“One person can make a difference and every person should try.” -John F. Kennedy

To celebrate the anniversary of Peace Corps this March, I decided to take you on a stroll with me down memory lane- or in my case, a dirt road leading into my village of Bare, Cameroon…Where is that? You may ask yourself. I did when I read my invitation. West Africa… picture the arm pit of Africa on the map. Voila.

I hope you enjoyed my video tour! Peace Corps was important to the person that I am today, and could not imagine my life without having had the experience!

Education is the key to success. – Oprah Winfrey

It’s been 9 years since I met the adorable little 12 year old boy who carried my umbrella throughout the International Women’s Day parade. He was wearing broken flip flops and a big smile. He was living with his uncle at the time, far from town. His father had passed and his mother wasn’t in the picture. His face was skinny, and I knew that he was only eating once a day, so I invited him into my home and into my life, and we began sharing recipes. He taught me how to kill and pluck a chicken. I taught him all about cake, Mexican food, and pizza flavored goldfish. Little did I know the role that I would later take on, that he would move into my house, that I would host his 14th birthday party (see below), and that one day he would add my last name to his.

At the age of 22, I learned a lot about motherhood and the love you can have for someone, even when they drive you nuts. Now Franck is much older, and he’s grown so much that picking me up mid-hug just came naturally when I first visited Franck a couple years after I had left. Leaving him was one of the hardest things I had to do. Since then we’ve grown into our differing lives, he settling into an orphanage and me going forward with the opportunities before me. I feel that I’ve lived several different lives, while he’s been stuck in his. I’ve been disappointed, proud and more forgiving than I’ve ever been with anyone. During our time together, I did my best to equip him the tools that I felt could help him succeed. I emphasized moral values, I talked to him about safe sex, no matter the blushing face, and I repeatedly taught him that education would be the key to his success. For Franck that key would bring him to America, but I’m not entirely sure of what that key will open up for him yet.

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Right now we are working through his last year of high school and his final Bac exam. So while 7 years and an ocean separate us, I will always be rooting for his success. And while some of my friends are skeptical about trusting this teenage boy who continuously asks me for money, and rightfully so, I’ve decided that I want to be no part of why Franck doesn’t have a chance. If he finds some way to blow it, it’s on him. But I’m doing my part to carefully give enough to allow him every opportunity to soak up an education, and all the love I can give him from where I stand as his remaining living family. Today, that means sending money through Express Union to a trusted mama friend  in town (see her featured below), who will go with Franck to pay his school fees tomorrow. And that puts a big smile on my face.

 

The two photos featuring Franck are from Youth Day, a National holiday where children parade and dance in the streets to celebrate their youth. I went to Nkongsamba to share the fetstivities with Franck. He really enjoyed the grilled fish that I bought for him.

The last photo is just to let you know how traveling looks like in Cameroon most of the time, when I cant flag down a private car.. huge buses; with all the baggage on top, including goats. This photo was taken on way back from Yaounde, when a tire literally flew off the bus, and we sat there stuck for a few hours before catching another car. Ouai! On va faire comment?

I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas with friends and Cameroonian family! I have posted picures of Franck opening presents from Papa, and others including my wonderful counterparts, Ernest and Sintia. I even managed to see my mom is Bangangte. Even though I found myself homesick at times, listening to country music and missing you guys, I really enjoyed being with all these people that are so dear to me!

Hope you had a merry merry Christmas too, where you were!

The most beautiful gift you can give a woman is a house.
-Ernest Fondja, my best friend in Cameroon

Everyone in my Cameroonian life is in joyful spirits! In the same week that the Piggy Bank project was completed, Ernest and his family moved into their newly built house. They waited to prepare the first dinner until I could be there, and together we celebrated the new home over palm wine, plantains with peanut sauce, gospel music playing loudly, and a joy that is impossible to explain, but could easily be felt through out the entire compound. We were together and we are together now; the joy that radiates from my best friend’s family radiates into my life, and all I can do is continue to be grateful for the blessings I have in my life.

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

I can hardly find the inspiration to write it all down because everything feels so normal. I am more or less starting to dwell on the fact that I will be leaving this place, and a piece of me behind when I go, which is something I don’t necessarily want to think about. Although something whispers into my soul that I will be back, that the people and culture have soaked into me enough that I will be connected for the rest of my life no matter what.

I have just come down the stairs and noticed a crowd of people at the Carrefour. Then a moto revs up and speeds away, and 30 children run behind, screaming. Qu’est-ce qui se passé? I ask my landlady, who I call la maman du quartier, and she tells me that a woman was on the moto. Apparently someone bet this woman that she could not drive a moto, and she obviously proved them wrong. Good for her! And this is the only thing about my day that reminds me how different the cultures are.

I have been eating out a little too much. When there is grilled fish always available in the evening time just a few minutes away, it’s hard to resist. Especially since cooking takes so much time here. It’s so easy to cut up a papaya in the morning for breakfast after doing cardio, but lunch and dinner is another story. I prefer spending my time, anyway, on applications for funding for the water well I am determined to have installed for the Kentaja orphans by the time I leave this country. Or preparing a radio show that happens every Tuesday evening. Or organizing the Savings for Youth project that will be put into action during our tour at the end of this month. I have a pile of wooden banks in my spare bedroom, ready to go. It was my turn to lesson plan this week for Tim and I’s Club Success that we do with high school students here, based from the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It always gives me a good French lesson to translate the ideas, and teaching young adults to live according to their principles feels like the right thing to do. I will be going to a cultural festival in Batibo this weekend, on the 22nd. I have been preparing to perform a few songs there. I am satisfyingly busy.

Eric is coming to visit me in January, and I have been making itineraries and talking to Ernest and other friends about when he will be here. It’s funny to see someone else so excited because someone I care about is coming. Ernest swells up with pride when he’s telling his friend that our friend is coming to visit. I don’t think I will have much left to do with all the organizing that Ernest is doing.

And I’m at war with a mouse. Or maybe more than one, I don’t know how many there are at this point. They have just recently stepped way over their boundaries in my home. Just a minute ago I saw one just walking down my hallway like he owns the place, before noticing me and running and hopping away. I cornered him in my closet, but I am so afraid of mice that I don’t want to get too close to them, and this one in particular resembled a hamster, just looking at me with big black eyes. All the more reason for wanting him out. But he hops and I scream and we’re in another situation full of adrenaline, one that we both don’t envy. I originally planned to catch him by throwing a sheet on top of him, but then I realized that I would actually have to pin him down then or else he would just run out from underneath it. I grabbed the Axe body spray… I figured it would be strong enough to drown him in fumes, and if nothing else the room would smell good and remind me of Sminu for the next week. But he outsmarted me, gathering enough courage to leap out and run past me, as I stood there screaming like a fool, thinking to myself this situation is definitely not one I know how to handle appropriately. I miss Franck. He killed two of them while he was here during his time here with a designated mouse killing stick. But I don’t even have enough guts to pick it up because I can’t tell which end is for your hand and which end is the part that squashes the others.

As I am sad about leaving, I am excited about returning home to see everyone at my roots once again. I often fantasize about cheese and driving my own car and sleeping on a comfortable mattress.

I am also excited about my upcoming adventure of going to the Philippines, experiencing life there, trying to learn the language, and broadening my knowledge once again in a cultural, spiritual kind of way. I am excited about experiencing the music business, and seeing where I land in 6 months.

I also realize that I need to think about money and investments in the near future, and don’t want to run from it. On top of a couple student loans, I have a kid to support now, and my very own ideas to try out in the way of business. I in no way want a lifestyle that splurges and spends money (I think I would feel guilty buying things I don’t really need, given what kind of circumstances I have seen here and just how thankful I am to live in such a prosperous country), but a lifestyle that is instead invested and committed to the common good of people in need. This is my goal now. I have experienced how fulfilling life is when I spend it thinking of others. Not to sound like I’m a saint or anything; it really just feels good when I come home after a day I devoted to the people around me that are in need of something that I can give them- be it time, knowledge, understanding or hope.

“Some things you will never fully understand. You can only attempt to understand.”

I have been drinking more palm wine in the last few weeks. I like that it is naturally tapped from trees, and therefore has no carbonation and chemicals like beer does. I like to go to my friend Unity’s bar with Ernest. We sit on the wooden benches and relax over a couple cups that cost no more than a few cents (I believe 1 liter= 100 CFA). We talk about everything and nothing. But a particular day came with surprise that sparked an entirely different kind of conversation.

Ernest stepped out and I was talking to an Anglophone man that was also sitting there with us. He began to tell Unity where to put a stick that she had in her hand. She moved it around on the dirt floor until he decided the spot was just rite. She jabbed the stick there, before closing the door. I was about to yell at him for being so bossy to her, but then he started digging in this spot she had put the stick, and I realized that I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t do anything but watch. He dug for a while, then uncovered a chicken head in this exact spot. He then told Unity to get some red oil, which he poured over and did a little chant-like prayer, before spitting on the head and covering it back up with dirt. Ernest returned in the middle of this, and I immediately started asking questions. What just happened? He told me that Unity had some people on her side of the family, who were not happy with her and wanted to harm her health, and through the ways of black magic, cast some sort of spell that landed a chicken head there spiritually. You should also know, also, that Cameroonians usually eat chicken heads, so it wouldn’t make sense that it just ended up there. I then asked Ernest how did he know that was buried there? He explained that he himself had felt that something was wrong within the bar. Fewer people started coming in to drink her good quality palm wine, to the point that she was even closing early, around 8 P.M. instead of midnight or 1:00 A.M like when she had been closing before. Ernest knew that Unity had family members that were not supportive of her, and this led him to feel that something was wrong, so he called this Anglophone man to do something about it, otherwise known as a traditional healer.

I can’t tell you much else than this. I only know what I saw, and I think what I witnessed was something that is real, but yet beyond me. I am still quite shocked. What really gets me is that they did not know I would be coming there, so it’s not as if they would have rigged this- and why would they? Ernest is my best friend here; he is always honest with me. Maybe the traditional healer was right to say that I would never really be able to understand it!

Yes We Can. -Barack Obama, Elected President of the United States

I feel that I should talk about the way that Barack Obama and last night’s Presidential election has had an affect on my life in these past few months, and few weeks especially, living as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, West Africa. While I will state that this blog does not reflect the views or perspectives of Peace Corps or the American government, it’s just the way that I have been seeing/living history from this side of the world.

Cameroonians LOVE Obama, many of them just for the mere fact that he is partially black- and partially African. It has been a conversational game in these last weeks, villagers asking me who I voted for, and if I could even vote. When they tell me that they want Obama to win, I ask them why, and some of them don’t even know why. And even when I tell them that Obama is for abortion (its illegal here), against the ban on gay marriages (homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon; we have legalized polygamy, however, which can be used as a great discussion tactic to compare the two), they still remain supportive of him. Why? I think because Barack Obama represents the American dream. In just one generation, his father immigrated to America, just like most of our ancestors did, and he was born into a life of that allowed him to be nurtured to be the dynamic, well-educated, inspired for change, and multi-cultural person that he is. He is somehow understood by everyone, and I hope that this will change America’s image for the better. I tell Cameroonians that Obama has been compared to John F. Kennedy, the creator of Peace Corps, for his eloquent and inspirational speeches, and another level of pride comes about. Perhaps Obama has already changed our image for the rest of the world.

I will admit that I considered skipping the ordeal of voting by mail… a Volunteer had to bring my ballot from Yaounde, so that I could fill it out and send it back to the Peace Corps headquarters by a travel agency (bus). When the Director received it, he had to find the name of the county judge for me, since I didn’t have the information and couldn’t get online to get it at that time. But in the end… I was very glad that I did, just for the mere fact that Cameroonian citizens are interested in my involvement as an active citizen for the United States, and I have enjoyed telling them that I voted, how I voted, and educating them on the issues that have been presented. They are proud too, and in some way I think that the volunteers that live among them represent them (“we are together”), and to know that we voted is, I think, somehow like they took part in this election too. This election has not been just about Americans though. This is about the world, that seems was destined to give Obama this opportunity to make peace among everyone.

On Monday, I held a special class lesson in which I gave my students an educational, biography-like text about Obama, and passed around Newsweeks so that they could look at pictures. Many of them had never seen what he looked like, and like many others, supported him without knowing much about him. They were very receptive, and I was happy with their class participation for those two hours.

Then Tuesday came- the day everyone had been waiting for. I mean everyone. People were yelling out Obama at me in the streets, and everyone was talking about the moment that would soon arrive. I even guilt tripped a few villagers into saying that they would buy me a drink if Obama won (this is completely acceptable in Cameroonian culture). I decided to stay in my village and to experience watching the elections with other Cameroonians, but at 3A.M. it ended up just being my best friend here, Ernest, the guardian of the building, and myself, sitting in the bar watching and waiting for results over palm wine. The streets were empty. We had watched documentaries about Obama and the clips of both candidates were entertaining, but the results hadn’t yet arrived and we were falling asleep in our chairs. And all we knew was that Obama was doing much better than John Kerry had done. So they walked me home and I went to sleep, with my alarm ready to wake me up in the next hour, to beep Richie for an update.

Let me take a moment to explain beeping in this culture. In Cameroon, and in most of Africa I believe, we will dial someone’s number and let it ring once or twice, with the intention of hanging up before the receiver picks up. I have learned that this can be a wonderful communication tool when used correctly! For example, Tim knows that I am en route to Nkongsamba if I beep him. Mom knows that I want to talk to her if I beep her once, and that it’s only urgent if I beep twice. If my counterpart Sintia asks me a question in a text, I will beep to positively respond, or as to say yes or ok. Other times, Cameroonians will simply beep so as to say, I’m thinking about you or How are you doing? I typically beep back so as to say, I am doing well, thanks, and I am thinking about you too!

But everyone knew what this meant this morning at 5:30 when the final results came through. Next thing I know, I am waking up to a beep from Autumn, a text from Richie that says Obama won the votes in almost all the states, then from Sminu that says he’s got it, and finally from the Peace Corps Director of Cameroon: “Congratulations to Barack OBAMA!” What else was I to do but beep out my enthusiasm to friends and family?! Volunteers began beeping me, and so that is how it became one big beeping, election results party in my bed!

I am happy with the way I celebrated Obama’s victory, and along with the rest of the world, I look forward to being a part of the history of these next four years with him- and continuing the celebration by drinking the beers that my fellow villagers owe me!

“Christmas, don’t be late…”
-Alvin and the Chipmunks

My dad asked me to start thinking about what I want or need for Christmas.

So there are lots of things I could say I want. There are lots of girly frilly things that would please me for a while, there are teas that I would enjoy and new work out pants would be nice, I could eat lots of pepperonis and freeze-dried ice cream, which I miss lots here… and a year ago I would have loved to splurge on nice restaurants and movies, and shopping at Bath & Body Works and clothing stores and such; I would still enjoy these things short-term, sure. But then they go away. Many of these unnecessary things we buy are eventually thrown aside, overly consumed or lost.

All of this luxury, that I didn’t even realize was luxury, was all around me. I remember during my visit, complaining about 20$ parking, saying it was too much and that I would rather walk a few blocks- and my cousin telling me, “You’re in America now. It’s not a lot of money!” Haha, later on she bought a beer for me because she knew that I wouldn’t spend the money on one. I just think of 20 dollars and what that would do for some orphans, or some primary kiddies running around with tires and boards for toys. Maybe it’s not that much, but it is in this context, which is what I am trying to help all of my American supporters realize.

I know you realize this, Dad, and that you care. You’ve always been my #1 fan and I always knew that you would support whatever was in my heart.

And so when it comes down to the core, I realize that in the long run what will fulfill me the most will be getting my projects underway and completed. I’ve been a little worried about everyone contributing though. People always say they want to help and contribute, and many family members and friends bought bracelets to support scholarships for school (which applications are being submitted for currently, and soon I will be going through them- and later there will be a ceremony of awards which you will hear all about for sure… please let everyone know that…) which is great, but there are so many needs that it’s been hard enough just to limit investing myself into a few! I really care about these projects and the people involved in them. I want to return from my mission, holding my head high because of the tremendous support and hope that I brought into my communities, because I impacted someone’s life significantly.

But I realize that it’s not all about me; it takes everyone’s helping hand. I keep hoping that people will realize that if everyone contributes a little bit, it will make a LOT of difference. I am already here doing all the necessary groundwork projects and following through. Everyone has a part, and not everyone is expected to be on this side of the world. You all can make a difference from your side, doing what you are good at and contributing in ways that I can’t!

It will make a difference for the orphans in the small village of Badzuidjong, where there is no water or electricity. It’s my priority to get these kids water. In addition, I am working together with my best friend in village, Ernest, who is from this village, and a priest who are both extremely caring and motivated for the same reasons. But they don’t have any other friends that have twenty dollars to contribute to the project. They have worked hard enough to gather the needed 25% from various groups and people for the project. The money is missing and I am that link. And I don’t mind giving up Christmas presents because I am needed here for something that will impact the rest of these Cameroonian lives.

It will make a difference for the primary school development in my village, where they began constructing an office for the school visitors and director but did not have enough funding to finish, where the Director is currently working out of an empty classroom along with his secretary. In beginning the office building, the Director himself laid the bricks that are there with his own hands. Cameroonians just don’t have the choice in getting their hands dirty most of the time. At least I do. I have the choice to bug and bother people for a few dollars, yes, I know. I have the choice to save and save until no end, and in doing so, knowing that there will always be some source of money for me (being able to work in America). Cameroonians don’t have that kind of security. I don’t know how I would stay sane without it. So I don’t mind begging for once in my life, especially after seeing so many Africans beg for the bare necessities. I am getting this project’s application (CEBEC School Development Project) submitted today, and will let everyone know when it is posted on the Peace Corps website.

ArnaudMy first project will always be Franck of course. Taking him in and getting him into the boarding school has been one of the best, yet most personally fulfilling, things I have done in my service here. It’s amazing how good it feels when you just give yourself completely to something. I realize that Franck is a life-long project! He is my adopted son, no matter what any document says.

I’ve said it before but it makes a lot of sense: If everyone contributes a little it will make a LOT of difference! Please take this to heart and into your communities- churches, organizations, groups, where you work… some people really want to help causes like this but don’t know how. This is one of the best ways, too, because the contribution goes straight to the project, without taking out a percentage for administrative costs which happens with many organizations. The contribution is direct and I will be happy to share with everyone exactly where it’s going.

All donations will be through the official Peace Corps website only.

So don’t worry or bother about sending me gifts. Just give me the gift of giving, and by giving everyone around you the opportunity to give also!

This is all I want for Christmas!

Sending lots of love from Africa,
Tara Lynn Smith