Friday, June 29, 2007

The People/Homestay

The People

So I thought I was going to write once a week about all the things that had happened in the last 7 days. That might work later on, but as I said in my last post, there is just too much going on in my head and in my surroundings. I’m going to try to break things down, for now, into categories - this one being The People.

I started meeting my fellow volunteers on Wednesday in Philadelphia. We were all easy to spot in the hotel. None of our rooms were ready so there were lots of people chatting in the lobby among piles of luggage - big pieces, lots of backpacking packs, and everything over-stuffed. Some of us were more shy and some of us were more outgoing, but everyone was talking by the end. There were 80 of us at the hotel and we quickly found out that half of us were going to Cameroon and the other half was off to Peru. Not that they weren’t just as nice, but there were far too many people all going to Cameroon, soon to be family that we didn’t know anything about so we didn’t socialize much with the Peru group. The 39 of us handed in our forms and began our orientation pretty soon after. The sessions started with getting to know everyone, and then progressed towards preparing our minds for whatever laid beyond that 24 hour trip ahead of us. It’s been really fun to slowly learn the names, the hometowns, and little bits of information about all of my counterparts here. There are 4 “older” volunteers (sorry for the adjective if one of you is reading this) and the rest of us are in our 20’s. All of us have been to college, one even has his doctorate. Some of us are in the small business program and others will be teaching English, science, or computers. It’s amazing how well traveled everyone is too! More than half the group have lived in another country, three have been to Africa, and everyone has left the US at least once before. As we realize how similar our emotions are, it’s becoming easier and easier to share our fears and expectations.

The Peace Corps staff has been absolutely amazing as well. They’ve been doing this for so long that everything flows incredibly smoothly, they have all the answers to all of our questions, and are really invested in our safety, health, training, and happiness. That goes for the staff in Philly and Cameroon. I feel really privileged to be a part of this group and this program. I’ve made it my goal to give back as much as I receive during my stay in Cameroon…It’s becoming quite lofty.



I think I wrote already that our first 5 days in Cameroon were in a hotel in the capital, Yaoundé. The hotel was great! We had 3 meals a day served to us and there was a bar and patio where we could all hang out. We all knew we were being sheltered. We knew it wasn’t anything like our experiences to come. We knew they did it that way on purpose. And we were okay with it.

Then came Thursday, and along with it, many emotions. That afternoon we traveled to a new city for training, where we would stay for the next 11 weeks with a host family. We were excited to experience the “true” Africa. We were also scared to death. We were about ready to immerse ourselves into a culture we still barely knew and a new (for some more than others) language. We had also heard horror stories of rabid pet monkeys, over-zealous Jehovah’s Witnesses, and kids that would poke you for hours or stare at you non-stop until you physically led them out of your room. (We heard good stories too.)

After a four hour bus ride, we arrived at the town hall of a medium sized city in the West Province. All the families were already waiting inside. These were our instructions: “Line up inside. We’ll call the name of a family and the name of a trainee. And off you’ll go. We’ll see you in the morning.”

And that’s how it went. I don’t think I can convey actually how terrifying the process was. I can remember thinking “I hope I’m not first. Oh wait, I don’t want to be last either.” Rationally, we knew everything would be okay, and if it wasn’t, Peace Corps would fix it. But it was definitely one of those few moments in my life where my rationale was nowhere to be found.

In the end, everything went alright. I wasn’t taken away first or last, and the family I was paired with is quite nice. There are two parents and two children (much smaller than the average Cameroonian family). There is a 7 year old son who is very cute and an older daughter who left on vacation when school let out. I have still yet to meet her after a week. The mother is an English teacher and the father is a guidance counselor for all the schools in the town. We stay on the second story of a building with three apartments and a boutique (I consider it Cameroon’s version of a 7-11 with a small place to drink your beer). The apartment has 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room and a kitchen. There is running water, although it is only cold and quite sporadic. It can be off anywhere from 1-24 hours at a time and on average, we have water 4 out of every 7 days. We have electricity which is also sporadic. Sometimes we have water and electricity. Sometimes we have one or the other, and sometimes we have neither. It’s a way of life here and you get used to it pretty quickly. There are oil lamps to see with and full buckets of water in the bathroom to bathe with when needed. The bucket baths are almost better because the water is not quite so cold.

My room is very nice. I have a bed, a simple desk, a trunk, and a closet for my things. It’s nice to have a little safe haven to get away from our busy days, even though most of my time awake in my room is spent studying French or reading articles on business or development.

Communication right now is slow. I can generally get out whatever I need to say in a roundabout way, but understanding others is a little harder. It is getting better though. Just tonight I noticed I was understanding small pieces of dialogue on TV.

Television is an interesting thing here. I think it’s relatively new and/or a sign of status. The people that have TVs watch them. What I’ve found to be most popular are French game shows as well as soap operas from Burkina Faso and those overdubbed in French from Argentina. It’s possible I’ve got it all wrong though. We get our signal from the family downstairs and whenever they change the channel, our TV changes too.

More to come,


Anonymous said...

You are such a good writer! I love reading about your experiences. I laughed when I read the part about the TV changing channels when the people downstairs changed their TV. Have I told you I brag to all my friends about my son in the Peace Corp. I am so proud of you!!! Love, Mom

lesly said...

WOW. You sound wonderful and so does everything else! I was happy, happy to speak to you on the phone - despite the connection.
Your writing is lovely. Now we can really imagine you in Africa. Miss you still but so pleased to read the blog. Saw Brian and Sylvia in the park today and they will be moving into the new house very soon- life changes fast. I love to think you are doing one (or more in your case) thing a day that scares you. A beautiful way to live.
Love and peace, talk to you next week or so.