I joined Better World Cameroon (BWC) with the idea of a locally rooted social organization that follows a holistic approach to work towards sustainable change. What I especially like about the project descriptions is that communities are supposed to profit through direct participation and empowerment. My main motivation here is to learn from everything new around me. This learning requires openness, the will to forget and to accept. Since I came here I try to be in this state of mind and I have phases in which I am more and less successful with it.
Now, 8 months into my voluntary service, it is hard to reflect on my expectations. I think, concerning work, I expected a very busy environment and highly involved people. Apart from that I couldn’t and wouldn’t imagine any details since I did not want to be bias to myself too much. Although in retro perspective, I guess that I subconsciously had the experiences from German organizations I know in mind when I thought about working in Cameroon. My expectations for my social situation in Bamenda were, that at first I wouldn’t understand many things and aspects of everyday life. Both socially and work related I was looking forward to being confronted with frustration, fascination and a lot of discoveries.
I don’t know how long it took me to get used to and be comfortable with my social environment. I know for sure that I was often stressed during the first weeks because I did not understand a lot of things. Concerning my social life I am in my comfort zone when I understand my environment and know how things work, with what kind of “flow” people do things. Therefore getting comfortable came when I was starting to understand the mentality of the people around me and adapt to it as much as I could. Before I came I have been told, and now I know it is true for me, that it is best to jump into the cold water to get used to the temperature. I would recommend to everyone to live with locals as close as possible, especially in the beginning of your stay somewhere. Of course this is a bit risky since an experience like this can be as beneficial as it can be disadvantageous for your personal development and integration. From other Europeans I met in Cameroon have heard stories about both scenarios. When you i.e. live with a family which is welcoming and a bit sensible for your situation it can be a wonderful experience for both sides. If not, i.e. when your host is more interested in money or other personal profit than a healthy relationship it can be very energy draining and bad for your progress.
As I had and have good and bad experiences in my social integration, my working experience is also characterized by a mix of very pleasant and challenging elements. Some things that were very challenging for me, and continue to be so, are that I often don’t understand how the organization runs, I miss a clear structure of organization (especially concerning Ndanifor Permaculture Ecovillage in Bafut), I sometimes feel badly informed about ongoing planning and development of ideas. Also communication sometimes isn’t very smooth. When I list those things I am aware that what I experience as challenging at work is connected to so many cultural factors that I can hardly afford full judgement on it.
At the same time I am aware of the many positive things that I am able to learn and enjoy while working for BWC. Thinking about this, the first thing to come to my mind is the freedom I have in managing “my own” market stand project. Although I took it over from a certain point and did not work on it since the beginning or planning phase, I am allowed to design it as I want in certain (i.e. monetary or strategical) boundaries, find my own solutions for problems, work with the partners I like and manage time and money as I find suitable. This freedom is a great learning experience for me and I am aware that, most likely, I would not have this independent position in an organization or company in Germany if I was working there right now. Another great thing about BWC is that new ideas are often highly welcome and that the understanding of volunteering within BWC is characterized by self-responsibility, individuality and the freedom to try. This might sound confusing when compared to the challenges I describe. Sometimes it depends on the circumstances of a situation whether or not I face a challenge or an opportunity, sometimes it is a matter of perception (maybe more often than I think), and very often good feelings coexist with frustration about the same project or task. To give a more tangible impression of working with BWC, my main occupation so far has been working in the farm in Ndanifor Permaculture Ecovillage, managing an outreach project in Bafut market (market stand project) and participating in the Ecovillage Design Education workshop from September to October 2016.
Generally it requires a lot of self-reflection to try to handle happiness and frustration at work but also in private matters. Since this voluntary service is a learning journey and only one step in lifelong learning, I am grateful for both the smooth and the rocky parts of the road. Before I came here I told myself and others that I am especially looking forward to walk the rocky roads (actually I did not say it like this but I like the metaphor) because stumbling (#metaphor) teaches you more about yourself and the way to walka fine (pidgin). Looking back on the way I came I realize that I did not always appreciate the challenges, the rocks, the mud puddles (rainy season is coming). When my energy was low it was easy to let my head sink, focus on the uncomfortable part of the road in front of me and forget to look up at the horizon, stay on the learning edge, be aware of the opportunity that every step can be. But looking back I also see the times when I welcomed challenges, embraced diversity, put myself into the greater picture of my environment and accepted that it is me who has to learn to walk the road, not the road that has to learn to be walk by me.
Since the journey goes on I will continue to walk. I will continue to learn from people and experiences, I know that at times I will be more and less open, at times I will struggle and at times I will feel like I can do anything.
Looking at the horizon I can already see that my time in Cameroon (for now?!) is slowly drawing to an end. As sad as I am when I think about leaving this place at some point I am as excited about arriving in the environment I had been used to before I came here. Things will have changed there and I look forward to come back as a changed person as well. Since there are some decisions coming up in my life I really don’t know where the road is leading me after leaving Bamenda. All I know is that there will be smooth and rocky parts, maybe even mud puddles, where ever I will go and I am looking forward to walk all of them.