Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Au Revoir Cameroun

July 31, 2009

I am writing this blog from my hotel room in Casablanca, Morocco. My two years with the Peace Corps are finished and I’m on my way home. I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) but not quite a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) as I haven’t made it home yet. It’s this weird state of limbo where everything feels like a dream. I won’t see Cameroon at least for a few years if ever again. And I’m going back to Denver to live with my sister in a house I’ve never seen and a city I’ve only visited a couple of times. The past is already a blur and the future is almost completely void of the known. Everytime I drift out of sleep, in the middle of the night or on a plane, I have to remind myself where I am and what I’m doing (the fact that I’m reading a book about a paranoid schizophrenic probably isn’t helping either). I also was never supposed to see more than the airport in Casablanca. After missing my flight and them losing track of my baggage (including Saki) for over three hours, I’ve now been put up in a lush hotel and just finished an amazing buffet dinner, also on the house. The only downside to this impedement is that they won’t let Saki in the room with me. The only option was to have him locked up in his cage in a storage room (Sorry Saki! If I could explain it to you, I think you’d understand that it was worth the pain and effort to come back with me.). They would let me check on him every hour or so if I wanted, but I think that would just make things harder on him. Luckily, he’s turned out to be a great traveler. We were able to take a walk earlier on this incredibly flat, sandy Saharan earth through a residential neighborhood under development. Once again: surreal – bull dozers and cement trucks passing by in this strange mix of Arab culture and post-French colonization. Morocco seems like a really interesting place, but I feel like you’d have to know Arabic to get a real taste of it.

I had a good friend of mine recently remind me that I owed at least one or two more blogs before I threw in the towel. It’s been a little while since I’ve posted an entry. The reason is that these last few weeks at post were also eerily dreamlike. They somehow flew by and dragged on at the same time. There were a couple of weeks with constant visitors as the new Small Enterprise Development and Education volunteers came on site visit. Rhet and Rachel, a recently married couple, will be replacing me in Nkongsamba. It was great to get to know them and to show them around the intricacies of the town that took me the greater part of two years to really get to know. The week after the site visit was just used to pack up, say my goodbyes, and snap all of the pictures I’d been meaning to take but hadn’t for fear of looking like a tourist. Then, I left Nkongsamba for the PC transit house in the capital. Instead of transitioning from Nkongsamba to America, I transitioned from Nkongsamba to Cameroon around a bunch of Americans to America – a smoother approach. The week in Yaoundé is to finalize all administrative paperwork and get checked out for any parasites or other endemic maladies that might have been picked up along the way. That being done, I took a bus to Douala and hopped on a plane for Morocco. Once I leave Casablanca it looks like I’ll have to spend a couple nights in New York City (one more than expected) before making my way to my new home in Denver.

I’m planning on putting one last blog entry up to describe, as best I can, the readjustment process, but I might need a little prodding for it to happen. Right now, all it feels like there is to say is ‘Au revoir Cameroun.’


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Saki Revisited

June 30, 2009

Here are some pictures of Saki. In the last ones I posted he was still a little puppy.

These first three are from January when we hiked to the top of Mount Manengouba together. I try to take him on a hike at least once a week, but we've only gotten this high twice.

Still in January, one of Saki's favorite treats is coconut. I always have to help him open it though.

By February, He had outgrown his old sleeping spot.

Lounging around the house (the rest of the pictures are all very recent)

Doing whatever necessary for treats

His new cage. He seems to like it now; lets see what he thinks after the plane rides.

If I'm on the bed and he wants attention, he'll rest his head on the edge. It's pretty affective.

Daddy's boy

Monday, June 22, 2009

Next Steps

June 19, 2009

The end of my two years of service with the Peace Corps and a big transition in my life is on the horizon. I’ve had a few people ask me ‘what’s next?’

Since being in Cameroon I’ve definitely reinforced the idea that I don’t need to be finding the job or picking the career track that makes me the most money. First and foremost, I want to be satisfied with the type and quality of work that I do. I’ve also learned that unlike the majority of people, I’m very comfortable getting up and talking in front of groups of people – my time studying saxophone performance probably eliminated the last of those fears. Add that to my knack and fondness for math and critical thinking, and the conclusion is something that I never thought I would say: I want to be a high school math teacher. When I first had the idea it sounded crazy even to me. I thought it would pass after a couple of days or weeks. But it hasn’t. It’s been about three months and the more I think about it the more I want to pursue it.

My plans for the next year start with me flying from Cameroon to Denver, with my dog Saki, to live for a while with my sister, Michelle. My parents will fly out for a week to visit shortly after I arrive. I’ll probably take a week sometime thereafter to go visit the rest of my family in Indiana and maybe a side trip to see friends in Baltimore. Once I’ve settled a little in Denver, I’ll probably look for a job with a non-profit in the area as I start filling out applications for grad school that would start either the summer or fall of 2010. Peace Corps has some great fellows programs that cover huge chunks of tuition and start you in the classroom right away. I’ll probably look there first, but might also check out Teach for America and some other inner-city programs.

Luckily I still have a few more weeks of 7 Habits classes to teach that are keeping my mind occupied. Otherwise it’d be in another continent. I’ll try to put up some Saki pictures for next week. He still acts like a puppy, but looks all grown up!


Saturday, June 13, 2009


June 13, 2009

In my request for feedback a few weeks ago I got an interesting note about depression. Here is the gist of it:

“Being a Cameroonian living now in the US, the one thing I notice here that really put me off is Depression. I mean I never seen anybody being depressed in Cameroon even though we don’t have it there easy… So do you think I’m right about Depression not being common in Cameroon. And if indeed I am, how do you explain that people are more depressed in the US with all the facilities to life they have?”

This topic came up in a conversation I had a few months ago. It’s very interesting because I agree with the reader. I don’t see depression in Cameroon either. Why? I’ll explore some of the possibilities in this post, but please keep in mind that I don’t really have the basis to have a professional opinion on this matter.

Firstly, there is a difference in culture – collective versus independent. If someone in the US is sad because a loved one died or they lost their job, generally they’ll want to be alone, to work out their problems, emotions, and thoughts on their own time. We might do something nice like prepare a meal for someone that recently lost their spouse but would by no means impose on them that we eat it together. Cameroonians, on the other hand, will generally tackle their pain or sadness together, either as a large extended family or as a community. A Cameroonian burial is a much longer and involved process than in the states. In some tribes the wife of the deceased will wear black and sit on the living room floor, even sleep there, for an entire week as family and friends fill the house and give their condolences. I remember in my Peace Corps training someone suggesting that we not tell people we are sad because in American-speak that’s usually code for “I want to be left alone.” In Cameroonian-speak it would more likely mean “I need you to stay with me until you’ve helped me overcome my sadness.” Being sad is not really a normal emotion save for prescribed times like when you’re dressed in black sitting on your living room floor. Or even during the long burial process, there is a certain time when everyone else allows themselves to feel sad and cry about the loss. To my American eyes it looks quite bizarre when that prescribed time for sadness is over and everyone seemingly goes back to normal. What does this mean regarding depression? Well, it might mean that a Cameroonian would be more likely to seek out help before an American, that he would see unexplained sadness as abnormal and work to rectify the situation immediately.

Another issue is pharmaceutical companies and psychologists. I think it is safe to say that depression is over-hyped and over-diagnosed in the US. Either the cause or an effect of that is that prescription drugs for depression are over-advertised and pushed very hard on medical professionals. There was a study a couple of years ago that showed that a lot of people being diagnosed with depression were in fact just sad because of concrete circumstances in their lives. One reason that Americans seem more depressed than Cameroonians could be due to this factor. Depression is in your face so often that maybe we’re not as depressed as we think. Either we’re being diagnosed wrong or we just think lots of other people are depressed because of how much advertising we’re subjected to. Or maybe the rate of depression is high and it’s precisely due to these issues. Maybe all this talk about depression is making people depressed. A constant worry about whether or not you’re depressed, whether or not you should take Prozac or Zoloft could eventually create a placebo effect that turns your worries into reality. Our minds often have more power than we realize.

Another possibility – fish. I think I remember reading that Japan has the lowest rate of depression of any country that has conducted such a study. Many people attribute that low rate to omega-3s, something found in fish oil that is said to counteract depression. The fact that Japanese eat lots of fish and therefore take in large quantities of omega-3s is a possibility for why they are so rarely depressed. Cameroonians also eat lots of fish. Even if you don’t have the money to eat fresh or frozen fish, you will still most likely flavor your sauces with dried shrimp and other small fish. The North, being much farther away from the sea, though, has a much more beef-centered diet. It would be interesting to hear the opinion of someone from the North regarding Cameroonians and depression.

Looking beyond psychological and nutritional possibilities, maybe it’s genetic. Maybe the genetic code of Cameroonians simply doesn’t allow for depression and Americans have an overabundance of people with the ‘depression gene’. This would be the easiest way to explain this matter. And maybe what I was saying with regard to Cameroonian customs is an effect of and not the cause for a people without sadness. I think I have a mild cycle of depression and it didn’t stop when I got to Cameroon. Of course I could never consider myself 100% culturally Cameroonian and being vegetarian I don’t eat fish, but this could still indicate that it’s a genetic and not a local phenomenon. There are several pockets of Cameroonian communities in the States. Having plenty to miss with regard to their homeland, food and culture, it would be interesting to know if they still go without depression.

Whatever the answer, there is one thing that the reader alluded to that I completely disagree with and that’s the idea that ‘facilities of life’ should diminish depression. One thing I’ve learned being here is that the human body and the human mind are incredibly adaptable. I often tell the story of Victor Frankl to my 7 Habits classes. His family was exterminated, and he was imprisoned and experimented on in a Nazi concentration camp. But despite all of this mental and physical torment, he took comfort in finding space between a stimulus and his response – his ability to choose his reaction no matter how dire his situation. He knew that this freedom was one quality that the Nazis could never take away from him. He found a way to be mentally at ease in a death camp! No matter what the circumstances our body and psyche will work to find some level of comfort in its surroundings. Circumstances are never objective. They are relative to each person and even in time. What has a negative affect on me now might be completely neutral in one year’s time. It’s very possible that a 15 year old will suffer through more stress and anguish when her first boyfriend breaks up with her than someone else when their mother dies. It is in our nature to try to make things objective – a middle school boyfriend is less important than one’s mother, life in the US is easier than life in Cameroon – but life, and especially our emotions, are not that way. Along these same lines, someone who has three houses, five cars, and a yacht probably has a bigger desire for stuff than someone living without hardly any amenities. Often the more stuff we have, the more we want. When we have very little it’s more likely, though not always true, that we learn to like and live with what we have. Jesus alluded to this when he said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” If anything, the facilities of life and the stuff that Americans have more of don’t make our existence easier but just create even more desires which could in turn cause depression

I’d be very interested to get more opinions on this subject, whether you’re Cameroonian, American, or just have an idea, let me know what you think. And if you’re a psychology student looking for a thesis or a reason to fill out a Fulbright application, maybe this is your ticket.


Monday, June 8, 2009

Lessons I’ve Learned IV – Proud to be an American

June 6, 2009

Joining the Peace Corps and moving to Cameroon wasn’t the first time I left the United States. I’ve been to Canada and a few places in Europe, but it’s the first time I’ve lived abroad. For this and maybe some other reasons, it’s the first time I’ve really identified myself as an American. Before, it was just where I happened to be born. I didn’t think it really changed the person I had come to be. I knew that it changed the circumstances and opportunities I had grown up around but I never realized how American I had become.

One thing I’ve learned about myself since joining the Peace Corps is how culturally American I actually am and how proud of that fact I have become. I have heard some people say that America doesn’t have a culture – that all of our traditions come from elsewhere, that compared to Europe or the rest of the world we don’t really have our own set of customs. I couldn’t disagree more. Look at the fourth of July, Halloween, Easter, and Christmas – Americans have very specific traditions for these and every other holiday. Then there are some countries who complain of their culture disappearing. What’s replacing it? McDonalds, Pizza Hut, the NBA, and R&B – American culture. But our culture goes deeper than what we do and eat and listen to. It goes to the core, our way of seeing life and the way we think life should be. Americans have a strong desire for hard work, efficiency (sometimes too much), freedom, and democracy. While we don’t live in this utopia, we still strive for these ideals. We have a need to give equal treatment and opportunities to all. I like that. If a CEO of a Fortune 500 company wants to buy a copy of the Economist in an airport press shop, he’ll still wait for the 5 year old kid in front of him wanting a candy bar. He might think in his mind that he is more important and know that he’s in a bigger hurry than the kid, but he will wait nevertheless. This is something I took for granted before joining the Peace Corps. It’s easy to think that concepts like ‘unalienable rights’, ‘a more perfect union’, and freedom of speech are just things that we learn in school, only important for judges or politicians. But these concepts seep into our very being. We come to respect them without even knowing how important they are to us. We are very lucky to have the principles of our nation created by the founding fathers. They were very enlightened men. And those principles do not exist only on old parchments on display in museums. They exist in the hearts and minds of Americans.

One very concrete event and advance toward that ‘more perfect union’ was the election of Barack Obama. I have no need to hide the fact that I am a big supporter of Obama, but even those who don’t like his policies must admit that his election was a very important step in moving reality closer to our ideals. It brought us closer to our ideals of racial equality. The actual election of Barack Obama didn’t change the reality of the US or its people but there was a shift of paradigm, or our way of interpreting that reality. There are many who believed there was a glass ceiling for blacks or other minorities. There are still plenty of hardships to overcome but no more ceiling. And that paradigm shift was not only for Americans or of America. I think I am safe in sayting that the majority of Cameroonians see themselves, or at least think they are seen by the West, as second-class citizens of the world. The election of one of their own, an African American with a Kenyan father, into the highest political office in the world brought with it respect and pride for those outside of America too.

But Obama’s campaign was about more than race. It talked about our ideals and hopes in just about every domain – about not settling for what we have but always striving for what we want and know to be right even if it seems unattainable. A simple example of this is gaining the necessary intelligence to win a war on terrorism without torturing detainees. Agree or disagree, it’s your right. Before boarding that plane for Africa, one could have rightly labeled me as an idealist. After two years a lot of realism has seeped in about the possibility (or lack thereof) of changing the world but I still appreciate the importance of ideals. We will never make it to that perfect utopian society, but if we don’t try to move towards it we’ll stay in the same place forever.

Barack Obama is just a man, but he represents a lot to a lot of people. I’m proud he’s my president. I’m proud that he stands for my ideals. And I’m proud to be an American.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lessons I've Learned III - Frankness

May 26, 2009

If one were to generalize Cameroonian and American culture, they would find that Americans are generally more frank – they share what’s on their mind. Cameroonians on the other hand will be more likely to tell you what you want to hear – ‘The bus will leave in 5 minutes.’ or ‘The item you’re looking for will be in stock tomorrow.’ It’s not that they’re lying; in their culture they’re just being polite.

Something that I’ve learned about myself since being in Cameroon is that I’m frank. And not just in the sense that Americans are frank – I take it to a new level. Maybe you’ve noticed that in my blogs. But I’m not sure I was always like this. I think living among a culture that will tell you what you want to hear has pushed me in the opposite direction. I want to know what’s going on, to cut through the BS and not play games – honesty at all costs. Here is a typical conversation that I might have while waiting for a bush taxi to leave.

“How long will it be before the bus leaves?”
“Five minutes.”
“Is it really going to leave in five minutes or are you just telling me that? I’ve already bought my ticket. I’m not going to go find another bus to take. I just want to know if I have time to go eat a croissant.”
“Maybe 30-45 minutes.”
“Thank you!”

As you can see, sometimes it can be very affective. And the man that told me the bus would leave in five minutes wouldn’t be offended at all. He knows the reality and in some way I think he respects a foreigner that understands him so well. Or at least he’ll get a good laugh.

But this quality of mine also has its down sides. Just a couple weeks ago, nearing the end of my service when I think I’ve figured everything out and I can navigate Cameroonian culture without problem, I stuck my foot in my mouth in a pretty big way. I was trying to secure a classroom where I could teach my 7 Habits adult class. Once, at the beginning of my service, I gave a business class to adults and used a government office devoted to community development. The man in charge let me use the classroom but charged me to have it cleaned after every class. I didn’t know then, but found out later that the money I gave him for cleaning just went into his pocket. In protest, I tried not to work with him anymore, but here I was in need of a classroom. Using the classroom I had used before would be the simplest way to get these classes off the ground and I didn’t have much time. I went in to talk to the same man as if there was no problem whatsoever – I just wanted to use the classroom again. We worked out all of the details regarding availability, number of chairs, everything. It was all set. I was ready to get up to leave – I remember putting my hands on the arms of the chair to stand up when he said ‘…and you’ll pay for the cleaning like last time, too, right?’ I wasn’t upset, just a little surprised that he would go there. I said very clearly and calmly no, I needed the classroom but wouldn’t pay for the cleaning. He pushed a little harder for the cleaning money and so I said, still in the same calm manner, ‘last time I was new to the community and to Cameroon. I didn’t know better. You tricked me. No hard feelings, but this time I’m not going to pay.’ This didn’t make him very happy, but I knew that I was right so I pushed it a little further. I told him that many of my Cameroonian friends had also told me that he had gotten the better of me. At this point he asked me for their names. I told him that the prefecture gives him a budget to pay for the cleaning of his offices and that he didn’t need my money. He refused, showing me a broom in the corner and claiming he was the one that did most of the cleaning (even though he has a secretary and several other employees under him). Then I brought up the fact that that the classroom was rarely even cleaned after our classes. This comment didn’t make him very happy. I asked him how much he had paid the local neighborhood boy to clean the classroom each time. I had given him 9000F to clean the room 12 times – way more than enough. He took this as a direct implication that he pocketed the majority of the money and was furious. ‘Every franc that you gave me went to the cleaning of that classroom!’ Oops! It was here that I realized that while still speaking calmly and without emotion, being more and more frank with the details was only getting me into more and more trouble (yes, I should have realized this earlier). He would absolutely never admit to what he did. If so, there was a possibility that it would come back to bite him. This was a chance he was not willing to take. He would deny, deny, deny until his face turned blue. What he needed and what I should have done from the beginning was to stroke his ego. I should have approached the situation saying ‘I know I paid for the cleaning last time, boss, but this time I don’t have the money. The classes are for the development of the community. I’m a volunteer and don’t have a salary. You’re such a big man in the community. I was hoping you could cover the cleaning this time.’

What actually happened was that I spent about an hour trying to smooth things over. After a lot of talking, he told me that I should write an official request to his boss for a partnership between the Peace Corps and his office. He claimed that he didn’t get any credit for the last class that I gave and this way he would be able to put it into his report. I thought it was implied, though it wasn’t stated, that this way I wouldn’t have to pay for the cleaning. It turns out that this was just a hoop to jump through, a way to tie up the process in bureaucracy. He was quite surprised when I showed up the next morning at his boss’ office to deliver the request. Obviously I didn’t read between the lines to know that he was just trying to get rid of me. The request is still collecting dust. I just think it’s funny (and quite ironic) that to get rid of me he asked for the creation of a partnership.

I ended up going to the mayor’s office to request the use of the town hall for the class. He agreed and didn’t charge for cleaning. Classes start next Tuesday. I’m still not sure if this quality is something that is going to stick with me when I get back to the states. Honesty at all costs has its good points and a lot of people find it refreshing, but it could probably get me into as much trouble when I go home, too.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lessons I've Learned II - Mission Statements

May 20, 2009

I’ve learned that mission statements not only have an enormous impact on setting goals and direction, but they also help to motivate you to keep moving in that direction. Here’s mine:

Personal Mission Statement
Tim Hartman
Created: March 17, 2008

Because through giving comes wealth, I will always seek to serve others first. I will accept everyone and defend those not present. I will be giving of my time and talents while cherishing opportunities to be alone, to think, to meditate and evaluate.
I will never assume I’ve figured it all out, always seeking to further my understanding of why I’m here. I will keep a calmness around my life that brings myself and others peace.
I will use solid judgment doing my best in everything I do, refusing to be discouraged by setbacks or failure.

This is what I created in a period of soul-searching after the national strikes in February 2008. I was frustrated, feeling that Cameroonians didn’t have very much motivation to improve their quality of life and I needed, once more and more seriously this time, to pose myself the question ‘What am I doing here?’ I took a few days off and rented a tent by myself on the beach in Limbé. I did a lot of evaluating, reading, reflecting, and of course relaxing. This was one of the very tangible outcomes of what I called a ‘fix myself’ vacation.