Monday, August 10, 2009
New Place, New Life
I've been in Yaoundé for a week now- I was here briefly in 2005 and 2006, but this feels completely different. For better or worse, I think I'm an expat now...
It's been a major transition already, and this may be a bit stream-of-consciousness, but I'm going to recount the highlights of the past week as best I can.
I arrive on Monday night courtesy of Air France, after two long flights- Washington to Paris, and Paris to Yaoundé, Cameroon's capital. Having flown into several African capitals over the past couple years, I could tell right away that this is very different. As opposed to airports in Niamey, Juba, and N'djamena, Nsimalen airport in Yaoundé doesn't feel like it's falling apart- it's small, but clean, and didn't feel much different than the airport in small town anywhere, USA. Getting through passport control is efficient, my WHO Yellow Fever vaccination is checked quickly, and our bags come off the carousel within a few minutes of getting in.
Once I collect my bags, I get my first sense of how this is going to be different than anything I've done before. I see a sign with my name on it, and go over to the two people waiting. Hotance, the Administrative Assistant for CRS, greets me in English, asks me about my trip, and helps me with my bags. Here's the strange part- we've barely left the airport when she hands me a sleek black mobile phone (+237 75059009, if you feel like calling), and an envelope with 41,000 FCFA (about $88).
"The phone is prepaid, so you don't need to worry about buying credit- we unblocked the international calls, so you can call home as you'd like," she says. "The money is per diem for two days." When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, that money would have lasted a month in my village.
Arriving at the CRS office, I see my new place for the first time. It's enormous. The office itself is a converted four-unit apartment building in Bastos, the nicest district of Yaoundé. They've left one of the apartments as-is for me, and honestly, I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the space. I have three bedrooms (one of which is converted to a living room), three bathrooms, a kitchen, pantry, air-conditioning, and fast internet access. This is definitely not Peace Corps, Mercy Corps, or anything else.
The next morning, I wake up to the sound of singing. Seriously.
It's not exactly on key, and I can't make out what's being said, but I'm interested. I unlock the door to the apartment and find myself face-to-face with a smallish older woman wearing a black dress and a yellow headscarf, carrying a mop.
"Good morning, sir!" she exclaims.
"Good morning, how are you?" I ask. "I'm Nathaniel."
"With Jesus, sir!" she says. I nod, not entirely sure how to respond.
"My name is Mommy Grace," she continues. "For 30 years, I've worked here. I've been here longer than anyone."
Wow. 30 years- I haven't been alive 30 years.
Later in the morning, after I have a chance to meet the rest of the staff, Margaret, a Cameroonian and the acting Country Representative, takes me aside.
"We've set up interviews with a few possible housekeepers," she says. "One of them is here now."
I try to think about what I'm going to say, and go to meet Odelia, one of the women interested in a job I didn't know I'd advertised. I immediately get a good feeling from her- she's warm, friendly, and brings a stack of recommendation letters. I let her know that I'll get back in touch with her within a couple days, but I've already decided that she's the one.
It feels weird though. A housekeeper? OK, I'm definitely no longer a Peace Corps volunteer. I'm not quite sure how I feel about this, but after a bit of reflection, I realize it's probably for the best. The truth is that I could spend my entire weekend badly doing laundry and mopping floors, or I could pay Odelia to do it very well, and then she can use the money to send her kids to school. It seems awfully selfish of me to take away the opportunity to help someone improve their life because it feels imperialist and uncomfortable to have a woman mop the floor for me. In my mind, if you're living in the developing world, and have the good fortune to have money (as most non-Peace Corps foreigners do), you have a certain responsibility to do what you can to help people and the economy, and if that means feeling a bit uncomfortable at the idea of having someone do laundry and sweep, so be it.
This feeling of being uncomfortable though, I hope it's something I never lose... I realize that when I go to a going- away party hosted by staff of the US embassy the other night. I don't want to be undiplomatic here, but talking with a few of the US Marine guards at the party (all American embassies have a Marine detachment), I realize how easy it can be take the assistance of others for granted, and to be in a place without actually being there, if that makes sense.
This whole experience feels like a major shift though, one that comes with the territory. As an 'expat,' one of those people I used to feel so disdainful of as a volunteer, I have the freedom to do much more than I ever could before. I can ride a motorcycle whenever I feel like it, stay in the capital as long as I feel like (it is home, after all), and go the grocery store with the realization that I can afford to buy whatever I want, whenever I want. It's something that comes with becoming a professional, and moving into a new phase of my career, I suppose.
I've been here a week, so my observations should be taken with several handfuls of salt, but from what I can tell, Cameroon feels like much more like a country that's actually developing, as opposed to other places in the 'developing world' that don't seem to be moving forward. As such, there's a strange mix of modern industrialized life coupled with a more traditional view of Africa. There are wealthy here, of course, and there are many, many poor people, but there's a legitimate middle class from what I can see. These are people who have university degrees, work in professional jobs, and have the money to shop at Casino, the big French supermarket downtown. At the same time, some of these people will also go to Mokolo, the enormous open-air market about a 15-minute walk from my house, and bargain for 100 FCFA (22¢) worth of carrots. It's a place where you can reserve your seat on a luxury bus to Douala online, but where the shop you go to get a document laminated is a table under a palm tree, with a fraying cord plugged into a worn out extension cable.
But that's the nature of life in this part of the world, I suppose. No country is going to develop at the same rate throughout, and I'm sure I'll continue to see these weird contrasts of modernity and poverty while I'm here. I also know that once I get outside of the capital and the other large cities of the south, Cameroon is likely to feel as poor and as undeveloped as most of the other places I've worked in so far. I'm sure it'll feel bizarre to see the same scenes I remember as a volunteer, but with so much more opportunity, and the possibility of making a more significant impact. I don't know yet where that impact will be, but it'll be interesting to see how this job, and this new chapter of my life develops...