Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013: A Year In Review

As December draws to a close I’ll wrap up my first full calendar year, albeit my 16th month (but who’s counting?), in Cameroon.  It’s cause for reflection; not only am I past the halfway mark of my 27-month service, but once 2014 rolls around, my COS date will be in sight.  It’s a matter of perspective rather than numeric reality—a mere week’s difference—but saying “this year” instead of “next year” makes the end far more tangible, alarming and tantalizing in equal measure.

2013, in some ways, has seemed like the Year That Wasn’t.  As recently as last week I was dating supplemental distribution records 2012.  I have often felt so disconnected from life as I knew it pre-Peace Corps that it’s as though I were living in an alternate reality while all else stood still, waiting for my return.  In the absence of most of what I subconsciously use to mark the passing of months and seasons—federal holidays, changing seasonal weather, new drinks at Starbucks, clothing styles—it’s sometimes jarring to check email, Facebook, or the news in a cyber café and be yanked suddenly to the present.  Friends are engaged, or married, or having kids.  Family members post pictures of themselves brandishing an ice cream at the beach, or romping in autumn leaves, or getting in snowball fights with roommates; it’s surreal to understand that these things are going on concurrently while I slowly melt in merciless heat and watch ragged street children through the cyber café’s doorway.  Politicians change, or do things, or, more problematically this past year, refuse to do things—I missed the government shutdown by several days, and didn’t believe the fellow volunteer who told me about it (“You must have misunderstood, Geoff, it can’t have shut down.  That’s what governments in places like Cameroon do.”)

But whether I’m ready to believe it or not, a whole year has passed since I rang in the last New Year climbing Mount Lagdo (by night, not the wisest decision we’ve made) with three other volunteers from the region.  It was a year of extremes and contradictions; much happened, while at the same time I spent more days with nothing to do than I have, ever.  I learned how to carry on full conversations with minimal mutual language abilities, and learned to speak Fulfuldé.  I decided I loved Mandama.  I decided I hated Mandama.  I experienced some of the most exhilarating highs, and some of the most debilitating lows, of my life.  I’ve made some of the closest friends I’ve had, and watched friends leave, not knowing when, if ever, we’ll meet again.

I spent hours despairing of ever finding work, and hours doing work of all stripes.  I weighed hundreds of babies.  I made gallons of soymilk and pounds of tofu.  I planted dozens of moringa trees, and gave presentations on the nutritional and agricultural benefits so many times I can now do them from memory.  I did door-to-door screenings for malnutrition and malaria.  I learned how to turn off my brain completely when that second or third hour of sitting in the heat at the health center rolled around with no sign of our bibulous chief nurse and, fatally, no book in my bag. Once, upon going to the high school and finding the English teacher hadn’t showed up that day, I improvised an off-the-cuff hour-long class on letter-writing and the difference between the restrictive that and the nonrestrictive which (and for grammar Nazis out there, I felt the irregular restrictive which was only going to confuse, so it was, as usual, ignored).  I raised chickens.  I learned how to farm soy, how to make insecticide soap from natural ingredients, and how most effectively to hiss at goats (it’s the combination of a sibilant ts and the right pitch that really makes ‘em take off running).
Will Saitta and I lead a tofu demonstration as part of a two-day long food security conference.

I learned how to be a good neighbor in this culture, and found that there are many things about my neighbors and about this culture that I just don’t like.  I attended more funerals than I have in the rest of my life to date.  I held newborns.  In my neighbors’ family alone, I watched as two children were born, a child learned to walk, and another child began to talk.  I ate new foods, including viper, boiled grubs (imagine a rubber balloon filled with grits; exactly the horrifying texture I always imagined from watching Pumbaa in The Lion King), and slugs in peanut butter (not quite as vile as it sounds).  I forced Cameroonians to try new foods, like spaghetti sauce and hummus, thus disproving the old axiom about Children In Africa Who Would Love To Eat Those Leftovers.  Children—and adults—in Africa like to eat the limited menu of things they have always eaten and will always eat, and approach new and foreign foods with the antipathy of an American teen being served any of the African dishes I listed above (so take that, Granny!)  I met people I despised—the venal men whose corruption and greed means the system will never function, the wheedling women whose transparent lies enrage me, the children who follow me jeering ethnic slurs—and people whose kindness and willingness to work humbled me.

A stack of sheep legs after the slaughter during the first day of the Feast of the Ram.

I read 54 books, which works out nicely to a book a week.  Among these were several Charles Dickens novels, Moby Dick, and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s 900-page history of Jerusalem.  Like I said, I had a lot of time on my hands.  I watched episodes of 12 different TV shows, despite my resolve not to do so.  I gained 15 pounds.  I ran 232 miles.  I determined that I was definitely, absolutely quitting Peace Corps and blowing this popsicle stand approximately 365 times, and then revised that decision about 350 times—I didn’t have access to a way to leave village the other 15, so here I sit today.  I pooped myself, twice (dysentery’s a hell of a disease).  I saw the desert, watched a troop of baboons in the arid savannah, hiked an equatorial rainforest, and dived into a waterfall on the Gulf of Guinea. 

Eddie Rosenbaum fords a stream on our way to a pygmy encampment in the Congo River Basin.

I could continue in this fashion almost indefinitely, but there’s more to reviewing a year than endlessly declaring what I did.  This is the time to prepare for the next 11 months.  In many ways, they’ll be easier.  I’m established; I know the villagers of Mandama, both friends and foes; I have my work cut out for me.  In other ways they’ll be harder.  I’ll need to devote more and more time and mental energy to preparing what comes next, which will emotionally (and physically, as my Internet needs increase) remove me from my work here, undoubtedly making it harder to be fully present.  I’m habituated to things that once chafed; I no longer yearn for a shower the way I once did, or even a flush toilet.  Still, I’m never totally integrated here.  War correspondent Tim Butcher writes in Blood River, his account of traveling through the Congo, “I longed for convenience so much it hurt.”  I’m not sure if it’s convenience I long for as much as it is accessibility—of information, of communication, of medical supplies, of produce.  I have no doubt their absence will continue to rankle, perhaps even more so the closer I get to attaining them, but I’ve learned to get by without the immediacy of these things.  I’m never sure if I’ve struck the right balance between community integration and personal sanity—I feel alternately irritated and guilty almost always—but I’ve gotten better at it, and I hope I’ll continue to do so.  I’ll be moving several projects into their next phases, and am glad that I know how things work here well enough to start getting long-term goals set into motion. 

Henna'ed hands for the Feast of Ramadan.

Mostly, I hope to keep expanding my horizons.  I’ve seen and experienced an unbelievable amount this past year, despite the days when it feels like all I see are the four walls of my house (now beautified with jazz murals).  I’ve been humbled, and frustrated, and educated, and awestruck, and I hope 2014 brings more of the same.

The view towards Malabo, Equitorial Guinea, from the coast at Limbe.

So here’s to a New Year.  Cheers and a midnight kiss from Cameroon.

Termites with a dry spicy piment rub.

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