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Finale (Monday, 2012 July 2)

July 2nd, 2012

Well, if we’re talking about French, let’s talk about profiter, the verb that actually means "to take advantage of", even if it looks a lot like the English word "to profit from". I think the true Cameroonian spirit is probably somewhere in the middle.

I dug up my "staging workbook", one of the numerous Organization publications. This was one of the ones from staging, that one-or-two-day stint in Philadelphia before we flew out here. It’s got a lot of blank space for the soon-to-be-Volunteer to write out some of his or her hopes, worries, and dreams. Page 6:

  • I have chosen to commit to the Peace Corps at this time in my life because…

    I am afraid I will later never get the opportunity to make a difference.

  • I will feel successful as a volunteer when…

    • I have my 27th birthday.
    • I have my first thought in a foreign language.
    • I have helped someone else succeed.
    • I have made it home safely.

Even then, we were being warned of the dangers of setting our expectations too high, thus I chose a set of four very modest expectations. I’ve already turned 28, I have thought plenty of odd things in French, and I helped Romeo study for his Probat for almost an entire month. So why am I so bitter?

Kalika writes some African stills, just little textual glimpses of what life is like here. Nice idea, if I could force myself to write shorter.

  • A woman calls out to me and starts talking to me. She’s the woman who made food around the lycée, the one where I bought the most often. She says her child, some little asshole that I’ve yelled at before, asked for a "souvenir". "What kind of souvenir?" It doesn’t matter, whatever you could leave behind. Also, could she please have money for the medicine she needs to get at the hospital?

  • At the sous-prêfet’s house. I’ve just finished installing a free anti-virus because their version of MacAfee seems busted. The mom wants to know what I’m going to leave them. "You’re going to leave us your laptop, right?" No, I use my laptop. "But you’ll get back there and you’ll buy another one, right?" But this one has all my files. I cannot just leave it with you. (Even though I am probably going to buy at least one, maybe two computers as soon as I get home.) "Then how about your MP3 player?" Nope, going to use it on the plane. "Your camera?" My camera is nice, nicer than these assholes deserve/can afford, a metal-bodied Nikon, and I have no desire to part with it. "Well, what about your telephone? You can take the SIM card with all the numbers, and just leave us the phone." My phone is nothing special, a used Nokia that I bought in Bertoua for 16,000 CFA, and though I hold my tongue, I’d rather destroy it in front of them than give it to them. I refuse again politely. "Ethan! You are chiche (selfish)."

  • I had a going-away party a few weeks ago here in village for the volunteers and terribly-few locals I cared about. Some of the teachers invited themselves; others heard about it afterwards and wanted to know why I didn’t invite them. Anyhow, the lycée is also "throwing" a going-away party for me. During the planning, it was proposed that everyone, including me, contribute a little money. I turned to Marie-Cha, my neighbor and they Boys’ mother, and (trying deliberately to invoke some kind of maternal instinct) wondered, "Wait, is the lycée saying goodbye to me, or am I saying goodbye to the lycée?" She took my side at the time, but later she came by my house to explain how everything was going to go down.

    "Everyone has contributed one-one thousand five hundred," she said (repeating numbers like this is a Cameroonian way of saying "each"). "That will pay for food and the red wine. Now how are you going to receive us?"

    "Receive you?" I ask, already knowing where this is going. "I don’t understand."

    "Look. Everybody is contributing a little bit. That is going to allow the purchase of certain things with which we will say goodbye to you. Right? So, what are you going to bring to say goodbye to us?"

    "What do you think is good?" I ask, resigning myself.

    "Bring some of those mushroom brochettes that you had last time. And you can bring the beer."

    "How much beer? One casier (like a milk crate, but of beer)? Two?"

    "If I say two, is that too much?" (A casier counts 12 beers, so roughly 6,000 CFA.)

    "I don’t know if I’ll have the money," I say, which is true, since I’m trying to save some money to give to Cristina to bring my suitcase home. "How about one-and-a-half?"

    "One-and-a-half. It might be petit. It’s the day that they’re giving out the prime de rendement (a performance-based bonus to encourage teachers to actually teach), so everyone is going to be there. There may be many je m’invites (self-invitees). But if that’s what you can bring, then it should be fine."

    So let’s do the math. 4,000 CFA of mushrooms and 9,000 of beer makes 13,000 CFA. I’m contributing as much as 8 teachers (1,500 each) for a party that I don’t want to go to for people that I mostly don’t care about. It’s happening Wednesday, which is the 4th, Independence Day, so I’m counting it as "goal two", cultural exchange.

I can’t say that every single Cameroonian I know is trying to suck me dry — it’s just that it’s so tiring and so dispiriting when it happens. It’s hard to even know if they’re treating me like this just because I’m a foreigner or if they’re just "joking" the way they "jokingly" make passes at women all the time as a way of complimenting them. Either way I’m tired of it. I want to go home.

Not to dwell on the negative, though. Lots of people have also asked what they can give me as a going-away present, or proposed ridiculous things like giant 50-pound bags of peanuts or other produce. Romeo’s mom, the crazy orange lady, even showed up with a dress she sewed for my mother (it’s a little small; I’m gonna see if I can’t give her more fabric so that she can try again). Boris suggests that I shouldn’t turn down any presents — it’s rude (see Eriika’s writing about abrasive kindness and forced hospitality) and besides you can always re-gift them to the people who ask for souvenirs.

Queen Cristina says that she thinks it would be hilarious if, once I get the proper emotional distance, I become one of those Volunteers that misses their host country so much and it was just the best time of their life. Maybe I will, but I think of this experience as my second collegehood, and even six years later I still don’t think back fondly on my first one.

All volunteers face this, the terrifying disconnect between what you think you came here to do and what the locals think you came here to do. I think everyone "understands" that I came here to teach, and not to distribute things or money. But still, people ask me for ma part, my share, and everyone wants to profiter from my leaving, want to take something or expect me to give them something. Is this how you treat a respected professional who let’s say sacrificed two years to try to improve your country? I wish I felt more appreciated for who I am and what I did, not what I have and what I gave. I’m sure this isn’t unique to my experience.

I think Cameroon is a fine country, once you subtract all the Cameroonians.

I came here to do a job. I came here because I wanted to be able to look back, fifteen or twenty years from now, and say, "I was there. I helped." And I guess it wouldn’t be easy, or else everyone would be doing it.

My final thoughts are this: some people say that you regret the things you don’t do more than the things you do. Well, I came to do something, and I did it, and I saw it through. I’m proud of myself. But I’m not sure that I would do it again.


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