This might be over a month late, but the sentiment remains the same. Clearly, avoiding emotional processing is my MO.

After 26 months in Cameroon, I officially closed my service and completed my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Fittingly, my final moments in country were a rollercoaster, like of my time there. Despite the frustration and struggles that came along with it, there were resounding moments of joy and triumph. Some highlights to share:

One of my biggest difficulties during my time was the feeling that I wasn’t accomplishing anything, that I was wasting my time for no results. My last week in village showed me that this was by no means the reality. Different groups that I had worked with organized send-off parties for me, with people at each one giving speeches as to what I had meant to that group, how the work that I had done had impacted them, and how they were going to continue improving on what I had started. The water project, which was both my baby and the bane of my existence, might have been the best. The water management committee, who I had worked with on re-organization and empowerment efforts, threw a big celebration for me. They told me how the improved water access has already started benefiting the community and their plans for future expansion. Turns out, one of the men who was most involved in the project lives just outside of town—his neighborhood is higher than the rest of town and so are the one area that doesn’t get water from our catchment. He went to every community work day and coordination meeting knowing that he would get nothing from it. How cool is that?
In addition to these great stories, I also was surprised with a huge gift. This group worked with the traditional chief and the palace to title me as a queen. That’s right, I’m a QUEEN. Technical title is “Nquenjah” and includes a traditional straw bag and (ridiculously heavy) traditional wear. They gave me these things, the women in the work helped me dress in it, then they walked me through town so everyone could see. Embarrassing? Oh yes. Fantastic way to end my service? You bet!

My time in the Peace Corps wasn’t just about the work and the community. It also was about the network and support of other volunteers. Once again, my final weeks in country had one of the best moments in that regard.
For those of you who have been consistently reading this, you know that travel is one of the consistently worst parts of the PC experience (second only to sexual harassment. Fun times.) My trip moving out of village managed to be worse than anything else. After tearful goodbyes with friends and neighbors, I left my community at 9AM. I got to Bamenda the next morning at 8AM. A six hour trip into a 23 hour trip? One final slap in the face from the Cameroon travel gods…but rescued by the spectacular humans that are PCV friends. The saga is too long to even tell, soup to nuts, but let’s focus on the best parts.
As the trip dragged on and on and the minibus continued to get stuck in the mud and/or break down, I started to get nervous that I (and all of my earthly possessions) weren’t going to make it. I started contacting other volunteers that lived along the road asking if I could crash with them, if it came to it. Not only did everyone who was around incredibly supportive, but even volunteers that I had never met offered up their couches. My friends waiting in Bamenda made cookies and bought wine and listened to my dramatic texts.
Long story short, after the axle broke around 2AM, we the passengers (including the goats, obviously) slept in the car until a new one was found around 5AM. By the time I finally made it to Bamenda, everyone I had contacted the day before was checking in to make sure I made it. Other friends made me lunch, and everyone listened sympathetically to my ridiculous story.
These PCV friends have been there through crazy travel sagas like these, work frustrations, emotional meltdowns, multiple stages of relationship dramas, and various health crises. There were so many things that made this a meaningful experience, but what I’m really walking away with is a set of friends unlike any other, who have seen me at my worst and helped celebrate my best.

Now that I’m home, people have been asking me about my experience. Was it fun? Was it hard? Would I do it again? Would I recommend it to others?
It was ridiculous and great and crazy and hard and so not what I expected to go through, but it was amazing, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I left feeling proud of my work and cared for by my Cameroonian friends and loved and supported by the PCV community.
“The hardest job you’ll ever love”? I don’t know about that, but definitely the job that will make you feel the most love.

Get your traveling shoes–and your ID

While I love what traveling means– the seeing new places and experiencing new things– the physical act of moving from one place to another has always been one of my least favorite parts of Peace Corps life. There are always more people per row of the vehicle than there should be (why have a full seat when two thirds of one could do?), vehicles almost always leave later than expected, its often hot and sweaty (in part due to the excess of people in the car and their unwillingness to open the windows) and particularly on the routes that I travel, especially between my post and banking city, breakdowns are part of the adventure.

At this point, I am realizing that I had it lucky for my first part of service. These things that I used to complain about are really not that bad. As the problems with Boko Haram continue to grow, the nature of “security” in Cameroon has shifted and drastically changed my travel experiences.

Sidebar- I am lucky that the safety of my post remains the same as it has been, that I was not relocated due to security concerns, that no one I knew was killed by the bombing in the far north region. Boko is a terrifying terrorist group and I don’t want to downplay that. But rather than speculating about their and their supposed allegiance to ISIS (even more terrifying), let’s talk about something less dramatic; the shitshow than is current Cameroon travel.

It hasn’t been a single moment of change, but rather a gradual shift. ID checks have become more frequent, with the vehicle stopping and passengers handing their IDs out the windows. That practice has been so commonplace that I almost forgot we don’t do that in the US, that it isn’t standard worldwide.

But now, after the Maroua bombings, the game is stepped up. Now passengers get out of the car, form a line and walk past one or two gendarmes to show their ID. On my last trip between my banking city and my village, it happened FOUR times. This means that I have to pull myself out of my semi-catatonic travel state, pull myself out of the vehicle, hope the gendarmes don’t want to hassle me, then re-enter the vehicle and carefully reassume what I mentally think of as the “puzzle piece position”. With four people across a bench seat designed for three, there is need for a careful arrangement of limbs and shoulders. Four walking ID checks mean four times of unsticking ourselves, passing children out of the car, and then resticking ourselves into the optimal position. More than that, it also extends the already long trip. What should be a five hour trip from my banking city to larger town near my post now takes six.

On my way into the banking city a few days before, I had a metal detecting wand waved over my body. Given the lack of lights or sound I doubt that it was functioning, but points for trying?

There also have been searches of bags- preformed, by my understanding, largely at the whims of the gendarmes running that control point. I believe that the depths of the search often has more to do with curiosity than actual suspicion, but either way, trying to explain deodorant or a diva cup in my somewhat limited French is always a trip to strugglesville.

Rumor has it that two westerners were stopped with a bomb in one of the major cities. I haven’t confirmed this, largely because I would prefer to bury my head in the sand for these final two months than panic about the shifting landscape. However, I do wonder if I have been regarded with more suspicion because of this. On the other hand, it’s also highly possible that some of the gendarmes take advantage of their power to make me sweat, study my ID a bit longer, ask me more questions (the number of times I’ve been asked about the whereabouts of my husband…) Lady gendarmes are less common but it always seems smoother with them somehow. Anyways.

I know that I should be glad that safety is being considered and that some precautions are being taken. However, every time that I unfurl my legs from their crunched position and pull out my ID, I wonder if this is really making a difference. IDs are easy to forge and lack of an ID has always been solved with a bribe. At a minimum, I suppose I should be grateful that I now have built-in stretch breaks?

The things I’ll miss

Now that my countdown to departure has dropped to double digits (80-some days by last count), I feel like I’m spending my days dreaming of the things that I’ve missed here: family, friends, good beer, dog, access to electricity, diversity in vegetables, wearing shorts in public….the list goes on. 

At the same time, I’m recognizing that there are a great deal of things that I’m going to miss here. While sometimes life as a Peace Corps Volunteer drives me nuts, there are some pretty spectacular aspects of it. Beyond the specific people who make up my network here, I’m going to miss: 

-The pace of life. While this is also often on my list of things that make me crazy, the slower style of life in Cameroon is, in its own way, pretty great. I rarely have to set an alarm to get up in the morning. If I decide that I want to plan a day to just sit with my neighbor, that’s easily done. The concept of “rushing” doesn’t apply here; things happen at their own pace. While this can be frustrating when I want to have a meeting or complete a project, it also means that stress levels are significantly lower. I can linger over my coffee (favorite part of the day) or sit on my porch to watch the sun set over the hills. This molassesy-slow feeling is one I’m realizing I may not have again for a long time. 

-The sense of community and generosity. While this can be different for volunteers living in bigger sites, for me the nature of togetherness has been one of my favorite things here. My village has a bigger population than my hometown, yet the feeling of community is even greater here. Walking from my house to the market, which takes about ten minutes, means stopping and “greeting” everyone I pass. It’s rare for me to not know the people I cross paths with. I wish for anonymity at times, but the tight-knit feeling of my village is something that I will miss. 

-The creativity and customization. One of the best parts about serving in Cameroon is the ability to buy colorful pagne and have my tailor turn it into just about anything I want. Over my nearly two years here I’ve made many different pagne shirts, dresses, skirts, travel bags…the list goes on! Now that I’m leaving and realizing that perhaps a wardrobe of crazy prints may not be what I’m going for in the US, I’m taking my pieces to a different tailor to have them made into a quilt. I never would have thought of that with clothes in the US!

-Buying things by cost rather than quantity. In the US, as a borderline broke college student, I would try to budget my groceries, but occasionally I’d be surprised by the cost of vegetables at the checkout. What does a half pound of tomatoes look like, and how much does that cost? I was never good at figuring that out. Here, most things are bought by monetary value: 100 cfa of tomatoes, an onion for 50 cfa, a cabbage for 300 cfa. There’s never a question of how much I’ll have to pay, and while the quantity for these prices vary slightly through the seasons it’s generally standardized. 

-The landscapes. Growing up in the Sierra Nevadas, I’ve been accustomed to beautiful scenery, but things here take take my breath away in a different way. My village is tucked into a valley surrounded by gradually climbing green hills. Now, in the midst of rainy season, the hills are so bright that they’re nearly neon and the skies are free of dry season’s haze. I’ve started taking a motorcycle instead of a bush taxi for the last leg of my journey back to post and it’s changed my outlook on travel. Sitting on the back of the bike I’m able to notice the way the hills drop into patches of corn field and see the first glimpses of my village in the distance. It always hits me in that moment: This is pretty great, what I’m doing. And I’m going to miss it. 

On being a woman

This article on the dangers of traveling while female has been passing through my (female) PCV friends and I wanted to bring it to all of your attention.  My lovely friend and fellow PCV Anna also wrote a response here. I wanted to add my own thoughts to the conversation and hope to hear from some of you as well.

The premise of the article is that, historically the world tell us that good travelers need to say “yes” to things that come their way—but for female travelers, for the sake of safety we have to say no, thus limiting our experiences and freedom.

This is entirely applicable to life as a PCV. I’ve spoken before to the harassment that I face as a female volunteer, but have not spoken to the limits being a woman places on my life here. Ideally, I want to say yes to every opportunity that comes my way. To befriend every person that crosses my path. To boldly walk through the streets at any hour without fear. But I can’t.

In certain ways, being a woman can limit my ability to make friends and integrate into the fabric of social life. For example, in Cameroon, spending time at bars is a frequent activity. Many male PCVs I know were able to quickly make friends by hanging out at bars, even late into the night. I fear for my reputation and safety in doing so—and therefore I chose not to drink alcohol in village and generally get home before it gets dark. While this may not be the biggest of sacrifices, it is one that I felt obliged to make by the very nature of my sex, which is not a reason I want to make sacrifices.

And the sacrifices don’t stop there. There are several people in my community whose work could have overlapped with my own, who in theory could have made great work partners. But they said inappropriate things to me or I got a creepy vibe, so I avoid them. If I were a male PCV, I may have been able to work with them and joke with them, no problem.

I need to vet work partners before moving forward. I question the motives of acquaintances more than I want to. I hesitate to give out my number, even for work. I celebrate my few male friends who break the mold by being entirely trustworthy, then realize how very sad that is. My marital status is frequently called into question, as though that impacts my mission here or my rights to take a taxi. I have been asked if I was a virgin in public spaces. I have received marriage proposals by authority members. I find myself thinking out my escape plan even in situations where I’m relatively sure that I’m safe. As a woman, I’ve been taught to fear sexual assault, and that fear can’t be squashed.

This speaks more to simply living in this world as a woman, not only to living as a female PCV. When I lived in Berkeley, I would frequently have male friends walk me home on late nights, or, if walking alone, pull up a friend’s contact and be ready to dial at the first sign of danger. (This may have been slightly misdirected, as most studies show that victims know their attackers. Still, the fear is there and so we find our ways to hide from it.)

Time and time again, the world shows us that the fear is warranted. Here, hearing the stories of others, seeing the way that women are often treated as objects and less than men, listening to people talk about the victim-blame nature of rape culture, I have never felt so aware of the danger of being a woman. There are the big crimes, the rape and domestic violence, but there are also the small erasures: the catcalling, the degrading jokes, the lack of respect to women, the refusal to take women seriously as professionals. Often I am an observer to these systems, but sometimes, I am a target. There are days, usually when I’m in the city for banking, when I feel turned inside out, naked despite any efforts at conservative dress. Again and again, I am reminded by my place of privilege to come from a place where I am allowed to demand something better, where I can see the limits of being a woman and dream of the ability to move beyond it.

The Salon article and Anna both speak to the advantage that we have as women, that we are able to enter into women-only spaces, that we are able to form strong female relationships. This is true. One of my favorite activities is sitting at my tailor’s shop, hanging out with her and her (all female) apprentices. I am grateful for this opportunity, but it isn’t enough. All this feels like a sorry consolation price in comparison to the sense of freedom and safety awarded to men simply by their sex.

Not to discount the very real dangers that are present to men, or the uniquely great experience that I get to have as a female PCV. I do think, however, that the limits of being a female traveler, female PCV, or female citizen of this universe are unfair. I want to be able to say “yes!” to every opportunity that comes my way. I want to not feel objectified or hear the dirty things that are said to me, about me. I want to not be afraid to walk in the dark. I want to not feel my heart breaking for the women of Cameroon, for women everywhere.

Dear world, let’s do better.

Water Project Update

This is a long time coming, but finally, good new to share about my community’s water catchment project: construction is complete!

Between the monetary support from so many of you generous people and the labor of the community, we were able to completely rehaul the old, barely function system. Now we have a well-designed, smooth running system that has dramatically increased the amount and quality of water flowing into town.

While the donors get credit for funding it and I perhaps get the credit for facilitating it, the bulk of the credit goes to the community for making it happen. Particularly, there are two people without whom this never would have succeeded.

David Bikeng is the chairman of the water management committee and he is the one who come to be about the project, who tried to motivate the community, who arranged for all the materials. Over the several months that we were working on the construction, he was at the work site nearly every day.

Simon Forechibi is a teacher at the technical school and a trained engineer. He developed the design for the project and worked through all the technical details. He isn’t even from Misaje, yet he committed himself to seeing the project through.

In many ways, this project was one of the most frustrating that I have done here. Often, getting community members to go for the work days (the primary source of labor on the project) was like pulling teeth. Yet these two men continued to inspire me, along with 15 or so others who did show up consistently for the work.

On bad days, I likened the project to the children’s tale of the little red hen—you know, she asks everyone to help her at every step of the way to prepare bread (planting the wheat, harvesting, grinding, etc etc) and all of her friends refuse, yet they all want to eat the bread once is it baked.

The consistent commitment of those few people gave me hope. Water in my village is deeply politicized and there is a history of projects failing halfway through. When I first arrived, the community had gone out in force to dig a trench for a pipeline intended to connect them to a new water source—one that was ultimately deemed undrinkable, and thereby their work was for nothing. Given that, the reluctance of many community members to stop their farmwork to labor on yet another water project is perfectly understandable. And the people who agree to throw themselves into the work was all the more meaningful.

So what now?

The construction has been finished for nearly three weeks, and the half of the town that was receiving almost no water has been getting a consistent supply. For the next steps, we are working to provide for the sustainability of the project; David and I are formalizing the role (and political independence) of the Water Management Committee. We are also setting in place goals for further water systems improvement and steps for greater accountability. We will tie this work to hygiene education, particularly hand washing, in order to further reduce cases of typhoid, dysentery, and the like.

People here have a saying: Water is life. Simple, but startlingly true. Water IS life. We need it to simply be alive, but also to carry out all the basics acts of the day. I never realized how much water a person needed to function until I came here and saw that people shape their days around the need to collect water. (And shaped my own day around it as well).

Now, Misaje can say that there’s more water to go around.

Thank you all who helped to make this project possible.

“You’ve gotten fat!”

I’m learning that Cameroon can often be a place of blunt observations. And I am by no means excluded. Particularly after I have come back to post from traveling, but really at any time, do I get comments of how fat I’ve gotten.

In a world where not everyone has enough to eat, for some, telling me how fat I am is a compliment. I remember when I first arrived, village mamas would feed me lunch and tell me that I would ‘get so fat my mother wouldn’t recognize me!’ with the same excitement level as I would tell someone that there’s puppies next door to be played with. So with those people, I try to laugh off the sting of their comments as to my body and dig out the compliment underneath.

I also have had friends tell that I’m fat, and when I get offended, they tell me how they “like it”. Ah, nothing like being insulted and hit on at the same time!

In contrast to the fat ‘compliment’ I have also been told that I am “too fat” and that I “need to make more sport”. Or, while returning from a run, my neighbors have shouted at be to celebrate my efforts to “reduce” (aka lose weight). Let a girl at least unlace her shoes first!

Point of perspective, folks: I am not massively overweight. Have I gained some weight in country? Yes. Do I feel particularly happy about it? No. But can I still fit into my America jeans? Yes.

So perhaps the starch and palm oil based diet (plus the occasional need to drown my sorrows via some care package chocolate) is somewhat evident on my figure. But does that mean that everyone should mention it?

This absolutely falls under the category of cultural differences; In the US I would never dream of calling someone fat, or even mentioning a weight gain if they’re looking SLIGHTLY CURVIER than they use to be. As much as I can tell myself that (1) I’m not actually fat fat, it’s the language of extremes here and (2) People aren’t intending to be hurtful, it’s the culture, it always ticks me off and leaves me feeling like my body is on display, a common good of the village to be evaluated and discussed.

But thinking about it, in the US it is only culturally appropriate to make comments on someone’s body if they have lost weight. But really, shouldn’t the shape of someone’s body be no one’s business but their own? And while I’m not particularly stoked on my Cameroon-given curves, is that what we should be concerned about? Whether it’s seen as a positive or a negative, why are we evaluating my body on its shape? Or even evaluating me on my body at all?

I would much rather know that I am fit enough to run far or strong enough to carry something heavy than that my body fits within any culture’s range of the “ideal”. I would rather be judged by the quality of my work or my ability to make someone smile than whether or not I have a few extra curves.

“You’ve been missing!”

If someone from village hasn’t seen me for a while (being two days or a month, because I’ve been traveling, or staying at home sick, or our paths haven’t crossed, they will tell me: “You’ve been missing”.

Then the immediate follow up is: “What have you brought me?”

Often, my response, given with a big ol grin is “A smile”! We’ll have a good laugh at my ability to tell the same dumb jokes, and my failure to bring everyone from village a gift after every apparent disappearance is forgiven (until the next trip, at least).

Well, blogosphere, I’m seeing us having this conversation. And yes, in this case, you are taking the shape of a endearingly chubby Cameroonian Mami, complete with Pagne wrap skirt.

Mami Blogsphere: You’ve been missing!

Me: Well, yeah, I had this wedding to go to, and I’ve been sick, and I didn’t know what to wri—

Mami Blosphere: What did you bring me?

Me: A blog post to make you smile!

…And some hope for more interesting updates to come.

So, the community water project is well underway, with construction aiming to be completed in two weeks. I have been saying that for the last two weeks, but this time, I really think it’s true. I thought about writing a blog post mid work, but I realized this isn’t a story that can be told in the middle. I want all of you lovely people who have helped to support the project (either financially or just in the general, “go you” kind of support) to see this baby when it’s a fully grown, graceful adult, not when it’s a surly awkward teenager that keeps sneaking away to get a little drunk in the basement without anyone realizing. But, cliff notes: The funds were completed (big big thank you for those who donated) and the work is progressing, although not without its hiccups. The important thing is that it is on track for completion, and while water shortages are currently getting pretty rough, they will soon be resolved.

Instead of a meaty blog post about all of that, here’s some of the things that have recently brought me joy, which hopefully will bring you some in the process:

-That moment when I can hear the sound of water dripping against my kitchen sink, and realize, at least for a short second, that I have water. Then after, when I think about how I will soon have water all the time. Here’s to projects that improve my quality of life along with that of the villagers!

-Getting care packages. Half of the excitement is all of the american goodness awaiting me inside, but half of the happiness is the feeling of love from across the world. (Also applies to letters. send me one please: PO box 21, Misaje, Donga-Mantung Division, Northwest Region, Cameroon.) There’s a “Thank you plenty-oh” going out to my mom, grandma, and former postmate and forever friend Jaclyn for their recent care packages full of packaged goods and happiness and the scent of america. FYI for anyone thinking of sending me or any other PCV in their life a care package, the ultimate item: Girl Scout cookies. Auntie Jac knows what’s up.

-Unexpectedly finding new vegetables in my little village. True confessions: I may have been spotted doing a happy dance the day there were green beans in the market. #noshameforvegetablelove

-Support of PCV friends. Sometimes (often? always?) life is pretty dang hard here, and while the networks back home are invaluable, having people with whom you can see in person, or even just communicate with and not have to worry about a time change, who just get it all means the world. Especially for making it through these big (potentially difficult) landmark moments away from home, like birthdays, I can’t be more grateful for these wonderful fellow volunteers that I’m sharing this crazy rollercoaster of a service with.

Next up, for your reading pleasure, the full story, nuts to bolts, of the completed water catchment. I can’t wait to see it unfold and relay it back to you.