Waking up voluntarily at 5:30 AM is something I have not done on a regular basis in a long time, at least not since my stint as a grilled cheese flipper (what I wouldn’t give for a grilled cheese right now!). However, this morning it was absolutely necessary, and even though I hit the snooze button on my cell phone a few times, I was ready to wake up. By the time I finished my “bucket shower” next to the pit toilet out back, I woke up my new host sister Maeva, who just turned 14 yesterday. “Maeva, bonjour,” I whispered. She woke up with a smile, because today she was going to teach me how to make breakfast happen. I watched dazed and slightly afraid, as she easily split logs in two with a massive axe before lighting the cooking fire, all in her flip flops.
Coming back to Cameroon was something I had dreamed of, but never in a million years did I ever imagine that Peace Corps, with all of its complicated rules, would land me in exactly the right place, at the right time, assigning me to do exactly what I wanted to do, not far from where I had been before. Even though this had been a long time in planning, as my volunteer service is part of my masters program, I was still quite surprised to realize one crucial thing: I know so little!
Having been to Cameroon before, I felt rather confident, coming back for two years. Not only had I been there before, but I had connections here, not only with my American classmates who are also serving, but with those I had met in Yaoundé who were my colleagues and are now equally considered my friends. I felt almost like a little kid, returning to Yaoundé, walking out of an airport I knew so well, seeing faces I knew so well, waving at me as I walked out, in my massive group of 21 volunteers. Sadly only having a few quick minutes, the best I could muster for Teacher Funwie Nkwenti and Principal Thomas Ngou was many thanks for coming, and for the phone they handed to me. After several quick hugs, I was shepherded away to a an air conditioned bus, driving by places I had seen before, as if in a daze. Seeing Janet, my host and friend, felt the same way. I had spent so much time with her last time I had been in Cameroon as well as when she had come to the U.S., and seeing her in person again made me so happy that all we could do was take photos, giggle, and swap gifts. “Will you be ok?” she asked, concerned, as I knew she always would be, acting as my Cameroonian mother. “Of course!” I replied, “I’m in Peace Corps now, they take care of us!”
But being in the big city is really different from rural life. Having lived in Yaoundé for a month, I knew the hustle bustle of busy markets, and busses, and taxis. This is why I should have known that Peace Corps would assign me to a host family for training in the most rural of locations! When I met my host mother, I knew instantly I liked her, and that I would like living with her, even though it is almost an hour walk to school every day (although as luck will have it, it turns out I’m allowed to get rides to school by motorcycle, so long as I wear my Peace Corps assigned helmet!). When we finally got to her house, and we cleared through the many village children staring at me, it was when she walked me through the door, did I finally realize one thing: I know nothing. These words echoed in my head the entire night, as I laid in bed, listening to the sounds around me.
I know nothing was how I felt the first few days. All these months of experience I’ve had in different parts of Africa had been in vain. I had been spoiled, used to running water, flush toilets, and stoves. Slowly over the course of a week, I became comfortable replacing these things with buckets, fire, and of course, a hole in the ground. As daunting as it seemed at first, I quickly realized it wasn’t so bad, and actually was grateful that it made me more more aware of how much I use or don’t use. Thanks to my host family, who are slowly letting me participate more and more in daily chores, I can actually appreciate how much more authentic my lifestyle is now, (although still posh, since I have electricity!)