One Year

In one year, a baby’s weight has tripled since birth. She has grown by 50% and her brain is about 60% of its adult size. She can stand alone and maybe even walk. She can eat with her fingers, dress herself with help, and turn the pages of a book. She can eat different foods. She sleeps less during the day and more at night. Her vocabulary is expanding, and she learns language by imitating. She is more social and is starting to understand what people are saying to her, using her language skills to get the attention of those around her. She is also starting to test the limits; she knows that she can say “no.” She prefers certain people to others and is shy or anxious around strangers. She is learning to walk and loves exploring her environment.

I officially reached my one year mark in Cameroon on September 21st. In the grand scheme of things, one year is not a long time at all. A lot can happen in one year, though – even in one week. A lot happens in a human’s first year of life. A lot has happened in my life this past year, and I can easily draw comparisons. Here in Cameroon, I’m living alone and learning a lot. I eat with my fingers more than I ever used (I grew up eating French fries with a fork) because now I’m in a culture where most foods are eaten with one’s hands. Because I do not have electricity, I might sleep more in one night here than I did in one week in college. I’m learning Pidgin English mainly by listening to it every day. It is easier for me now to understand what people are saying to me, and I use the words I have learned to get the attention of others. This sometimes means that I sound like a fool: “EH! Na weti??” I have learned who my friends are in Misaje, and I have become much more comfortable confronting people who have mistreated me or have mistreated my friends. You could say that, like a one-year-old, I am finding my feet here in Cameroon. I am learning how to walk. In exploring my environment, this place becomes less foreign to me and more like home.

Don’t get me wrong. My first year here was no cake walk. While a baby’s growth in her first year is natural (with proper nourishment – breastfeed exclusively for six months!!), my learning here has sometimes felt forced and uninvited. In some respects, I have learned the hard way. I’ve been sicker than I’ve ever been before, I’ve had countless disagreements with Cameroonians, and I have realized just how difficult it can be to make my own schedule. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are on the job 24/7 because unless you are alone in your house, you are responsible for representing the U.S. It’s hard to feel comfortable being yourself all the time, especially when you don’t always have positive things to say. It can be tiring.

Someone once told me that most worthwhile things are hard. Living and working here is definitely hard, so I hope that makes it worthwhile. I’ve seriously considered going home a few times, and not just in the beginning. I went through a mid-service funk not too long ago.

I discovered recently what might be my real purpose as a Peace Corps Volunteer. No, Peace Corps Volunteers are NOT spies and we are definitely not here to give you money and do everything for you. Sure, Peace Corps may have access to a number of grants, meant to fund projects involving the construction of latrines and wells, HIV/AIDS initiatives, malaria initiatives, etc., so in a sense, it’s not surprising for host country nationals to think that we are here to give them money. I mean, we are living in the nicest house in town, and seem to have a lot of money to throw around. I’m a rich white girl, na so? No, definitely not.

We’re also not here to make everything better. Real change takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, remember? In two years, I’m not going to stop the spread of HIV, or end teenage pregnancy in my village. It’s just not realistic. As the first Peace Corps Volunteer in Misaje, it is especially important for me to have a different perspective about my service here. In two years, I cannot possibly transform Misaje. What I can do is much more practical, and much more my expertise – that is, start laying the groundwork for future volunteers and development agents, by building strong personal and professional relationships with members of my community. It is easy to forget this when it comes time to write my reports to Peace Corps, or when I’m talking with other volunteers about their work. Many of us feel pressured to become cookie-cutter volunteers – digging wells and building libraries. We forget that Peace Corps work often does not produce physical results. I think the most important thing that Peace Corps can do for another country is give its people the opportunity to learn what Americans are all about and feel like they matter because an American has decided to spend two years living among them. The most important thing that Peace Corps can do for its volunteers is give them the chance to figure out what they’re made of. I’ve experienced some of my worst days while living in this country. I’ve known for a long time that bad experiences are just as important as good experiences in shaping who you become. They both give you hints of who you really are because they bring out your strengths and weaknesses. It’s not about what happens to you, it’s about how you respond to whatever comes your way. Your experiences also show you what and more importantly, who, matters. I’m thankful that my year in Cameroon has allowed me to recognize what matters to me and who I want to keep in my life.

Thank you, those of you who follow this blog, for supporting me this past year and continuing to support me. Keep doing what you love, and being with people who matter to you, wherever you are. You inspire me as much as you say I inspire you.

My next post will include some highlights from this past year, so stay tuned.