Peace Corps Volunteer, Cameroon
At a few degrees above the equator, my Cameroonian village in West Africa can at least depend on one thing arriving with consistency – nightfall at 6:30. Water in the public taps, phone network, electricity, the long promised road repairs, teachers for the new school year, cross your fingers but don’t hold your breath. Electricity has been out for almost a week now.
Today I traveled to charge my computer, only to find that riding over broken roads on motorcycles, or jungle humidity, or maybe lizard droppings, have gotten the best of my keyboard. So many letters don’t work, what I’ve typed looks like code! I’m typing by candlelight and have put out buckets to collect rain for my bath and dishes.
My alarm clock will be the bustle of early morning village life: chickens, babies, wood-chopping, open-fire cooking, neighbors yelling greetings to those trekking to their cocoa farms or hauling water.
It’s all part of my roller coaster ride as I try to integrate into my community as a Peace Corps health volunteer, the first foreigner to have a presence here in 20 years. The learning curve has been more like free fall as I get used to hearing “WHITEMAN” yelled as I pass by villagers still taken aback by my presence, and keep my front door open despite my desire for privacy to respect the culture of openness.
My job, helping this community identify and address their health development needs, has been the most rewarding, exasperating, and eye-opening experience I’ve ever been thrown head first into.
Perhaps most moving has been teaching reproductive health to young women who are going through adolescence and womanhood without even basic information. The school curriculum includes no sexual education, though premature pregnancy and STD’s are major problems among youth. The first time I held a seminar for 7th – 9th grade aged girls I put out a “Question Box” for their confidential matters and could not hand out slips of paper fast enough for their outpouring of uncertainties. I cried reading them later, realizing I’d hit a nerve of serious need that I could actually respond to.
Helping them navigate pregnancy, child-rearing concerns, introducing the benefits of family planning, and sending the message that they can positively influence their own lives is a role I love. Doing so in the context of rampant need and the social and cultural complications I’ve been learning about for years is a dream come true.
Still, the going is slow. The heat, harassment and endless house malfunctions can make crawling out of bed utterly overwhelming. Yet, the headaches of trying to function where basic functioning often seems out of reach are made immediately worth it by the thrilling moments. Yesterday a nurse and I hosted the first session of a support group we are trying to launch for HIV+ women. It has taken months to find even a few women willing to share their status with others. Talking about the free treatment available to these women, who have never had autonomy over so much as a dollar, let alone their own health, was powerful.
Kids have been the golden ticket to feeling at home here. Their adoring greetings (“Auntie Tasse, Auntie TASSE!”) and laughter as we draw and play cards on my porch always brighten my day. I can’t wait until they return from their relatives’ holiday care so I can distribute the equipment and supplies you sent through the Women’s Society. What an amazing outpouring of childhood goodies that these kids have never known. My heartfelt thanks to you all. For pictures of my recent summer camp, check out my blog at tessincameroon.blogspot.com. For questions or more dialogue, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks for your prayers of support!