Living Poor

“Living Poor” by Moritz Thomsen

Living Poor, by Moritz Thomsen

Living Poor, by Moritz Thomsen

A few months ago, I finished reading a Peace Corps chronicle called Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen. Thomsen was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s in Ecuador, during Peace Corps’s first decade of existence. While he served as an agriculture volunteer in a very different time and on the other side of the world from me, I found it very easy to relate to Thomsen. At other times, I realized that some of my struggles are nothing compared to his.

Below is a collection of quotes that exemplify the Peace Corps experience, in any decade.

His thoughts on Pre-Service Training:

“Peace Corps training is like no other training in the world, having something in common with college life, officer’s training, Marine basic training, and a ninety-day jail sentence. What makes it paradoxical is that everything is voluntary; the schedule exists for you to follow if you wish.” (Thomsen 4)

“In one sense the training period was basically not concerned with training at all; rather, it was a period of structured tension, of subtle and purposive torture in which it was calculated that the individual trainee would be forced to reveal himself. The purpose of the program was not to change your character but to discover it, not to toughen you up or to implant proper motivations for Peace Corps service but to find out what your motivations were. Many potentially good Volunteers have been eliminated from the program, a lot of them because they never figured out what it was trying to do…The training was designed not only to reveal you to the Peace Corps but to reveal you to yourself.” (7)

“We were a tightly knit and involved group, and when we lost one of our members it was like surgery; it had a crippling effect.” (8)

 We all became a family during training, a family brought together by our collective “suffering.” Many of us were homesick and/or bored with the monotony. We also bared our souls, although more so during in-service training in February than during our first two months in Cameroon. As I’ve said countless times, I can never regret my Peace Corps experience because I have learned so much about myself.

On encountering a resistance to change:

“‘The people aren’t accustomed to doing it that way.’” (55)

“But I think you guys carry humility too far; you’ve got a lot of problems here because you never fight back. If you want justice and freedom you have to fight for it; it’s never a present.” (108)

“Ramon: ‘Before you came, you know, we were living in blindness, yes, in blindness, and now we can see, but the change is very hard, and the one thing I am learning is that perhaps the pain and suffering of not being poor are worse than that blind poverty we lived in before.’” (124)

“But this work seems almost incidental to the main purpose of their life. They work only to eat today.” (167)

 People living in underdeveloped countries (though I can only speak for Cameroon) become satisfied with mediocrity. Life could be better, but there’s no point in fighting for better. If life was worse, than there would be a reason to fight. To go to bed with hunger sated is all many of them hope for here. Learned helplessness could be involved in a resistance and unwillingness to change. This is the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human or animal perceives no control over repeated bad events. I will be writing a post about this.

On cultural barriers:

“We had been trained in the Peace Corps to see through, a little way at least, that cultural veneer to the common humanity that binds us together, but no one in Rio Verde had had that training. We were trained to give of ourselves, we were trained to overlook or partially understand the eccentricities of an alien culture. I don’t remember that anything was ever said about receiving this same understanding.” (74)

“I think anyone who has not lived the wholly public life of a foreigner in a small town, where every scratch and belch is noted with fascinated curiosity, cannot realize how essential is to have a place of refuge where you can hide from time to time and reform yourself.” (87)

 I wrote before about the spotlight effect, and how it is actually a reality here. Everywhere you go, people are watching, questioning your appearance and your behavior. We as volunteers may receive cross-cultural training during our first two months in Cameroon, but it is our responsibility in our two years at post to carry out informal training of our neighbors on American culture.

On being bored or lonely:

“I realized then that perhaps my main frustration with the town had been all that free time without any definite obligations.” (37)

“But it is a great problem to understand this sadness that arrives in the night without a reason.” (173)

 I was told before joining Peace Corps that I could become depressed as a Volunteer. Boredom was definitely the main factor in my bouts of depression, because with boredom comes “thinking too much”, as one of my health club students would say.

On feeling completely incompetent:

“Along with everyone else I had been under the spell of Washington Peace Corps propaganda, which reports on the experiences of Volunteers in their different jobs. They are all reports of success – how Volunteer W comes to the high, arid town of A and leaves it two years later with running water, a chlorination system, and communal showers; how Volunteer X with a couple of shovels and a hoe doubles the income of village B by establishing a tomato-marketing co-op; how rambling Volunteer Y leave behind him an endless string of latrines stretching from here to the far horizon, none of them ever used, if the truth were known, except for storing corn, but proudly exhibited by their owners as glistening symbols of status and the open mind.
As a Volunteer, you are oriented toward this kind of success, you want it desperately, unashamedly. When you make a mess of a project, as I did one day, it shakes you to your roots. It makes you feel, in fact, like the highly unpublicized case of Volunteer Z working in the mountain village of C. All his projects had gone to hell, and his girl had written him that she was getting married that week to friend Q; Volunteer Z lay on his bed without moving for three days and, when the old Indian selling ice cream stuck his head through the window and yelled “Helados,” suddenly jumped out of bed, ran outside, and bit the overeager salesman. Of course, the truth is that some days running outside and biting someone is probably the only rational move left to the Volunteer – especially if a Good Humor man is conveniently available.” (143)

 This is one of the worst feelings you may have as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We are used to having a boss who assigns us medial tasks that are never very challenging. Peace Corps is not just your job, but your life. Feeling incompetent at life is a terrible feeling.

On those moments when you seriously question if the Peace Corps is actually doing anything:

“Poverty isn’t just hunger; it is many interlocking things – ignorance and exhaustion, underproduction, disease, and fear. It is glutted export markets, sharp, unscrupulous middlemen, a lack of knowledge about the fundamental aspects of agriculture. It is the witchcraft of your grandfather spreading its values on your life. It is a dozen irrational Latin qualities, like your fear of making more of your life than your neighbor and thereby gaining his contempt for being overly ambitious.
There is no single way to smash out and be freed. A man has to break out in a dozen places at once. Most important, perhaps, he should start breaking out before he is six years old, for by then a typical child of poverty in a tropical nation is probably crippled by protein starvation, his brain dulled and his insides eaten up by worms and amoebas. No, more brutally true; if he is a typical child, an average child, by six he is dead.
To work harder a man has to eat better; to eat better he has to produce more; to produce more he has to work harder. And all of this is predicated on a growing knowledge of nutrition, basic hygiene, and the causes of the diseases that ravage his body; an understanding of agriculture and a respect for new farming techniques, new seeds, new ways to plant, new fertilizers, new crops.” (260-261)

 Lose faith in Peace Corps, lose faith in Cameroon, lose faith in humanity…lose faith in yourself.

On the unexpected:

“As Peace Corps Volunteers we come to give of ourselves, but we are almost all a part of the Puritan ethic, and we make rules and set limits as to what we will give and on what terms, and what is legitimate to ask of us. We want to be loved because we’re lovable, not because we’re rich gringos. But the people in the town don’t know the rules. After six months, when they know that you’re not there as a spy or to exploit them or to live apart from them, they claim you; they want to touch you, watch you when you eat, own you; they want to be Number One with you; they want you to solve their problems. They start twisting the relationship around trying to make a patron out of you, and it takes another heartless year to convince most of them that you aren’t a patron.” (282)

“I thought of one of the Peace Corps definitions of itself, ‘an agent of change,’ and shook my head helplessly. When you start bringing about change you often wonder what you’ve set in motion. I had been so anxious to get new money into the town, to get families earning more, that I had scarcely thought about the new problems that new money might bring.” (283)

“And this thing about the town that I had been afraid to think, the town’s black, unspeakable secret? They mentioned it on a news broadcast one night, sandwiched in between the stories of wars and riots, announcing that 60 per cent of the world’s children were suffering from protein starvation and that this deprivation in the first five years of life permanently and irrevocably destroyed up to 25 per cent of a man’s intelligence.
Twenty-five per cent.
If 75 is the I.Q. in the town, what is the medical word that describes this poor, doomed people, this wasted human resource living out its unproductive destiny in the impregnable prison of a destroyed mind, in a twilight, idiot world where nothing really makes much sense?” (286)

“It wasn’t the people in the town who bored or enraged or terrified me, it was the town itself, the capacity of each individual to submerge his personality as a part of the town and to display all of the worst mob qualities.” (293)

 Sometimes things happen that you cannot prevent. Things change, YOU change. Or, things will never change.

On breakthroughs:

“Occasionally, more often that it would seem possible, someone – a friend – would begin to appear out of the crowds of people with whom I lived and worked. These came a time when I realized that someone regarded me as just another human being rather than as an exotic curiosity. It was always miraculously when it happened. It was a break-through, a transcending of all the things that made us look at each other strangely or suspiciously.” (74)

“Later they would have to learn the harder lesson; that the outside powers had never abandoned them because they had never had the slightest interest in them, that these powers really couldn’t help them much, and that their progress lay in their own hands.” (180)

 The little things are how any Peace Corps Volunteer makes it through. Set small goals, appreciate small moments.

I highly recommend reading this fantastic memoir, whether you are a PCV, an RPCV, a prospective PCV, or just someone who wants to understand the PCV life and culture better. It made me laugh out loud at times and almost cry at other times. The Peace Corps experience always comes with cultural barriers, negative feelings toward other people and toward oneself from time to time, and the unexpected. Thomsen shares his own experience and, for me, I was grateful for the moments when I was able to relate to him and even more for those when I could appreciate how Peace Corps and the world have changed in five decades.

“Living poor is like being sentenced to exist in a stormy sea in a battered canoe, requiring all your strength simply to keep afloat; there is never any question of reaching a destination. True poverty is a state of perpetual crisis, and one wave just a little bigger or coming from an unexpected direction can and usually does wreck things. Some benevolent ignorance denies a poor man the ability to see the squalid sequence of his life, except very rarely; he views it rather as a disconnected string of unfortunate sadnesses. Never having paddled on a calm sea, he is unable to imagine one. I think if he could connect the chronic hunger, the sickness, the death of his children, the almost unrelieved physical and emotional tension into the pattern that his life inevitable takes he would kill himself.” (173)

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.

Lake Nyos

On the night of August 21, 1986, a cloud of carbon dioxide gas rose from Lake Nyos at nearly 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph). The gas crossed the northern edge of the lake and crossed several valleys, displacing all the air and suffocating 1,700 people and 3,500 livestock. Scientists concluded that a 100 m (330 ft) fountain of water and foam formed at the lake’s surface.

“Scientists disagree on the source of the Lake Nyos’ deadly gas. Some believe that the decomposition of organic material near the bottom of the lake causes the gas to build up, and seasonal changes in surface temperature triggers mixing of deep and shallow water, allowing the gas to be released. Because Nyos lies in the crater of an old volcano, others believe that the gas is volcanic in origin.” (Guinness World Records 2013)

Lake Nyos is the lake responsible for the most deaths without drowning. It is about a 1.5-hour drive from my village, Misaje.

The deadliest lake in the world is just 1 hour from my village, July 11, 2013

The deadliest lake in the world is just 1.5 hours from Misaje, July 11, 2013

San Francisco in Cameroon

This one is for all my friends and family in or from the Bay Area! Love and miss you!

Walking through downtown Nkongsamba, you will easily spot the sign “The San Francisco”.

Downtown Nkongsamba, Littoral

Downtown Nkongsamba, Littoral July 7, 2013

P.S. That’s my friend Bridget. She’s a Youth Development Volunteer in Nkongsamba.

SNAIL MAIL

How could I have been so inconsiderate as to deprive you people of the world of my address?? You could have been sending me letters and care packages this whole time! Silly me!

So here it is…

Sister Jaclyn Escudero

P.O. Box 21

Misaje, Donga-Mantung Division

Northwest Region

Cameroon

Africa

Air Mail/Par Avion

“Sister” is mainly for packages. There is a theory out there that people are less likely to try to open packages and steal from someone of God. If you steal from a nun/missionary/etc., you’re stealing from God, and you’ll probably go to hell. If you steal from anyone else, God will forgive you, so you’re good.

I also included “Africa” because as much as you might not like to admit it, you probably had never heard of Cameroon until now. And the USPS still has no idea where Cameroon is.

I look forward to receiving your letter! If you find my Hogwarts letter (I think it got lost in the mail 12 years ago), I’d appreciate if you would send that on to me, too. Write to me about your day, your life, your favorite foods, your love for me, anything. When I receive a letter, it doesn’t matter who it’s from, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning. Seriously.

I love photos, too! I like to decorate my house with photos, so if you include some photos, that would be awesome. Send photos of us or just photos that would remind me of you every time I look at my wall.

Write your address (legibly) so I can write back!

Psych-Out 2

Own-race bias:

Psychology’s Definition: Tendency for people to have difficulty identifying people of another race; the tendency for people to more accurately recognize faces of their own

My Definition: When you believe that individuals of a race other than your own, especially a race foreign to you, look alike, and thus, you have trouble telling people apart. You find it easy identifying physical differences between members of your own race or another race you are very familiar with.

My own personal bias is in favor of Caucasians and Southeast Asians. I grew up in a small town, exposed to many white people. I also was raised by my Chinese mother’s family. Because of where I was raised, I often have trouble identifying differences in South Asians, Latinos, and sometimes Africans.

How are white people biased? We tend to primarily use hair (style, color, length, etc.); non-white races often have the same hair color within their race.

Cameroonians are always changing their hair. Additionally, children must keep their heads shaved for school. Sometimes I can’t even tell the difference between boy and girl, which is funny because gender barriers are so strong here. Good thing I’m decent with names.

Cameroonians are biased, too. Many who are not exposed to westerners think all white people look alike, and that they must be related to one another. In the rare event that another white person is spotted in my village, my Cameroonian friends encourage me to go say hello; we must know each other. I refuse, and the white person does not approach me, either. As the only white person around, they only know me but don’t understand why I can’t remember every person I meet.

Walking to the football field with my nine-year-old neighbor Angela, we saw a boy running on the other side of the field. I could barely make out what he was wearing, let alone identify if it was even a boy we were seeing. Angela said, “That’s Joel!” I asked her how she knew it was her 11-year-old brother, and she just shrugged. She called his name and he turned and came over to us. I guess she just knows how her brother runs. Or has much better vision than I do. Probably both.

*More “Psych-Out”s to come! Hey, psychology is what I know… And yes, that is a reference to the (awesome) television show “Psych”. God, I miss television. And electricity.

Psych-Out 1

Remember how I studied psychology for four years at one of the best universities in the country? Yea, I had forgotten about that, too. There is a lot I don’t remember from all of those long lectures (I never could function properly before 10am), but some of it has stayed with me, mainly concepts in social psychology. So here’s a little lesson for those of you who have never studied psychology, and a refresher for those who have.

 

The Spotlight Effect:

Psychology’s Definition: Thinking that everyone is going to notice something about you; is paying attention

My definition: When you feel as though everyone is watching, but they’re really not. Examples in the U.S. include feeling watched when you’re crying in your car (watch Dane Cook’s “I Did My Best”), dancing in public, or just walking down the street. You wake up in the morning with a huge pimple on your chin. You can’t leave your house because EVERYONE WILL SEE YOU. And they will laugh. Really hard. On the inside.

 

So how does the spotlight effect translate to my situation? A white (well, I look all-white) American girl living in Africa? The reality is that it does not really translate. I actually am being watched and closely scrutinized. Everywhere I go, I am greeted by people I know, and often by people I do not know. Just today, four young children called out to me “Auntie Jaclyn! Auntie Jaclyn!” I knew the name of one of them, but not the names of the other three. Still, I smiled and greeted them as friends.

 

Living in a village of less than 4,000 people, though not including those who come into town every day for business, and a village without light, my fellow villagers become bored and have nothing to do but gossip or talk about the weather (news flash, it rains every day). I can finally appreciate the term “village gossip” because it has now become almost synonymous with “white man gossip”. I walk down the street or sit at a public event and am conscious that I have many eyes on me. Market day is probably the worst day of the week. Children (and adults) from neighboring villages stare and point, and sometimes yell out to me: “White man! Nassara!” Yes, I’m aware I have pale skin; I don’t need reminding.

 

So how do I deal? Well, one of the first things I did when I arrived in Misaje is hang curtains. I bought some plain blue fabric in Nkambe and within the week, had it tailored in Misaje and hung the curtains myself. I didn’t do a great job, but I did well enough to give myself some privacy. I have alone time in my house, which is fine, until I leave my house and am immediately swarmed with people asking if I was in the house. Um, obviously. “The whole time?” Yes…why do you even care??

 

Still, when I am not inside my house, I have to be careful what I wear, what I do and say, where I go, and who I associate with. I went to visit Ben in Nkambe for the Labour Day celebrations May 1st and when I returned, my friend said that he had seen me in Nkambe with my husband. “Not my husband.” “I thought he was your husband.” “He’s not my husband; he’s my brother.” “Oh. Well, I thought he was your husband.” “Not my husband.”

 

I own one pair of jeans in this country. I rarely wear them. When I do decide to put them on and sweat all day, everyone notices. “Auntie, ya dress is nice.” “WOW!” Um, I dress like this every day in the U.S. It’s just too hot here most days.

 

To be honest, it will take adjusting when I’m back in the U.S. and people don’t constantly stop me on the street. I might actually be early to meetings…