03 March 2011

Happy 50th, Peace Corps

(50 years total for Peace Corps. 49, continuous, in Cameroon)
My stock answer when people ask me what was Peace Corps like?: Best thing I ever did.
It continues to be true.
And it’s the group I’m proudest to be a part of – I saw someone else said that, with regards to this anniversary. Still true. Clich├ęd. True. I was strongly considering extending for a third year, and, if my MCAT scores hadn’t been about to expire, I might have. I’m one of the luckiest ones – a year and a half after leaving, I had the opportunity to go back. And it was paid for. (research project – see Cameroon posts from summer 2009). I’m one of the luckiest ones – I got to go back and see several of my projects still in motion, growing, and significantly stronger and better than when I had left, thanks to the volunteers who came after me.



I remember my Peace Corps interview, beginning of senior year of college. I remember the recruiter who had been in Mali, raising chickens. She asked me how I would deal without electricity, without any amenities, without anyone from my culture near me. I said I thought that I could do it, but I didn’t know. Peace Corps challenges you in ways that nothing else does. Nothing can exactly prepare you for it. Nothing can tell you if you’ll be able to, if you’ll be happy, if things will work out. There are millions of unknown and unseen factors.
I’m one of the luckiest ones – I was placed in exactly the right village with exactly the right work for me with exactly the right people. That doesn’t mean things didn’t work, it doesn’t mean many (most) things fell apart or happened in different ways. I couldn’t imagine being in any other post, though. In the later parts, I was happy and relieved, coming home, to be away from cities. It was the same when I returned in 2009. It will be the same, I think, next time I go.

I’m one of the luckiest ones – what I was doing in Peace Corps is essentially the work I want to do for the rest of my life, but as a physician. One of the hardest parts was having to leave in order to go back.

I’m one of the luckiest ones – I was always safe and supported in village, and I had so many families there. Families I am still a part of. Peace Corps security (at that time) didn’t really care that my door didn’t actually lock, and that there were holes in the walls. (I didn’t either. Foolhardy? Yes). There were days I left the house without locking it – I forgot.

Drying cacao in the sun
I’m one of the luckiest ones. Things did work out, with my projects, better than for many volunteers. It’s always part luck.

For the fiftieth anniversary, I went to a house party where many of the RPCVs had served in the 60s and 70s. I don’t know if I would have, could have joined them – going into the complete unknown without any communication. Countries that had just gained independence. It was different. And yet – every country, every situation, even now, is completely different. And every Peace Corps experience has certain commonalities, and every R/PCV can understand. Simpatico.

Manioc (cassava) leaves...for pkwem

One of my comparative literature professors taught in Chad in the early 60s. In those days, they trained out of country; to teach in Chad, she trained in Montreal (as if there was anything similar). She wasn’t really considering teaching, before, and now she teaches and writes about Francophone literature, largely from Africa and the Caribbean. Diaspora, Francophonie.

Lion indomptable d'Ebolowa

These are short pieces I wrote after returning. Snapshots.

This is where I lived.

***

It isn’t a green that comes out in photographs. They’re all wrong. It defines green – living, breathing, life-giving, all-encompassing, overpowering, plan to inherit the earth green. Oxygen green. Encroaching on the human footprint green – mostly green from orbit, Yann Bertrand photographs and mostly dark on electric use imaging green. Hiding green, swallowing green. Barely trodden, almost erased footpaths green. Vines curling across and weeding sweeping up and over to make tunnels on the water source trail green. Taller than you green, thorns in your forearm and dotting your hems green. You can’t distinguish most species green. The shy grass – leaves – blushing at a fingertip and closing like downturned eyelashes – some draw blood from imperceptible skin pricks. Others don’t.

Mvangan, road past hospital/to my house

7 am, end of marche in town center (surrounded by forest).
(Yvonne, hospital pharmacy tech, in front)

***

What matters, remembering, are the nights – 19 mai – I didn’t go out with the guys and sat on Mama Fran’s veranda – hers, not his in those queen of the manor, lady of the estate moments – she’d make a good queen. It’s about the women. Dicing tomatoes on a tray? Grinding stone? IN a bucket or bowl filled with mostly clear water, knife’s back edge pressing into my hand. Marks. (She still has my first good knife. I wish I weren’t anxious over vaguely disappearing possessions. I wish I’d left her more baking tins).

Part of Regine's kitchen
Stage (training), Bandjoun. The one night Carine and Chantal let me really help make dinner – usually done while I was in school, or escaping the pent-up-unhappy house for bars with friends, internet in Bafoussam – wherever. Open air markets. They handed me tomatoes and a half-slope knife, plastic handle molded around the edge and coming off. No cutting surface or board.

Sunset view from the hospital veranda, where Cecile and I would sit and cook
Later, in my own home, I’d poise the plastic cutting board on a bucket or my unstable (none of my cement floors were flat, sloping down from the wall joining) varnished wooden shelves. Pantry.
So I cut into my hand, like they did, cradling the oblong and slightly blemished, small tomato in my left hand. Cutting it open like a flower, turning up for symmetrical incisions. Diagonal slashes – deeper brown, not cut but like blood called to the surface – stayed on my left palm for months.
I continued, holding my breath with each slice, me still nervous around cheese graters and unskinned knuckles – until the knife fell deeper into my index finger. Blood and tomatoes. I thought the scars would stay. Those are gone, now.

~j


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