Recently, I became a member of the steering committee for the community health program in Peace Corps Cameroon, and I thought maybe some of you kids (especially those interested in joining the PC) might like to read about it. I applied for the steering committee without really understanding what it did. I had to email my program manager (1) why I wanted to join the committee and (2) what ideas I have. I figured the committee “steered” the health program in the right direction, but I could have been wrong? Turned out I was right. I was chosen as part of a group of eight volunteers, four veteran and four new. I am the only PCV on the committee from one of the two Anglophone regions in Cameroon. We met in Yaoundé over two days this month to discuss how to improve the health program. That’s another thing – if you want a free trip to the capital where you’ll get to see your friends a few times a year, join a committee. It’s definitely one of the reasons I applied for the steering committee, although not a reason I included in my application. On the agenda were ways to improve pre-service training (PST), in-service training (IST), community needs assessments, communications between volunteers and their counterparts as well as the administration, placement of volunteers, and volunteer satisfaction and support, among other things. All topics were covered on one level or another and I am overall satisfied with what we accomplished over the two days. I hate to say it, but it’s one of the few meetings/sessions I’ve had in the past seven months that I found actually useful. Our next meeting is at the end of August, when we’ll (hopefully) transform the way PST is carried out.
Peace Corps Cameroon and its community health program have many problems; they are nowhere close to perfect. I struggled a lot during PST, with homesickness and with training itself. I later struggled with a lot of uncertainty during my first three months at post. I’m glad I now have the opportunity to have a voice in Peace Corps Cameroon. When you are frustrated at post, with work, people, and/or isolation, it’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off of another person. It’s also great to now be in the know. My friend Kathleen is also on the steering committee, so I was glad to be able to see her and I look forward to us both being in the know. Kathleen is one of the volunteers whose post was closed in the North region. One topic that has stuck with me since our committee meeting is that of volunteer satisfaction. Many people have been forced to move their posts or take interrupted service (go back to the U.S.) as a result of the Boko Haram kidnapping in the Extreme North. Others have asked to move posts, but all for different reasons. If you haven’t heard about the Boko Haram kidnapping, I would look it up right now if I were you. The French family abducted has since been released in Nigeria and are safe in Cameroon. In our meeting, we talked with our program manager about why volunteers are unhappy. Of course, there are many reasons. Many of us have become discouraged as a result of the displacements in the North, whether or not we ourselves were displaced. Some PCVs are having problems with cultural barriers, preventing them from making any impact on the people in their communities, some of whom believe that they can make up for their mistakes in a second life. Many volunteers, especially health volunteers, struggle with corruption, on a local level and in the government, and working with a broken health system. We often feel like we are running are heads against a brick wall. Some things cannot and will never change and it’s hard to accept. Problems tend to be work-related or personal. Some volunteers on the committee suggested “tough love.” We all knew coming in that this job would be hard (keyword: “job”) and sometimes we just need to suck it up and try harder. I suggested looking for patterns among the happy people and the unhappy people. Many people who might not love their village stick it out because they have great counterparts and work partners. I think we all just need to try a little harder to find happiness at our posts. If the problems we have at post are problems we’d have at any other post in Cameroon, the solution is most likely a personal one, not an administrative one. However, if a PCV is truly unhappy, he or she will not be an effective volunteer. As I said before, Peace Corps service is incredibly difficult, but not because of the way we live, because of the way we must think. None of us live in mud huts. Many of us have electricity and running water (I cannot count myself amongst them, but still…) and we are all making more money than we really need to live day to day in our villages. We make our own schedules and we don’t have to put up with roommates. Instead, we are left with a lot of time to think. I have always thought too much and I overanalyze everything and now I’m in a place with few ways to distract myself from my thoughts.
Here are some ways I cope:
– Lying in my bed for at least 30 minutes each day, headphones on, with volume high enough to block out my neighbors.
– Crossword puzzles. They make me feel smarter. Sometimes.
– Cooking. I’ve become pretty good at it because I take the time to experiment (with the few ingredients I have access to in village) and it’s a nice distraction.
– Play cards with my neighbors kids. When we play Uno, I help them practice learning their colors – “I choose green, like oranges.”
– Dancing around my massive living room. The little things.
– Reading. A lot. Thank Amazon for Kindles and thank Prinal for giving me over 1,000 books.
– Talking on the phone. I used to hate this but now I require it. My cell phone service went out for four days after a thunderstorm and I almost went mad. Texting and calling other volunteers keeps me sane and reminds me that I’m not alone.
– Looking back at the end of each day and being able to name one thing that happened unexpectedly, however small.
– Reminding myself that I live in AFRICA and I will never have an experience like this ever again. As the negatives build up, I keep looking for the positives.