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.

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