By Gina Dettmer
I walked across the balcony at the Yaoundé transit house. I stepped through a puddle to reach the wrought iron railing, turned on my heel, and walked back. Eight small steps, no more. I reached the far side and turned again. Now the Yaoundé hills were closing in on me. Turn. Now the Peace Corps office, a wall of disdain. Turn. Now the hills, so beautiful. Now the puke yellow walls. At the next turn, I told myself, I would look at my phone. No one had called. It was two in the afternoon but still too early to phone my parents in California. They would think something was wrong. None of the local numbers were passing. I had no credit.
The sky was getting closer. A light drizzle added to the puddle now covering the balcony floor. I started to scream.
I remember a girl who dreamed of being a Peace Corps volunteer. Of course, her father had been one. She had read books. She had lived abroad in a “developing country,” and loved it. She had been engaged in community work for years and didn’t know any other way to live. And when she did finally become a Peace Corps volunteer, it was everything she had hoped it would be. She loved her work in the community. She loved her students, even the rowdy ones, even the occasionally rude. She loved the mountain above her house. She loved her village; more than anything, she loved that village she had come to call home. So why was she being medevaced to the United States?
Medevac—the word sucks. More than anxiety. More than depression. More than worthlessness. All words I have become intimately familiar with over the last 15 months. At least with anxiety I could hope for a personal remedy. Even though I initiated the process myself, at the encouragement of friends and my counterpart, the medevac procedure quickly moved beyond my control. It was as though it were not enough to send me home for treatment. I was accompanied by a letter enumerating my faults as a volunteer, perhaps as a human being. Not one redeeming word from a year’s hard work. I was, by all accounts, a failed volunteer.
In a way, we are all set up to fail—from the very first day, from staging when we are admonished against ET-ing. Of course no one wants to early terminate, not then. But what good does it do to set up our service like a game of Survival? We are going to want to look strong, in front of both admin and our peers. And most of us don’t seek emotional help on a professional level, quite simply because it is non-existent, or long-distance, or only for emergencies.
Here are a few things Peace Corps volunteers, when they get together, don’t always talk about:
- Watching children you love being beaten and verbally abused on a daily basis.
- Seeing people you love die from preventable causes.
- Being asked (and likely refusing) to give away your money, again and again, when you know that money could save or change a life.
- Being objectified and sexually harassed every time you step out of your front door.
- Being defined by your race and gender above all other personal attributes.
- Being told your emotions are not valid and need to be suppressed.
And these are just a few. For those of us who feel—and we all feel—the reality of living with more money and security than most people in our communities can be very difficult. The reality of not being seen, truly, for who we are and the values for which we stand, can be very difficult. And for those of us predisposed—be it biologically, chemically, or from past experiences—to mental health issues, well, I can’t say I didn’t entirely see this coming.
If nothing else, over the past 15 months I have learned the power of being weak. Loving the neighborhood kids, even though it breaks me when one of them falls ill and dies. Giving my all as a teacher, even though I know my students are four grade levels behind and will never learn algebra, not this year at least, not to any appreciable degree. Starting clubs and meeting groups, even if sustainability is only a buzz word and I know there’s a good chance these projects will be short-lived.
There is hurt here, but it’s not failure. It’s being vulnerable, being open to experiences, and being willing to try even without the promise of a positive outcome.
It has taken time, but ultimately, I have learned to modify my definition of what it means to be strong. Being strong is taking care of you, first and foremost. Being strong is going on medevac, even if you knew there was a good chance that they wouldn’t let you come back to Cameroon—where your work is, where your friends live, where your heart lies.
I leave the transit house just as the sun is coming up, take a bus to Bamenda. It’s hot and it’s noisy and every turn of the road seems to whisper, “welcome back, welcome back.” After five sessions with an excellent psychologist, art museums and camping trips, and time in the ocean, family dinners and more good food than I’m sure anyone cares for me to mention. There was no doubt in my mind about where I wanted to be. I couldn’t have returned more grateful for the opportunity to work and live in this challenging, crazy, beautiful country.
Thank you, friends, for seeing me at my lowest, for sending me away so I could come back healthier, happier, more resilient, and more in tune with who I am. Take care of each other. Take care of yourself. There is so much good to experience here, to be part of, to work for, if we can only first learn to be good to ourselves.