Peace Corps Memoirs Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be

The “I stayed at my site for months at a time and went insane!” myth has been perpetuated by many a Peace Corps writer over the past four decades. Peace Corps memoirs are among the more interesting groups of tall tales being passed off as true stories these days. In these memoirs, Peace Corps volunteers are brave and moody and idealistic. They stay out at their posts for months on end, battling disease, loneliness and mutant-sized bugs with a trembling, but still fairly stiff, upper lip. They make lasting friendships with Host Country Nationals (the politically correct term for whoever the locals are) after a suitably strenuous Campbellian hero’s journey through the nether regions of disillusionment and culture shock. They triumph (or fail) with a tragic mien worthy of Joseph Conrad. Naturally, many of these memoirs perpetuate the idea that most volunteers have, do and will serve in tiny, isolated villages in someplace hot, sweaty and very, very impoverished.

Ha.

Two things to remember about Peace Corps memoirs: first, many RPCVs feel a little embarrassed that they weren’t nearly as tough, generous, heroic and selfless as the Supervolunteer they envisioned they’d be before they joined up. So, when they sit down to write their Peace Corps memoirs, they touch up history a little bit. Second, if you wrote a memoir – even as a roman Ã?  clef – that included all of the gossip, backbiting, partying and musical beds that occupy the PCV population in most countries, your RPCV buddies would hunt you down one deep, dark night and put your car up on blocks. On a busy freeway. I don’t think any RPCV has got the guts together to write a Valley of the Juju Dolls for the Peace Corps community just yet. Until then, prospective PCVs, don’t compare yourselves to the shining, wounded heroes of those Peace Corps memoirs and feel wanting. That would be like comparing yourself to the chicks on the cover of Cosmo. They retouch all those photos.

Take me, for example. I’m afraid I’m not much of a Peace Corps hero. I’m not one for weeping or wailing under normal conditions, but Peace Corps brought out the wuss in me. I had more titanic hissy fits there than Africa had seen since Dian Fossey died. Stay at post for months on end? Live like the locals do? Oh, please. Okay, I did pretty well for the latter. I made about three times as much as my farmers did (to support a family of ten) and one eighth of what my Cameroonian functionnaire colleagues made before they stopped getting paid a year before I arrived. But I didn’t stay at post as much as I should have. I left maybe twice per month. I only spent two thirds of the time, in total, at my own post. The longest, unbroken stretch I ever lasted there was about ten days. And that was pushing it.

What can I say? Boubara had no running water, no electricity beyond the odd generator, no refrigeration except in the village infirmary, no store except for a very small dry-goods store and several bars serving warm beer, no post office and no Europeans or English-speakers. My neighbors used to hang out outside my house and stare at me as if I were a zoo exhibit. The nearest PCVs were 50 kms away. Sure, Boubara was quiet and safe and exotic and I liked the people there. I made some good friends there during my service. One of them was Rabailatu, the village tart, who was on her third husband. He lived one hundred and twenty kilometers away in Bertoua. She lived quite boldly behind the mosque along with her mother and her mother’s toyboy of a husband. I got great entertainment value out of that spatial irony.

But the dirty little secret of the African bush is that it can get boring as hell after awhile. You can have only so many meaningful cultural interactions unbroken by any taste of your own culture except for the BBC World Service in a given week before your brain turns to Wheatena. Besides, my Cameroonian friends left town all the time. Why should I have stayed there for months on end? Sometimes, a girl’s just gotta go down to Batouri and party down with the other PCVs like it’s 1999 – preferably at Christmastime when the homesickness was at its worst. My first Christmas at post, I didn’t spend at post. Instead, I went down to Batouri to hang out with a couple of other volunteers. We stayed drunk for a week. In fact, I didn’t spend any of my Christmases at post. I can’t imagine a faster way to induce clinical depression.

In Cameroon, PCVs fell into two groups – those living in town (en ville) and those living in a village (au village). Most PCVs actually lived en ville. Of the twelve aquaculture extension agents in my group, I was the only one who lived, not just in a village, but in a village with no other American or European expats at all. There were expats in my area, but the one closest to home was a Mauritanian whom I once saw in KettÃ?©, 12 kilometres to the east on the Central African border. I wasn’t in the remotest post of my group (that would have been Garoua Boulai, probably) but I was arguably in the most isolated post. Whenever town volunteers wanted to go into the bush (en brousse), they visited my post, even though technically, I lived in a village. To say that this relative isolation affected my experience would be a profound understatement.

Unfortunately, we volunteers all came to Africa with the idea that we were going to live out in the middle of nowhere, not in a town. This made for some interesting, and problematical, volunteer dynamics. Those of us in villages starved for Western culture, while simultaneously feeling inundated by Cameroonian culture 24/7. When I came into a big town and stayed with other volunteers there, I came to eat hamburgers, pick up my mail, maybe get a phone call from the U.S., talk in English and get drunk in a relatively safe expat environment. This caused big ructions with those of my colleagues who lived in town and felt both guilty about it and overwhelmed by it. Towns were not especially safe in Cameroon and life was both more comfortable and more complicated there.

For example, the volunteers in Batouri had a phone that we would all use to call the States. Or, they did until they started getting huge bills and found out that officials at the local phone company had hacked into their phone line and were using it to make free calls, then charging them for it. It took some time to work this out since the phone company, naturally, refused to give my colleagues an itemized bill. That would have made the theft and corruption angle obvious.

Then, there was the post office where we would be told that no mail had come in that week, even though we could see large bags of unsorted mail right behind the person telling us that. The post office, we later found out, was staffed mainly by people who had been fired for embezzlement from the bank before the bank had closed down. Needless to say, this did not reassure us about the safety of our packages.

Thus, volunteers in towns would go on occasional tourneys to partake of their farmers’ hospitality for a week or so, to assuage their consciences and to get away from the screwiness that was town life. They might also try to invite over to their houses all sorts of rather dodgy characters that no village-based volunteer would let within a kilometer of their own homes au village, to get the full HCN cross-cultural experience. Needless to say, this went down like a rude noise in a house of worship with those of us who got plenty of that on a daily basis and wanted to get away from it all when we came into town. The clash, not just between cultures but between volunteer coping strategies, was inevitable.

Then, there was the issue of safety. This preoccupied everyone since Cameroon was a country where bars on the window were a de rigeur architectural feature and persistent economic problems went under the catchy nickname, “Le Crise”. The national elections that occurred some ten months after my arrival in Cameroon were especially fraught. A fellow PCV and I holed up at the Provincial Delegate’s house in Bertoua because we disagreed with Peace Corps Admin’s assessment in YaoundÃ?© that staying at post alone was safer. We hooked up with an Election Observer from the U.S. who invited us out to dinner. Since he had a lot more money on hand than we did, we accepted. We soon learned to regret it as we discovered that he wasn’t quite as objective as his job description required. There was a television at the restaurant, on which all of the candidates were making speeches. When John Fruundi, the opposition leader, came on, the Election Observer shouted, “Go Fruundi!” while everyone else in the restaurant stared at us and we two PCVs attempted to fade into the wallpaper.

Then, there was the time that another female PCV and I were sitting in the taxi park in Batouri when two white female tourists came strolling through in halter tops and itty-bitty shorts worthy of Daisy Duke while every man in the taxi park stared, drooling. My colleague and I began to reflect loudly and angrily in English (just in case the two touristas actually cared what we thought) that these ladies had just made our lives that much more hellish for the next several months while they would get to waft on home and brag about how they’d set a few tongues lolling in Africa. We’re supposed to be politically correct about rape and personal safety and what women wear, but the nasty truth is that being inappropriate has security ramifications that can affect all volunteers in a country, not just the person being inappropriate. Volunteers live in a fishbowl, a zoo cage. You may get away with dressing like a slut by Host Country standards for the term of your service, but to the great cost in security for any female volunteer who comes to your post after you leave, no matter how she dresses. You may get through police patrols without the proper identification by paying off the gendarmes, but only to the cost of increasing the pressure for bribes on other volunteers who do bring along their papers. And if you act like a jerk, other volunteers will notice and they will make you pay. Volunteers are a big safety net for each other that most people don’t think very hard about before they go. These are your fellow inmates in the fishbowl. Treat them well, or they’ll turn on you like pirahnas.

Speaking of political correctness, I still fondly remember the heartwarming Christmas story that one of my farmers, a very tall Muslim Hausa man named Oumarou Djaorotonga once told me. It seemed that one of the local nominally Christian GBaya men living en brousse had no money for getting drunk for Christmas that year. So, he killed his wife and cut her up, then sold her in the march�© as beef brochets. His downfall came after he got drunk and bragged about it at the local bar.

“The Baya are cannibals,” Oumarou told me with relish (he wasn’t a fan of the local Christians). “After all, they eat dogs and cats and cats are like people, too.”

In the manual I received before I went to Cameroon, we were cautioned not to use or discuss tribal designations in country. It was racist, the manual said. Yet, every Cameroonian I ever met used tribal designations and differences in conversation with no reservations whatsoever, happily distinguishing between Us and Them to a degree that would have appalled the authors of the Peace Corps manual. The Noble Savage myth is a tough one to let go and one that every volunteer has to work through for him or herself. Ultimately, I recognized that Cameroonians were human beings no better or worse than I was – certainly not savages, but not especially noble, either. I ended up making some good friends as a result. Just as well – you can’t make friends with a plaster saint from an Epcot Disney exhibit.

I think this is maybe the toughest myth to get beyond. Our Host Countries really aren’t far off and exotic to the people who live there. The people we are trying to help and the problems we are trying to help them solve, are as mundane and ordinary in their culture as those we left behind. That’s a myth you won’t see exposed in a Peace Corps memoir any time soon.

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