Monday, September 17, 2007

The Mix of Emotions


It’s come out in some of my other blog entries that I’ve often felt contrasting emotions at the same time. It started when I got my invitation to the Peace Corps. This week is no different. I’m starting to feel quite content with being able to live here and fit in – understand and be understood. I’m also quite frustrated. I came here to do good work and I’m still in the learning phase when it comes to all the bank work. I’ll take one at a time…and vent first.

So I was able to justify to myself for the first three months while I was in training, not feeling frustrated. I was there to learn, and when I got to post, I would start doing, well, whatever it was I came here to do. And I did learn some important cultural lessons as well as improving my French. I was even able to justify the first couple of weeks at post being primarily for learning. At least 80% of what you need to know for any job is learned on the job. Now I’ve been at post for over three weeks and it’s becoming obvious that the learning part of things is going to be going on for a while. It’s not just the learning that’s frustrating, though. It’s also what my role is when the “learning phase” is over. The obvious role is to take some of the workload off of my counterpart’s shoulders and become, essentially, an ADAF employee. But that’s not why I’m here, even if ADAF is doing a good job supporting microfinance banks that help communities and work to alleviate poverty. Number one, I don’t want to take the job of another Cameroonian, and number two, what happens when I leave? It all goes back to how it was before I got here. Where’s the sustainability in that? Creating a sustainable impact is incredibly challenging, but that’s the goal, and it’s hard to see right now how Peace Corps thought I would achieve that by posting me here.

Enough complaining, though. There’s good stuff too. This weekend I felt the most comfortable yet as far as living in Africa goes, and I don’t think it was just because I spent a lot of time with Americans. There are two volunteers that live very close and were at a conference in Yaoundé ever since we got to post. They got back this week and we had a chance to hang out this weekend. Other than making the best enchiladas ever conceived, there were a couple of instances that made me feel good about myself and like I was integrating into the community. The first was when we were all walking into town to go to the market. We passed two people in separate instances that I had met and talked to before. Both times, I saw them coming in the distance, recognized that I knew them, and came up with their names immediately so I could introduce them to my friends. Sounds like a small victory, but you’ve no idea how many names and faces I’m trying to learn right now. It’s easy for them to learn the name of the one new white guy in town, but to learn an entire community is difficult. Also on the way into town we passed loads of kids who all yelled “Bonjour Tim!” This is impressive because they all used to yell “Bonjour le blanc!” It took repeated efforts going over to them and introducing myself as Tim. “Now you can say ‘Hello Tim’ instead of ‘Hello white man,’” I would tell them. It took some repeated efforts but I think it’s finally stuck.

The second instance was going to visit a handicapped man in the hospital. One of my neighbors, a boy about 16 years old, had asked me if I would go talk to someone he knew who was handicapped. I found it a bit strange because that was essentially the first thing he said to me, but told him to come back on Saturday when I had more time. I had honestly forgotten about it preparing enchiladas with three other Americans when he knocked at the gate. I told my friends about it and we all decided to go.

He knew that one person was coming to visit him, but when he saw four, he was moderately ecstatic. You could tell that we really made his day. We stayed and talked for a little over an hour, him explaining the condition of his legs and how he loves the US and Canada because the rights we give to handicapped persons. In the end he gave me a large sack, probably 4-5 kilos, of dried soy beans (still not sure how I’m going to use them, but I plan on researching veggie burger recipes) and a letter that he had taken the effort to write in English.

When I got home and read the letter it was almost all about getting some kind of priority health card that would take care of all his medical expenses. That kind of turned me off from the whole experience as there are lots of people here looking for handouts. He was in a lot more need than the others that ask, though, so I don’t think I can blame him for trying.

I’ve decided I’d like to go back and visit him. I’ll explain that I can’t really help with the health card but I can come and talk once a week or so. I’m still learning at the bank, but it doesn’t take any training to have a conversation with a man in the hospital.


Monday, September 10, 2007

My Life as a Volunteer


As the weirdness wanes, I’m stating to see a slight glimpse of what my life and my role in this community over the next two years are going to be like. Going into the bank and starting a routine has helped immensely with both reducing the weidness and giving me an idea of what I’m doing here. That’s not to say that I can see myself making a difference or even feeling comfortable in my role for a few months, just that it’s on the horizon, almost within reach.

Because I don’t want it to be the only thing I do in the community, and because I’m not completely settled into my house yet, I go into work from 7:30 to noon, Monday through Friday. That gives me time in the afternoon to do errands and things. Everything takes longer here, so I use all of each afternoon. Last weeks’ consisted of lots of trips to the electric company to get them to finally turn on the power at my house.

My work at the bank so far isn’t really work – it’s learning. I have about 5 manuals on statutes, rules, and regulations that I’m going through. Half of what I do is to take notes on the manuals and the other half is to take notes on the technical French vocab that I don’t understand.

I don’ think I’ve mentioned too much in my blogs about the institutions I’m working with so I’ll try to give a brief description. My counterpart, Pierre, is the only employee for this regional branch of ADAF (Appropriate Developement for Africa Foundation). ADAF is a non-profit organization that audits and gives advice to MC2s (Mutual Communautaire de Croisance). MC2s are microfinance institutios that do savings and loan services for rural, poor, and minority populations (women and youth). Both ADAF qnd MC2 were started by Afriland First Bank, which is where my office is here in Nkongsamba. There are 14 MC2s in this region. Anytime one of them has a credit committee meeting, where they decide to whom to extend loans, or a meeting of the board of directors, ADAF has to be present. ADAF also does regular audits of all the banks.

Thursday, I had my first chance to travel as there was a credit comittee meeting in Melong, 20 minutes away. We left at 2:30 and Pierre told me we would be back by 6:00. I had already planned to make Mexican food with Tara, who lives in the neighboring village and that would give just enough time for dinner.

When we got there, I got a tour of the bank and the meeting only started 15 minutes late, which from what I’ve experienced and been told, is quite early. One of the first things I noticed in the meeting was that my French was not where it needed to be. It was scary how much I didn’t understand.

While the meeting started nearly on time and seemed at first to be progressing smoothly, the efficiency decreased as time went on. Disputes about whether or not to extend loans started taking longer and becoming harder to settle. As I looked at the time throughout the meeting, I started realizing that being back by 6:00 wasn’t going to happen. At first I thought, “I can be back by 6:15.” Then I thought, “maybe it’ll be 6:30.” As the meeting was almost over and I was thinking 6:45 at the latest, the youngest person there started making his way around the room asking what kind of beer everyone wanted. “Let’s be realistic...7:15.” Then they brought in the food. This is not your normal American meeting. It wasn’t even just a small snack. It was dinner. There was chicken, beef, sausage, and fish, with pineapple for dessert. It didn’t bother me that there wasn’t any vegetarian option other than the pineapple. I was more concerned with getting home to start preparing food and not keeping my friend waiting.

Pierre agreed to eat auickly and we made it back by 8:15. Things in Africa just take a long time. Proof is that Tara, who was supposed to be done with her commitments by 3:00, didn’t make it over until 10:00. On va faire comment? (What are you gonna do?)


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Start of the Next Two Years of My Life


I’m here. I made it to post. What’s it like living your first week as a Peace Corps Volunteer? Weird.

About 30 minutes have passed as I ponder how to accurately describe the weirdness. If you really want to know what it feels like, go to The application process takes 6-12 months. Otherwise, I’ll do my best to give some of the reasons.

The first is the stark contrast with training. We used to have mandatory classes 6 days a week; now we can make our own schedule. We used to have trainers and staff hovering over us to answer our questions and look out (a little too much) for our safety; now we’re on our own. We used to hang out in big groups of Americans speaking English; now it’s me, my post-mate 10 minutes away, and a lot of French. We used to eat the food our Cameroonian family served; now we make our own and do the dishes. We used to live in a family where there was always someone around; now there’s a lot of alone time.

The next thing that makes it weird are the expectations. While I’m good at not setting specific ones, I do kind of expect the overall experience to be great and to change my life. But when is that going to happen? If I were to go home right now, would I say my experience was great? Would I say it changed my life? Is there a specific time when that happens? I don’t really expect to write on my blog sometime over the next two years - Aha! It happened. My life is changed and my Peace Corps experience has crossed the line. It is now great! There’s a cheesy saying that no two Peace Corps experiences are the same - yours is what you make of it. If that’s true, then what could I be doing differently to change my experience, or what would someone else in my shoes be doing differently? Too many questions. Too few answers. It’s just weird.

The other thing that’s weird is feeling the weirdness start to slowly wear off. Is it really going to feel normal living in Africa? …Weird.

I’ll try to give some more specifics on what my life is actually like next week. I need to go to bed now because I start my first day at the bank tomorrow morning.

Stay Well,