I decided to join the World Wise Schools Correspondence Match Program. Here is the first letter that I wrote to a high school in Harrisburg, PA. For my 2 years here I am partnered with Ms. Larson who is a French teacher. We will write back and forth, with the purpose of these letters is to better explain a Francophone country and culture to the students. I think this letter will better explain what I am doing, a little bit of the reasoning behind why I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and a few interesting cultural notes. Enjoy :)
My name is Danielle Nicolai. I am living in Meiganga, Cameroon as a Small Enterprise Development Volunteer. But I will explain exactly what that means later on. I am 23 years old from Tustin, California. I went to The University of Arizona and studied Retailing and Consumer Sciences. I graduated in May 2010. After, I moved to Portland, Oregon to work with Dick’s Sporting Goods.
The main reason why I wanted to move to Oregon was to snowboard. I like to think that I am good, but I am really not. I find it extremely relaxing. It is nice to get out of the city and get into nature. In college I played goal keeper for The University of Arizona Women’s Soccer team.
Soccer in Cameroon is extremely popular. Apparently there is a women’s soccer club in my village. I just found out a few days ago, so I have started researching to find out the validity of this rumor. One of the projects that I want to work on here is starting a girls soccer club. There is an existing girls scholarship program here that I would like to incorporate soccer with.
I have been in Cameroon for exactly 3 months now! The first 11 weeks I was in Bafia, Cameroon. I was 43 other people from around the United States doing training. We had lessons on the Cameroonian culture, language classes and technical trainings. During training, all of us lived with a host family. I think for the first 11 weeks, this was the most important part. This allowed us to practice our French, learn about Cameroonian culture, but most importantly help us integrate.
On August 17, with all of my Friends I was sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). Why did I want to join the Peace Corps? Why not is always my response. Not only is Peace Corps an amazing program, but it will also get me to where I want to go in the future. I want to get my Master’s and through Fellows Program it is possible. Before I came here, I did not speak any French. I did not even know the greetings. By the end of 2 years I know that I will be fluent. My goal by the end of 2 years is to be able to speak the local dialect, Fulfude, as well. The people are known as Fulbe.
The reason why I wanted to join the Peace Corps was to be able to learn about another culture. It is one thing to study about a country, but it is completely different to live in the country. Cameroon is very diverse. There are over 300 languages spoken. French and English are the official languages. I am finding out that a lot of people do not speak either language. Especially where I am posted, there are a lot of refugees from the surrounding countries. Fufulde, generally in Northern Cameroon, the language spoken at the market; therefore it is extremely necessary to know both languages. People really do appreciate when you can speak a little bit of the local language. People love teaching you and other love when you can throw out the salutations and key phrases.
Right now I am working at a Micro Financial Institution, Credit du Sahel. It is a smaller bank, which focuses on 3 things: Savings & Credit accounts and loans. There are larger banks in the regional capitals or larger villages that offer the same services that we are used to in the States. The difference with MFIs, is that their goal is to reach the people living in the small villages. People call the smaller villages the “Bush.”
I do not anticipate working at Credit du Sahel much after a few months. The nice thing about Peace Corps is that they give you the freedom to choose the work that you want. I have already started working with 2 Women’s Groups, one in Meiganga and the other in a neighboring town, and also a Honey Union. With my counterpart at Credit du Sahel, we are brainstorming an agriculture project that would teach the students how to plant and harvest different crops, the nutritional benefits of their crops as well as the financial benefit of selling a new product.
I have been to a few villages now in Cameroon and I have noticed that at the market people sell the exact same thing as their neighbors. It is difficult to even comprehend this before witnessing it first hand. There are boutiques after boutiques that sell the same pots and pans, the same rugs, the same type of dry goods. And the kicker is that everything is the same price! When you go to the market, people assume if you are a foreigner (they like to call us “La Blanche” or “Nasara” which means the same thing in Fufulde) that you have money. The shop worker will then increase the price and you have to haggle your way down to a decent price. Another thing I have found when shopping here, is if I want to spend any significant amount of money (more than 5,000 cfa which is equivalent to $10 USD) it is best to bring a Cameroonian. You explain to the Cameroonian exactly what you want and how much you are willing to spend. I will then hide and let the person do their thing. Once they have decided on the price, I will swoop in and pay for it! This is a common practice for foreigners.
Something else that I have found to be extremely interesting while working here is the identification cards. A lot of people only know their birth year. So it is written 00/00/1931. There is a high population of illiterate people in Cameroon. For the signature, people will write an “X,” “O” or scribble. A lot of times this is the first time someone has held a pen.
Since I am still new with French, I will start off writing in English. I will be getting a French tutor in the coming weeks, so as my French progresses I would love to write more in French to you!
I wish you all the best during this school year! I look forward to corresponding with you all and sharing my experience. I also am looking forward to hearing about how things are back in your hometown! (Please eat a pizza for me and let me know how it is!)