Peace Corps: What I Didn't Expect to Learn
Editor's Note: These are the personal views of one volunteer and do not reflect those of other Peace Corps Volunteers, Peace Corps, nor Cameroon.
A few weeks ago, I found myself lost with two friends in the middle of the Bakossi National Forest in the southwest region of Cameroon. We were hiking to a remote village on our way to a cultural festival in a town called Eboko-Bajoh on the other side of the forested mountains from where we live, and after eight hours of uphill hiking on a tiny, barely-used hunting path, we were exhausted and frequently losing our trail as it grew dark. My mind couldn’t help but wander to home, thinking about how I could instead be sitting at a bar with my friends enjoying good drinks and food, all with a nice hot shower at the end of the day. What in the world was I doing here, anyway?
As a Community Health Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon seven months into my service, my life is anything but typical right now out of the average American 20-something's. Though I am lucky enough to have running water and electricity in my house, I have still given up most of the comforts of my previous life in San Francisco to come to Muambong, Cameroon, a small community of a few thousand people populated mostly by coffee farmers living in wooden homes. As a health volunteer, I am working to educate surrounding villages on behaviors to prevent HIV and malaria, improve maternal health, promote good nutrition, and a variety of other topics relating to public health.
While I do love my time spent drinking palm wine with farmers, traveling the country, and even to an extent the excitement that comes with getting lost in the Bakossi Forest, there’s a tendency to idealize time abroad as one big grand adventure, and one that all young Americans should have. In some ways, I do agree with this, but the fact remains that very few Americans travel abroad and even fewer ever spend time living and working there. How can we create a millennial generation that is cognizant of the problems throughout the world, that has seen the different living standards throughout the world, and that truly understands the impact of international politics on people in countries beyond the borders of America? These are things you simply cannot learn by sitting at home and reading about them.
However, there’s a much larger picture to all of this adventuring around Africa, and although getting lost in the forest makes me miss the comforts and ease of life at home – where instead of being in a jungle at night I could be having those beers with friends – that’s not what has given me real pause at the end of the day in questioning why I am here in Cameroon. While I was prepared to deal with loneliness, isolation, or homesickness coming here, it has instead been encountering the realities of the rampant corruption and a broken aid system that has made me question at the end of the day if my being here as a volunteer is really a good thing.
Cameroon has been consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International, and this is something I witness every day. It permeates every level of society here, not only of the government in Cameroon, but that of the NGOs as well as the aid industry in Cameroon. I’ve seen first-hand how Global Fund and PEPFAR money (President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, established under the George W. Bush Administration) has done little to alleviate the problem of HIV/AIDS for vulnerable populations, despite the fact that $29 million was given to Cameroon in 2013 to help prevent Anti-Retro Viral (ARVs) stockouts and provide vulnerable populations with free HIV testing and care. I’ve seen main hospitals that are constantly experiencing supply shortages of ARVs. I’ve seen nurses charging patients for ARVs when they should be free (they usually do this because the government has failed to provide them with a salary for months or sometimes years).
I’ve seen a fellow Peace Corps volunteer counsel an orphan to get tested for HIV – thinking that it would be free to enroll her in the HIV treatment program given she is classified as a vulnerable population – and instead end up paying 48,000 CFA in total for all of the tests and procedures plus transportation costs that were needed to get the young girl enrolled in the HIV-treatment program (to put this in perspective, her caretaker’s monthly income to feed herself and three children is 29,000 CFA per month). This same volunteer then had to agree that the caretaker not get the sibling, who is not in good health and is likely HIV positive, tested and enrolled in the program because there is no possible way for the family to afford it and feed the other children. And I’ve seen how meanwhile, the government agencies and NGOs and religious organizations simply ask for more donations and more money to be funneled in when anyone on the ground can clearly see that this is the last thing a country like Cameroon needs when there is so much dysfunction.
If that’s the case, is Peace Corps – particularly the health program – really having a positive impact in Cameroon? Peace Corps certainly can’t expect health volunteers to responsibly counsel people to get tested for HIV when we know it won’t be free if needed and that the ARVs won’t be available when they need them. While working in Africa can be a great adventure, it’s also our responsibility to be critical of our purpose of working abroad, the kind of impact we are realistically having on the ground, and whether we are doing good for the people of the country we work in and not just enriching our own lives while ignoring whether it creates truly sustainable development.
However, one of my Peace Corps technical trainers who is a Cameroonian running a local NGO laid it out for me in a positive way. He agreed that although the corruption and the challenges here are so massive (almost to the point of any volunteer work or aid being ineffective), he still believes in the Peace Corps' mission here. His hope stems from knowing that we are the next generation of people who will be running the Global Fund, managing foreign aid money, or working in U.S. foreign policy, and that we will be the ones who have experienced these things for ourselvesand know better than anyone the reality of U.S. foreign aid and international NGO work.
This is where I can find the most meaningful part not only in my work here, but also more generally in young Americans signing up for programs like the Peace Corps or working abroad in some capacity. Despite these frustrations with Peace Corps and the corruption here, I know without a doubt that being in these villages in Cameroon is the only real way I would have seen these appalling ground-level impacts of development policies. It has challenged so many of my previous beliefs and assumptions about development work and foreign aid in Africa. It has humanized these issues in a way that I could never forget, and will carry with me for the rest of my career. While that has still does not convince me that Peace Corps should remain in Cameroon in the long term, I hope a new generation of Americans exposed to this can begin to change things back home.
Of course, I still have a long way to go in my service and many new lessons to learn from it, and there will no doubt be more memorable adventures involved. Back in the Bakossi forest, after hiking for three hours in the pitch dark forest and questioning what in the world I was doing in Cameroon for the hundredth time, we finally hit the welcome sight of manioc and plantain farms along a more well-tended path at around 9:30 pm, indicating that we had finally reached the outskirts of the village we intended to reach. Despite arriving so late, the villagers still immediately welcomed us, led us to a (freezing cold) stream to bath in, prepared a room for us to sleep, and sat us down to feed us a meal of rice and … smoked bat. It may not have been my preferred late-night burrito, but when in the world will I ever get a chance to eat bat jerky again?