Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Club Quetions

July 31, 2008

My mom recently printed out my entire blog as a book for her book club. She sent me a list of questions that they all came up with after reading it. I figured the answers would be interesting for anyone that reads my blog. So, here you go…

1. How well do you like being in the Peace Corps?

It’s a huge roller coaster ride. People told me before I left that I will wonder why I’m here. I thought “Yeah, maybe.” The correct thought would have been “Yes, I definitely will.” The highs are just as high as the lows, though. It definitely takes a certain type of person to be a Peace Corps volunteer, but I wouldn’t change the experience that I’ve had thus far for anything.

2. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

I know that service to others is an important principle. It leads to humility, a reduction of our ego and our own self-importance. It is something that I strived towards in the states but found hard to do. The main reason I decided to join the Peace Corps was to dedicate myself, for two years of my life, to this principle. I also like to travel. We live in a very diverse world and we can’t pretend to understand it just with television and movies. Peace Corps gave me a chance to broaden my horizons and go somewhere that I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. The last reason was for the experience. I had talked to quite a few returned Peace Corps volunteers and heard only positive things. I went into it knowing that this experience would change me, not knowing how, but knowing it would be for the better.

3. Why Africa?

I told my recruiter that I wanted to go somewhere hot, where I would never have to wear a winter coat, and that I wanted to learn French. Those were my priorities and I knew exactly what they meant – Western Africa. I was alright with that. One of my best friends recently lost her father. He was an amazing, kind, and loving man. And he was obsessed with Africa. His parents forced him to go law or med school even though he didn’t want to be a doctor or lawyer. After law school he joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in West Africa, never to lose this fascination. When he got back he used his legal expertise and the help of a few good friends to create a fund that would invest in up-and-coming businesses in Africa. He was able to travel to Africa regularly, work to help the conditions there, and do a job that his parents could be proud of all at the same time. Hearing him talk about his work, I think a little bit of the fascination rubbed off.

4. What are some of the misconceptions you had about Africa before arriving?

I tried my hardest not to have any preconceptions about where I was going. I knew that whatever I thought, I would probably be wrong and/or disappointed. That didn’t mean I tried to open or clear any preconceptions. That meant “Don’t think about it!” Any time I did, I tried to go back to ‘knowing that this experience would change me, not knowing how, but knowing it would be for the better.’
Hmm…If I were the one to ask this question, I would probably think the response I gave was a cop-out. Maybe it is. Read the next question. I guess I fit into the category of ‘most Americans’ too.

5. What other misconceptions do you think most Americans have about Africa?

I think the biggest misconception is lack of diversity. It’s even in the wording of the question. An entire continent is seen as one homogeneous entity. Yes, pretty much everyone here is black. Yes, there is a lot of poverty. But beyond that, the country of Cameroon, let alone the entire continent is incredibly diverse. In Cameroon there are over 140 languages because there are that many different ethnic groups. Most everyone speaks French or English or Fulfuldé, but in addition to that, everyone also speaks their local dialect. Economic and social levels, while bottom heavy, are just as diverse. You can see people and even villages like American TV commercials that ask you to sponsor a child, but in the same day you might see someone drive by in a Mercedes wearing an expensive Italian suit. There are Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Animists, and Atheists here. I haven’t seen too many Jews, Hindus or Buddhists, but my friend actually found a Mormon church to go to in Douala. It is religiously diverse, too. If when someone says Africa, you think of a safari, there’s a whole lot more. The landscape is as diverse as the rest. Just in Cameroon, there are beautiful beaches, mountains, forests, jungles, plains, and savannah. Some areas are unbearably hot and humid. Others are unbearably hot but completely dry. In some towns, you need to wear a jacket regularly and wouldn’t even think about sleeping without a thick blanket.

6. What is the average Cameroonian person's perception of the U.S.?

For the average Cameroonian? One word – Utopia. It’s the same with developed countries in Europe. I’m constantly telling people that, while not at the same level, there is poverty and hardship in my country too. Some of them refuse to believe me. Others start to realize that they were thinking a bit idealistically. The majority of Cameroonians’ only opinion of Americans comes from the development workers and ex-patriots in their country. People doing development work are for the most part giving grants and computers and building roads. The conception is that they have way more than they need in their own country and so they are giving to others. This is somewhat true but it doesn’t apply to all Americans or ‘life in America.’ For ex-patriots, or people working in Cameroon, a meager American salary can go a long way here. They see the average ‘white man’ living in luxury a bit like their heads of state. Are our salaries larger than theirs? Absolutely, but one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that the cost of living in America is that much larger as well.

7. How do you experience corruption, if at all?

Just wrote my last blog on it. Check it out.

8. How effective do you think the Peace Corps is in promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding between the U.S. and Cameroon?

At times, I think the only, or maybe the most worthwhile thing that I am doing here is creating relationships, having conversations, and sharing culture. It’s so hard to see results for the other work that we do. Whenever you run into someone that says they were affected by a Peace Corps volunteer, they don’t talk about the well that was built in their town or their new understanding of health or agriculture. They talk about their relationship with that volunteer and how that changed their desires and motivations in life.
What would be different if there were no Peace Corps? Is the budget from American tax dollars worth it? I have no idea. The budget is just a drop in the well compared to all the other things we spend money on, but so am I compared to all of the other volunteers and staff so how would I know? My opinion, if I were forced to give one, would be that we do very little for the development of countries, but way more than an embassy ever could at exchanging culture and giving a positive view of Americans.

9. What do you personally hope to accomplish in Cameroon?

End up a better person.

10. Do you or other Peace Corps Volunteers worry about your safety when you are critical of the Cameroonian people and/or their government?

I would say I worry about my safety a lot more when I’m in a bush taxi (sorry to scare you mom). I did send the blog that I wrote about the strikes to the Peace Corps Country Director before I posted it. I wasn’t sure at the time what he would say, but he said there was no problem and that gave me a little more confidence in posting some of my other blogs, like the “What’s Wrong with Cameroon” series. I can be somewhat critical about Cameroonian culture. The main reason is that I found myself making excuses for behavior saying it’s just the culture. In my opinion there are some things that shouldn’t be excused, like hitting children. Please be reminded that I’m critical of my own culture too. I hate how consumer driven and material we’ve become, how all Muslims are seen as terrorists, and I critique the current US president often.

11. Do Cameroonians ever take offense at your efforts to make things better?

While I did hear about someone taking offense to the reading blog, I don’t think anyone has taken offense at my work on the ground. If anything, people want me to do more. A lot of people have requested to be a part of the next business classes, for me to teach computers, and to help with lots of projects that I don’t have time, money, or expertise for. Peace Corps’ approach is to offer time and expertise, not money. This is the contrary to the majority of the other ‘development players,’ so I do have some people that are disappointed that I’m not here to bring them money or fix their roads.

12. I wondered if the PC owns the houses in which they house their volunteers?

Each volunteer, when they leave, gives a recommendation of whether they think they should be replaced. Because the towns where there are volunteers are constantly changing, every volunteer house, at least in Cameroon, is rented.

13. Why is there a fee for enrollment in your business class - is this to make it seem not too free and easy for the students?

Yup. I could choose to enroll students however I want. What I chose to do the first time was to charge $10 for the class, which consisted of 12 two-hour sessions. I gave a discount to women and youth, charging just $6. The fee was to cover the cost of photocopies, marketing, and the classroom. It was also, probably most importantly, to make sure I had people who were motivated to come each week. I had a decent amount of money after the class to pay for a nice ceremony to give them their certificates. I think for the next run of classes, I will discount women and youth down to $4 and make more of an effort to market the class to them. I had three women and a two people under 30 out of my 20 students the first time.

14. It seems to me that you have to generate your own ideas for development -- is this true?

The Small Enterprise Development program of Peace Corps Cameroon has a detailed project plan. There are things like developing your host institution and the people in it, teaching business skills to entrepreneurs and in formal classes, creating resource centers, and creating linkages between micro-finance institutions, NGOs and community groups. Because I found out that my host institution didn’t actually need my help, self-starter has taken on a whole new meaning in my job description. There are some people that hardly ever work outside of their host institution (mostly micro-finance banks). I do have that project plan to get the wheels turning, but all projects start with me and my motivation. Creativity is definitely important in finding ways to initiate projects that will be appropriate, effective, and fun.

Thanks for the questions! You can add comments to ask more questions or follow up on any of my answers.



Katie Kermeen Swisher said...

Great post Tim! Your blog is such a great little window into a world other than my own. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

Great BLOG! I can’t wait to share it with my Book Club.
I thought your answer to #8 on how effective the Peace Corps is, was very telling. You said, “We do very little for the development of countries, but way more than an embassy ever could at exchanging culture and giving a positive view of Americans.” Don’t ever underestimate the value of exchanging culture and sharing your love.
I believe that is the only way we will ever create world peace. As Samahria Lyte Kaufman said, “Person to person, moment to moment, as we love, we change the world.” I think you have done way more than you realize.
Love, Mom

mama said...

Oh, moms:) My favorite was your answer to #8, too!! Yes, you are making a difference, just like the motivational posters say, but we really mean it!! Understanding the world is so much bigger than we can even imagine, but people all over are much the same; building relationships and better understanding other cultures--you are the richer for your experiences and we thank you for putting them into words to share, Tim.
Jo Ellen

mariel said...

Hi Tim,
I just read the Q and A on your blog. I have been meaning to get in touch with you for so long but Elias really keeps me on the run, especially these days. I would love to catch up, lately, since it is summer i have been reminded of the Barclay days and your famous limoncello. YUM! i no longer have your email address but my new one is Anyway, I am about to try and read as much of your blog tonight as possible , just wanted to drop you a line while time permits. mariel

Reza said...

Great work.