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!



Katie Kermeen Swisher said...

Great post Tim. It sounds like you are feeling rejuvenated in your calling to the people of Cameroon, and that is a spectacular thing! I'm sure there are times when you feel discouraged and frustrated, but keep up the good work you have already started. You are making an impact on these people! Take care...

Anne said...

Hi Tim,

I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Anne and I just arrived in Cameroon last month with Fulbright. I'm living in Yaounde now so if you're ever in town feel free to get in touch. emeran02@gmail.com


Anonymous said...

I was pointed to your blog from a fellow VSO who's in Cameroon and I'm glad I followed the link.

It's interesting to compare your experiences with my own here in Ghana and good to see that other people are struggling with similar questions.

Good luck


Diane Schmutzler said...

so you want books? Perhaps we could find something decent from the free bookstore in your old backyard!

feel free to write if you like: diane_n_adam@yahoo.com

- Diane

Bamenda Babe said...

I found this blog post very troubling and problematic. I do not think you are in a position to speculate about what will "develop" Cameroon. Or what kind of "mentality" would be best for whatever it is you mean by "development" or "happiness," which it seems are very Western-centric terms and ideologies. This post tells me more about you and your confusion about your role/goals in Cameroon. I wonder if the problem is this goal of yours, the role you stand in, too, the so-called "development worker." It is tough, I understand. But please consider that you might be climbing a ladder that is actually leaning against the wrong wall. As for books and education and critical thinking, I wonder about this. You propose a book written for an American context..."7 Habits of Highly Effective People". This book might work in Cameroon, but what exactly are you trying to do with it to youthful Cameroonian minds? Just how do you intend for this book to help them? Have you considered the thousands of books out there, written by Cameroonian/African authors? Books that are more relevant to the African context? Books that can tell these Cameroonians that it is ok to be themselves and not follow the dictates of some American author who has the answers to getting wealthy? Could you please stop and consider this? What has brought you happiness might not be what will work for young Cameroonians. And maybe it shouldn't be. Besides, how exactly can you claim to know and measure the "development" and the "happiness" of people there? I am just troubled by the fact that you talk about Cameroonians in such an alienated way, even though you are right there, living in their midst. Have you considered that maybe it is the other way around and that these people are the ones in a position to develop you and lead you to the right path in life? Don't presume to help them unless you can tell them, truthfully, that you know their hearts. And minds. And please, do not attempt to decode their mentality until you really can stop seeing the world through your eyes. Which, I should add, is probably impossible. You get just one pair of eyes and it might be too late to switch, your eyes are American eyes.

Tim Hartman - Cameroon said...

“Bamenda Babe” wrote a pretty harsh criticism. First off, I would just like to say that this blog is nothing more than my opinions and experiences. This is not a guidebook for every other development worker out there. I state often that the things I share are nothing but opinions. Please don’t take them personally.

There was one good point that I can take out of it. “[I] talk about Cameroonians in such an alienated way.” This is something that I have admittedly struggled with as I have been in Cameroon. As I was more frustrated in my role and my life here, it was something that came up more. Now that I am much happier and see a purpose to my work, I feel more at home and can see some of those ‘me and them’ barriers coming down. It is also, unfortunately, something that is amplified in my blogs. I realize that the majority of those reading my blog are Americans that have never been to Cameroon. Does that lead me to write about Cameroonians in a stereotyped way? Yes. And I can go even further to say that the majority of the stereotypes that I end up giving are for the Francophone South (not the Anglophone or three Northern provinces). Is what I write true of all Cameroonians (even in the Francophone South)? Absolutely not. It would be like saying that all Americans are obsessed with gaining material possessions. The fact is that I will never be able to give an accurate depiction of Cameroon to Americans. Again, I am writing about my “opinions and experiences.”

Bamenda Babe writes ‘I do not think you are in a position to speculate about what will "develop" Cameroon.’ The fact is (not my opinion) that I am in Cameroon as a development worker under the invitation of the Cameroonian government. That tells me two things. 1) Cameroon sees itself as undeveloped. And 2) I am in the position to speculate about what will best help this country and its people. In fact, I think I would be doing a disservice to come in and blindly act without wondering about the direction and effectiveness of my work.

Lastly, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” has nothing to do with becoming wealthy. A common mentality in Cameroon is that you need money, need to be corrupt, or both in order to succeed. Covey’s book shows how to live a life centered around universal principles like service and excellence. I am there not to change the way people think, but rather to present concepts that might be less available otherwise.


Bamenda Babe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bamenda Babe said...

Please consider me a friend. Most people who read your blog will praise you. Few will criticize you. I want you to be even better at your job, whatever you view it to be.

Let me just say that I certainly appreciate your desire to be of use. And I certainly appreciate your desire to be purposeful in your usefulness.

Thank you for choosing to be a worker of some sort. Work definitely makes life meaningful, right? Especially when we can say our work is going quite far to rescue and help people of poor mentality and upbringing.

As a Cameroonian, I feel it is my duty to speak up when I feel that my people are being patronized.

Perhaps, I speak too freely for my fellow Cameroonians. Perhaps, I see things differently than my fellow Cameroonians. Though I am sure some would agree with me, would side with me, if they understood the belittling nature of some of your blog posts.

All the same, I stand by my perspective. You have no authority to speculate about vague and undefined concepts. How do you, for instance, determine what is an appropriate mentality for an African/Cameroonian and upbringing for an individual?

What, I could ask, is the flaw in, say, your American mentality and parenting? If I speculated about these things, blamed them for the mess the USA is in (a huge mess), would this be fair? What would give me the authority to make such claims? This kind of arrogance would eclipse a whole history and diverse society. The same applies for Cameroon and you.

And, what would give me the confidence to state my opinions freely on things I know little about and probably do not really understand? Your opinions are your opinions but they become dangerous when they are narrow and narrowly-conceived. The danger is that there are people reading these opinions of yours and taking them for facts, regardless of how humbly you declare that they are "just opinions." What you write down and display has the power to shape the way Africans/Cameroonians are viewed by your American readers/audience and the picture of my home country that you are painting is a strange painting.

It is a picture I do not recognize as truthful.

I was born and raised in Cameroon. I take what you say very, very personally.

Personally, I cringe to think of myself, a Cameroonian, inviting someone to come and help my community only to discover that this person considers himself some kind of savior. Worse, he considers me to be (in whatever ways he renders arbitrary credit to) inferior in my mentality and in my upbringing.

As someone who has lived in the USA and who is familiar with the stereotypes people here have of Africans, I want to ask you to write about Camroonians in a way that challenges these myths and stereotypes; do not simply perpetuate them.

I believe your two statements below are flawed. Reconsider them. I come from a country that has been labelled as underdeveloped by the West. Cameroonians now see themselves this way because this is what people like you have told them for over 4 decades and for over a century. Of course, many Cameroonians will not argue when told they are backward or primitive or lacking in development. This is the message Africa is bombarded with everyday. You are only continuing this sad message. You cannot claim to help anybody until you understand the history of Cameroon and the colonial "mentality" that you have and seem intent on adhering to.

Please reconsider your claims:
"1) Cameroon sees itself as undeveloped. And 2) I am in the position to speculate about what will best help this country and its people."

These statements are troubling.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim, haven't been on a computer for sooo long....this is the first I've heard of you in a while and I'm beyond proud!!!! I am actually brought to tears by this blog; the glimpse into your fascinations and frustrations about Cameroon, your trust in books (!remember how Harry Potter started it all)for mental development and your struggle with how it all correlates with emotional development. I love you and support you with all my spirit, Bisous, L.

Tim Hartman - Cameroon said...

Bamenda Babe – You say that “Of course, many Cameroonians will not argue when told they are backward or primitive or lacking in development.” This tells me that you agree that Cameroon sees itself as undeveloped and this is EXACTLY the negative mentality that I’m talking about in my blog. I’m not saying that everyone has it, but it’s enough, in my opinion, to be the main factor in holding Cameroon back. The first habit in the 7 Habits book that I’ve already implemented in 2 clubs in Cameroonian high schools is to Be Proactive, to realize that you are in charge of your own life, not to be a victim to what happens to you and the labels that people give you. The more we write back and forth, the more I realize that we are on exactly the same page, but expressing our views in our own cultural ways.

As for you talking about Americans and our problems and flaws, my response is ‘let it fly.’ It might make some people angry, but it might make others think. Why do I feel this way? It’s cultural. For me, it’s the first amendment, the right to free speech.

Being aware of these cultural differences, please remember that this blog is aimed at Americans. I have absolutely no problem with Cameroonians reading what I write and I welcome your feedback, positive or negative. Please be aware though, that you are reading it with Cameroonian eyes, and that while you might be justified in taking some things personally, Americans are not necessarily being influenced in the way that you think they are.

My mom told me before I left that she wanted to hear it all, the good and the bad. I’m a very honest person and told her I would do that. I speak as honestly as possible about the good and bad in my own life, my personal ups and down, as well as the society around me. I read some other blogs of Peace Corps volunteers before I came. Some paint such incredibly rosy and unrealistic pictures of Peace Corps life and host countries that they seem to belong in fairy tales. That’s not something that I wanted to create. And my ‘honesty at all costs even if it’s hurtful’ also comes from, you guessed it, my culture.


Bamenda Babe said...

I think you misunderstood my point.

You might find this book useful: "Democracy and Development in Africa," by Claude Ake.

Visit it online here if you have the chance: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=93549643

This way, we might have a common point of reference when we talk about development.

I think you confuse national development discourse with perhaps the kind of human development one comes across in disciplines like psychology.

I am curious. What is your educational background?

My academic background in cultural anthropology and African Studies, and my childhood in Cameroon inform my point of view. So I suspect we really won't see things eye to eye.

We all do the best we can.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tim, I have enjoyed following your blog. I was just with your Mom & Dad (who are doing fine) and they showed me how to write back to you. So this is my first atttempt. The recent exchange with Bamenda Babe is opening up a wider view and is worthwhile. I have enjoyed reading both of your comments. I do agree with both of you that it is hard and maybe impossible at least in a short period of time to see anything without the influence of your own personal experiences. Being a Christian I believe true happiness comes through Christ Jesus. It is a fine line one must walk when they are in a position to give assistance to others and yet let others maintain there individual and cultural integrity. Given a problem such as poor education, development or any other situation, humans being humans will naturally think their ways are the best way. I do not believe this is always the best solution for the people in question. We have many examples around the world of how foreign influence and customs have hurt a culture by invasion, corporate development or even missionary actions. So the issue reamins, how do you "help" without over doing and changing the entire culture. Well thank you for your efforts and may God Bless you, Bob F.