Congo Kinshasa RPCV Beth Duff-Brown writes: I kept my promise. The last time I was here, I told the village I would come back again in 10 years
I kept my promise. The last time I was here, I told the village I would come back again in 10 years. My cook, Tshinyama, is still alive, despite rumors to the contrary. The tin roofs are rustier, and some of the mango trees are gone. But the same bells rang at 5:30 this morning at the old brick church, where I've been given a tiny room and cot, and the choir sang hymns that I knew by heart when I first was here.
We started off yesterday morning, shopping in Kananga, the diamond-rich province in south-central Congo. We went by the Beltexco, a massive provisions chain, so I could shop for the children and buy myself some beans and rice. With Jim's old pickup truck, we bought 200 notebooks - something many children can't afford - and hundreds of pens, rubber balls, powdered milk, soap, onions and oil. The head of Beltexco, when he heard what we were doing, donated 10 cartons of high-glucose biscuits for the kids.
We then transferred everything to a Nissan 4x4 for the 100-mile drive south. A trip that would take about 90 minutes on a paved road takes us six hours. The road is so red and sandy that getting up to 40 mph is rare. There's a debate in Congo on how many miles of paved roads there are in a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi - some say 300 miles, others say 600 miles.
We arrive at dusk, and the priest at the mission does what most Congolese do when they meet a stranger from a foreign land: He welcomes me in and makes me at home. When word gets out that I've come back, people from around this village of about 3,000 people gather at the church rectory, quietly whispering my name and asking if it's really me. Read more.
Constance G. Konold revisits Cameroon
In December 2003, I made a sentimental trip back to my former Peace Corps posting in Central Africa. Comparable in population size only to my hometown of South Bend, the city of Garoua and the village of Pitoa where I had taught English are dusty sub-Saharan outposts cornered by Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic.
Thirty-five years ago, joining the Peace Corps was so daring for its time that I knew I was doing it over my father's protests from the grave. Friends were impressed when FBI agents called on them to check my references. I had recently earned my master's degree from the University of Notre Dame, but when I was assigned to "the Cameroons" (those recently joined French and English colonies were once known as that), I thought I was headed to islands in the South Pacific rather than a country in Africa.
My arrival -- just as Angela was finishing her first three months of Peace Corps service -- was portentous. I was amused and alarmed to see her mirroring events and emotions I had experienced. I found myself parroting Peace Corps Proverb No. 1: Stick out the hellish first three months and be rewarded with a lifetime of heavenly memories. I skipped the corollary to that which is: You can never go home to mall-heaven again. This she will learn in two years when erstwhile friends will inspect her as an oddity from a safe distance and her family, after an initial attempt at enthusiasm, will eventually change the subject whenever Cameroon is mentioned.
When we met, Angela was suffering from Peace Corps doldrums. A volunteer's mother had just been trampled to death by an elephant in the nearby bush. Five volunteers had just been sent home HIV-positive. She was underemployed with only eight hours of work per week, teaching math and biology in English at the Garoua high school. And when she taught, she had to deal with 60 students per classroom. She was trying to fill time by learning the Fulani language, Foufulde, or improving her French.
Pretty, slim, bright and blonde, she was also dealing with the frustrating realization that platonic friendships are deemed fairy tales in this culture where polygamy is still condoned. And there didn't seem to be any potential women friends beating a path to her door. Angela also was upset that the locals labeled her "nasara" or foreigner. That very morning I had been thrilled to be greeted by "Nasara! Nasara!" as I strolled the legendary Pitoa market, a weekly crossroads of Hausa, Fulani, Fali, Kirdi and M'Bororo ethnic groups. With time, Angela will learn that nasara is not pejorative but merely descriptive. She will learn how to feel comfortable being the only white face in the crowd.
Despite the physical and emotional challenges of Peace Corps service, I told Angela that those two years were the best and most informative of my life. I wanted to take myself totally out of context to test my mettle, to find out if I was a survivor without the framework of my family and community. I gained a clear view of myself and my country from a new perspective, through a different ethnic and cultural lens. What I learned gave me the self- confidence and flexibility to live a fascinating existence in many foreign countries on several continents with people from all walks of life. I also gained in friendship thanks to my Peace Corps volunteer network which, to this day, remains a precious touchstone for me in the U.S. while I continue to live abroad.
The new breed of volunteers, many of whom are mall-trained and addicted to the Internet, are apt to complain if they so much as lose cell-phone service. My generation-old tales of having to harvest peanuts with a machete, deal with hot- and cold-running cockroaches, learn to dunk eggs in a bucket of water to test for freshness, buy live chickens rather than possibly tainted butchered ones, and not think of the flies that had swarmed on the gorgeous pieces of beef fillet on my dinner plate might now be nothing more than engrossing hardship stories used as a Peace Corps leadership tool.
Since our meeting, Angela has decided not to throw in the towel. She has come to see Cameroon as one of the most hospitable countries in the world and that it is possible for Cameroonians to excel intellectually and professionally. Read more.
Return to Guinea-Bissau by RPCV Matthew Bremen
I spent this past summer as a U.S. Department of State intern in Guinea-Bissau, where two years before I had finished a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer. Upon arrival, as soon as I left the aircraft, it felt like being home again. It was 2:00 a.m. on a hot and humid night. Familiar faces, smells, and sounds surrounded me. Although it had been two years, it felt like I had left Bissau only yesterday. During the usual hour spent waiting for my backpack, I realized that my experience this time around would be quite different. Not only was I whisked through customs by one of the U.S. Embassy drivers, but my apartment in the U.S. Embassy compound was more comfortable than the apartment I had just left in Washington DC. My work would be quite different too. Needless to say, my Peace Corps days were over. It was time to get used to being a part of the diplomatic community.
Administering the Ambassador’s development project fund exposed me to a different type of development work. The Special Self-Help fund assists local groups by providing financial aid to build schools, wells, dispensaries and other public works. The process was complicated from the start because of budget cuts at the Department of State. Upon my arrival, I was expected to solicit and review proposals, make site visits, oversee the final selection process, and do all the paperwork necessary to commit the funds, including drafting the grant agreements all in three months. As many of us have learned while working at the local level, development initiatives are most sustainable when launched from within the community. I was lucky to team up with a Foreign Service National with nine years of institutional memory from working on SSH programs in Guinea-Bissau. I soon began to understand the philosophy behind the fund.
Returning to Guinea-Bissau as a State Department intern allowed me to gain a broader understanding of development work. Whether or not one agrees with the source or management of "development project" funds, understanding a foreign government or international organization’s objectives is important. While waiting at the airport before I was to leave for the United States, a friend of mine asked if I would return to Guinea-Bissau. "Of course," I replied, knowing that I would, although not knowing when or in what capacity. After I said tearful good-byes and took in the sounds and smells of the country for one last time, my plane took off. Looking out of the window during takeoff I noticed a change. There were far more zinc-roofed houses than I recalled from before. In Guinea-Bissau, zinc is more expensive than thatch, and zinc roofs can be seen as symbols of prosperity. With the proliferation of NGOs, varied international support, and a greater emphasis on local initiative, positive change does seem to be taking place. Read more.