The view from Cameroon: Sevastopol graduate writes about her work in Peace Corps

June 19th, 2014 by bobebill

PCV bilde
Sevastopol High School grad Clare MacMillen, right, with her friend Rose on Cameroon’s Independence Day.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Clare MacMillen is a 2009 graduate of Sevastopol High School who graduated in 2013 from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. She entered the U.S. Peace Corps after graduating from college and has provided these insights into her everyday life in a little town called Pitoa.

Dusk is my favorite time of day in Pitoa, North Cameroon. The oppressive heat of the afternoon is shooed away by the evening breeze, neighbors greet one another as they return home from the onion and sorghum fields, and the steadily darkening sky is punctuated by the flickering lights of cooking fires.

This is the time of day when I feel the most relaxed and comfortable in my new community — less like a foreigner and Peace Corps Volunteer and more like a friend, neighbor, and peer. As I walk along the dusty road to my compound, I pause and greet the elderly men who rest beneath the lengthening shade of the neem trees. “Allah hoku djam.” “God give you strength.”

Although I do not know much of the local Fufulde language, they are quick to cheer my efforts. With my greeting they shift their flowing blue-and-white robes and make space for me on the plastic mat where they lounge, drink tea and gossip. Together we sit and watch people pass by.

Women clad in bright pagne carry their market purchases while their children laugh and play in tow. Young men linger at the local boutique and listen to the latest song from the Nigerian pop music group P-Square on their cellphones. Marauding goats scour the ground for a bit of greenery or dropped corn kernel. Gradually the men leave for home or for evening prayer at the mosque and I, too, say my goodbyes. “Djam wala sobajo am, sey jango.” “Sleep well, my friend, see you tomorrow.”

When I applied for the United States Peace Corps in my final semester of college, I could not imagine chatting amiably with wizened men in a second, let alone third language on the edge of the Sahel Desert. In fact, I could not predict much about my upcoming 27 months of service.

Established in 1960 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps is an organization that sends American citizens from diverse backgrounds to provide technical assistance to interested countries, teach volunteers about the cultures of other countries, and share American culture. These ideals resonated with me as a liberal arts student with an itch to travel and desire to work rather than vacation in another country, and in September 2013 I landed in my host country.

Cameroon is a small West African nation of only 21 million people. Despite its size, the country is diverse environmentally, culturally, linguistically and ethnically. The 10 regions include littoral forests, humid forests, marshes, aquatic systems and arid savannahs. The three regions that make up the Grand North are heavily influenced by the Muslim religion, while the Grand South is predominantly Christian.

Another level of diversity is the sheer number of languages spoken across the country. Officially Cameroon is bilingual. Two regions speak English while the other eight are Francophone. However, these languages are most widely spoken in official capacities while everyday conversations are spoken in one of hundreds of local patois. During my first 10 weeks in Cameroon, I learned this introductory information about Cameroon as well as practiced my French and navigated cultural differences with my host family. Then in November I was assigned to my village and home for the next two years: Pitoa.

Seven months later I have run the gamut of emotions: intrigued, surprised, fascinated, frustrated, bemused, enamored and exhausted. My first three months of service here were dedicated to integrating with my community and assessing the environmental needs of my fellow community members and work partners.

Each day I ventured outside my compound with my work partner/translator/cultural liaison/person-who-shows-me-where-to-buy-vegetables, Sadou, to meet local officials, professionals involved in agriculture or forestry, and motivated people in the community.

Compared to my structured work days in the United States, I initially felt lazy and my “work” seemed stagnant. How could I have spent three hours eating gumbo and shelling peanuts when I should be teaching people about planting trees? What do I do when I think a community garden would be a fantastic idea but people seem uninterested? In fact, what in the world am I doing here?

I now realize that questions like these are natural and are exactly why Peace Corps is a unique experience and provides invaluable experience in international development. Development is long, slow, and challenging. Too often foreign organizations enter a developing country with the intention of helping the nation improve its infrastructure and increase its standard of living but do not consider the cultural differences in the process.

True, learning how to speak, eat, sit, greet, dress, joke and avoid a barreling herd of cattle like the people of Pitoa does not resemble a typical American workday. However, investing in the integration process is how I showed and continue to prove how much I respect those with whom I work and live. More important, it is how I learn how Pitoans envision their improved community.

Since those painstaking changes in my mentality about development and my role as an agent of that change, my work has slowly taken shape here. I am also fortunate to have found incredible work partners, men and women who are motivated to try something new, invest some of their time and energy, and become strong local examples of the possibilities of education and innovation.

One of my main projects is with a women’s technical training center. The school provides education opportunities for young woman who lack school facilities in their small villages, dropped out early because of marriage or childbirth, or are considered too old for traditional high school.

One of our biggest accomplishments is the creation of a tree nursery with 400 trees, all of which will be planted on school grounds and at the local school for deaf and mute children. The women learned basic plant biology, nursery construction and maintenance, transplanting, and the economic possibilities of trees including selling the saplings themselves or transforming leaves, roots and bark into other products.

Each woman also received an instructions sheet, nursery bag and several seeds to bring to their homes in their different villages. As the rainy season approaches we will plant soy and talk about improved fallow practices and how to make tofu as well as create a comparison plot of corn looking at the productivity of seeds bought at a local market versus those adapted to the Sahel environment at Cameroon’s Agricultural Research Institute.

Other projects in the community include demonstrating improved cook stove construction, assisting with a high school environmental club, and helping other volunteers with projects that range from composting to education about malnutrition.

Each day here is varied and at the same time, each day is routine. Like anyone my life has developed a natural rhythm. I wake up to the cliched but blaring crow of a rooster, make tea for myself and milk for my 5-year-old neighbor Abdulazeez, sweep out the endless amounts of sand in my house, head to wherever my work requires me armed with sunscreen and a smile, swing by the market for vegetables for dinner, sip a cold orange soda with my friend Rose, prepare dinner, read, crawl into bed beneath my mosquito net, and repeat.

There are still little adventures, whether it’s dancing until midnight at a toddler’s birthday or trying to explain the Electoral College in French. Whether comfortably mundane or breathtakingly exciting these moments and the Cameroonians with whom I share them remind me why I joined the Peace Corps and why I love this strange, challenging and inspiring job.

And on the occasions I am struck by homesickness, I know that just around the corner there is a place on a mat for me and the kind words spoken there are words of friendship, no matter the language.

Written by
PCV Clare MacMillen
Special to the Advocate
http://www.doorcountyadvocate.com/article/20140618/ADV01/306170419/The-view-from-Cameroon


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