Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts

During the two-ish weeks that I was without a computer, I did a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, and a lot of being completely alone. It's quite refreshing but at the same time gave me a chance to re-evaluate my life here in Cameroon, and my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I had the chance to sit down and read through all the old issues of The Economist that Steve had generously sent me. There were two defining moments during these reads: one - I got way too overly excited at the mention of P/E ratios and evaluation of a firm's worth. Two - I realized I now live in a place where the Big Mac Index (a simplified way to gage purchasing power parity) doesn't even apply. There isn't a McDonald's in the entire country of Cameroon...

I realized how much I miss using my brain in an intellectual way. While life here is fill with its fair share of utter annoyance that requires problem-solving skills, it doesn't take much brain power for the most part. Speaking French takes the most brain power on any given day, but the simple daily conversations I have with the kids that stop by or the villagers on the streets don't exactly get the wheels turning. I downloaded French literature online. I listen to RFI around the clock. But language, at the end of the day, is just another way of saying something. Unless I start figuring out the Pareto optimality of something in French, my brain isn't being used the way I am used to. So, to improve this situation, I am researching iTunes University in French, and have offered to do some research assistant with one of my economics professor from here. I need to fill my brain with ridiculous things I'll never use, like I did for so many years of my life.

These self-improvement tricks are another way for me to feel some sort of self-worth. Life as a Peace Corps volunteer isn't quite like other job in the world. A fellow volunteer compares our experiences with life in college, but to me, it's rather apples and oranges. In college, the efforts put into your studies likely results a higher GPA and higher employability. Or so it was in my case. Now, since each volunteer's experience is vastly different, there is no real gage of success or failure. One can build a hospital and a school, and the other can sit around all day and "exchange cultures" with other Cameroonians. Both are fulfilling the goals of Peace Corps, so who is to say one is a more exemplary volunteer than the other? At the end of two years, both volunteers will have great stories at their respective interview. One will embellish on the triumphant road that was to build the school and hospital, the other will pick apart the numerous conversations and all the difficult culture situations encountered and discuss how they made for a better person. Both will impress future employers. So, what motivates me to get out there and begin projects with little to no guidance? I am not sure.

I never came into the Peace Corps service thinking I would make some monumental changes to the lives of people, and now after 7 months of living here, I really don't think that at all. As an enterprise development volunteer, I walk around seeing a million ways things can be run more efficiently and more profitable. But to achieve such things require a change in culture mentality and also a non-super-corrupted government. When people purposely make their storefront look dingy to avoid the taxman, there isn't only so much one can do to improve things.

This is not to say Peace Corps isn't a fantastic experience and one that I would not trade for the world. It's just one has to accept that this experience is more about the development of self than the development of the people and their lives. If one can get over that hurdle, then life is good. After all, when again in my life can I sit around all day and no one would say a thing to me? Striking that fine balance, is the challenge.

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