Lets just start off by saying that this story has a good ending. Actually, that makes it sound like I was in a car accident or bitten by a monkey or something—let me assure you right now that nothing in the way of physical harm has happened to me, just some good old-fashioned mental anxiety. Sometimes I think I’d prefer being bitten by a monkey. Then at least, for the rest of my life I could casually mention how one time, when I was living in West Africa, I was bitten by a monkey. But that is neither here nor there, and somehow I am off track already. Sorry.
It all started on November 1st, when our posts were announced. All the Health volunteers showed up to class, and then the staff passed out little folded slips of paper with nothing less then our very fates written on them and said “please don’t open these until everyone has one and we’ve talked to you for at least 17 minutes about stuff you’re not even pretending to listen to because you’re too busy trying to see through matter”. And then we got to open them up.
I’ve been posted to the South Province, to a town with the coolest name ever–Ngoulemakong. Yep. Ngoulemakong. Say that three times fast. Actually–thats not that hard. But it is fun! Go ahead, I’ll wait…
So, the next step, after finding out where we’ll all be living for the next two years, was to actually go and visit that place. Starting last Monday, we had a two day
really really long meeting oh my god will it ever end I can no longer feel my asscounterpart workshop, where we met our—you guessed it—counterparts. These are the people who we will be working with in village, either at the NGO we partner with, or as in my case, at the Health Center in town. Basically they are in charge of everything from introducing you to people to telling you where to get the best beer/baton de manioc to where not to go after dark. I think its fair to say that if your counterpart sucks, life could be pretty hard for a while, so we were all pretty anxious about meeting our folks. Luckily, I think the Gods smiled on me yet again. My counterpart is great—young (younger than me, OF COURSE, because I am the oldest person IN WEST AFRICA I AM PRETTY SURE), very “dynamic” (that is Peace Corps favorite word and if have very little idea what its actually supposed to mean I am still pretty sure it describes me accurately as well), and he totally held my hand when we had to run across the horrifyingly busy slightly congested street in Yaounde. What a gentleman!
So we headed off to our posts early last Wednesday morning, but I should just mention here that I was up until 1 AM the night before removing the 8 lbs of hair that had been braided to my head, because it makes me feel less embarrassed by the upcoming story of melodrama. (Someday I will provide you with a visual of the whole ‘weave’ thing—in the meantime let me just some it up in one word: Spectacular.) So Wednesday morning we all head off to our various corners of the country, laden with backpacks and moto helmets and mosquito nets, because its important to try and be as inconspicuous as possible when travelling with 7 other white people through a developing nation. I, for instance, made sure to wear my ‘Don’t Mess With the US’ t-shirt AND ipod at all times. Once we got to Yaounde (about 4 hours from Bangante, you pretty much have to go to Yaounde in order to go anywhere else in this country, even if you destination is say, south of you and Yaounde is to the North) we all split up. My counterpart and I headed to the hospital so I could meet my supervisor, and thus began perhaps the most awkward and longest 36 hours of my life.
Don’t get me wrong–my supervisor turned out to be a very nice man AND he gave us a ride to Ngoulemakong which may not sound like that big of a deal but here in the The Roon a free ride in a car with only TWO OTHER PASSENGERS is like winning the fucking lottery. But starting from the moment that my counterpart led me away from the bus station (not really a bus station at all, but I don’t have the energy to try and describe it at this point) until early Friday morning when I headed to another city to meet up with some current volunteers, I basically had very little idea what was going on at any given moment. Or no, maybe that’s not accurate. I generally knew what I was doing in the moment, because I was, you know, DOING it. Its just that I never quite knew what I would be doing next. I could speculate fairly accurately that I would feel awkward while doing it, but that was about it. This was not because my counterpart and supervisor didn’t try to inform me of our various planned activities—no, they did try. It was mostly because I felt like I could understand about 2 out of every 7 words they were saying. And for some reason, that really surprised me. I think I was overly confident because in French classI am typically able to hold my own fairly well, and for some insane reason I thought my skills would transfer to the real world. Ha! Suffice it to say that after a long day of travelling and meeting about 15 important people on about 4 hours of sleep, I found myself sort of…sobbing uncontrollably in a strangers living room in front of my brand new boss and neighbor. I felt completely overwhelmed and stressed and frustrated and embarrassed and I couldn’t even explain to them why I was crying and that made me cry more. It was the hardest moment I’ve had here, with the full two years stretching out before me and absolutely zero idea how I was going to survive them, let alone fill them with meaningful work.
I still don’t really know the answers to those questions. I’m not really worried about survival—if I was I think I’d have to rethink my commitment to the American government. But I am worried about being successful here, in what every way I come up with to determine that. But. I woke up the next morning early and feeling much better and headed south to another city where one of my stage mates was posted, and two other current volunteers live. It felt so good to be able to talk to them and compare experiences and just generally realize (again, for maybe the one millionth time) that even though sometimes I feel terribly alone here, there are approximately 130 other people here who have all felt roughly the same thing. Its cheesy as hell, but there is an incredible amount of support in that fact.
So. The rest of the week of ‘site visit’ was actually comprised of a trip to someone else’s village (we got in a Toyota hatchback of some sort and drove south for four hours…and by ‘we’ I mean 14 PEOPLE PLUS A BABY) which felt like it was in Gabon—but I’ve been assured by people in the know that we never actually left the country. We were lucky enough to be allowed to attend the wedding of some friends of one of the volunteers who will be leaving in a couple of weeks. It was fascinating to be en brusse(which does not, as my Dad asked, me ‘on a bus’—it means ‘in the bush’, but 7 points Dad, for trying), fully in the jungle. Its beautiful here, and steamy and hot and very, very lush. I’m extremely excited that I get to live here for two years, although I will say that there are A LOT more creepy crawlies in the jungle that up in the mountains. I will have to get my game face on before I go back.
So–its been a long week (almost as long as this post, sorry!) but I think I’m back to my natural
naive optimistic outlook on life. I’m sort of relived to have experienced that moment of fear and doubt, if only because now I know I can face it. I would have preferred to experience that moment ALONE, but beggars can’t be choosers right? I’m excited to get back to Bangante and see everyone and here all their stories, and I’m even sort of excited to get back to classes. What can I say—people crave structure in times of stress, right?
I can’t wait for those of you who are interested to visit me. There is so much here that I don’t even know how to begin to explain. But, as I will have internet access a mere 45 minutes from my post, I promise to try.