Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reading Follow-up:

October 15, 2008

I wrote a blog on reading in Cameroon in which I described how reading, whether for business, learning or pleasure, is just not common here. I talked about how it’s not promoted in school, but also showed that the price and availability of books here make it nearly impossible for someone to get into reading in the first place. Then, I asked you, my readers, to send me books. For those of you that have already sent books, thank you so much!!! I wanted to give you an update on what I decided to do with your contributions.

A few weeks ago, I headed to Tiko in the Southwest Province. It is rather small town in between Doaula, the commercial hub of Cameroon, and Limbé, one of two popular beach towns. It is also the home of my friends and fellow Peace Corps volunteers Joe and Debbie. Looking at my options for where to distribute the books, it had to be in one of the Anglophone provinces, so either the Northwest or the Southwest. I didn’t want too big of a town, because of the smaller scale of my operation and because bigger towns already have more resources. And the last of my criteria was that I wanted to go to a town with a Peace Corps volunteer. I needed to have a lot of trust in someone that knew their community well and would have good ideas about how to distribute the books and to whom. Tiko seemed the perfect fit. So I packed a small bag, gathered all the books that were sent into one big box, added a few of my own to give away, and jumped on a bush taxi for the 5-hour trip.

When I arrived in Tiko, Joe met me on the road leading to his house and we hopped on a moto because the box of books was pretty heavy. I think I’ve talked about this before, but Joe and Debbie’s hospitality, their house, the fact that they live where people speak English – add it all up and it’s just really easy to feel at home there. I always like visiting them. The first day, it poured non-stop. And when I say non-stop, I mean for 24 hours straight. When that happens, nobody does anything but stay in their house. We had a very relaxful day with great food. We read and napped, made crepes for breakfast and enchiladas for dinner, and in the evening we watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics (when the rain didn’t cut out the signal).

The next day, when the rain finally died down, Debbie and I set off to donate the books. We had already decided who we wanted to give them to. Joe and Debbie had two good ideas when I arrived. One was to give them to the library in Tiko – small, a little run down, and in need of more books. The other was in Ombé, a town nearby, that has an orphanage Debbie had visited a couple of times. The decision came easily to donate the books to the orphanage. The library already had some books, it just needed more. And it takes a lot of initiative to walk into a library for the first time, probably never having been in one before and not knowing the system. The orphanage gave us a chance to put the books into someone’s living room. But it wouldn’t just affect one family. There would be 50 or more kids of all ages with more continuing to cycle through. Then there’s the fact that they’re orphans and they have so much working against them already. I really liked the idea of being able to give this opportunity to those kids. And any time I went back to the area, I would be able to see the kids, talk about which books they’d read, and get an idea of the impact they’re having.

So Debbie and I set off to Ombé, to the Rhema Grace Orphanage. The taxi drove us to the door and there were already some kids there waiting for our arrival. They love having visitors! They set out all the chairs in their main hall and greeted us by singing dancing and drumming. Some songs were religious, some were traditionally African, and a few were literally saying ‘welcome to our home.’ After the festivities, we passed out the books. I’ll try to get a picture or two up soon. The books were of all reading levels and the kids were of all ages, so it worked out great.

Let me give you some details on the orphanage. It’s the Rhema Grace Orphanage in Ombé, in the Southwest Province of Cameroon. There are 53 children living there at this moment. Of the children, 9 are babies (0-2), there are 5 little children (3-7), 11 minors (8-11), 10 major girls (12-16), 7 major boys, 3 big girls (17-20), and 1 big boy. Two are mentally handicapped, one is deaf and mute, three are legally blind, and one is HIV positive. Beyond the older children magnificently looking after the younger ones, there is Mercy. Mercy and her daughter Gloria run and live at the orphanage. They are incredibly compassionate souls that essentially decided to stop everything else in their lives to create and take care of this giant family.

The children gathered in this orphanage are incredibly lucky to have Mercy look after and take care of them. And now thanks to your help, they have the beginnings of a library. I believe that this small step will encourage them to excel in school, increase their creativity and critical thinking, and eventually lead more productive lives. I was really nothing more than the middle man. Thanks so much for your generous contributions! This is something that I am incredibly passionate about and would like to continue doing throughout my service here in Cameroon. So please keep sending booksJ I might give a few more to the Rhema Grace Orphanage, but am looking forward to finding other places in the Northwest and Southwest that could benefit from a donation like this. Once again, here’s the address:

Tim Hartman
C/O US Embassy
B.P. 215, Yaoundé


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Puppy Love

October 22, 2008

I promise the blog on the book donations is coming. It is half finished; I have just been busy with lots of other things. We’re finalizing details on the Piggybank Project (with details to come once we’ve finished), I’m starting up my 7 Habits club in two different high schools, and I’ve gotten some French books that I’ve distributed in Nkongsamba and in the West Province. I’m also working on getting a well in a tiny town with an orphanage and no water where people walk miles to a river every day. That’s all in addition to … Sac à Puce (flea bag), or Saki as we call him. That’s right – I got a puppy! I am a dog person and had resisted getting a dog in Cameroon for the longest time because I didn’t know who I would leave it with or how to bring it back when my service was over. I still haven’t found that person and I’m not planning on taking him back, but I gave in. I figure I can leave him with another Peace Corps volunteer when it’s time to go. It’ll be hard, but I think the time with him will be worth it.

So while you’re already waiting for the book donation blog, I’ll give you something else – photos of the cutest puppy in Cameroon.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What's Wrong with Cameroon IV - Mentality

October 3, 2008

I have already written three blogs on what is holding Cameroon back from being a developed nation. This, the fourth and last installment, has been in my head since the beginning. But…it won’t be the same as if I had written it months ago. My view of Cameroon, as well my view of the US, my own life, and even the universe are constantly changing on this rollercoaster ride called Peace Corps. There were times in the past months where I knew that I couldn’t write this blog; I knew that it would be nothing more than a list of complaints and a way to take out my frustrations. In fact, maybe that’s what the first three were. But I knew this one was different, that it got to the heart of the matter. Mentality is something deeper and more important. The way that people think about themselves, their family, their neighbors and countrymen doesn’t just impact the development of a country, it is the development. In fact, for me to say that the mentality of Cameroonians is holding them back is to say that Cameroon is undeveloped because it is, well, undeveloped. Mentality manifests itself in many ways throughout a people and a country. It can be seen in ways that people traditionally think of as development, such as leaders elected, the education system, health care, and infrastructure. But it is also seen all the way down to family life and peoples’ hobbies and pastimes. Development and mentality are one and the same.

Thinking about these issues, as I do often as a ‘development worker’ in Cameroon, leads to the question – What is the best way to develop Cameroon? And what follows is – Is what I’m doing effective? What impact, if any, am I having? When I think about ‘the development question,’ all roads eventually lead to mentality, which is a Catch 22. You can go in circles asking yourself how to develop a country, or the equivalent of asking yourself how to change the thoughts in peoples’ heads.

The current Peace Corps approach to development, at least for the Small Business Program that I am in, is not to go in and develop, but rather to help others develop themselves. At first glance it sounds great. It shows that we know it is not our choice to develop a country – to change the mentality of the people. The approach is to provide the tools, resources and trainings necessary for those who have already decided to change their mentality. But going back to our Catch 22, if they have already decided to change their mentality, they are already developed. The assumption that is made here is that they have already made the choice to move forward but need someone to show them the best route to take to get to where they’re going. My argument is that if they had the right mentality, they would be able to find that route easily, even without the ‘development worker.’ They would be able to find, or even create, their own tools and resources. And if they have not already changed their mentality, as was assumed, that would mean that the ‘development worker’ is just chasing his tail, running in circles trying to fix problems that he has no control over.

Then, what should the role of the ‘development worker’ be? My opinion is that development agencies should focus almost solely on education. They should insure that every child has the opportunity to go to school, and that the education he or she receives there is the best possible. This would allow the greatest possibility for people to develop themselves. They would have a better idea of the options available to them, and focusing on youth is a more realistic approach as to who will be making tangible changes for their country in the future. It would also start to get rid of the mentality that the ‘white man’ is here to give us stuff, that he and his stuff are the answers to our problems. Thinking about this makes me look back to the business classes I taught. At the ceremony to present their certificates, there was an impromptu moment when everyone stood up and said what they gained from the course and how it was going to help them. It was very motivating at the time. But I have to ask myself, now that a few months have past, how many people are gaining in the ways that they said? How many people are actually using the skills that I presented? My guess would be that out of the 20 people in my class, the 1 or 2 people that are actually using those skills would have had no problem in finding them elsewhere were I not around.

So where does that leave me? The conclusion that it sounds like I am coming to is grim. And in fact, so has been my outlook for the past few weeks and even months. I felt helpless in trying to find the people motivated enough to gain from what I was offering, only to find that they were the ones that didn’t need me in the first place. I came very close to deciding that I would be able to have more of an impact in the US and ending my Peace Corps service early. There was even a rumor spread through Peace Corps volunteers to every corner of this country that I was quitting.

While on vacation a week ago, thinking about where I would be happiest and why, I came back to mentality – not that of Cameroonians but of myself. Let me share a story that Eckhart Tolle puts in his book “A New Earth.”

A wise man won an expensive car in a lottery. His family and friends were very happy for him and came to celebrate. “Isn’t it great!” they said. “You are so lucky.” The man smiled and said, “Maybe.” For a few weeks he enjoyed driving the car. Then one day a drunken driver crashed into his new car at an intersection and he ended up in the hospital, with multiple injuries. His family and friends came to see him and said, “That was really unfortunate.” Again the man smiled and said, “Maybe.” While he was still in the hospital, one night there was a landslide and his house fell into the sea. His friends came the next day and said, “Weren’t you lucky to have been here in the hospital.” Again he said, “Maybe.”

We too often feel like the world is happening to us, that the events that take place in our lives are responsible for whether or not we are happy. It is not the events, but our reactions to them that determines our happiness. And it is not enough to choose to have positive reactions to negative events. That, in fact, is impossible to do all of the time. What is necessary is to detach oneself from outcomes, to realize that happiness is not out there in the first place. I’ve gone a bit astray from the subject, but I’ll get back.

This realization brought me to two conclusions. The first was that I could be happy in Cameroon. No matter what happened to me there, what people said, whatever I did or didn’t accomplish, however many times my patience was tried, I could be happy. And, in fact, learning to be happy in an environment like that would only continue to develop me as a person. The second conclusion was that mentality isn’t just the equivalent of development, it goes beyond that. Mentality leads to happiness. And it isn’t just development that Cameroonians want. They, like everyone else in this world, want to be happy above all else.

So if a change in mentality that is necessary for development can’t be made from an outside source, then how could I promote a change in mentality that would lead people to be happy? The obvious answer is that I can’t, that the change needs to be initiated and come from within. The one missing link that I still see here on the ground in Cameroon, though, is books. Remember my first installment of What’s Wrong with Cameroon? It was about reading. For me personally, I’ve been able to grow immensely from books. They lead to creativity and critical thinking skills, but they also share others’ trials, tribulations, errors, and points of view. I feel like I have become a happier person and developed personally and spiritually because I had the opportunity to read so many books and gain from others’ experiences. I expedited my own search for happiness through reading.

And that is where I am left in Africa – with a strong desire to give others the same opportunities that I had. I’m not talking about opportunities to go to prestigious universities, or to own a car or a nice house. I’m talking about the opportunity to be happy. My plan, as I complete my two years in Cameroon, is to share that opportunity with as many Cameroonian youth as I can.

The first part of my strategy is to get books in people’s hands. This is what I wrote about in my first installment of What’s Wrong with Cameroon. I’ve already received some packages of books that I have distributed and I’ll tell you about where they went and my experiences with handing them out in my next blog. But I want to restate my request. Send me your books! The short of it is that there aren’t enough available here and they are too expensive for people to afford. You can send anything you want. There are no guidelines, but if you want me to be more specific, send books for all ages; page-turners, or books to get people to enjoy reading are great; and books that have inspired you or helped you along the way will fit in more with my mission.
Tim Hartman
C/O US Embassy
B.P. 215, Yaoundé

The next thing I am going to be working on is to start classes/clubs for as many youth as possible that will be centered around the book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” If you haven’t already read it, it’s much more than how to be a successful businessman. It talks about how to lead a principle-centered life. Being proactive and managing your own life is balanced with having effective relationships with others. It is a book that has helped me and that crosses all religious and racial boundaries. I’ll start the first club with Tara in Baré and create as many as possible on my own from there.

The last thing I have in my head right now is to work on giving scholarships to high school students. Enrollment is only 10 dollars per year and lots of kids either don’t go to school or skip years because they are needed to help raise money for the family, usually working in the fields. I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the logistics or sustainability of this idea, but I’ll have more details and might be soliciting funds in the near future.

Sorry it’s been a while since I last wrote. I had a lot on my mind. Next up is how I’m distributing your book donations, but don’t wait for it – send them now!