Note: I’ve written bits and pieces of this post over several weeks. The other day, our President made his “shithole countries” comment, by which he presumably was referring to Cameroon, among others. It saddens and incenses me that our nation is led by such a disgraceful human being.
Back in 2005, I made one of those big choices in my life from which everything else has since flowed: I decided to join the Peace Corps rather than pursue a career in politics (as an operative, not candidate). My old boss, Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, was running for Governor of Virginia, but I’d had enough of the political grind and wanted to plunge into international development instead. I was accepted into the Peace Corps and sent to the Central African nation of Cameroon as a Health and Water Sanitation volunteer.
I think about Cameroon often. Last fall was the ten-year anniversary of my return to the States, and I wrote a little about it then, but I wanted to talk a bit more about the Peace Corps in particular, and how it’s changed my perspective.
Cameroon is one of those countries you don’t hear much about – I had to look it up when I got my assignment. It’s next to Nigeria and looks a bit like a rooster. The Peace Corps has been serving in Cameroon since 1962 (it was the second or third country where volunteers were sent when the Peace Corps started), and generations of volunteers have lived and worked there now. I honestly had no idea what to expect – I mean, I grew up in a small, rural town in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia behind a church. When a Thai restaurant opened up in our town in the late 90s, it was the very definition of exotic. But I packed some stuff, made some arrangements and said some goodbyes. I met my fellow stagiaires (trainees) in Philadelphia and, a few days later, we landed in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.
For the next two years, I worked on health extension and water sanitation projects. What that means was that I organized a lot of small meetings about health topics that were of interest to the community: a lot of malaria prevention, for example, and how households can prevent mosquito breeding, proper mosquito net treatment and placement, and so forth. Nutrition was a frequent big topic. I got to do some condom demonstrations in front of a few big high school audiences that were a real hoot.
Water sanitation was probably the more impactful and lasting part of my job, though. I worked on clean water projects and latrine construction. I talked about poop a lot, even more than your average Peace Corps volunteer (which is saying something). I received a lot of technical training on how water is rendered drinkable, how to locate and protect safe sources of water, and so forth. I raised money from friends and family in America and built a few concrete water containment sources in a some villages that should last for decades. I spent a lot of time in latrines, which, yes, got as gross as it sounds. But latrines are super important!
By the way – did you know that you can donate to specific Peace Corps volunteer projects all around the world? Check out the Peace Corps Partnership Program to look at a few of them. 100% of your contribution goes towards the project you select. This is one of my favorite recommendations to friends looking for worthy causes to contribute to.
Here are some answers to FAQ I get:
- Yeah, I ate stuff that is exotic to Americans but not to Cameroonians. Lots of “bushmeat” – i.e. monkey, pangolin, porcupine, snake, etc. Some of it was endangered. But mostly I ate a whole lot of rice, beans, plantain, cassava, beignets and so forth.
- I never got seriously ill. I was on malaria and filaria (i.e. onchocerciasis, or river blindness) prophylactics the whole time, and only had minor bouts of malaria. The Larium never bothered me, but the filaria drugs made me feel like shit. I once spilled boiled water over a big part of my arm, resulting in a big second-degree burn, but my village was so far away from anything that there wasn’t much I could do but keep it cool and take some tylenol. That sucked, but was pretty much the worst that happened.
- In both towns I was assigned to, I lived in a reasonably modern, secure structure. Nice digs, especially by local standards. I keep a clean house, so I didn’t have a huge problem with bugs. A few cockroaches, but probably fewer than your average older house anywhere in the Carolinas.
- I was never robbed, burgled or assaulted. I once had a bag mysteriously disappear at a bus depot, but all I had in it was dirty laundry. I nearly always felt very safe – in fact, in most places I know in Cameroon, there is a much greater stigma against hurting a foreigner than a local.
What Cameroon is like
Here are the essentials: Cameroon is mostly a Francophone country, with two Anglophone provinces. Lately, there has been a gathering crisis there, as the Anglophone regions demand better representation and more equitable share of national resources.
Cameroon has been called “Africa in miniature,” and it’s really true. You have thick, lush rainforest in the South (where I lived); beautiful, rolling highlands and hills in the center/west (including Africa’s second-highest mountain, Mt. Cameroon); grassland savannah in the central region; and the arid Sahel as you go north, finally terminating at Lake Chad, where you’re in full-blown desert. This geographic diversity is dwarfed, however, by its ethnic diversity. Cameroon has over 260 different recognized tribal/ethnic groups, many with wholly different languages and cultures and mythologies. French (and English, in parts, but mostly French) is what knits the country together. A third of the country is Muslim, and the rest is Christian, or some mix of Christian and local faiths. The country is known as the breadbasket of Central Africa for its bounty of agricultural output – Cameroon exports tons of food to all of its neighbors, and, like elsewhere, domestic malnutrition is an issue of poverty, not lack of supply of available food.
Cameroon is generally a very safe country. There has never been a civil war, and Cameroonians all cite “keeping peace” as one of the chief accomplishments of the government. The President/dictator, Paul Biya, is now the longest-serving ruler in Africa (since Robert Mugabe stepped down), and he maintains control through a mix of police power, phony elections, regional clientism and intrigue. The government is outrageously corrupt, and everyone knows it and complains about it constantly. Cameroon has a thriving civil society and press. Mostly, people go about their lives – they work, study, play, party.
As elsewhere in Africa, soccer is the alternative national religion. In addition to having one of the best team names around, “The Indomitable Lions” are one of the world’s great soccer clubs. (They won last year’s African Cup of Nations!) Almost every kid who grows up in Cameroon does so playing soccer, usually barefoot in a field. Everyone loves it when they beat giant countries like Nigeria or Egypt, who have something like 15x more population than little Cameroon.
My time in Cameroon left me with two indelible impressions of Cameroonians that I wish more Americans knew:
- They are some of the hardest-working, most determined and entrepreneurial people I have ever met. Certainly, this varies both individually and by the area, but if I were to hazard a generalization, I would say that many Cameroonian cultures place an incredible emphasis on individual work ethic. People hustle, women often most of all. There is much less comfort with the notion of competition in the economic sense (see the next point), and likewise, individuality in the Western sense is not really a thing. But man – people work.
- There is an Ubuntu saying from Southern Africa that you might’ve heard: “I am, because we are.” This is not Cameroonian, of course, but it’s a good way to explain the sense of how many Cameroonians think of themselves in context with the family, village and tribe. The Western sense of individuality doesn’t have a way to compute this. This definition of oneself as a permanent, inextricable part of a community is perhaps the most powerful source of meaning for every Cameroonian I know. It’s not without drawbacks. It makes individual success harder, and can create some stigma against differentiation, original expression or the type of “break all the rules” thinking so popular in the West; yet at the same time, it grounds people spiritually, and more tangibly, it provides a very practical means of support in times of material need.
It’s sometimes said that the Chinese are some of the world’s greatest natural entrepreneurs. I would nominate Cameroonians (and Nigerians, incidentally) alongside them. If the cultural values of hard work and entrepreneurism from these societies were matched with the material resources to capitalize on them, as well as a legal/policy environment that allowed them to flourish, there is nothing that would be beyond their grasp.
As it is, Cameroonians today mostly have to leave Cameroon to succeed. Those with the means to do so all go to France, or the United States, where most of them achieve the grandes ambitions that their homeland aspires to. The Cameroonian diaspora is highly educated, incredibly resourceful and very successful.
The Third Goal
Most Americans know little or nothing about Africa. I didn’t, before I went. If I’m honest, I didn’t even particularly want to go there. I had nothing against Africa, you understand – I just wasn’t that curious about it.
Africa represents a giant blank spot in the already hazy American psychic map of the world. Among those fortunate enough to be able to travel, Europe and Central/South America are the popular destinations. East and Southeast Asia is another. These are the places backpackers go, or people go for honeymoons or exotic vacations. Africa is, for the most part, not considered at all, at least beyond some spots in South Africa. A lot of this is because we’ve been told the wrong story – or, just as often, no story at all – about most of Africa.
I wish every person would watch Nigerian uber-author Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” which explains the hazard of this lack of narrative. (Seriously, if I’m recommending you watch a TED talk, you know it must be good.) We, as Americans, generally lack any available mental narrative of Africa beyond the horrible headlines taken from the worst parts of the continent. AIDS, war, rape, child soldiers, famine – these all exist, somewhere, in Africa, and the news reports on them. But “Africa” is very often discussed as one whole in a way that, say, “Asia” is not. There is AIDS, war, rape, child soldiers and famine in Asia as well, but people don’t associate it with their mental narrative of, say, Thailand, or China or Japan.
“I used to joke—and I want to emphasize this is a joke—that you could write that you’d wandered into some obscure backwater in Africa where people had three ears,” Howard French, former Africa correspondent for The New York Times, once told me. “If it’s not literally true you can get away with that, it’s figuratively true that you can.”
I included this piece, The White Correspondent’s Burden, in my email update a while back because it explains, from the journalist’s perspective, the quandary of reporting on African stories. To simply make sense of African stories, Western audiences often need them set into some sort of pre-existing conceptual framework, which itself is often inaccurate. Outside of this framework, Western audiences struggle to consume these stories.
One of the Peace Corps goals is to help explain the rest of the world, especially the less-traveled parts, to our fellow countrymen. It sends thousands of young women and men into parts of the world their parents would sometimes rather they wouldn’t. It pushes our comfort zones, and expands horizons. I would never have gone to Cameroon without the Peace Corps, and now, I can’t really imagine a life in which I hadn’t. And having had that experience, I now, in my own tiny little way, try to push back on those silly mental frameworks people have about “Africa,” and show them that they’re usually wrong.
You should go visit Cameroon. Or Benin. Or Gabon. Or Ghana. Personally, Dakar is very high on my must-visit bucket list (if you haven’t tried it, Senegalese food is amazing). I hear the surfing in Liberia can’t be beat.
Is the Peace Corps effective?
The short answer is, “yes.” The long answer matters too, though.
The Peace Corps is, in some ways, the victim of its own legend. Your average American, if they know anything about the Peace Corps at all, is far more aware of it than, say, USAID, the World Bank or the UNDP, all of which are orders of magnitude larger organizations. I think this leads some people to build unrealistically high expectations of the Peace Corps and what it can accomplish.
The Peace Corps is a tiny agency of the U.S. government – it cannot singlehandedly eliminate poverty or disease. One of its goals is to provide development assistance, but also to “promote the understanding of Americans, and of other peoples on the part of Americans.” It’s as much public diplomacy and cultural understanding as development. This stuff matters. At one point while I was serving, something like five sitting African heads of state had had Peace Corps English teachers when they were in school. Peace Corps volunteers represent, and explain, America in a way that our other cultural products, like movies and TV, cannot (and should not). It’s worth noting that the Peace Corps also feeds much of America’s foreign policy, NGO and international development community, too.
The Peace Corps currently supports about 7,300 volunteers in 65 countries at any given time. Last year, its total budget was about $400 million. This is roughly the size of the Pentagon’s weekday sandwich order. By contrast, USAID’s operating budget was $27 billion; the World Bank’s International Development Group has something like $79 billion in loans extended; UNDP’s annual budget was over $5 billion. And this doesn’t even consider the “reconstruction aid” administered through the DoD/Pentagon, which reaches well into the eleven figures and which almost no Americans know anything at all about. USAID and the Pentagon routinely shrug off amounts far exceeding the entirety of the Peace Corps: in fact, the very first link on the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reads: $675 Million in Spending Led to Mixed Results, Waste, and Unsustained Projects.
So, yeah, the Peace Corps is a bargain.
After the Peace Corps, I worked in international development for a few more years before going to business school. I was a program manager for a USAID contractor doing global health work, and spent a lot of time in South Sudan and Kenya in those years. That was… a very different experience than Cameroon. I liked international development, and who knows? I might go do it again one day.
They say you can only really understand where you come from when you’re able to see it through an outsider’s perspective. I couldn’t truly grasp the truth in this before I spent so much time absorbing a non-Western culture. Obviously I’m not the first person to realize this – the maturing effects of travel have been written about forever – but the ways in which it forced me to grow as a person made me wish that more Americans had the means and opportunity to do the same. Many of those who do, simply don’t take advantage of them, either out of lack of interest or, worse, fear of what’s out there.
That makes me sad. I hope Penny joins the Peace Corps one day; or, alternatively, spends some of her formative years abroad, exploring what’s out there. Everyone should. It’s a much bigger world than any of us realize.