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

20th May vs. 4th of July

18-Jun-2013

 

I recently experienced my first national day in Cameroon – 20th May. According to Wikipedia (the most reliable source), “Cameroon has no single date of independence. The United Nations Trust Territory known as French Cameroun achieved independence from France on 1 January 1960, and British Southern Cameroons changed status from a Trusteeship under British administration to a federated state within Cameroon on October 1st, 1961. The government chose 20 May as Cameroon’s National Day to commemorate former President Ahmadou Ahidjo’s abolishment of the federal system of government and creation of a unitary country in 1972.” I’m sure that was really interesting for you to read. The Fourth of July definitely wins this contest when it comes to its history.

 

The United States’ “Fourth of July” celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from Great Britain. Independence Day is our National Day, but we do not celebrate it with “march pasts” and boring speeches from the president and/or mayor. Different parts of the country observe Independence Day in different ways, but most celebrations are outdoors, as it is summertime everywhere in the U.S. Across the country, there will be fireworks, parades, barbecues, picnics, carnivals, and concerts.

 

As far as I know, 20th May in Anglophone Cameroon always takes place at the “grandstand”. The grandstand is often not so grand, as in my village, but every event is held there nonetheless, and every event is the same. There is always a “march past” involving students wearing sometimes new, clean uniforms, singing a Cameroonian song whose lyrics are impossible to understand, and competing for some award (is it money?) for arm-swinging togetherness, straight lines, and quality of song choice. Sometimes other people march, like tailors’ unions or butchers’ unions or political parties (I still don’t know what any of them stand for), but the march past is always very long and boring and I just don’t care. The day before 20th May (I guess that would be 19th May), I attended two football (soccer) matches. Don’t crucify me, but I had never watched a soccer match in its entirety until that day. I can’t say I enjoy soccer any more than I did before, but I wasn’t TOO bored. At the grandstand, the buy’am sell’am women received a trophy and money to fight about later for winning the women’s match against the female workers. The Misaje Council also won their prize for winning their match against the Misaje Workers’ Association (male workers) with penalty kicks. A few people received some money for winning foot races that apparently took place the Thursday before, between Misaje and a bush village, Chunghe (seriously, where was I?). In the morning, before reaching the grandstand, I spent almost an hour taking photos of my neighbor Glory’s primary school students. They had a lot of fun singing to me and copying my silly poses.

 

The afternoon and evening is spent eating and drinking way too much. In my case, being well-known in the community (you would be, too, if you were the only white person), I was invited to two receptions. Actually, I was officially invited to one, and then an invitee of the second invited me along, and no one seemed to notice I wasn’t supposed to be there. The first reception was at the D.O.’s residence. The D.O. is the divisional officer who is appointed by the president to each subdivision. In truth, I don’t really know what he does. I just know that I get free food and drink whenever I go to his house. The food wasn’t completely awful this time, and they had Coca-Cola, so I was happy. It started pouring before the food was served, and everyone freaked out. It’s Africa, and people are afraid of rain. I don’t understand. A few hours later, I headed to the next reception, hosted by the inspector of basic education. This man oversees the primary and nursery schools in Misaje. Earlier that day, he was awarded the second-highest medal of something for thirty years of work. I told you, these grandstand events are boring and I can’t be expected to pay attention. There was more food and more Coca-Cola, and you know I can’t refuse free food. After that, I went to the market, where it looked like everyone in the entire subdivision had come out of the bush to buy and sell and enjoy. The market hall had been open for children to come and dance. When I asked if I could take a peek inside, I noticed that the hall was rather empty. I guess parents had not given their children enough money to pay the cover. Around 8pm, I went to the health center and remained there for the next three hours, as there was a labor case. The labor was long and difficult, and the 17-year-old Muslim woman barely spoke/understood Pidgin English. The baby girl was born unresponsive, and while she started breathing better within the hour, she died less than 24 hours later because her mother kept giving her water.

 

20th May used to be celebrated in my village for one week, but celebrations have since been restricted to three days. With that, I think villagers have consolidated a week’s worth of drinking to three days. I cannot tell you the number of times I was propositioned in those three days by drunken men. Well, sober men, too, but that’s a different story.

 

When I think of the Fourth of July in the U.S., I think of fireworks and barbecues and the beach. I hope to spend this Fourth of July at one of the beaches in Cameroon. There will be no fireworks, but I think I can survive without those – the loud noise of fireworks used to make me cry when I was younger. I don’t know how you celebrate your National Day, but I’m sure it’s an occasion, just as it is here.