As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s quite common for other Americans to pity you, especially those who live in the same country as you. Many a party I have met Embassy employees who told me with a smile, “Thank you so much for your service. I could never imagine doing what you do. I mean, the way you live, far out there, no running water, limited electricity….” Or that nice employee from the CDC who told me once at a bar in Yaoundé, “Yeah, I really wanted to join Peace Corps, but then, well….I got a real job.” I guess I never got the memo that I was supposed to have a real job by now. My bad.
But the charity that others have given me has always been kind and well intentioned, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t appreciative of that beer someone bought me, or that massive block of cheese someone brought me that tasted like France. When I visited my friends in Europe, I don’t think I was ever allowed to pay for a single meal, and they kept shoving delicious food into my face, as if concerned that I was starving. I gained a good amount of weight thanks to them, which I didn’t actually need.
All of these forms of charity I could have expected before, and knew would exist, because these people have a higher living standard than I currently do, and they want to support me in what I do. However, never in a million years could someone have prepared me for the charity I would receive from those around me: my Cameroonian friends.
This trend became more apparent to me in the past month. It all started with my broken down, virus ridden computer. As I forlornly showed my laptop to my colleague in Bafia, he advised me to call up his friend in Yaoundé, Eric, who would know what to do. As I walked down the road where his office was, I called him, and he came out waving me over to a dark alley way. Before I had time to panic we were outside of his computer shop, with a massive tower of desktops attempting to escape out of the shop. As I sat in a plastic chair that had been quickly produced out of thin air, I spent hours with these people I had never met before, clearing off my computer, starting fresh, and chatting away the time. Soon Eric asked me what kind of beer I drank, and in a matter of minutes a cold beer appeared, followed by my favorite grilled fish and rice. By the time we had finished, it was 6 PM, and long past closing time for a Saturday. As I fished out my wallet and asked the dreaded “how much?” question, he looked at me, and my not as bedraggled, tired self (thanks to the first food I’d eaten that day). “Well, Laura, since I can tell you’re a volunteer, and pretty poor, let’s just say it’s on the house.” He wouldn’t even let me pay for my fish. I promised to post his phone number in the transit house for volunteers, in hopes of getting him more business.
A few weeks later I met up with a good friend who lives and works in Canada, but is from Bafia. I had admitted to her my fear of not finding a job, and she was concerned. As we chatted about projects from the VIP lounge in the Hilton, eventually we drove to visit a private school her friend was running, in hopes of starting a project with them. As she drove me back to the hotel, she quickly shoved a good amount of bills into my hand, refusing to take them back. “No, no no, please take this,” she said, insisting that she was grateful to see me. I told her honestly that I would use the money to support my girls in technology, and only use it for educational purposes.
Weeks later, I was stuck at school, frantically trying to get the internet to work, on my computer, on the computers in the lab, on my phone, anywhere. I looked at my students who hopelessly stared at me, wondering how on earth we would sign them up online for the competition if today was the last day. “Take them to the cyber café,” my colleague told me. “Use the internet there to get the girls registered.” I pulled out my wallet and realized that my equivalent of 4 US dollars would never be enough to get us all there and all online. “Here,” he said, pulling money from his own wallet, and handing it to me. Two hours later we ladies were high fiving each other as we had successfully registered their teams and could compete.
I’m not proud to say I’m a charity case, but I will say it has taught me the generous side of my Cameroonian friends. Aside from the fact that my neighbor constantly feeds me, and that colleagues immediately throw a plate at me the instant I walk into their house, I realized that over time they started to really support me, in ways that I had never been supported before. I had seen how many Cameroonian friends of mine pull out money for their family, and often will only scrape by until the end of the month because of hospital bills, weddings and funerals in the family. But never had I felt so honored as when my friends in Bafia started giving me similar treatment, as if I were family.
It was as if there were a shift in my place in community. I had started off as some important foreigner, seated with the important people of the community, eating first before everyone else. But it took no time at all for me to insist on my place at the end, with everyone else, and slowly, over time, for my colleagues to realize that I didn’t have a fancy car or motorcycle because I actually couldn’t afford one (and because Peace Corps would have sent me home if they found out). Today if I get invited out by a friend to eat, I know they will pay, and they know that if I invite them out, I will do the same. A sort of equalizer, a sense of being integrated in ways I hadn’t been before financially.
Women’s Day arrived, and after marching my principal pulled me aside. “Laura,” he told me, in front of my female colleagues, “You have to sing tonight. What are you going to sing for us?” With my hands tied, I agreed to lip sync to my favorite Shakira song, which my colleague immediately downloaded and set up for the party that evening. In front of a crowd of my colleagues, I stood before them with a microphone, and made an utter fool of myself, singing “Hips Don’t Lie,” completely sober. As I danced and sang, I waved my hands and arms at every person, and soon many of my friends got up and started dancing with me. As tradition, they threw money at me, the principal fluttering bills into the sky, colleagues pressing bills onto my face. My friend who works at the market came up and threw a coin into my hand, closing my fingers around it as I danced, the last of her money she was willing to spend. As I stared up, I could see their precious money raining down on me, supporting me in my ridiculousness, which we all knew was at least my best effort if nothing else. The money didn’t matter. But the support did. And I will owe them for the rest of my life for that.