We haven’t made a secret of the fact that our Peace Corps service has not been what we anticipated; we prepared, unintentionally and unwittingly, for one experience and have had quite a different one. Still, we would join Peace Corps again. We would even come to Cameroon again.
If you’re considering it, don’t join Peace Corps for the work. It can be useful if you don’t have a lot of work experience, and (we’ve read) employers do recognize that they’re getting certain benefits, like the willingness to take risks, tackle challenges, and make due with limited/no resources or budget, when they hire RPCVs. But don’t come only, or even primarily for “the hardest job you’ll ever love” – because if you’ve had a few years in the work force doing something you find at all rewarding or engaging, this won’t be it. Working in Cameroon is hard, disheartening, discouraging, sometimes utterly defeating when you’re doing it right, and you have to be willing (able?) to squeeze every ounce of satisfaction out of the tiniest victories (Started only an hour late! Half the people expected showed up! Counterpart did what they said they would do!), or the very basic knowledge that at least you did everything you could when nothing works out. The benefits are much more of the Goals 2 and 3 variety. We have long been proponents of study abroad and international travel as an essential piece of any education. We are in a global world now, and it just keeps getting smaller – resources we take for granted are not going to last forever, and the habitable landscape is dwindling – that means we have to figure out how to tolerate each other on just a basic level, let alone the enormous benefits of increased innovation, new perspectives, appreciation of beauty and depth of understanding to be gained by even a small experience of another culture. If you missed out on study abroad in college, Peace Corps is much harder, dirtier and longer, but definitely a good path to pursuing your global education.
Our time in Cameroon has taught us a lot. Both anthropology majors in school, we’d been warned against ethnocentrism and cultural relativism for years, but it’s been an education of a different sort to try to understand a fundamentally and completely different mindset. Things we’ve taken for granted, like, “everyone wants their children to be better off than they were,” or “le’s all pitch in and work hard for a common goal,” just don’t at all translate. But we’ve learned to just say, “okay” to both the mind-boggling and the merely confusing. Sometimes understanding isn’t enough, and sometimes it isn’t possible, and things are still going to be exactly as they’re going to be in that moment. And that’s…okay. We’ve mentioned before the gained understanding of just how complex issues in the developing world (at least this corner of it) really are – it’s actually not a simple issue of lack of ideas, passionate individuals, cultural sensitivity, or resources. It’s a million and one little things, alongside enormous social and political challenges that are not going to be solved in two years, or twenty, or maybe more. And as we’ve said before, these things aren’t going to be answered from the outside in – the best and most sustainable answers, we believe, are going to come from the Cameroonian people when and how they are ready to do it.
On a personal level, we feel that we’ve grown, maybe matured a bit, certainly mellowed. Once you can accept, “okay,” and stop fighting what doesn’t make sense, not much is really going to ruffle you very easily. Cell phone companies, watch out! Because forty-five minutes on hold has got nothing on anything in Peace Corps. Beyond that, it’s been an incredible time to reflect on what matters, to gain some distance and perspective on issues from our “past lives,” and focus in on what we want in our future. Running water is a must; hot, if possible; electricity we could mostly do without as long as we can charge stuff now and again. Plus, we’ve made some amazing friends who will be part of our lives forever.
If you’re thinking about coming, think in terms of personal growth and international perspective, not work opportunities. Be prepared for periods of symptoms strongly resembling clinical depressing for at least a few months out of the twenty-seven – no, there’s nothing wrong with your thyroid, you’re just sleeping for eleven hours because your brain needs a break. (Seriously, though, if you think you may be sick or really do struggle to get through the day, call the medical office.) We think Cameroon is better suited as a post for people who are very extroverted and enjoy small talk over drinks with strangers. Comfort with heavy alcohol consumption around you is a must, and “taking” beers is pretty important to socializing in this culture. If you’re female, you will be sexually harassed, and it can get pretty intense pretty fast – fair warning. You might get more out of the work here if you haven’t had a lot of work experience yet and are looking to build your resume – otherwise, be very comfortable setting boundaries around not being “whiteman window dressing.” In fact, being very comfortable setting boundaries is important – here and in life. Pick that skill up. It’ll be easier here if you have a flexible definition of personal space (the music you play on your iPod… that’s all you get), possibly grew up on a farm/can tolerate roosters, and really can just go with the flow – by which we mean, you’re not someone who cares about having a plan, how long meetings run, waiting for vehicles to be pushed out of four feet of mud every five hundred yards, being asked for everything you own, or nobody calling you by your name after two years. If you don’t think that’s you, consider saying no to a posting in Cameroon. Chances are good your placement officer will be calling you again in a few weeks with another post to consider.
And that’s all for now! Next up, find out when we’re coming home!