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.


1 comment:

AlBarb said...

Hi Tim - We live across the street from your folks in Fairfield Glade TN. I am retired home economist/teacher and Al is retired chemist who loves to cook. We really enjoy your folks and they shared your blog. What a fascinating journey you are having. Can you really find the fixings there for Mexican food? Are there farmers markets and what are the grocery stores like? They say you can make about anything from soy beans - that should be a challenge for you! We wish you to stay safe. Barbara and Al Revere