when the electricity was out. There were about 30 people waiting to accompany me into my new home for the next six weeks. They sat me down on the one little couch in the sitting room and placed the one lantern they had to light up the room next to me. They spoke mainly spoke Bafia, the local tribal language, and I spoke a bit of broken French. One hour went by of babies being handed to me, people taking photos of me and silence—lots of silence. Then they brought out a plate of food and the 30 people watched me eat. I was searching for things to talk about but I had already used up all of the French I had, “Is this your sister? What is her name? How old is she?”

When I felt like I had sat long enough that if wouldn’t be rude to excuse myself to my room, I did just that. I tried to go to sleep, but Cameroon’s super mice happened to live in my room—four of them actually. I call them super mice because they can scale walls… I’m not joking. So these little mice scaled the walls and sat perched upon the corners of my mosquito net. I knew that at any moment they could jump and slide down the mosquito net, and their little bodies would weigh down the middle of the net just enough for them to land on my face. I tried sleeping on the little couch in the living room but realized that my new host family would think I was absolutely crazy if they found me out there. So, I returned to my room and starting throwing balls of socks at the super mice. I’m not sure what I thought the end result of that would be, but it was all my fear-of-small-crawling-things self could think of in the wee hours of the morning. I remember thinking to myself, “can I really do this?”

Over 26 months later, I not only did it but I loved it. A friend of mine who just finished Peace Corps in Antigua told me once about a returned Peace Corps Volunteer she had crossed paths with in Indonesia. It was her conversation with him that made her apply, and the story she retold me helped influence my decision to apply as well. He said that when you reach the end of your service, the group of volunteers who are left are so pure. I think the truth is, when we reach the end of our service, we have become the purest version of ourselves. It is hard for me to even comprehend how much this experience has changed me, made me grow, challenged me and purified me. 

I have started saying my goodbyes and they are as hard as I had anticipated. In a Cameroonian goodbye, you wipe the slate clean and you leave a smile. You ask forgiveness for anything wrong you may have said, anything wrong you may have done, and you ask the other to remember you by the good times you shared together. You ask them to think of you from time to time and to never forget that from now on, you are family. In my final days in Nyambaka, every time I saw my neighbors, close friends, co-workers or village family, I heard, “mi yida a hortan,” which means, “I don’t want you to go”. At the beginning of my Peace Corps journey, I strived to integrate in a way that would actually make me part of this community. I feel now that I am—yes, I am still different, but Nyambaka has been, and always will be, a place I can call home.

I know it’s time for me to move onto the next chapter and leave this place for the next volunteer. I am walking away from Nyambaka proud of what I did, grateful for what I learned and touched by the community who took me in.  The Peace Corps motto is, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” It is just that.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dedicated To All Those Who Supported My Village's Library Project

Last week, I met with my counterpart for our village's library project. We went up to the high school to see how the work was going and was happy to see it advancing. I am not going to lie, its hasn't been as quick or efficient of a process as one might think it should be able to be, but this is Africa after all. Some steps have taken longer and some we have redone to make sure the building is as perfect as possible. But the walls are up, they're lined with cement, the roof is on, and hopefully the door and windows will be attached this week. From its origins of a pile of mud, literally, its starting to actually resemble something!

When we were about to leave the school campus, my counterpart and I had one of those conversations that Peace Corps Volunteers hope they'll get to have at least once during their service. A conversation that makes us feel that yes, we really did do something here and yes, our time was worthwhile. There are times we doubt this or lose sight of it. This is just the nature of development work, many projects will fail and the ones that don't, their impact and benefits aren't often seen until years to come. So, this was my conversation:

Counterpart: You know, people in the community see this and say that the white lady really helped.
Me: Its is their project more than mine. They contributed so much to it as well.
Counterpart: Yes, but they really weren't confident that it was going to work. Now they actually see a building and they're confident. A few years ago, the community raised around $3000 to build that school building over there. But then the money disappeared and, as you see, the building has crumbled out of neglect. They were reluctant to donate to the library project because they thought the same thing would happen. But now they see that it is working and they have confidence again that we can do this. It means that in the future, we can do this by ourselves.

I had never realized that building this library would be building so much more than that. We as volunteers always hope that our communities will take ownership over the projects we puruse together, and we hope that they will learn how to work within their resources to develop their communities on their own. My community raised money for a project that they, rightfully so, weren't completely confident about. But they still donated and gave the little they had at the possibility it would work. Now that it is working, they have regained their confidence in their abilities to build their community on their own.

I'm happy that as I am nearing the end of my service, I can look back already and say, "yes, I really did something here and yes, my time was worth it." I have all of my generous family and friends back home to thank for helping me accomplish this, because neither I nor my community could have done it on our own.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Suumaye – The Fast

It is the Suumaye - the time where we fast from the break of dawn to the setting of the sun for 29-30 days, depending on the moon’s wishes. The village alarm clock – a group of men banging drums – weaves through the village, waking us up at 3:30 AM to make something to eat. The first call from the Mosque reminds us to eat, drink, and brush our teeth before the second call, at 4:45 AM, tells us to stop and get ready to pray.

It is Ramadan. We do not eat, drink, hug or kiss (not that many Northern Cameroonian couples do this anyway). We give more, expect less and show gratitude for what we have. We let the sun chap our lips if it wishes and avoid medication no matter how much we need it. We keep our regular work schedule, but as the month goes on, we might start favoring a small, afternoon nap.

As the sunset approaches, we gather at the market to buy beignets, porridge, fruit, cucumbers or other small treats to break our fasts. The prayers get longer and although the days feel longer too, no one shows if their struggling. They go to their farms and work under either sun or rain and return to say that the fast is easy.

The last 10 days, the men “move into” the mosques, and the village adds 2:00AM prayers to the five obligatory ones they already do. For it is at 2:00AM that God is closest. At the end of the month, we feast for three days, gaining back any weight that may have been lost (and then some). We may kill a sheep or a goat, get knew clothes made and make lots of cake to share. Children wander from house to house in their nice, new clothes collecting candies as American kids do on Halloween. Adults send gifts to those less fortunate, visit friends and family to wish them a happy celebration and to sample the all-so-similar cakes.

Life does not slow down as much you might think – my village is fasting and building a library at the same time.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why a Library - Part 2

First of all, I would like to thank everyone for their kind and generous support for this project. It truly amazes me how quickly word of this project has passed. The world can be a small one sometimes! Since we have reached half of our fund-raising goal, I thought I could add another post as to why I am pursuing this project. The reasons I chose this project are many, and although the main ones are included in the first post, there are many other reasons and events that have led me to pursuing this project.

So... Why a Library - Part 2.

Last summer I received a generous donation of English books from Darington Book Aid. They shipped us one, 20-lb box of new books for free as a donation to our library project. But because the books are in English, it isn't everyone who can read them. Some of my coworkers at the health center have read through all the chapter books since they studied enough English in prior years to understand the material. Some older kids from the village who are going to high school in the city (and therefore have more advanced English levels due to better education) would rotate through the different books and trade them among themselves. The donated books included a wide range from simple reads like the Giving Tree, classics like the Lion King to advanced books about how to build castles.

Because the idea of books are new to many members of my community, the knowledge of how to take care of them is also new. I found this out quickly after first giving a group of kids a stack of books to go through. Atleast I realized this before a book went missing, lost a cover or a few pages, or ended up with some kids name in it. I took the books back and started from the basics: how do we handle a book, how do we turn the pages, how do we mark our spot, why we can't write in them, why we should make sure our hands are clean first, etc. I'm not sure at what point in my early childhood life I learned these skills, but I've realized that they are skills that are infact learned.

Since that first day of book sharing, I have learned my lesson on teaching kids how to care for books before handing them over. Its a routine now really and is something we've planned to spend a lot of time on when we first open our library. I have found that book care has been a new concept for all of the kids in my village who have borrowed books to read. All except one.

One day when I was walking back to my house, I passed the water pump. My best friend from village was nearby washing her clothes. I stopped to greet her and she saw a book poking out of my purse and was immediately intrigued. We sat down and opened the book. She started reading the first story about Cinderella - the book was a collection of Disney Princess Stories - and I helped her with the pronuciation. This friend was someone I had spent quite a bit of time working on book care with after getting back a dictionary that was split in two and catching her ready with marker-in-hand to write her name across another.

While we were reading, one of my 9th grade students approached us. He is about the same age as me, lives on his own, and is one of my more difficult students to manage. He most often misses class and when he's there, he's either sleeping or chatting in the back of the class. He's known for his wannabe rapper attitude and moves, and even though he is quite the impressive dancer, he is also quite the handful.

The fact that he approached us even surprised me at first. I mean really, we were looking at a book on princesses! As soon as he walked up though, he washed off his hands with some of the water he had just pumped, dried them on a clean area of his clothes and quietly sat down next to my friend. At first he just stared at the pages, mouthing through the words as she read them outloud. When she finished the page, he so delicately turned it for her. He then began to trace over the pictures and the words as if they were gold.

I've never seen someone so gently handle a book before. Its not like he's had much experience with books - I don't think he owns any of the required school textbooks. He was, ironically, the first student I felt completely comfortable and confident handing a book over to. But what amazed me most is the change this pretty pink book brought about on such a hard-shelled guy. Is that all I had needed to capture his attention and desire to learn? A book?

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If you are interested in supporting this project, or know someone who might be, please visit the project proposal on the Peace Corps website

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why a Library?

One day when I was teaching last year, my students were learning school-related vocabulary. I had pictures of the words and the words in English, and together we tried to match them. This one’s a student, this is a school building, here is a teacher, etc, etc. My students were pretty participative. There were about 100 of them, so usually someone was able to blurt out the correct response. The next picture I pointed to I believed to be quite obvious. No one responded. I explained, in French even, that it’s a place where we can read and take books. Still no response. I translated the vocabulary word into French, unebibliotheque, but still nothing. It took me a minute to register that it wasn’t the word, it was the concept. These students had no concept of a library. They had never seen one and they had never heard of one. Their only response was a question: what is a library, Madame Katie?

So what is a library? It is more than a place that has books. Being privileged as I am, I have grown-up surrounded by libraries my whole life. I remember when my parents took me to the Olympia Public Library to enroll in the summer reading club and I tried to collect as many stars as I could (by reading the books with mainly pictures). I remember in middle school and my teacher gave us an assignment to find an autobiography and I chose the one on Walt Disney.I remember using my university library to do research for a mid-term paper or getting lost (literally) in the section of public health journals. And most recently, I remember using the Peace Corps library here in Cameroon to find resources to improve prenatal consultations at the hospital. Regardless of where I have been, regardless of what information I needed, I have always had access to a library. I had free access to learn, research, and stroll through the titles that make my to-read list more of a dream list.

The point of this post is this. Since that day back in my 6th grade classroom, I realized that a library could be a benefit to the children and community of Nyambaka. Literacy levels are quite low and because my village is predominately Fulfulde-speaking, any extra exposure to the French language can really make the difference on whether children will or will not succeed in school. Take for example my 6th grade class of this year. Do you remember what your reading level was like in 6th grade? You probably could easily enjoy a Baby Sitter’s Club or Goosebumps book without much difficulty, right? Well nearly 20 of my 100 students this year can’t even read. They can write. They can copy the letters they see on the board into their notebooks. But they cannot read. One day I wrote a dialog up on the board between two people, Nono and Belinda, and asked my students to read the dialog in pairs. I walked over to two girls – two of the 15 girls in the class – and asked them who was Nono and who was Belinda. They looked down at their notebooks and said they were just going to sit there quietly, they can’t read.

I realize that in a community like mine, just building a library isn’t the solution to our literacy issues. But it’s a start. I am lucky to have a motivated community that has already donated $1700 to the project – which is a lot of money here. I have a motivated group of teachers, students and community members who have started a library committee to assure the sustainability of our project and will work to promote literacy activities in the community (including a reading club!). We have received over 500 donated books and the school is going to donate around 150 as well. It’s a small start but it’s a start nonetheless. So the real reason for this post is that even though my community is motivated and invested in this project, it is a project that is too big for them to finance completely by themselves.

I have submitted a proposal to the Peace Corps Partnership Program that posts approved volunteer projects on the Peace Corps website that people back home can donate to and support. If you are interested in donating to help make our library project a library, or know someone that may be interested, please visit the link to my project below. One can donate directly on the website or mail a check. Because they recommend FedEx-ing checks, another option is to mail the check to my parents address as they have offered to collect checks and FedEx them all together. Please email/message me for their address if you would prefer this option:

Thank you in advance, merci beaucoup, mi yeti mon jur!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

This was supposed to be a Valentine's Day post...

12 reasons to date a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer:

This list was published by the National Peace Corps Association... and is so true, at least us Peace Corps Volunteers like to think so. Enjoy a little belated Valentine's Day laughter and I PROMISE to post my intended March update by the end of April. I'm on African time now, which includes my blog posts :).

1.We can woo you in multiple languages. Who else is going to whisper sweet nothings to you in everything from Albanian to Hausa to Quechua to Xhosa? That’s right. Only a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.

2.We’re pretty good dancers. Yeah, we don’t like to brag, but after 27 months in Latin America or Africa we know how to move it.

3.We’ll eat anything. Seriously. No matter how bad your cooking, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have had worse and will eat it with nary a blink. Sheep’s eyeball? Water buffalo gall bladder? Grasshoppers? Bush rat? Bring it.

4.We know all about safe sex, thanks to our very thorough Peace Corps health training. In fact, there’s a chance that we’ve stood unblushingly in front of hundreds of villagers and demonstrated good condom technique with a large wooden phallus.

5.We’ll kill spiders for you. Well, actually, we’ll nonchalantly scoop them up and put them out of sight. Same goes for mice, geckos, frogs, snakes. Critters don’t faze Returned Volunteers.

6.We have great date ideas: wandering a street market, checking out a foreign film, taking in a world music concert, volunteering…. Romantic getaway? Our passport is updated and our suitcase is packed. With us, life is always an adventure.

7.We like you for “you”… not your paycheck. Especially if we are freshly back from service, a local joint with “character” will win out over a pretentious eatery. Living in a group house? No problem. Does it have running hot water? What luxury!

8.You won’t get lost when you’re with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Navigating local markets on four continents, we’ve honed an uncanny sense of direction. Or else we’ll ask for directions. We’re not afraid to talk to “strangers.”

9.Waiting for a late train or bus with us? Don’t worry. Been there, done that. We can share lots of funny stories about “the bus ride from hell” that will make the time go quickly and put it all into perspective.

10.Our low-maintenance fashion style. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer guys are secure in their manhood and don’t mind rocking a sarong. Women often prefer flip flops to high heels. We don’t spend hours in front of a mirror getting ready to go out.

11.Marry us, and you won’t just get one family — you’ll get two! When we refer to our “brother” or “mom,” you’ll want to be certain we’re talking about our American one or our Peace Corps one. You might even get two wedding ceremonies, one in the U.S. and one back in our Peace Corps country.

12.And last but not least, we aren’t afraid to get dirty.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Home for the Holidays

I’m rocking in a rocking chair while sipping on a Berry Fulfilling smoothie while people watching at the Charlotte Airport. I’m on my way back to Cameroon after spending 2.5 weeks in the Northwest with friends and family for Christmas. The trip went well overall with only a few road-bumps that happened to fall on the trying to get here and trying to get home ends.

To arrive home for the holidays I traveled 51 hours. This may sound like a lot until I tell you how long it will take me to get back. The trip went something like this:

1) Saturday – 2.5 hour drove to Ngaoundere (my regional capital city where one takes the train to Yaounde)
2) Saturday afternoon – received news that the train hadn’t been running for a few days due to derailment and the only option to get to Yaoundé (the city one flies out of) is to take a bus
3) Sunday at 6AM – arrived at bus station. 7:30 AM the bus departed and drove past my village that I left the day before. We arrive at a city named Bertoua at 8 PM and stayed the night because it was too late to continue traveling. This bus ride was so dusty I looked like an Umpa Lumpa from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory afterwards! (P.S. I had a spaghetti omelet sandwich for dinner)
4) Arrived at bus station in Bertoua at 7:30 AM. Bus left around 9 AM for Yaoundé and arrived in Yaoundé at 2:30 PM on Monday.

During the bus ride I found out I had forgotten a few crucial steps to leaving the country for vacation: 1) To request for one’s entry/exit visas to be renewed and 2) To actually get signed approval for the vacation. (Ooops!). My flight was set to leave Tuesday night and it wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that I found out I was actually going to be getting on a plane (thanks to some stellar PC Staff who helped me out last minute).

The first flight went smooth. The second had a delayed arrival due heavy winds but I nonetheless made it. Somehow.

I was expecting a painless return yet here I am in a rocking chair at the Charlotte Airport when I was supposed to be traveling through Philadelphia. My first flight out of Seattle was cancelled yesterday due to a malfunctioning part on the airplane. We were on the runway ready to take-off when the pilot turned us around.

The method of re-booking was predominately phone-based which isn’t too easy for the one traveler that no longer has an American cell phone (and where did all the payphones go??). Anyway, some nice lady gave me her phone to use and after 45 minutes of trying to sort out my three tricky flights, I heard a page for what I thought was “Kathleen Meehan” over the income. I was so excited – thinking they must have re-booked me and were calling me to a gate on the other side of the airport so I could board the awaiting plane. I quickly ended the call, handed the nice lady back her phone, grabbed my bags and started running. I got to the gate and told them my name and the lady smiled. She reached down and held up a passport with a picture of a 50 year old-ish woman. “Lose something?” she asked. “That’s not me.” I replied. “Oh. Sorry, I said Kathleen DEEGAN,” she responded.

I was so overwhelmed; I had no idea what to do. I walked slowly back to the gate and stood as the last person in line to get their tickets re-booked. It took the airline representative and I another hour just to figure out how to get me back to Cameroon before the end of the month. But we eventually found a way and here I am, rocking away in Charlotte.

My trip home has made me reflect quite a lot on how my last 15 months in Africa has changed me. If there is anything that Peace Corps has taught me, it is patience. Yes, I am anxious to see my friends back in Cameroon and wish I were there instead of taking red-eyes and sitting in airport rockers. However, I am content in the moment as well. And, more than anything, I am grateful. I believe both that everything happens for a reason and that everything will work out in the end. I would take an extra 27 hours of rocking in airports and people watching than taking-off in a malfunctioning plane any day. Plus, you got a blog post out of me because I have that much time on my hands .

Hope ya’ll have a great start to the New Year!