When I Had a Hammer

Last week, after a particularly busy few days, I decided to come home and nap. I’m generally the kind of person who commits to being awake throughout the day, but it started to rain and earlier I rearranged my bedroom. Feeling like trying something new, I curled up in bed and closed my eyes. 

Long story short: my nap was cut short when a part of the bed frame detached and caused my bed to collapse! Maybe I’ve been eating too many beignets lately, who’s to say, but I had a new mission: fix the bed and get back to my nap. 

I called a coworker and asked if I could borrow a hammer and they skeptically said yes, so I made my way over to the health center. Before giving me the hammer, there were many questions about what I was going to fix, why, and who was going to help me. They were unconvinced that I knew what I was doing.

Walking home many people asked me why I had a hammer and were surprised when I said I was going to fix something myself. “You should have a man do that for you,” “Phoebe do you know how to use a hammer?” “Ha, I don’t think you can do it, Let me help you,” etc etc. When I confidently explained that I was going to fix something in my own house, people seemed amused, dismissive and skeptical. I was so frustrated that because I am a woman people doubted my ability to use a tool and questioned my competence on something I found to be an uncomplicated task. 

One Anglophone man though, a carpenter, saw the hammer in hand and greeted me, “Ah my sister, you are working! That is good, a woman can do anything a man can do!” After just talking to a group of folks who had said the opposite, I was surprised and happy to have someone so easily back me up. 

All people face countless micro-aggressions in their daily lives. While this hammer example is more explicit and mild perhaps than the other forms of sexist micro-aggressions I have faced as a volunteer, it is also a good example of how important and impactful it is to be an ally. Talking with Mr Walter and having his support raised my spirits and I felt less alone. 

When I got home I was easily able to fix my bed (take that skeptics!) and started to think about how I can be a better ally to my sisters in Danfili. There are strict gender roles for men and women in our village, which impact the community in many ways, least of which, empowering girls to attend school. 

Over the summer I ran a small meeting group for girls starting eighth grade this fall. We had several sessions and the four girls started to open up to me about their goals, challenges, and daily lives. During one session, we talked about gender roles and one girl shared how frustrated she is that her brother is assumed to continue school but for her every year it’s a discussion about whether or not she’s educated enough to do the tasks she will do once married, aka at the home. 

Thanks to A2Empowerment, a scholarship program run by returned Peace Corps volunteers, these sessions are going to continue during the school year. Being able to reduce the financial burden of twelve families by paying their daughters’ academic fees and buying their textbooks is a powerful first step towards investing in these girls’ futures. I met each of the students last spring and we just had our first group meeting. I have high hopes that with these students this year I can encourage them to support each other and give them confidence to continue to do well in school. 

One Year

One of my responsibilities with Peace Corps is as part of the Peer Support Network, a group of designated volunteers to rely on when we need a little support. Each month we send an email out to everyone and it was recently my turn. I thought I’d share what I wrote: 

Choice. Fortitude. Perspective. Honesty. 
Next week marks one year of service for me and my stage-mates. In reflecting on this, these words have come up lately in conversations with myself, other Peace Corps volunteers, and Host Country Nationals. 
Choice
Deciding to come to Peace Corps, deciding to step foot in Cameroon, deciding to walk through the rain to training during PST, deciding to wait that extra hour for participants who *might* show up to your presentation, deciding to pretend you aren’t home to avoid your neighbors, deciding to brave the market crowds…. Since we first created an account with the Peace Corps website to start an application, we have made countless choices to continue moving toward completing 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer. We make the decision to be here everyday, and a choice about how to be present in the day. Sometimes choices are easy. Othertimes, not so much…
Of course we also experience many things that we do not have a choice about. 
Fortitude. 
Resilience and courage to face the challenging and unsatisfying parts of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is something we all face daily. Projects don’t work out the way we imagine, our health malfunctions and have to travel to PCMO, while doing simple tasks like exercising or grocery shopping we get unwanted attention, the rain comes while we are away from home and our buckets remain empty, our animals get sick, we witness unforgettable hardships, exciting/difficult/nondescript/no news from home highlights our distance from familiarity….When things are challenging, our resiliency drives us to make it through the next week, hour, 10 seconds, whatever it takes, to make it through to the next day. 
Perspective and Honesty
In speaking with other PCVs, perspective and honesty form the key to our abilities to make choices and be courageous. We all came to Cameroon with goals, ideas, and questions about what our time here will allow us to do, see, and learn. We have expectations, and those change throughout all of our service. It is critical for us to learn to be honest and authentic with ourselves as our perspectives on our service change and bounce around in our heads. In the isolation that comes from the Peace Corps lifestyle, we can distract ourselves for only so long before we start to learn more about how we feel, think, and want out of our time in this wonderous,ponderous, chicken-shaped country. Peace Corps, while community development centered, is also a highly intimate, personal experience, full of challenges. 
All that to say, I commend each and every one of you for your abilities to make zillions of daily choices, find the courage to face the many uncontrollable forces that exist, and to search for new meaning and value to being where you are right now. Even when things are going great, they are not easy, and you are superheroes! Know that through it all, the good, the bad, and the muddy, PSN is always available. 

A Fantasia for My Birthday

About forty days after the end of Ramadan, another Muslim holiday called Tabaski takes place. During this holiday, families pray, get dressed up, and feast. Many refer to the holiday as either the “sacrifice holiday,” or the “fete de mouton” because that is a large cornerstone of the holiday. In the months leading up to the holiday, the population of sheep around Danfili rivaled that of rabbits at home in spring time–they were everywhere! This year the holiday coincided with my birthday! 

To help celebrate the holiday, my birthday, and our one-year anniversary in Cameroon, a few friends traveled up from another part of Cameroon. I wanted to coordinate the holiday celebrations with their visit, which was not easy! In our village people didn’t seem set on what day they would be celebrating until the weekend before. 

In the end we spent Monday in Danfili with my village friends and on Tuesday we went to Ngaoundere to see a traditional celebration. The Fantasia is a special celebration to honor the traditional religious chief known as the Lamido. In the Adamawa there are six lamido who preside over their region and are regarded with great respect. I was traveling at the end of Ramadan so I was excited to learn that there is a Fantasia during Tabaski as well. 

During a Fantasia in Ngaoundere (as well as Tibati and other towns with Lamidos), the Lamido parades around town on horseback with an entourage while important nearby chiefs and traditional leaders race their horses to the lamido’s palace and salute him while carrying spears and swords. Their horses are ornately decorated and spectators also dress up to show their respect. 

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Warriors arrive with spears to protect the Lamido and his palace, and musicians play traditional music to announce the Lamido’s return. (I have a few video files to help illustrate the events, but Internet struggles are making that difficult.)

Once the Lamido has arrived on horseback, the festivities continue and everyone cheers and dances. The celebration is over when the Lamido goes into his palace and everyone returns home to feast and continue the Tabaski celebrations.  

During the rest of the week my friends and I visited some other volunteer towns and had a feast of our own. I can’t believe I have been here in Cameroon for a year already! I have learned so much and am excited for the year ahead!