Ever wonder what it's like to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a remote village overseas, but hesitant to take the plunge and commit for two-plus years?
I certainly was!
I was excited when my brother Jack signed up for the Peace Corps and headed out for a new adventure in May of 2011. We were all very interested to learn about what he would discover in Cameroon (and how it might compare with what our dad experienced as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia decades ago). We've kept up with him on Facebook and on his blog, so we feel lucky to have open and frequent lines of communication (as some other volunteers don't have that luxury).
I traveled throughout Cameroon with Jack for a little over two weeks, and we saw a fair amount of the country and visited with many of his friends, contacts, and fellow volunteers in a relatively short time frame. I loved seeing where he lives and to explore Guider, where he is based. I met with people and witnessed firsthand daily events he's talked with us about, for which there really is no substitute. Some of these highlights included:
Savings group meeting – I accompanied Jack to meet with the savings group he facilitates out in the bush. (There are no banks in the bush, but this group was assembled by a previous volunteer to instruct women, most of them earners, on the benefits of saving so that they have money set aside for their children's school fees and emergencies, such as illnesses). Although the meeting place was a quick(ish) moto ride away from Guider, the location and people felt much more removed from the bustle of the town. The ladies were very accommodating (they refused to let me sit on one of the nearby rocks and insisted I take a seat on the only proper bench!) and were curious to know more about me, I think (though we didn't speak the same language). I was very interested to learn and see for my own eyes how they interacted with one another during these meetings, and found the atmosphere very social and relaxed, even comical at some moments (every group has a comedian, and this one was no exception!) The ladies seemed to take the practice of counting and contributing their savings very seriously, and I can only imagine the trade-offs they make in their daily lives to do so.
Friday market – One of my favorite occasions was the Friday market in Guider, where Jack and I made the rounds to visit his favorite vendors and friends. It was fun to see the variety of pagna (Cameroonian fabrics) on display and to try some of Jack's favorite local treats (cold yogurt was particularly refreshing on that dry and hot day!) Lots of vendors know Jack and called out his name to come over and say hello. Clearly there aren't a ton of tall white dudes in Guider, so he's easy to spot... but it was great to see that he's built up some relationships with all kinds of people in town. Everyone we encountered was amazed that I traveled so far to visit him for a relatively short time. They were also amazed we are full brother and sister ("Same mother, same father?! Naaaaah!")
Basketball / volleyball games and practice – Jack is very involved with sports and with the youth in Guider, so I watched him play with the volleyball league two days in a row, and also saw him coach the basketball team. Jack has a camaraderie with his volleyball teammates and blended in (as well as a white boy who, as they say, can't jump!) A side benefit to going to the games was meeting and chatting with bystanders and other friends of the players who happened to stop by. Some of the more outgoing folks would practice their English with me. They were curious about my life and asked a lot of questions about America. The same was true of some of the school-aged kids who watched the basketball practice. I met a lot of people with aspirations to visit the US someday, though very few of them will ever realize this dream.
Host family – Jack's "host family" (who live in the front house in his concession) was particularly welcoming. Although I couldn't really communicate with the matriarch of the family, she was particularly concerned that I was being taken care of and enjoying my time in Cameroon. She and her daughters cooked for us on more than one occasion, and the food was plentiful and delicious. The eldest daughter took me to her tailor, where I had my first dress made, and the mother gave me another pagna so that I could have a second dress. In return, I painted a calabash to present to her when I left. She was very emotional that day, and I wished I didn't have to leave at that point!
Traveling / visiting with other volunteers – Jack and I traveled throughout the west and made several stops along the way, where I experienced other parts of the country and met several Peace Corps volunteers. Their projects and responsibilities range from health care to teaching to small enterprise initiatives. Jack's fellow volunteers and friends were more than accommodating and often had meals waiting for us on arrival (or treated us to meals prepared by their favorite local mommas). Of course, it's not easy to get around within Cameroon. Bus rides are packed, long, and hot, and road conditions can be, well, unpredictable. Compact cars fit two in the passenger seat up front (and, sometimes, a person to the left of the driver – you need to see it to believe it)... and four across in the back (regardless of passenger size!) As a result, travelers come to know their fellow passengers quite intimately.
I was struck by the friendliness and hospitality of nearly everyone we met. On more than one occasion, I was presented with a gift for merely showing up. Lots of these folks have few possessions, and it was touching that they wanted to show a gesture of "thanks for visiting" with a small token for me to take home.
The experience only reinforced the fact that there is no substitute for the real thing. Families can learn a bit about the Peace Corps through the stories told by volunteers, but they can't truly appreciate or understand the volunteers' way of life or perspectives (or those of the people living in host countries) without getting out and seeing it for themselves. Although it is not an easy trip to make (and it's certainly not the same as relaxing on a beach), it's truly a once in a lifetime experience, and one that families will not regret! I certainly didn't, and I look forward to touring other countries in Africa next year. – LN, May 2013