Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cameroon #1- Yaoundé, Aug. 09

A few photos from the new city, new job, new house, and new life...

CA-Baltimore-Cameroon, July 09

The journey to begin my new job, with a week in Baltimore, and a long trip...

Humboldt, July 09

A quick trip home to see family, before heading back to Africa...

San Francisco, July 09

Back in the Bay Area, seeing friends and family, and enjoying being a tourist, with the knowledge of a local...

Atlanta, July 09

A few more, from a quick stopover in Atlanta, seeing a friend, and doing some touristy stuff...

Northern Georgia, July 09

Here are a few photos from the family vacation in northern Georgia, almost immediately after I got back to the States.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Definitely not PC

On April 21, 2006, I remember standing in the courtyard at the Peace Corps office in Yaoundé. I'd just been evacuated from Chad, along with 28 others, and after a few days of attempted transition between the life I'd known in Gounou-Gaya and what I was about to find in California, I was on my way to the Douala airport, and back home, via Paris.

When I got home, I remember thinking, "I've had enough of this, enough of the developing world. What's the point? Things are just going to fall apart in the end."

Funny how things can change, and how 1,212 days, three additional developing countries, one Master's degree, tens of thousands of dollars and frequent flyer miles, and one fellowship later, I find myself standing in the same courtyard.

This time I'm a visitor, and it feels like a world away. Aside from the obvious differences in lifestyle I talked about last time, there's something else, a new feeling of being a professional. I don't want to get too high up on a pedestal here, but I'm definitely no longer a Peace Corps volunteer- in many, many, ways, I've moved up in the world.

I'm visiting Peace Corps at the invitation of the Country Director, who called to see if I'd be interested in attending a ceremony for volunteers finishing their service. The 'Gonging-Out,' as they call it, is a chance for the staff to gather and say goodbye to the volunteers who are leaving (five, in this case), before they head to the airport, and their new lives.

This is something I've never seen before, and a nice touch on the part of PC Cameroon. Even though this was never something we had when we left Chad, given the circumstances, I can imagine how much this must mean to the outgoing volunteers. Volunteer life certainly isn't the most rewarding financially, but something else comes from most people's service, a sense of having done some real good, and relationships that last- I know that's been the case for me, at least. The staff go down the line, telling the group about each volunteer's accomplishments- the Country Director says a few words, and gives each of them a pin with a linked Cameroonian and American flag. After each, one of the staff hits a cowbell, a way to 'gong-out' the volunteers, and say goodbye.

Throughout the ceremony though, I find myself thinking of how strange it feels to be on the other side, the professional side. This office was the scene of one of the biggest transitions of my life, just a few years ago. I can feel the experiences of today and the memories of the past mixing though. Sitting on the same couch in the adjoining 'transit house,' while volunteers browse on the same computers that I remember using to watch the first season of LOST; speaking with one of the program directors, who remembers giving me a language evaluation in the midst of our 'Transition Conference'; most importantly seeing Chad, our Medical Officer (yes, in Chad), now doing the same job for the volunteers in Yaoundé.

I realize how far I've come when I meet the Country Director in his office. In 2006 I remember sitting in front of his desk, having a cursory chat as I tried to figure out the next step after what had been an extremely challenging time. This time, he invites me to come in, a chat among colleagues. Sitting on the couch, I notice a chess set made from miniature baseball helmets, Red Sox versus the Yankees- I decide not to ask where his loyalties lie, as I need all the friends I can get in Yaoundé. We start to talk though, and I'm explaining a bit about CRS, telling him about the Peacebuilding and HIV/AIDS work the organization is doing. I mention that our Country Representative is currently on leave.

"So, are you running the program while he's out?" he asks.

That's when I know just how different things are.

I laugh, and quickly explain that I'm hardly in a position to be running a country program- I'm very much in the learning process. Give me five or so years, and then I think I'd be ready, but not now.

We chat a bit longer, but the CD has to get back to to the flood of email though, so we wrap things up before long. Back in the courtyard, I find a few of the now-ex volunteers, new members of the RPCV community, and they invite me to join them for a beer. We walk to a place called Chez Francesco, a familiar-looking multicolored bar/restaurant less than 100 meters from the front gate.

This is much more the Africa I remember, rather than the expat palaces, the supermarkets, and the fitness center at the Hilton- it's not that those things aren't nice, but I don't know if you could call it the 'real' Africa. Obviously there are plenty of rich people on this continent, but the fact is that there are plenty more poor people, and the life I'm living now is a pretty rarefied one, compared to what I knew as a volunteer. At the restaurant with the volunteers, I look around and see tables full of 'normal' people, regular Cameroonians having a beer after work, watching a football match on TV, and bantering with the waitress, who comes over in a moment.

I order a large Castel, one of Cameroon's famous brews, and glance at the menu- halfway down, I see the 'Peacecorp Burger.'

"It's something like three beef patties and cheese," one of the new RPCVs says, answering my question- "I guess they figure we can use it when we come in from our sites." Weird for me to think about, especially now that the expat district of Yaoundé is the closest thing I have to a 'site,' and I can get whatever I want easily.

The evening passes quickly- they talk about their experiences as volunteers, and ask me about mine. I find myself lost in thought, thinking about all the things that have brought me here, back to the same restaurant where I sat in 2006 trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do next, maybe even at the same table, probably with the same beer.

The bill comes, another difference. Peace Corps volunteers are notoriously cheap (hardly a surprise)- as a volunteer I remember calculating everyone's share, making sure each Franc ended up where it was supposed to be. My share was maybe 1000 Francs- I have a 5000-franc note though, and I toss it in.

"Yours was 1000, how much change do we owe you?" one of the RPCVs asks.

"Nothing," I answer.

"But you paid way too much."

"You're volunteers, and I'm not. This is what expats used to do for us," I say. It's true- I'm on the other side, the place where I've wanted to be for years.

As I head back to my house I look out the windshield and see a maroon Peace Corps Land Cruiser, on the way to Douala, and the airport. Watching the Land Cruiser in front of me feels like looking back in time- I remember the same trip- the anxiety, the excitement, the sadness, the relief. That car ride was the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another for me- I think of the now-ex volunteers inside. Will any of them find their way back here? What would they feel if they do? I don't think I could offer much advice, but if they need a place to stop and reflect, I can recommend a very nice courtyard in which to do it.

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...