I spent the last three weeks back in Francophone Cameroon. The language center of my brain is exhausted. As we left for our posts back in November, we all knew that we would be seeing each other again in less than three months. I spent a few days in Fundong, NW, at Alina’s post before heading to in-service training (IST). IST was also known as “PST Reconnect”, but we resisted such a ridiculous name. Monday, February 18th, Alina and I took the VIP bus (that means your own seat and air conditioning, rarities in Cameroon) from Bamenda to Yaoundé. That afternoon, we arrived in Mbalmayo, a city about one hour south of Yaoundé in the Centre Region. We stayed at a centre d’accueil because it could accommodate such a large number of people. Without mosquito nets or screens, we were eaten alive by mosquitoes every night. We also often went without running water. Still, it was great to see everyone again, and hang out like we used to during PST. The location of the center as well as the city itself was convenient. Some of us went to Yaoundé the second day to meet with Peace Corps medical staff. No worries, I am healthy! We stayed for two nights, bonding and eating amazing food (e.g., PIZZA). It was great getting to know better some volunteers who lived in Bafia during PST. As I’ve said in previous posts, only the health trainees lived in Bokito during PST, so there were many environment and youth development volunteers I never had the opportunity to know during PST.
The first week of IST was spent in sessions (I missed a few sessions because of my trip to Yaoundé) with our counterparts and supervisors. My counterpart could not make the training, so my supervisor, the chief of my health center, came instead. Our days were spent learning about positive deviance, project design, behavior change communication, and monitoring & evaluation. It was helpful to have both volunteers and counterparts/supervisors present so that we could share ideas as well as problems we may have encountered at our posts. In the evenings, we would go into Mbalmayo, eat dinner, and talk, mainly about our posts, but also about things we remember from PST. It was like a high school reunion, I suppose. The Francophones helped the Anglophones (e.g., me) communicate, but I’d like to think that I did a decent job recalling my French. I definitely acquired a Northwest accent in the past few months that I could not hide while speaking French. On Sunday, February 24th, our counterparts and supervisors left Mbalmayo and we were driven to Yaoundé for a tour of the city, led by some other volunteers. I appreciated the opportunity to get to know the city better, as it is the country’s capital and I will be going there from time to time.
The second week of IST was definitely less stressful in terms of sessions. Our first week was somewhat redundant, as much of the material we have had before, but were now meant to benefit our counterparts/supervisors. Our sessions were also led in both French and English, which doubled the length of the sessions. Highlights of the second week include “Best Practices” and “Open Spaces.” “Best Practices” for the health program was a seminar led by three volunteers, who talked about some projects they have done that were successful. One volunteer spoke of an HIV support group she formed in the Southwest, where HIV rates are high; another talked about a malnutrition and family planning program in the Far North region. The third volunteer from the North shared with us a training that she did with community health workers, focusing on HIV awareness. “Open Spaces” gave us more flexibility, as we could choose classes to attend based on the topics that interested us. These were all offered by other volunteers. I learned about a camp for girls, community health insurance, community fundraising, making lesson plans, and water and hygiene projects. I also went to a session entitled “where does joy come from?”
Friday, March 1st, we left Mbalmayo in the morning for Yaoundé. I had plans to visit my host family in Bokito, but things did not go as anticipated. There was much traffic in Yaoundé and two of my friends and I ended up traveling around the city for three hours before giving up. The journey to Bokito is three hours, and we did not want to travel back in the dark. Hopefully I will be able to visit my host family another time.
Saturday, waves of volunteers left Yaoundé for the Cameroonian paradise that is Kribi. When we arrived in the coastal city almost four hours after leaving Yaoundé, the Cameroonians on our bus all gave us weird looks at our reaction to seeing the ocean for the first time in months. Kribi was like a dream. We spent the rest of Saturday afternoon and evening at the beach. The next day, I stayed at the beach and pool with a small group of seven PCVs, seeing the others at night for a campfire a few miles down the beach. Monday, we decided to trek to Lobe Falls, one of the few waterfalls in the world that empty directly into the ocean. Some of us swam across to a small peninsula, getting carried further and further away from the falls. We made it there and back, and then rewarded ourselves with shrimp at a small place on the beach. We had so much good food in Kribi. When I arrived back in my village a few days later, one of the nurses told me, “You’re fat again!” Fortunately, that’s a compliment here in Cameroon.
All in all, I would say that my three weeks away from post gave me a lot to think about. While at IST, we learned of problems taking place in the Far North region that will affect some of the PCVs in that area. Some of them will be forced to move to other villages. I know this comes with the territory of living and working in a developing country. Going back to post was difficult as well, as I do not know when I will be seeing my friends again and there is a lot of pressure to start working. In the next few months, I am looking to get some projects started in my village, and when I have time, I will visit other volunteers in my area. I appreciate the volunteers who live in the Northwest and nearby regions and I am glad to have a network of support. Many of us are in a bit of a funk right now, so we’re trying to help each other to not get discouraged. Life in Peace Corps is definitely not all sunshine and rainbows, and one of the hardest parts about being a volunteer is acknowledging that you can and need to share your burdens with other volunteers. Many of us are encountering the same situations and experiencing the same feelings. One thing that Cameroonians and PCVs both like to say is “we are together” or “nous sommes ensemble.” It means, “We understand each other.”