There’s really only one word to describe how I’m feeling right now: exhausted—physically, emotionally, and socially. There’s a burn-out on the horizon, and right now it feels totally out of my control. We’ve got that old saying of “you win some, you lose some,” and if that’s true, then I’m ready to win a few battles and for things to calm down. Hear that, universe? I’m calling for a truce effective…err…three days ago. It’s not enough to have your personal life exploding, usually you’re having problems at work or with friends in town and with other volunteers, too. And, you’re far enough away from everyone and everything that it all just multiplies because you’re stuck brooding once things start going wrong. Everybody has their limit, and mine has been reached.
I haven’t done a very good job about talking honestly about the things I find difficult with life here or about different problems I’ve faced. It’s not that I don’t want to give the whole picture, it’s that I’m too overwhelmed by those moments and I’d rather not immortalize them. I’m a year into my service and I still don’t feel like I have done anything that matters some days. If I left tomorrow, would anyone feel like I’ve contributed anything or that their life is better because I was here? I don’t know. I may be a better person for having been here, but is that enough to justify it? Commence the Mid-Service Crisis. I have 12 months (or less) left to make this matter, and I don’t know that it’s enough. Most days I’m positive that it’s worth it and that I’ve made slow, steady progress both personally and for the community, but it’s those other days and weeks that can really be enough to make you question everything.
I’ll take a breather now and try to give an example.
Two of the children I’ve worked with passed away while I was in the US because of malnutrition and the sudden stop of AIDS anti-retrovirals to Batouri. Another couple of the kids I work with have chosen to return to living on the streets and to gold-mining instead of finishing out their education. The AIDS rate at my post has risen to close to 12%. I’ve also learned that less than 20% of the kids in my youth group have birth certificates, meaning that they can’t travel, can’t legally finish their education, and can’t ever hold jobs; in all of Batouri, the percentage of kids with birth certificates is still less than 50%. These aren’t exactly the kind of things that make you feel great about having hope for change in your community, so I already wasn’t feeling great about the way things are going here.
Right after returning from vacation, I was given a suitcase of random toys and art supplies for my youth group kids from a development group. Some of the things in the suitcase were useful, and some weren’t, but the bigger problem was that the group and the woman I work with were somehow under the impression that the suitcase was full of clothing and school supplies. The fault lies on both sides; the donors emphasized that the “suitcase is so large it’ll take two people to carry it” [it didn’t] and the Cameroonians made assumptions that the group was rich enough to send everything they could ever want in new, spotless condition. I broke the news, and it didn’t go over well—because I was the only non-Cameroonian around, I automatically became the scapegoat at fault.
We planned a Christmas party to give out the gifts we did have and to celebrate the success of the students this trimester. We made plans for numerous important officials to attend, made a menu of American and Cameroonian foods to prepare, and created a list of kids in the group who deserved the gifts. Problem #1: there weren’t enough gifts to give out to all 70 children. Problem #2: not all of the gifts were relevant or useful. Problem #3: we accidentally forgot to put about 15 kids on the list. Problem #4: none of the officials we invited bothered to show up after assuring us that they’d attend. My post-mates and I spent hours sorting out the gifts, buying more gifts to make up for the fact that we didn’t have enough, baking cookies, preparing tofu, budgeting, creating invitations, etc., and none of that was enough. Nothing went right.
You can prepare and prepare and prepare and give your everything, and still everything fails. Nothing makes you feel quite as great about yourself as seeing 10 kids crowded around a plate of food screaming, hitting each other, and refusing to share, except for seeing a group of children crying about how their notebooks aren’t of the right lineage or having a parent complain that the toy you gave their child is pointless and won’t help them to succeed. One of my boys is currently ranked as the student with the best grades of all the five secondary schools of Batouri, and all I could do for him was give him a pat of the back, two notebooks, two pencils, a sharpener, and a pen. There’s a certain sense of injustice inherent in all of this: if these kids were in your average American home, they’d be receiving at least twenty times what they received today. I’m embarrassed and irritated, but I also feel helpless: I physically can’t do more than I’ve done. When your best isn’t good enough, what do you do then?
I’ve had a cold that’s been kicking my butt for a week now. I broke my stove baking cookies. I burned both arms multiple times whenever a batch of cookies would finish. The ants have taken over my kitchen. Every time any liquid goes down the drain in my sink, it floods my kitchen floor creating a disgusting muddy mess. The roosters won’t stop crowing. I’m out of mint tea. I haven’t had time to do my laundry, and I’m running out of respectable looking clothes to wear since everything is covered in dust. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. I’m not feeling like I’m in a great place right now, but I’m telling myself that this is temporary. I keep trying to remind myself that you need to go through lows like this to appreciate when things actually do go right. But, at the same time, I can feel myself becoming more and more jaded and disenchanted. Something’s got to give.
With all those complaints said, I feel like I should balance them a little with a few positive things:
--My post-mates and I are going to my Counter-Part’s New Year’s Eve party.--Cameroonians really liked the sugar cookies we baked, and a couple of people want to learn how to bake them so that they can start selling them in town.
--Marissa arrives to Cameroon on January 6th!
--I had a great Christmas with all the other volunteers who came to visit us in Batouri. I may now own a Blue Power Ranger mask compliments of a white elephant exchange ;)
--I met a really interesting secondary school student who spoke surprisingly clear English and who asked a couple of very intelligent, forward-thinking questions.
--The cold mornings and evenings mean that I’ve been shamelessly indulging in coffee and tea, which has been great.
--The new Regina Spektor CD: I’m in love.
--Starting Saturday, I’ll finally have a few work-free days to decompress and catch up on life.
Here’s to the power of positivity?