Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lessons I've Learned III - Frankness

May 26, 2009

If one were to generalize Cameroonian and American culture, they would find that Americans are generally more frank – they share what’s on their mind. Cameroonians on the other hand will be more likely to tell you what you want to hear – ‘The bus will leave in 5 minutes.’ or ‘The item you’re looking for will be in stock tomorrow.’ It’s not that they’re lying; in their culture they’re just being polite.

Something that I’ve learned about myself since being in Cameroon is that I’m frank. And not just in the sense that Americans are frank – I take it to a new level. Maybe you’ve noticed that in my blogs. But I’m not sure I was always like this. I think living among a culture that will tell you what you want to hear has pushed me in the opposite direction. I want to know what’s going on, to cut through the BS and not play games – honesty at all costs. Here is a typical conversation that I might have while waiting for a bush taxi to leave.

“How long will it be before the bus leaves?”
“Five minutes.”
“Is it really going to leave in five minutes or are you just telling me that? I’ve already bought my ticket. I’m not going to go find another bus to take. I just want to know if I have time to go eat a croissant.”
“Maybe 30-45 minutes.”
“Thank you!”

As you can see, sometimes it can be very affective. And the man that told me the bus would leave in five minutes wouldn’t be offended at all. He knows the reality and in some way I think he respects a foreigner that understands him so well. Or at least he’ll get a good laugh.

But this quality of mine also has its down sides. Just a couple weeks ago, nearing the end of my service when I think I’ve figured everything out and I can navigate Cameroonian culture without problem, I stuck my foot in my mouth in a pretty big way. I was trying to secure a classroom where I could teach my 7 Habits adult class. Once, at the beginning of my service, I gave a business class to adults and used a government office devoted to community development. The man in charge let me use the classroom but charged me to have it cleaned after every class. I didn’t know then, but found out later that the money I gave him for cleaning just went into his pocket. In protest, I tried not to work with him anymore, but here I was in need of a classroom. Using the classroom I had used before would be the simplest way to get these classes off the ground and I didn’t have much time. I went in to talk to the same man as if there was no problem whatsoever – I just wanted to use the classroom again. We worked out all of the details regarding availability, number of chairs, everything. It was all set. I was ready to get up to leave – I remember putting my hands on the arms of the chair to stand up when he said ‘…and you’ll pay for the cleaning like last time, too, right?’ I wasn’t upset, just a little surprised that he would go there. I said very clearly and calmly no, I needed the classroom but wouldn’t pay for the cleaning. He pushed a little harder for the cleaning money and so I said, still in the same calm manner, ‘last time I was new to the community and to Cameroon. I didn’t know better. You tricked me. No hard feelings, but this time I’m not going to pay.’ This didn’t make him very happy, but I knew that I was right so I pushed it a little further. I told him that many of my Cameroonian friends had also told me that he had gotten the better of me. At this point he asked me for their names. I told him that the prefecture gives him a budget to pay for the cleaning of his offices and that he didn’t need my money. He refused, showing me a broom in the corner and claiming he was the one that did most of the cleaning (even though he has a secretary and several other employees under him). Then I brought up the fact that that the classroom was rarely even cleaned after our classes. This comment didn’t make him very happy. I asked him how much he had paid the local neighborhood boy to clean the classroom each time. I had given him 9000F to clean the room 12 times – way more than enough. He took this as a direct implication that he pocketed the majority of the money and was furious. ‘Every franc that you gave me went to the cleaning of that classroom!’ Oops! It was here that I realized that while still speaking calmly and without emotion, being more and more frank with the details was only getting me into more and more trouble (yes, I should have realized this earlier). He would absolutely never admit to what he did. If so, there was a possibility that it would come back to bite him. This was a chance he was not willing to take. He would deny, deny, deny until his face turned blue. What he needed and what I should have done from the beginning was to stroke his ego. I should have approached the situation saying ‘I know I paid for the cleaning last time, boss, but this time I don’t have the money. The classes are for the development of the community. I’m a volunteer and don’t have a salary. You’re such a big man in the community. I was hoping you could cover the cleaning this time.’

What actually happened was that I spent about an hour trying to smooth things over. After a lot of talking, he told me that I should write an official request to his boss for a partnership between the Peace Corps and his office. He claimed that he didn’t get any credit for the last class that I gave and this way he would be able to put it into his report. I thought it was implied, though it wasn’t stated, that this way I wouldn’t have to pay for the cleaning. It turns out that this was just a hoop to jump through, a way to tie up the process in bureaucracy. He was quite surprised when I showed up the next morning at his boss’ office to deliver the request. Obviously I didn’t read between the lines to know that he was just trying to get rid of me. The request is still collecting dust. I just think it’s funny (and quite ironic) that to get rid of me he asked for the creation of a partnership.

I ended up going to the mayor’s office to request the use of the town hall for the class. He agreed and didn’t charge for cleaning. Classes start next Tuesday. I’m still not sure if this quality is something that is going to stick with me when I get back to the states. Honesty at all costs has its good points and a lot of people find it refreshing, but it could probably get me into as much trouble when I go home, too.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lessons I've Learned II - Mission Statements

May 20, 2009

I’ve learned that mission statements not only have an enormous impact on setting goals and direction, but they also help to motivate you to keep moving in that direction. Here’s mine:

Personal Mission Statement
Tim Hartman
Created: March 17, 2008

Because through giving comes wealth, I will always seek to serve others first. I will accept everyone and defend those not present. I will be giving of my time and talents while cherishing opportunities to be alone, to think, to meditate and evaluate.
I will never assume I’ve figured it all out, always seeking to further my understanding of why I’m here. I will keep a calmness around my life that brings myself and others peace.
I will use solid judgment doing my best in everything I do, refusing to be discouraged by setbacks or failure.

This is what I created in a period of soul-searching after the national strikes in February 2008. I was frustrated, feeling that Cameroonians didn’t have very much motivation to improve their quality of life and I needed, once more and more seriously this time, to pose myself the question ‘What am I doing here?’ I took a few days off and rented a tent by myself on the beach in LimbĂ©. I did a lot of evaluating, reading, reflecting, and of course relaxing. This was one of the very tangible outcomes of what I called a ‘fix myself’ vacation.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lessons I’ve Learned I – How to be Happy

May 16, 2009

Since joining the Peace Corps and being sent to Cameroon, I have changed and learned a lot. I remember writing in one of the essays in the application process that I knew I would change – I didn’t know how but I knew it would be for the better. That’s been true, but even after the change, it’s hard to enumerate the lessons I’ve learned. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go.

The first, and probably the most important thing I’ve learned is how to be happy. I’m pretty sure that everything that I learned in this domain I knew before I came, but I’ve come to a higher realization of its truth and have been able to put it into practice.

Firstly, happiness is not sought. You can’t find it in money or things or places or even relationships. If flows naturally out of peace of mind. Virtually none of our unhappiness comes from the situations that we find ourselves in. It comes from our reactions and emotions to those situations. We have the power to choose our reactions and we have the power to control our emotions. Therefore we have the power to be happy. It’s easier said than done, but is very possible.

Secondly, the present moment cannot be changed. It is as it is and accepting it is a prerequisite for being happy. This necessarily excludes regrets about the past and worries about (but not planning for) the future. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world and probably in our own lives as well. There are many examples that we can find where life simply isn’t fair. We don’t have to condone any of these things, but if we ever want to be happy or make a positive change, we need to first acknowledge and accept their existence right now.

I’ve learned that I personally will always have down times. Since being here I have found that I have small cycles of depression. When I thought I completely understood the lessons above and then went into one of those cycles, it was quite scary. I thought I was in complete control of my life, able to make proactive choices to better my future, my happiness, and my being. But I found that that wasn’t the case at all. Despite my continued ability to make those proactive choices, I had very little energy and found that I couldn’t get rid of my desire to stay in that sad state. What was the answer? Back to the lessons I thought I understood – accept the present moment. If I can’t get rid of the desire to remain depressed, it makes no sense to be mad or scared of it. It is what it is. I remind myself that it will pass, I spend my precious energy on maintaining my commitments, and I stop trying to change what I’ve learned have no control over. And if ever a problem arrives that I know won’t pass, that fact won’t change the answer that needs to be applied – only the difficulty in applying it.

Also related to my self-reflection and being happy is my choice of work. Ever since my first day at post, I’ve taken very seriously some advice from previous volunteers – don’t do ineffective or unsustainable work just to give yourself the semblance of being busy or productive. I refused to work with people that I thought were only motivated by selfish reasons and I did a lot more reflecting than doing. I analyzed what I thought was wrong with Cameroon so I would know where I could feel the most effective, and I reflected on the past and current approaches to development in search for answers to why it didn’t seem to be working. Although it took me a long time to get there and I’m not proclaiming to have found the answer, I did eventually reach conclusions on these fronts. And those conclusions led me to work that I felt rewarded in doing. My conclusions, essentially, were to take a more hands-off approach. I can’t change any other person – only they can. And the change needs to be at the core, not on surface or what I consider secondary issues like raising average salaries and building structures. Bubbles burst, but your foundation remains in tact. I realized that as an American, one of the biggest opportunities I’ve had to develop at the core, in my character, came from books – from the solutions and lessons that others have already learned, experimented with, and implemented. That led me to make lots of book donations to promote a love of reading and to take one specific book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and share it in detail with as many people as possible.

It was a very bumpy road learning this lesson, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.


Thursday, May 7, 2009


May 6, 2009

I’m kind of conflicted. Now that the majority of my work is finished, I actually scheduled the writing of one blog per week in my agenda. It’s something that has started to get neglected as of late and I wanted to make it a bigger priority. What I’m conflicted about is what to write. I think the biggest reason that my blog has been successful is that I’m brutally honest and my entries tend to be more in essay form than in here’s-what-I-did-today form. I try to choose interesting subjects that I’ve been reflecting on for a while because of the situation I’m in. My perspective is one that very few of my readers have ever had yet the themes affect everyone, even if only because some of your tax dollars are coming to this corner of the world. So in forcing myself to write one blog a week, I’m hoping that I don’t turn it into a weekly log of my activities, but that I can find enough interesting topics to keep you all engaged. I’ll leave the here’s-what-I-did-today stuff to the Twitter users. (Is that actually popular in the States? I still don’t believe it.)

That being said, that I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to keep up the quality, I want your help too. Being stuck in my own perspective and having been outside the US for 2 years now, I can easily forget what might be interesting to someone living in the western world. Please write comments. Please ask questions. My responses to my mom’s book club turned into a great blog. It’s because they asked about all the things that I forget to write about. I’ve made this request before and gotten almost no response whatsoever. I know you’re out there! I have a counter on the blog that gives me all kinds of interesting statistics – what city you’re in, what site you came from, what terms you put into the search engine to find my site, how long you stayed, etc. (yes, I sometimes feel like a stalker looking at them all) So please give me some feedback. It’s really easy to make comments; you can even do it anonymously. It also motivates me to write more and better entries.

Until next week,