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.

 

Packing your bags again? In my experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Flight Attendant and Tour Guide, I've learned a few secret hacks that I must share with all of you! These tips will change your life!

The entire essence of this blog is to share my passion for eating, loving and volunteering with all of you. I want everyone to know that living by this philosophy can take you on an incredible adventure, and can begin with bread crumbs left on screens full of so much other junk. And often times we re-learn that in order for the community to embrace us back, we must first embrace the community ourselves. And doesn’t it feel so wonderful and fuzzy when we know that we are making an impact, however small?

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.

“Great beginnings are not as important as the way one finishes.”
–Dr. James Dobson

I wrote this on the last line of my letter to Franck, signed it “Maman Tara Lynn Smith” in pink ink, and sealed in an envelope the most personal letter I’ve ever written in my history with the French language. I attached a piece of paper in which I printed in large, bold font: “Discipline is remembering what you want.” I had meant for Franck to be surprised with this letter of encouragement and motivation as he was unpacking alone in his dorm room, but the second guard of inspection at Fultang found it first. Whipping it out, he looked at me and asked “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Franck smirked at me the way he does when he is pleasantly surprised, and I responded that it was a letter. The guard shrugged and put the letter back into his bag full of all of the Fultang mandated items. A few seconds later, he took out a packet of clothespins, opened it, removed five, and gave the rest back to me. That was all he needed, the guard told me. Ernest leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Ils sont serieux”: They are serious. Like the military, the school expects that every student has the same everything, to break down social classes between the poorest orphan children (although my guess is there’s probably only one…) and the child who’s father is the richest journalist writer in the country, the students whose parents dropped them off in their personal sports cars, and the children whose parents don’t even live within the country. My vision had so far unfolded the way I hoped it would, and they had even let Franck take his Rocket’s back pack with him (Thanks Dad, he LOVES that backpack; and for that matter, he loves everything that’s the color red now!), but when I tried following Franck into the dormitory, I was stopped by one of the discipline masters. Parents are not allowed on the first day entering, because of past instances when mothers would demand their child get the best bunk, throw fits, etc. etc. So I sat down next to this discipline master and tried to act as unemotional and understanding as possible. I was able to send my camera with Franck so that I could at least see what the room he’s sleeping in looked like. To my surprise, he returned to show me photos he had taken of friends he had already made in the dorm. It was just like Franck to have already made buddies after only twenty minutes of being on campus. Two of the boys walked out with him and told me that they worried about his armoire, that the lock was not a very good one. I thought it was really nice of these boys to care so much to tell us, so after paying the intendent to fix the lock, we offered Franck’s new friends the muffins that were refused to be brought on campus. The kids quickly emptied the Ziploc bag in the guarded entrance way, I was told by his friends that I needed to spend encore more money to send tapioca for him to eat- and then in a flash, I was hugging Franck, probably embarrassing him in saying “Je t’aime”, and then he disappeared back to the dormitory. Ernest and I returned to the other side of the brick barrier.

Is this what parenting is like?! Loving a child, getting used to them around, and just when you think it’s the best thing for everyone for them to spread their wings to another land, you suddenly find it incredibly painful?! I’m sincerely excited for Franck and his beginnings at his best chance for educational success, but my first night is perhaps more frightful than his. Samy, Franck, Tim… have all vanished from my every day life. I’ve kept everyone else at a distance. Even my overly-integrated post mate has chosen to move further away into the village, to live among the people she works in the fields with. It’s mostly my fear of being alone that scares me about these next eight months now. I will have to greatly begin again, in my own way.

Tara Smith’s Peace Corps Education Projects: 2008-2009

Scholarships for students at the Lycee de Bare
About 16 full scholarships (based on need, merit, and essay) will be given along with packets of pens, pencils and notebooks.
A ceremony will be held at the end-October/beginning November 2008 to recognize those students and in which we will take photos and scholarship winners should write thank you letters to American donors.

Club Success: 7 Habits of Effective People
I will meet with motivated students at the Lycee de Bare to give them lessons on how to be more successful, following closely the text “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” every Wednesday.
Potential Club Success at the Centre des Filles de Bare-Bakem

Pit latrine project at the Lycee de Bare
I will make this happen with the help of the Peace Corps Partnership program or potentially with another club that would be willing to help fund the project.

Weekly Bare Radio show with Serge
Research and discuss one topic every week in French and English on the radio.

“Piggy Bank” Project
An attempt to encourage among youth to Cameroonian students in the Littoral province, going to seven different schools in collaboration with other volunteers (Project is currently posted and will be put into place as soon as the contribution mark is hit on the PC Partnership Website).

NorthWest Province Cultural Festival, November 22nd
Promote intercultural education through vocal performance and through presenting on the subject of Diversity in America.

Adult English Classes
Using the Peace Corps Model School syllabus, I will offer English classes to adults in the community, potentially including the Girls’ Centre de Bare-Bakem.

Peace Corps Education Volunteer at the orphanage in Bakou
I will help assess the town as a potential post for an Education Volunteer and aide the village in the necessary proceeding steps.

Potential work with the Manengouba Foundation- Cultural Exchange between Nkongsamba high school and USA high school
I will work with a high school in their cultural exchange which will eventually become a physical exchange of students.

WLP Women Empowerment Workshop
Using the WLP manual, provide a 10 week workshop to empower women, help them gain confidence in themselves, and to take more control of their lives.

Barrier for the orphanage of Nkongsamba
I will work with Michel, the Pasteur and founder, to see that a barrier is built to shield the orphanage from the major road that it’s build next to, with the aide of whomever possible.

 

“Work. Discipline. Success.”

-Fultang Bilingual College

 

 

I had a dream that I was in the states until I began to stop appreciating showers. I took long hot baths with careless amounts of water, I drank never-ending fountain drinks, I ate chicken with no bones, I got to go the movies lots with my family, I drove my Grandma to Wal-Mart… and I saw everyone that I needed to see. Of course it was not enough time. You can never make enough time for the people that you care about most; you just try to do the best thing at the time. I saw my mother the happiest I think I have ever seen her, owning a house and being a grandmother. I saw my sister on the track she saw herself on and mapped out for herself. I ate tiramisu. I taught my goddaughter some French phrases! I spent a few scandalous days with my best friend and gathered enough motivation to finish out my service. My luck even led me into some lovely conversations with wonderful, supportive strangers that were eager to hear some of my stories. In this dream, I visited all the places that I love most- all the people that have made up my idea of “home”, even if they have been an ocean away for the past year. It was home.

 

But then I awake underneath my mosquito net, feeling refreshed and ready to start in on my next 10 months in this country as an Education Volunteer for my community- starting with mon fils, Franck. After the first visit to the Fultang Bilingual College and boarding school in Nkongsamba, I knew that this would be the best thing for Franck. Not only will this put pressure on his success in terms of his education, but this will help prepare the both of us for my departure next year. He will make friendships that I hope will support him as much as I have. His father dead at four and his mother only visiting every few months, he was just another orphan in the community going hungry at lunch time and walking two hours to school in shoes that didn’t even cover his heels. I remember him before he became my 14 year old son with a little belly on him from eating so much with me, who irritates me to no end but then again listens to what I tell him most of the time, who I have come to really enjoy having around. Somewhere in between, I instilled within him at the very least one principle- the necessity for a good education, something that he knows will lead him into a future where he can become whoever he aspires to be (and personally hoping that he will be standing next to me in the family photo one day). After talking it out with friends and my parents -and taking out a loan from a close friend- I enrolled Franck into 5ieme at Fultang. I bought his textbooks and notebooks today, in which he wrote his name inside. He is starting to get excited, getting his name sewn into all of his new uniforms and buying new shoes and everything else that the school requires. Trying on his no sleeve sweater, he looked like a student straight out of Dead Poets Society. I am so impressed with this school that expects hard work and success from each of their students. Fultang has laboratories and a library, with teachers that show up every day and where homework is required. Classes contain about 20 students. These things that you may consider simplicities are extraordinary in Cameroon, where corruption is all too common everywhere within the government schools and where teachers are hardly motivated to show up to their 100+ student classes. More over, everyone is expected to work hard, and whether you are the deputy’s daughter or from a lower-class family, you will be treated exactly the same. Students all come in with the same uniforms and materials.

 

I do fully realize that I have gone out on a limb of faith in the people who care about Franck from the other side. I am relying on some helping hands in getting everything covered. The school costs about 600 dollars per year for everything with the exception of textbooks and uniforms which I have paid for. If I had more money, and when I have more money, I will take full responsibility of these costs- but as a volunteer, I am already spending a good part of my Volunteer stipend taking care of him. That being said, if you want to contribute to Franck’s education, you are more than welcome.

 

For most projects that my Cameroonian income cannot take suffice for, I take out from my Bank of America account. You can make a deposit there (to Tara Lynn Smith). I don’t blame anyone that finds this a little shady; but at the end of the day, know that I end up spending more of my money and using my family’s support to follow through with these volunteer projects that have become my life. I am also willing and open to suggestions for fundraising for Franck. But for now, I am simply going to ask you for your help.

 

I will get more video blogs up that feature Franck in them as soon as I can get faster internet. Also remember to visit my video blogs on www.YouTube.com under the profile: Mlle.Tara.Smith. It’s really nice to know that there are people that like to get so involved with my missions here. Thank you, I love you, and as Cameroonians say, “On est ensemble”: “We are together”.

Traveling to new countries can cause a lot of headaches sometimes. One of these headaches is knowing where you are at all times. Because our phones rely on cellular data that usually is tied to one carrier, our phones data connection doesn't always work when we are overseas. However, most people think that GPS and Cellular Data are connected, when in reality they are not. The only reason your Google Maps app doesn't work overseas is because it is constantly checking the servers for the most up to date maps. However, the App does know your exact location regardless, even if it can't show it to you. How do you get around this? You use an app called Maps.me! Keep reading for how to use Maps.me to travel the world, and always know where your are, and how to get where you need to go!

“Don’t worry…Everything will be alright.” -Bob Marley

Franck’s mother came to visit us for a couple days. We started our project and I am motivated to check off the list the remaining requirements.

Cameroonians often ask in the first few minutes of meeting you what religion you are. I always say “chretienne point”, and then I explain to them that I don’t go to church often and I don’t like to specify what particular religion I am, because all that counts is, I tell them, is that I have faith and I have my prayers. And people ask if God speaks to me, and I realize more and more that he does, through people and events and moments and feelings and deja vue.

Franck’s mother named him after France. If he was to be a girl, he would have been named France. It was a French woman, named France, that delivered Franck. Jacqueline came home after going to the club with her husband to dance when her stomach was hurting. She laid down, to wake up in a pool of blood. Everywhere, on the bed, on the floor, there was so much blood that she was sure that she would die. Her husband had an inkling and came racing home on his moto. Jacqueline could barely move, so when he knocked on the door, she didn’t answer, and he broke a window to speak with her and see what was wrong. He saw her condition and ran to get the landlord to help him break down the locked metal door. At the hospital, everyone said that she would die. They gave her transfusion after transfusion and insisted that they operate to take out the baby, but she refused. It was a sister, France, who came to her and told her that it would be all right. She took her hand and told her that she would have the baby now. She reached inside of her and without even pushing the baby was born. Franck was born.

God speaks to me when he shows me that I have always been linked to France and always will be, that my life’s path is always somehow guided by my passion that is wrapped up in all things linked to it.

God speaks to me when Jacqueline writes out that her birthday is June 6th, the birthday of one of my closest friends that will guide me through the rest of my life even if just through the past in all that he has showed me.

God speaks to me when I receive a random text filled with sweet words from a friend in Fort Worth, Texas.

And he speaks to me when I am on the beach in Limbe, contemplating the direction and guidance I am giving to Franck, stressing and worrying that I am doing an okay job, and I hear Marley singing, “Don’t worry…Everything will be all right…”

Limbe is absolutely gorgeous, calm and relaxing- what a wonderful getaway it was to go for the weekend. Some other volunteers came as well, so that it was an eventful and happening place. I received a package from Valerie, which included green tea, so that we had a tea party. It was delightful to forget that I was even in Africa for a while.

But back in Africa, there is talk in Douala and Yaounde about strikes starting up again on the 14th of this month. The amendment to the constitution was passed so that the president will be able to be a candidate in the next election. At nearly 80 years old, he wishes to rule this country for the remainder of his life, and there are many who do not want this. They want change. We can only wait to see what is to come.