One of my biggest struggles with becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer is something that still haunts me in the back of my mind: what can one, middle class, untrained, 20 something year old American do to “develop” a community? I still wonder about it, as I prepare to “teach” English once more, without much more than a month long teaching certificate I got in Budapest over six years ago. How could I, possibly be able to teach a class of 100 students, without understanding the culture, or knowing what they are learning? Often it helps to focus on the other more important goals of the Peace Corps, which seem more feasible: learn from those around you and appreciate their culture, and in turn share your own.
For those of us who went to visit David the volunteer in the northwest region of the country, we really took this to heart. Sure, the other trainees were placed with volunteers from all over the country for “site visits” and went on amazing hikes (while we vegged out on couches), or cooked amazing food (while we savored box mac ‘n’ cheese), but our trip was valuable for other reasons. David may not be the most active volunteer, but when we talk about “integration,” I can’t think of another volunteer more engrained in their village than he is.
Enyoh, where David lives, is a 40 minute car ride and another 20 minute ride by motorcycle, up and down a muddy and treacherous road that rattled even us most seasoned moto riders. Despite its rather close proximity to a city of sorts, Enyoh has this sort of ‘off the beaten path” feel to it, which made David’s life seem even more remote. Instead of visiting other volunteers, he spends the majority of his time wandering around town, visiting one friend after another. Not only did he lack internet, but he often didn’t have power at all, which further enticed him out of doors to meet people, often wandering around the village, being offered the local alcohol, palm wine everywhere he goes. Even as we drove off on motorcycles his was stopped by friends, who offered him a cup “to go.” One day he went off to borrow sugar from a neighbor and would come back half an hour later apologizing, because he had been stopped by people along the way who wanted to talk to him.
Apart from socializing, David also had plenty of time at home, as he so eloquently stated, “Sometimes at night, if I get bored, I’ll light candles and stare at them. That keeps me occupied for hours!” At first we weren’t sure if he was serious or not, so we had to try it out for ourselves. That night the three of us trainees tried it out after David went to sleep, lighting a few candles to illuminate the living room, just to see what would happen. We were shocked to realize that five hours later we were still staring.
However, I can imagine that village life would be challenging, being away from all other volunteers. But David disagreed: “Unless you can find comfort in your own village, and find those people around you to gripe and moan to, how do you ever expect to be happy at your post?” I agreed with him fully, and realized that I will be in the same position in a few weeks, when I move to Bafia, which is central to everything, but far enough from all to feel like I’m in the middle of the crossroads.